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Networks of Peer Support

At a drop-in play center, mothers exchange a variety of information related to child rearing—for example, about child-rearing goods and equipment, child-friendly coffee shops and restaurants, parks and other play centers, daycare facilities and kindergartens, and pediatricians and child-friendly dentists. When i was conducting participant observation in 2009, my informants frequently discussed the quality of day-care centers or kindergartens and the status of their applications because a new cohort of children is accepted into these institutions in april and many informants were waiting for notice of their child's acceptance. Mothers exchanged not only information but also used clothes and toys. (in some centers, as noted, there is an area where used children's clothes and goods are sold for small amounts of money or given away for free.) Mrs. Hirota told me as she sorted used clothes donated by other mothers to a play center, “almost all of my sons' clothes come from this center!” Mothers sometimes observed the eating utensils, infant carriers, or pacifier holders used by other children and ask their mothers if they worked well and where they could buy the same items. At one play center, a mother who was interested in buying an infant carrier first tried one used by another mother.

Drop-in play centers are also places where mothers can make so-called Mamatomo (literally, “mom friends”), or friends who are mothers and with whom they can enjoy getting together with their children. A number of interviewees told me that they had made many friends through their visits to play centers. In some cases, these friends are just people to meet and chat with at the centers, while in other cases they share activities beyond the confinement of a play center—for example, they go on excursions or visit each other's homes with their children. A few interviewees told me that their families also became friends and the husbands also participated in their get-togethers. Mrs. Hirota told me, “i made good friends through the center, and now my family and my friends' families have gotten to know each other very well.” Another interviewee told me that she had a group of friends who had parties in the evenings with their husbands and children. At one play center, i heard from a staff member that a group of families who had come to know each other through the center rented a bus to go on a picnic together.

Mothers often chat among themselves about issues of concern, creating a context for sharing experiences and eliciting empathetic comments. At one play center, for example, a mother complained about how she could do no housework the day before because her son had kept following her around trying to get her attention. Other mothers agreed that it was difficult to do housework and care for a child at the same time. Another mother said that her son climbed onto the vacuum cleaner whenever she tried to vacuum her place. Exchanging stories about child rearing was a common way for mothers to get to know each other. Furthermore, sharing experiences was also a way of relieving stress. A number of mothers told me that they felt refreshed after talking to other mothers about child-rearing issues.

Not only recounting their own stories but also listening to the experiences of mothers of older children can guide young mothers. Mrs. Seki, a fortytwo-year-old mother of one boy (twenty-one months old), discussed how her son did not share toys with other children when he played at a drop-in play center. Another mother, whose child was three, said to her, “well, my son is still learning to share toys with others.” Mrs. Seki said, with a hint of surprise, “Oh, is that so? Even at the age of three? Would that [sharing] take that long [for kids to learn]?” She was able to use the information she got from another mother to evaluate her current problem and readjust her expectations. Because a three-year-old boy still had a problem sharing toys with other children, perhaps she did not have to worry too much about her own child. A sense of relief that “i am not the only one with this problem” can often result from interactions with other mothers. Mothers can observe both other children and their mothers at a drop-in play center, an opportunity that may also help them deal with their own issues. They see other mothers' parenting styles and realize that theirs is not the only way of dealing with an issue. They may also encounter a mother whose parenting style and attitude serve as a model for their own. Like consultation with staff and other mothers, the child-rearing knowledge obtained by observing other mothers and children may not necessarily solve a problem, but it can help mothers relativize it and stop worrying too much.

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