Monday, October 27, 2014

The earthquake

Even when you live in a country like Japan which experiences minor tremors on a frequent basis, the sensation of a big quake--like the one that rocked Japan on 11 March 2011--is something you are never really prepared for. Feeling the ground suddenly liquidize itself under you while the walls on either side groan and rattle is fundamentally frightening in a way that is hard to put into words. Floors are not supposed to move about.

I spent the evening of 11 March alone--the phone line was down, and my husband was God knows where. It grew darker. The building still shook every now and again. I camped out on the elevator landing,  my cat in a cat carrier next to me in case we suddenly needed to make a dash for it.

Fortunately the internet connection cable was long enough to extend into the hallway, and the connection started working after a while. "Just as well the shock didn't send me into labor," I Facebooked via my laptop, attempting jocularity. "I suppose I had better make sure of my route to the hospital for next Thursday, when my cesarean's booked..." I was exactly 38 weeks pregnant at this time.

At 5:15 on the following morning, I woke up and realized my waters had broken.

Thankfully, there was one train line operating. We crowded in for the 45-minute journey to Hiro, then walked the rest of the way. You couldn't get a taxi for love nor money, of course. I don't remember much about the operation except that they were in a bit of a hurry--the cord suddenly started slipping out and I ended up head down on the table with a mask over my face. "Take deep breaths for the baby." Then suddenly, she was out. I saw her, just for a second, shortly before another aftershock sent the room rattling around us.

Everybody's looking for the sun... 
People strain their eyes to see...
But I see you and you see me
And ain't that wonder? 


The next few days were the strangest time of my life. Because I couldn't walk very far, I stayed in my room--a private room, very quiet and peaceful. My husband stayed the first day, but then had to pile into the office to cover the shifts of his colleagues who were unable to get into Tokyo. Thank God for my mother-in-law, and for the kind, kind nurses, who seemed to float around the hospital surrounded by glowing halos of peace and serenity. They always spoke so softly and evenly, as if their very voices had undergone intensive carework training. And they never stopped smiling, even when I was calling them out in a panic in the middle of the night about the baby, about my latch, about my stitches, about everything.

Well, not quite everything. There was, of course, the word that I was starting to hear echoing around the TV news reports, Facebook, newspaper articles, like an ominous drumbeat in the back of my consciousness. "Fukushima." It was the word I would not say--not to the nurses, not to my mother-in-law. Saying the word out loud would have made it real--dragging the whole ugly mess right into the middle of the softly-sunshiny hospital room.


Nighttime. Best to get to bed early--that's what they always say.

The phone rings: "You're still in Tokyo? Oh, okay. You have heard about how you're supposed to keep the windows shut? Okay, just thought I'd let you know. Me? No, I'm in Singapore. Rajiv put me straight on a plane... Oh no, Em, I'm sure you'll be fine! How's the baby?"

Head down again. Need to sleep. Mother-in-law silhouetted in the doorway, rocking and rocking the baby.

Jolted out of sleep a few hours later by another phone call. "It's Marie here." Ah--my "highly strung" friend. "I'm sorry, I know it's the middle of the night. But I need to talk... No, I'm in Osaka now. Em, I keep having this thing where my heart starts beating like crazy and suddenly I can't breathe? Like something tight round my chest... and I keep thinking that the room is shaking even when it isn't? I've been wondering--d'you think I could be having a nervous breakdown? Is this what it feels like?"

I manage a few more hours of sleep.

Text message, early hours of the morning: "I saw the news last night, and I just thought, you want me to put some formula in the post for you? Dunno when it will arrive. Would be no bother. Let me know. Take care love. Chin up."

Text message from yet another friend saying she's probably going to leave Japan for good. "I just feel like it's time. I think a lot of people will be leaving, actually."


By the end of the second day, I'd worked out a sort of system for not losing my mind. There was a discussion thread on my favorite website, Ravelry, that had some actual nuclear engineers chipping in and offering some useful links, including the Atomic Insights website written by a nuclear industry insider; I kept these carefully bookmarked on my phone, along with some PG Wodehouse audiobook stories. Whenever I could feel the panic bubbling up inside me, I would click on the Ravelry discussion and the Atomic website and gulp their words down, like a big cold glass of water when you are dying of thirst--"This is not Chernobyl. Fukushima is not having a meltdown. Most radioactivity in the environment comes from natural sources..." Blah, blah. Good, good. I need to hear that. Deep breathing. Then I would do PG Wodehouse for an hour or so--just lose myself in the plot and pretend I am a long, long way away from here (Some women comfort-eat when they are stressed. I comfort-read). I discovered, through trial and error, that if I put this series of procedures into practice as soon as the panic started to surge, I could buy myself a few hours of calm before the next attack.

Baby Seal is asleep now, long eyelashes fanning her soft cheeks. She looks peaceful. Sometimes I wonder if I am poisoning her with every mouthful she sucks from me.


I learned fairly quickly that you should stay away from Facebook at all costs. By Day 3 it was a frenzied rumormill--people drinking iodine, saying the Big One was about to hit Tokyo and collapse everything like a house of cards... that the government is lying, and the media is stitched up, and anyone not getting out of the city nownownow is going to find themselves stuck in a hideous, Katrina-like crush, right at the end of everything, like rats in a trap, no way out--

Friends sent me goodwill messages and asked about the baby. Most couldn't visit, of course. I sent chirpily upbeat replies. It's important to act normal.

You can turn on the TV, of course--I had one in my room--but I wouldn't if I were you. Water bursting through the streets, cars swirling around like Tonka Trucks in a filthy black whirlpool.... Change channels, quickly. Japan's national TV station seems to have suspended a lot of its normal TV schedule and started showing a sort of "relaxing filler programming" instead--easy-listening Japanese folksongs played against meaningless backdrops of peaceful mountain scenery and fields of rippling golden wheat, that kind of thing. The sort of thing that the North Korean government probably shows to pacify its citizens right before they test-drive a few nuclear missiles.


Sitting on the bed next to my baby, heart pounding, staring at the striped cotton bedspread, scratching at it with my nails. My God, my God, what are you doing here? Only an idiot would stay when you know that everyone is going to die. My God, you had a baby, and you can't even manage the basic step of keeping your baby safe, you cannot even get that right, you useless. fucking. waste. of. space--


I think it was around the morning of Day 4 that I basically lost it. Sometimes, when you are speaking your non-native language all day, you reach a point where trying to explain yourself gets too exhausting, and when a kind nurse touches your hand and asks you how you are doing, you just sit there and cry. So that's what I did.

"It's okay. We've been watching you, we know that you're stressed. Muri ni shinakute ii desu yo [don't push yourself to the limit]. Why don't we just take her to the nursery for a while--maybe tonight as well? It's fine, everyone does it."

And I cried even more, not because I actually needed the baby to go to the nursery and not because the nurse's words would do anything about the earthquake, the swirling bodies, Fukushima--but because I was hurting with thankfulness that these people, whom I had never met before, were watching over me. That they cared about what was going on inside my head.


Many women experience an earthquake of some kind when they become mothers. For some women it might be an actual earthquake; for others it's an agonizing labor that lasts for days, or a horrific birth injury, or a baby that screams and screams and screams and will not stop. What helps us through these times is the kindness of others--sometimes people we know, sometimes virtual strangers. I could not have got through those first few days without the endless kindness of my blessed, saintly mother-in-law--and the nurses who looked at me and saw past the foreign face, the language barrier, and saw someone who was having a hard time. They showed me that they cared about me--not just my baby, but me.

Whatever policies hospitals choose to put in place for new mothers, I hope that they never lose sight of one thing: that a woman who has just given birth is a person, not a childcare-providing machine or a pair of lactating tits on a stick. Because no matter how long a woman lives, she will never, ever forget how she was treated by those around her when she first became a mother, and whether they let her know that her feelings mattered as well.

Names have been changed in this post.


  1. This is a really powerful, evocative piece. I'm glad you had such good care in the midst of a really difficult situation.

  2. Thank you for writing about this. It was painful to read, but good. I'm a fellow earthquake survivor (Haiti, 2010).

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