A mother’s open letter to her son: ‘It is a myth that only mothers can be good caregivers – fathers can be too’

Dear Julius,

[…] In this letter, I’d like to tell you about three life choices that I made as your mother.

Planning a family

Growing up in Japan, a traditional family-oriented society, I had a very different childhood to what you experience now as a ‘third culture kid’. You were born in Fiji, and then lived in Italy, Ethiopia, Viet Nam, and now in Sri Lanka, with your Japanese mother and German father.

My grandmother had six children from the 1930s-40s, when having a large family in Japan and many other countries was a norm. Things changed as years passed, and my mother – your grandma – had two children, my brother and me. She took care of us well and made sure that we were educated. When it was time for me to decide to have a family, I wanted to have just one child. You. This was my choice. A decision I made with your father.

I want you to know that every person has a right to choose if, when, and how many children to have. This is family planning, and it is a basic human right. It’s a key step that shapes parenthood, and it ensures that every pregnancy is an intended and wanted pregnancy.

Being a working mom “Especially as a woman, you will have to make your own living” – these were the words that my mother repeatedly said when I was growing up. It was unorthodox of her to say this, as it was expected for Japanese women to get married and have kids. But my mother thought differently. She worked as a nurse and supported our family by bringing in extra income. This was her choice – to be a working mom – and she is very proud of her professional experience.

Consequently, becoming a housewife was not in my mind at all as I entered adulthood. My dream was to work for the United Nations. Shortly after completing my graduate studies in New York, I realized my dream. I got my first job at the UN! I enjoyed my work and had no intention to stop working – neither when I got married, nor when I got pregnant. I consciously made the choice to keep on working; and yes, while I did wish my maternity leave was longer than 16 weeks, I did not want to quit my job, as many women still do in Japan and the world over.

Being a working mom, and a breadwinner, comes with not only the practical challenges of balancing work and family life, but also the awkwardness of not conforming to social norms. Even though your Dad and I were not constrained by the cultural norms of one country, I often felt bad about not being a full-time mother when you were younger. By now, I believe that being raised mostly by your father is a wonderful thing for you. It is a myth that only mothers can be good caregivers. It is no doubt that fathers can be, too. I am extremely grateful for the support that I have been receiving from your Dad, without which none of this would have been possible.

Working for UNFPA

You may wonder why I am so passionate about UNFPA and its mandate. You may not know this, but it actually relates to you. Three days after you were born in Fiji, you got critically ill. We were immediately admitted to the public hospital, while my office was preparing for possible medical evacuation to New Zealand. As a young first-time mother in a foreign country, I was completely devastated, not knowing what to do. There was only one thing in my mind – I just wanted you to live.

Luckily, you survived and got better after three weeks of treatment. But those three weeks were life-changing for me. I understood how privileged I was to work for the UN and to get the best medical treatment, and it hurt me to think of all those mums, dads and families who were left behind. And that’s when I made another life choice – to contribute to creating a world where mothers and fathers do not have to unnecessarily worry about their babies’ health and wellbeing. My horrible experience became one of the drivers why I chose to continue working for the UN, with particular interest in UNFPA.

It is an honour to work for such an organization that aspires to improve fundamental aspects of human life: sexual and reproductive health, gender equality and young people’s empowerment.

I hope this letter gives you some perspective on the complexities of motherhood, and the choices that I have made in my life as your mother. I am sharing these recollections with you because as a young teenager, you too will need to make life-changing choices. It is so important that the choices you make are based on informed decisions, to help you achieve your fullest potential. You and all young people deserve to have access to accurate information and the best services possible to make the right decisions about life and love – all that which makes us human.

Before I end, I want you to know that of the many choices that I have made in life, the best by far was you.

With love always, Mom

Ritsu Nacken, mother of Julius, wife of Peter, and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative in Sri Lanka and Country Director in the Maldives.