Being an academic and a solo parent
Solo parenting is a challenge not only in Japan but also in other countries across the world. In light of this, the women academics of Nagoya University organized a useful initiative to tackle the problem. These women set up a self-help community called the Researchers’ Community for Child Care Support at Nagoya University. While this community works with the university’s Center for Gender Equality, it is notable for being the women’s own initiative; the women founded the community themselves and helped it to gradually expand. Azusa Kamikouchi is one of the co-founders of this community and this is her story.
When I started my job at Nagoya University, I had to move into Nagoya with my child and mother. Initially, I struggled to balance the task of getting the lab up and running while taking care of my child. However, I didn’t have to suffer in silence. Even before taking up the post, I discussed my accommodation and childcare needs with Narie Sasaki from the Center for Gender Equality at the university. I felt very grateful to have a senior figure with whom I could discuss my concerns.
After taking up the post, I became increasingly aware of people in the same situation as me—women professors who had to raise children by themselves. Initially, I exchanged information on parenting with two other academics: Miho Tagawa, who works in engineering, and Hiroko Bannai, who has since moved to another university. However, Narie suggested that we should develop our three-person circle into a university-wide network. That way, she said, we could obtain a lot more information and provide support to many more people. We decided to take up her suggestion. We launched a website and spread the word among the mother academics we met at a nursery. Our community now consists of more than 10 members who share useful information with each other.
The community is based on a single mailing list. This simple structure is key to the community’s success. Members seek help and advice on the problems they face, and other members respond. Because all members are academics with busy schedules, it makes perfect sense to adopt this simple structure of mutual support and reduce unnecessary processes.
We advise each other on the best clinics or hospitals to visit, ask each other to drop off or collect our children, and even babysit for each other. There are times when we realize that we need to do some things together as a group, and in such cases we then get together. When an academic is about to take up a position at the university, we sometimes advise her to rent an apartment close to where the other members live. No one acts as leader. Instead, members lend a hand when they are free.
Nagoya University is noted for having a relatively advanced childcare support system. The university’s official support system and the community’s self-led efforts complement each other.
One advantage of a university-led childcare support program is that you can prepare budgets and projects on a grand scale. On the flipside, it takes time for these projects to be implemented. As for our network, we can’t spend a lot on our activities, but when fellow members are in their most desperate need, we can respond much more precisely and competently. We make decisions quickly, and when someone is in trouble, we rush to their aid in good time. Both have their own merits. When there is close communication between the university-level support teams and the individuals concerned at the grass-roots level, comprehensive and integrated support will be achieved. The Center for Gender Equality has proved to be an enormous source of support to us. It has also referred new solo-parenting university employees to our community.”
I do have some words of advice for people, academics specifically, in other universities who want to create a similar community.
The first thing to do would be to form a group of three. With a group of three people who share common interests, you have all you need to start a network. So when you meet two other people with common interests, that’s your opportunity. Once we started our network, other people started knowing about us and realized the value of our activities. As more and more people started praising our efforts, I began to get a sense that our community was gradually making progress.
This story was originally published as an interview in the Japanese publication blank:a. The interview has been repurposed and published here with permission. Azusa Kamikouchi is a Professor at the Graduate School of Science at Nagoya University in Japan. Before this she studied in Germany and served as an assistant professor at the Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences. Following Nagoya University’s publicly advertised recruitment drive for female principal investigators, Prof. Kamikouchi took up her post at the university in 2011 at the age of 36. She has achieved renown as a female leader of science in Japan. Japanese weekly magazine Aera chose her for the science category in its 2012 “Top-100 people who will rebuild Japan.” She lives in Nagoya with her mother and her daughter, away from her husband. Her daughter attends a local elementary school.