By Melissa Uchiyama
The majority of my friends’ children have never seen their parents naked. It is not part of the family culture. Kids may scamper diaper-less. Mommy may giggle at their talk of penises or “willies.” But most moms and dads will never be naked with them.
Once babies are through with nursing, they will probably never see their mother’s breasts again. If it happens, it may be later, accidentally, with a sense of shame or even derision. Her body is a mystery and she has zero interest in sharing it. This might sound healthy to some. But I don’t think it is.
I moved to Japan from America seven years ago, before I had kids. I learned about onsens, the public mineral baths. Here Japanese children grow up scrubbing their mother’s backs, walking from bath to bath, or showers to bath, with all manners of women. Girls see teenagers, mothers, grandmothers, all bodies with their different needs and ages, all bodies washed and soaked. There isn’t shame. It is healthy, a place where life and rich conversation occur, especially in the period before most Japanese homes had their own showers or baths.
It was my own visiting mother who convinced me to go to these baths for the first time. It took many jokes about needing a glass or two of wine, and five minutes to shake off my piled nerves, but soon I saw value in being able to relax, truly, in my own skin, and next to hers.
The truth is, growing up, I did not always respect my mother’s openness with her body, the way she kept the door open when she changed or went to the bathroom. I certainly did not approve when I noticed that she was bra-less under a T-shirt. Maybe the hateful derision crept in when I was a teenager, suddenly and keenly aware of my burgeoning sexuality. I didn’t see her openness within the context of community, or say, in the function of nursing a baby, or soaking in the waters of a centuries-old bath house. It is really only since being in Asia, and certainly since becoming a mother myself, that I have cleaned house in terms of my old beliefs about the body.
Living in Tokyo, my husband and I take our kids to the public baths sometimes but, more importantly, we have adopted its lifestyle at home. My daughter is five and a half and my son is almost three years old. It began when my girl was just an infant—after a baby’s first month, doctors and midwives encourage parents to bring her into their own bath. And this is what we did. We bathed with her, the special Japanese way, supporting her small neck, while gently folding her ears back to not let in any water. The other hand used a feathery cotton gauze to clean eyes, scalp, and all of those fatty baby folds in her impossibly soft skin. Both of my children learned to be comfortable in deep bathtubs very early on, also learning buoyancy and the weightlessness of trust. We never really used our baby tub.
There are many benefits to family bathing. Besides the efficiency, the demand for “quick changes” in a frenetic household, I don’t dread future talks about my daughter’s changing body. Through all the seasons of our bathing, questions and conversations come up, organically. She knows bodies change. She sees how my own body molds and adapts to pregnancy and postpartum stages. She knows breasts and nursing. She knows that girls and boys will grow hair. I won’t need four glasses of Merlot, a cartoon picture or diagram to express, through my embarrassment, what happens when humans age. I won’t flounder. At least, not as much.
Some of my best parenting moments happens in the bath. With the addition of our son, my kids better understand the differences between girls and boys. They are completely comfortable with biology, botany, the separateness of male and female. In this setting, with all of us getting squeaky clean together, we talk about big things, like personal space, and my daughter uses her voice if ever needed, to say: “No. This is my private part.” Both of my kids are growing up to understand boundaries and to respect them.
Children have their whole lives to access the multitude of widespread sexual images and beliefs out in the world. But this childhood with mommy and daddy, in a healthy, nurturing context, is the foundation I want for my family, a kind of bedrock of beauty and appreciation of the human body. Let’s not bring a shameful, sexualized belief into the home which doesn’t belong. Let’s not usher our little kids out of childhood before they are ready or developed for the things of young adulthood.
And no, we’ll not keep it up for longer than appropriate. Later the kids will separate, from us and from each other, as is natural. For now, anyway, there is freedom and joy. There is laughter. There are correct names for body parts. I don’t have to stay knotted up in a robe. I don’t have to wear three layers and a bra. I am free to show them my postpartum tummy rolls and say, “Yes” I’ll work on that later, but right now, I’m happy to just be. “They’ll see the transformations as all of our bodies grow.
Melissa Uchiyama is an educator, writer, and mother. She has contributed to Literary Mama, Mamalode, Cargo Literary Magazine, Kveller, and other sites, but this is her first piece in Brain, Child. Connect with Melissa as she blogs about the motherly and literary life on www.melibelleintokyo.com.