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Patterns of Interaction: Staff Members and Mothers

Most staff and volunteers are women who have older children, and they act as sympathetic supporters to young mothers. When asked, staff members disCuss their own experiences or come up with suggestions. However, most frequently they encourage the young mothers to create a discussion rather than passing on their own knowledge and the “right” answer directly. And mothers appreciate the ways in which a staff member offers a piece of advice. For example, at Play Center a, a mother in her mid-thirties told a staff member that her son resisted vigorously whenever she tries to brush his teeth: “My son hates to have his teeth brushed. He runs away from me when i try to do it. I usually have to grab him and hold him with my feet so that he cannot run away from me.” She did not like her current method and wanted to know if others used a better one. A staff member in her late forties who used to work at a day-care center replied, “Might it work if you let your son brush his teeth on his own and then you did the touch-up? A song from an advertisement for children's toothpaste includes the phrase 'the mother provides the finishing touch' [she sang that part of the song].” Then the staff asked other mothers how they handled this problem. One mother said she told her son a story, while another one said she used the same method as the mother who had asked the question. The staff member also mentioned a radio show in which a listener shares her problem related to child rearing and other listeners call in to contribute their experiences with the same problem. Then the staff member added, “well, there is no single right answer [to a problem concerning child rearing].” She did not present herself as a child-rearing specialist but asked other mothers to share their experiences and cited the tv ad and radio show. At the end of the conversation, she made it clear that the suggestions made during this interaction did not work for every child. In these ways the staff member succeeded in creating a forum among mothers in which they shared experiences, thus facilitating peer learning and counseling. The kind of discussion described here did not place a mother in the position of simply receiving support but made her a potential provider of support herself by sharing her own experience, whether positive or negative.

This supportive approach was conscientiously maintained. A staff member told me, “we do not impose our opinions on mothers.” As almost all the staff are women with older children, they have the capacity to act as teachers to younger mothers who come to drop-in centers. Yet several staff members told me that they try to listen to the mothers without being critical. Mrs. Murai told me, “we decided not to criticize our center's visitors by using the phrase 'young mothers today.'” an older staff member who works at another center said, “i am done with child rearing [she has two adult children], but it is not a good idea for me to have a sense of superiority and advise this or that to Mothers who are in the midst of it.” As these older mothers with adult children are seen to have fulfilled their moral obligation of child rearing, they are in a stronger position in relation to the young mothers whom they intend to support. Nevertheless, they strove to avoid presenting themselves as superior and tried to be sensitive to the feelings of those who were receiving the support.

At one center, a volunteer who worked there two days a week made a similar point by telling a story about a mother in her mid-thirties. The mother had told the volunteer that as her son often dropped his toys on the floor in her apartment, she visited the neighbor who lived below her to apologize for the noise he made. The neighbor was critical, saying that she had in fact thought about coming up to the mother's apartment to complain about the noise herself. This unfriendly comment upset the mother. The volunteer suggested that she put a rug on the floor, but the mother did not like this idea, as she loved the wooden floor the way it was. The volunteer also suggested that she have her son just play with soft toys, but the mother looked unsatisfied with this suggestion. At this point the volunteer said, “then i realized what the mother wanted. She did not want any advice from me about how to reduce the noise level, solve the problem of her son's dropping toys, or handle the neighbor differently, but she wanted me to be sympathetic to her.” Other staff members nodded in agreement, indicating that acknowledging a mother's feelings is sometimes much more important than offering her concrete solutions.

By adopting a casual but warm approach, staff members sometimes gain the trust of the mothers, who come frequently to consult with them. At one play center, i observed the interaction between a staff member and a mother in her thirties. Among the staff and volunteers, it was known that she had a medical condition that made it hard for her to keep up with housework, family business, and child care. One day she came in almost in tears and went directly to the window where staff members greet and check in users. A staff member greeted the mother and asked her how she was doing. She told her that she had a ton of work to do. She had to label all her child's clothes because she was sending her to a day-care center in a couple of weeks. She also talked about how she had no energy to do any housework, not even folding laundered clothes. The staff member replied in a gentle tone (as usual), “Oh, you do not have to do everything at once. You do not have to sew your child's name on her clothes; you can just write her name in with a black marking pen and sew it on later when you have more energy to do so. As for the laundry, you can leave the clothes on hangers [dryers are uncommon in Japan] and take down articles when you need to use them.” The exchanges continued until The mother seemed a little less distressed and the urgency had disappeared from her voice. The staff member had been accepting and supportive, and the mother seemed to have appreciated it.

In fact, staff members did not feel that what specialists could offer was superior to what they offered at a drop-in play center, even though they did not necessarily possess specialized knowledge—for example, the knowledge possessed by a medical doctor. Mrs. Murai told me, “During three-year-old health examinations some mothers are told by doctors that their children have developmental problems that they had not been aware of. They are often shocked and hurt by specialists' comments, and they come to talk to us. Some of the mothers are in tears. We tell them that children develop at different speeds and that they might want to wait a bit without worrying too much. We listen to these mothers, and many have told us that they felt relieved after speaking to us.” Mrs. Murai made it clear that her approach was different from that of a specialist, who might simply give a diagnosis and not necessarily listen to the mothers. By providing emotional support, drop-in play center staff offer a type of support that child-rearing specialists do not.

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