I missed my mum when I had children in Japan. When I took my one month old for his first check up at the maternity clinic, other mums with their babies born the same day as mine were accompanied by their mothers (the babies’ grandmothers)—all except me! I hadn’t expected that. I felt neglected and lonely.
I also regularly missed my mum while hanging the washing out each morning on the poles on our veranda. I wanted to show her the different way it was done here and get her ideas on how my day should progress with the young child currently playing on the tatami. But when she did come to visit, she stayed some distance away (because our apartment was too small) and never saw me doing the laundry. We did have some funny and special times, but when she left, it was back to me and the baby on the tatami and the wet washing again—an experience I never got to share after all.
Valuable advice from teammates
It’s hard being a new parent without the normal guidance of ones close to us. For me, teammates became like family. I was lucky to have two slightly older mums on my team. They would share ideas of how they had managed their lives, living out Titus 2:4—the older women teaching the younger women how to love their husband and children. I learned that only one of them (the husband or wife) would “work”, while the other looked after the children. They told me how they would try and get out and about in the mornings with the children and then stay home in the afternoons. They sometimes included washing dishes in their list of activities when I phoned up (as their team leader asking what they had done that day). My ways of thriving as a single missionary, such as meeting people for long coffees in Starbucks and racing around on my bike to language lessons, were no longer going to work—I needed their advice.
We brought our children with us to team meetings. We’d meet once a month in one of our homes, going through ministry plans, praying, and having lunch. Our little ones looked forward to these meetings; they had a few toys on the floor and a lot of love in the room. They saw the adults (who spoke their language) as aunties and uncles.
Two of the couples had school-aged children, and so we started a monthly Sunday meet-up too. These meetings were especially valuable to us while we were still in the pioneer evangelism stage. This meeting effectively became our church, although we weren’t looking to draw others in, but to be equipped to go out and each start churches. We would spend the morning together in Bible study, prayer, and worship, while we would do fun activities, business, or training in missionary skills in the afternoons. The older children felt the younger ones should have more Bible teaching and so ran a little Sunday School for them, which was great. One adult team member and one child (usually not their own) was assigned to prepare in advance and then lead that each time.
A Messy Church birthed through a kindergarten
We sent our daughter to a Japanese Christian daycare centre from three years old. This gave her increasing fluency in Japanese. After a year, she was reasonably fluent and would love telling us her quizzes and singing her songs and quizzes in the bath each evening. We also advertised through the daycare centre for recruits for our new venture—a church for families with young children. It was based on the concept of Messy Church in the UK and elsewhere. Quite a few families came from the daycare centre, and a mums’ Bible study group came out of it. In the second year we had a baptism too.
A supportive mums’ group
Another lifeline was a nominally international mums’ group (but all the mums were Asian apart from me and most were Japanese). It provided a very easy way into a circle of mums that wouldn’t draw me away from local people to a foreigners’ safety net. These lovely mums advised us about the best local primary school for our daughter, had no shame in prolonged breastfeeding (something my family back home found extraordinary and rather awkward when I visited Britain), and offered regular friendship. I went to stay with one of them when my husband volunteered in the Tohoku tsunami clean-up. I offered to teach an offshoot group the basics of Christianity for two months before my son was born. I even used my friends’ house as the venues. I invited four mums who I thought may be interested, and then had another mum ask me if she could come too. I found it easier to teach people about Jesus once I was immersed and trusted in the group.
A theology of family and priorities
Ultimately for me though, the desire for my parents to be more involved in our children’s lives was one factor that led us to leave Japan last year. Although we are not home yet—we are now preparing others for long-term mission first—we are one step closer.
Other friends with children also left Japan unexpectedly early. They had arrived in Japan without children, but had found that bringing up children overseas was tough, causing stress, and involving loss (for example, not having a garden where the kids could play). It seems different with missionaries who move to Japan with children, as they seem to have already considered and counted the cost before signing up. But I know God works in good ways and has definitely been leading us.
The dilemma many of us face between desiring to serve and the cost to us and our families shows we need a fresh theology of family and priorities. As a student in the UK, I developed that through personal searching of the Scriptures. I found solace in Matthew 19:29 that God would provide new family members if I left for Japan on his leading—and he did! Even my mum back in Britain is surrounded by children the same age as her grandchildren. New neighbours moved in next to her with children the same ages as mine—so she could chart their progress like they were mine. Through Asian culture I also became aware of the importance of honouring one’s parents. I like this idea of respect and provision, which is not so obvious in my culture.
My children’s lives have been richer for having lived in Japan. After we’d left Japan, God even provided my daughter with a homeroom teacher whose first degree was in Japanese. We have been out of Japan for 18 months, but there are diaspora groups overseas and for the first year I was in a Japanese mums’ group here. It felt pretty similar to being in Japan: once again, I was the only foreigner, I was praying I could share testimonies, and God was with us.
As a young mum, Henrietta Cozens did church planting in Kansai during 2006–2016 with WEC. She and husband Simon now train future missionaries and refresh furloughing missionaries at the Worldview Centre for Intercultural Studies in Tasmania.