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Number 1 Shimbun

The Parent Trap







One evening last summer I found myself under a blanket with my iPhone, reporting for live radio on the Tokyo heatwave that had sent thousands of people to the hospital. My wife and three young kids were corralled into another corner of the apartment. Our middle child Una (3) broke loose and began filling the air with her caterwauling. Sweat trickled down my nose. The RTE presenter sensed my discomfort (and heard the wails) and cut the interview short.

Robert Kelly’s young daughter Marion made screenbombing famous when she sauntered into view as her dad discussed Korean politics on the BBC in March 2017, but we’ve all been there. Kids could care less about your deadlines or your live spots and will gleefully upend both, exploiting any weakness: Kelly had simply forgotten to lock the door of his study. We have sliding doors in our cramped Meguro flat and, at 60 square meters, there’s nowhere to hide.

Priority Pocoyo

My orderly world changed in 2011 with the birth of our first son, Luka. His teething was the first thing to drive me out of the home with my laptop, to the local café. A year later he began commandeering my computer to watch Pocoyo and Peppa Pig. At some point, I abandoned it and bought another, which he tipped beer over, euthanizing it with a soft pftt. By the time our two younger kids Una and Noah came along I had swapped daily journalism for a weekly, which at least eased the stress of evening deadlines.

Once there was an office

Some journalists have offices, of course. But long before the pandemic made collective workplaces dangerous, the global cull of foreign bureaus had forced many to report from home. Covid-19 temporarily shut the FCCJ, taking away a potential alternative, and public schools, leaving thousands of working parents to make abrupt childcare adjustments. Even the coffee shops closed, so for a month or so there was nowhere to escape.

Post-lockdown, my wife was ordered to teach remotely by her kindergarten school. At one point the two of us were on shifts, taking kids out to the park while the other worked. Covid-19 took out our childminder of last resort – baba. We were desperate enough to seek out some of the plethora of self-help sites that sprang up but the advice dispensed seemed pedantic and con- descending: “It’s not about thriving - it’s about surviving,” said one. No shit.


“Some journalists have offices, of course. But long before the pandemic made collective workplaces dangerous, the global cull of foreign bureaus had forced many to report from home.”

Preoccupied parents

More helpful to me, at last, were the insights of another writer and parent. I’d been commissioned to interview Meiko Kawakami before lockdown and began reading her books. Children in Kawakami’s fiction are often the victims of self-centered parents - not bad, just preoccupied and struggling in a way most of us can understand. Many forget that kids are dealing with the fear and resignation of being abruptly thrown into life. “Coming to the realisation you’re alive is such a shock,” said Kawakami.

I find myself recalling this when I’m about to wig out over the latest domestic squall (as I was writing this Una spilt sugar all over the apartment while making ‘honey’ for her doll). My kids didn’t ask to come into the world. It’s not their fault I need quiet to work. So, I suck it up, wipe up the sugar, plug in my Mozart again and resume tapping. And that’s when Noah comes to tell me he has peed in his pants.

● David McNeill is co-chair of the FCCJ’s Professional Activities Committee and a professor at the Department of English Language, Communication and Cultures at Sacred Heart University in Tokyo. He was previously a correspondent for The Independent and The Economist newspapers and for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Published in: September 2020

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