Moms Make it Work: Mary | Part-Time Working Mom in Japan

Today we have one of my real-life, met-in-person-without-the-blog, long distance friends posting for our Moms Make it Work series. Funny (but hopefully not too confusing) story about how I met Mary: back when I was pregnant with Truman, I took a pre-natal yoga class and met this 'really nice, really pretty girl with a gorgeous wedding ring' who was due two weeks after me with her first baby. I even wrote about this encounter in my 32 week pregnancy post and find it hilarious that it was MARY who was my 'yoga friend.' I didn't last through the entire yoga class series since I got pre-E and was on bed rest, and I remember being truly sad that I wouldn't get to see my new friend again and we never exchanged contact information. 

Then somehow, through another one of my then-internet friends (Kelly), I discovered that Kelly's friend Dizzy had a sister-in-law named Mary, who lived downtown and was expecting her first baby. Did I lose you there? It all sounded so familiar and I asked Kelly if this 'Mary' was blonde, pretty, and had a gorgeous wedding ring (yes, this is what I remember about her). We eventually figured out that Mary=yoga friend, who had Annie a little after I had Truman, and Dizzy=now one of my best friends who happened to have her very first baby (Charlotte) on the same day I had Truman…both of us induced with pre-E. SMALL WORLD. So thank you, yoga class,  for introducing me to Mary and therefore Dizzy. 

Mary emailed me and offered to post for this series and I immediately jumped on the chance to hear more about how she makes it work as an American mom living in Japan with two little girls. She did not disappoint, so enjoy!


Big thanks to Julia for organizing and allowing me to my post for this great series. I'm a mostly stay at home mom to two little girls living in Tokyo, Japan. I teach a few fitness classes on the side. My husband and I keep a blog (bfamilytravels) of some of our experiences and travels abroad, but I haven't written much about domestic life so it felt good to get this all down in writing! I hope my post gives readers a little bit of a peek into what it's like to raise young kids in a (very) foreign country.

-What is your background story? What was your career/schooling before you became a mom? And where are you now?

I received a degree in Communications from Loyola University Chicago in 2007. After college I worked for a non profit in Boston, reconnected with and started dating Joe, and within five short months we were engaged and moving to Milwaukee!  I did some temp work there before getting pregnant with Annie and became a full time SAHM after her birth.  Shortly after, my husband took a job with The Walt Disney Company and we relocated to Orlando for eight short months before moving AGAIN to Burbank, CA.

Little baby Annie
Annie soaking up her short time spent as an only child
After the birth of our second daughter, Elizabeth, I discovered a passion for fitness so I became certified as a group fitness instructor.  I started out teaching 2 spin classes a week in Burbank at the YMCA and loved it.

Mid labor! After this we were off to the hospital via McDonald's drive thru for an Egg McMuffin, obviously 
Family of Four
Holding my newest girl
Annie seeing her sister for the first time
Sweet little baby Elizabeth
We were enjoying life in the Los Angeles area when an opening in Tokyo came up with Joe's company. While it was bittersweet to give up our great life in California, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we couldn't pass up. We thought it came at an ideal time for us since our girls were young, 1 and 3 at the time, and since it is about a 3 year assignment, it's possible for us to move back to the US before they start grade school.

Shortly after arriving here in Tokyo in June, 2013, I was able to find some exercise classes to teach at the Tokyo American Club (TAC), which is about 1 mile from our apartment. Since I did not have a work visa, I had to apply for one that would allow me to work up to 29 hours per week.  I paid a firm a small fee to take care of the paper work and about a month later I was eligible to work in Japan.  

I now teach four spin classes and two bootcamps per week at TAC.  So, I guess I can consider myself a "part time" working mom, but it doesn't feel like work since if I wasn't teaching I would still be going to the gym to exercise during those times! It really is like getting paid to exercise, something I really enjoy, so I feel very lucky.  In total, loosely including class planning, set up and clean up, teaching only takes up about nine hours per week. Again, not really significant to me since I also get my workouts in during that time.  My classes are spread out over three days so the two weekdays that I don't teach feel extra luxurious.

View from my "office" 
They like to exercise like mommy
Let's build some nice lean muscle, ladies
-What are the best parts of your situations? What are the challenges?

There are many great things about being an ex-pat in Tokyo. We weren't sure what to expect when we accepted this assignment, but after our initial house hunting trip here we returned to the US with the feeling "This is going to be awesome!" We live right in the heart of Tokyo in an amazing apartment in a building with many other expat families.

Annie's nursery school, The American School in Japan's Early Learning Center, occupies the first three floors of our building, so drop off can't get much more convenient than that!  If she needs to be there by 8:30, we can head to the elevator at 8:28 and make it just in time.  It is especially helpful on those days when we are behind in the morning and can bring her lunch later on or drop off anything we forgot to send her with in the morning. I also like the piece of mind I get from her being so close.

We've made some great friends in our building and  I think the best way to describe it is like living in a really fun college dorm for grownups.  Because most expat assignments attempt to normalize you to the lifestyle you had back in the US, we are able to live a lifestyle in the world's largest and most expensive city that we would never be able to afford otherwise!  Sometimes I feel I need to pinch myself that this is really my life.

A big positive for us so far has been the relative safety of the city. While I'm aware that bad things can happen anywhere in the world at any time, it eases some of the normal parental anxiety to live in a place where it's not uncommon to see kids as young as five or six walking themselves home from school or riding the train alone.  Japanese people are extremely kind to foreigners and always eager to help in any way they can.  The standard of service is impeccable and most places are very child friendly. I vividly remember a McDonald's employee running out onto the sidewalk with a wet rag when she saw me struggling with two little girls and two rapidly melting ice cream cones in the brutal summer heat.  Also, I just realized that is the second time I've mentioned McDonald's thus far in this post.  We like McDonalds.

I'm sure it sounds cliche, but we think it's been a great opportunity to expose the girls to a new culture. I love it when Annie will randomly tell me the Japanese word for something with perfect pronunciation (mine is awful). She'll say things like, "Hey mom, can we get kakigori (shaved ice) this weekend?" I know they are too young to "get" a lot of things, but I like the fact that Annie is even aware that we are living in a different country with people who speak a different language.  I get a kick out of Lizzy yelling "Sumimasen!" (excuse me) to passing pedestrians when I ring the bell on my bike.

Despite my weekly Japanese lessons, my Japanese is still sadly lacking since I never devote any time to studying. Everything about learning Japanese is HARD to me. They have THREE alphabets - I am slowly learning one, Katakana, which has come in handy since words written in Katakana are usually words borrowed from English.  It sounds super lazy, but it's hard to get up the mental energy for my lesson every week.  My lesson is mid week at 1:15, which is usually nap/rest time around here. Oftentimes I'd rather be lounging on the couch reading my US Weekly during those precious free moments instead of practicing verb conjugations. Also, surprise surprise, Lizzy isn't always cooperative when it's time for my Japanese lesson. I often can't sit through my hour lesson without filling a snack request, cleaning a spill or wiping some buns.

Sometimes I try to pawn Lizzy off onto my Japanese instructor
Annie eating Yakisoba at a restaurant in Kyoto 
Omochi (Japanese rice cakes) pounding day at Annie's school

Another big plus for our situation is that Tokyo is a fantastic jumping off point to see so many amazing places we have never been before. While we haven't been very good at exploring Japan so far (something we need to work on!) we have been fortunate enough to take trips to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong in the last five months.

Luckily for me, I have the world's best travel agent in my husband, Joe. He is very into the points and mileage game and this has afforded us some pretty amazing trips!  He sometimes drives me crazy talking about the latest amazing deal or great offer, but each time he gets us on Cathay Pacific First Class or to an amazing resort for pennies on the dollar, I remind myself that it is a small annoyance in the grand scheme of things!

We know that most likely the girls won't remember much from these trips, but that isn't really a deterrent for us.  We actually started our blog as a way to document some of the trips we knew they wouldn't remember.  And now, for the most part, they LOVE the vacations - they get excited for the plane rides and get a kick out of staying in hotels.  It is great fun to watch them open the door to a new hotel room and immediately start exploring every inch of it.

We are pretty low key travelers (code word for boring), and the main reason behind this is we often feel that we don't want to put the girls through too much on top of the actual travel. They are too young to enjoy or appreciate museums and temples and they aren't adventurous eaters (just like their daddy!) so we try to find mostly kid-friendly things to do and eat at our destinations.  We have found they have the most fun at beach resorts where they can alternate between swimming in the pools, playing at the beach, enjoying the hotel play rooms and eating room service. Rough lives for a two and four year old. 

Taipei, Taiwan
Hong Kong
Langkawi, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur
Koh Samui, Thailand
A challenging part of our situation is that Joe travels a lot for work. Since we've been in Tokyo (coming up on one year), he's been back and forth to the US nine times. That may not seem like a lot, but there is extensive travel time on either end and he's basically useless to me the first few days he's back due to jet lag. It's also hard to stay connected while he's gone since we are time zones apart.  I teach two classes in the evenings which means I have to get a sitter to watch the girls those nights. Luckily, we have great help in our helper Vicky, a teenage neighbor babysitter and a group of mom friends who are always there to help in a pinch.

Being abroad really forces you to build a strong group of friends since you don't have family to rely on. But, even with help, parenting two little kids for six- to ten-day stretches is EXHAUSTING. Like, mommy-why-are-you-crying-because-I-won't-put-my-shoes-on exhausting.  Luckily, the awesome and rewarding moments with my girls always make me forget about those times I screamed into a pillow. :)  Single parenting in any country is difficult, so I can't say that its anything unique to my situation! But the constant frustration of the language barrier, which makes me feel helpless sometimes, magnifies it sometimes.

Many moms warned me about having "Tokyo moments" when we first moved here. Examples they gave included being at the check out with a full cart of groceries and cranky kids and having your foreign credit card denied.  Being lost on foot with your stroller and caught in a downpour.  Or, experiencing the most terrifying earthquake of your life while your husband is 6,000 miles away.  I braced myself during our first few months here for these "Tokyo moments" to happen, but surprisingly, the transition was much smoother than I anticipated.  There was the time when I was trying to get the girls to Disneyland via train only to tearfully discover there were no elevators at the transfer station. In writing, I realize that this doesn't sound stressful. But, when you have 70 pounds of stroller/small humans to carry up and down three different sets of stairs while sweating in your down jacket and unable to communicate with anyone around you, it sucks.

Then, there was the time I needed a certain lady product that they apparently don't sell over the counter in Japan.  Upon finally finding the pharmacy after a 45 minute search (it ended up being just around the corner from our place) and showing the pharmacist a picture on my phone of what I was looking for (I spent 30 minutes googling the Japanese version), she informed me that the pharmacy counter closed 5 minutes ago and would reopen in the morning. Pushing the stroller in the rain back home to my husband-less apartment, I cried the ugly cry.  So, while there are always daily small frustrations that come with parenting in a foreign country, I would say the giant inconveniences that make you want to bang your head against a wall happen fairly infrequently.

It's really like being illiterate
I just wanted to have lunch. 4 steps and a map? I panicked and ate at home
It is also a bit difficult being so far from family.  We are close with both sides of our (growing) family, so we miss the opportunity to easily see them.  In hindsight, had we known we were moving half way around the world, we would have made more of an effort to see them when it was only a three or four hour trip by plane instead of 13-15.  It is sad to not have met the three newest cousins that have been added to the family since we moved, but we will hopefully get to see them soon.  We have been lucky that we have had many visitors already and are always grateful when someone is willing to make the significant time and monetary investment to come visit us.

Since many expat families in Tokyo are here on temporary assignments generally ranging from 2-5 years, people are constantly coming and going. While it's great to meet new people, it's hard to say goodbye to someone you've built a friendship with.  Our across the hall neighbors are moving to London this weekend, and we are so sad to see them go!

And now for a bunch of the small stuff.

  • The closest Target is about 3,900 miles away in Honolulu, so we don't get there much
  • Japan is surprisingly not handicap friendly, making getting most places with a stroller a challenge
  • Driving places (Joe, not me) is actually OK, but finding parking is next to impossible in most places
  • And when you can park, you may have to take out a small mortgage to pay for it (Have I ever told you about our 10,000 Yen mall parking garage experience? That's about $100 US.)
  • Tokyo is one of the best food cities in the world, unless you are my husband who has the palette of a picky four year old
  • Tokyo in the summer makes Orlando feel comfortable, and in Tokyo, you are much more exposed to the elements since you walk or take public transportation most places
  • Going into a Japanese women's clothing store is never a fun event...Excuse me, do you have  this in an XXXL?
-Do you see yourself making a career change (whatever that means) in the next 5-10 
years? Or is this current set up staying put for the long haul?

I don't see too much changing for me in the future in terms of working vs. staying at home.  I think being a SAHM will always be my primary gig, big picture, long haul.  I would eventually like to branch out into personal and small group training, and there is a great market for it here in Tokyo. But the beauty of my current job at TAC is that there is fantastic child care on site.  While I could continue to use the childcare if I did in home training, it just wouldn't seem quite as convenient or cohesive with my life.  I like that my job now isn't much different than what my daily life would be like if I were not working.  But, I think further delving into the fitness and nutrition sector is in my future somehow, as long as it will allow to me be home when my kids are home and actively participate in all other aspects of their lives.  Drive them to practices, attend their extracurricular activities, and maybe sleep in their college dorm rooms with them.  The usual.

-How do meals work in your family? Meal planning? How often do you grocery 
shop? Who is in charge of this task in your family??

Cooking is 100% my domain in our family. I've found that since moving to Tokyo, I cook significantly less than I used to. I really love reading cookbooks and perusing Pinterest for new recipes, but actually trying out a new recipe feels like a big event these days!  The grocery stores I most often shop at don't always have the ingredients I need or it's too much of a hassle to figure it out since everything is in Japanese.  I once spent 25 minutes searching the aisles for chicken bouillon cubes.  Groceries are also much more expensive in Tokyo than in the US, and while I've gotten somewhat used to the prices, sometimes I just can't bring myself to buy something that costs 5x what it would in the US.  What this means is that many times a fun, healthy multi-ingredient Pinterest recipe is just too much of a hassle, since I don't want to have to go to two different international grocery stores to hunt down insanely overpriced quinoa or some other "odd" ingredient.

We are lucky enough to have a car so we do a big Costco trip about twice a month, and I would say this is where a majority of the grocery money goes.  Costco has been a lifesaver as they carry many familiar products and their prices are much better than grocery stores in the city.  We typically load up on fruits and veggies, cheese, chicken breasts, bagels, juice and eggs at a minimum.  Plus the 180 yen hot dog and drink is the best deal in Tokyo! A morning at Costco is like a little slice of America.

So, in sum, I cook less, make simpler meals (chicken with rice and veggies, tacos, salads, sandwiches, pastas), and eat out more.  Pretty much anytime we are at TAC (multiple times per week) we will grab a meal since it's convenient and delicious.  Sadly, we are not big Japanese cuisine enthusiasts, but we do have a favorite Ramen place.  Ramen in Japan is not the 25 cent dried block of Maruchan we all ate in college - it's an authentic Japanese comfort food. A big, steaming bowl of fat, sodium and carbohydrates. Mmmmm. Most of our other go-to restaurants are Western-ish, and sometimes in a pinch I'll order pizza from Dominos. They have an English website where you can order online, yay!  Apologies to all the sushi lovers out there who are cringing as they read this.

Best to get to Costco early to avoid this 
Just a portion of our usual Costco haul
Ramen time
Local Japanese grocery store
While it's a great privilege to have a car, it kind of stinks that I can't drive it! Technically I could get a driver's license here, but it is a huge pain and frankly I'm too big of a chicken to attempt driving on the left side of the road from the right side of the car in a place where I can't read a traffic sign.  It would be nice to be able to go to Costco (without husband along, am I right?) during the week and to drive a handful of other places, but for the most part my mama bike works well as my primary mode of transportation.  Bonus: I now have thighs of steel.

Cruising on my mamachari 
-How do you keep your house clean? Power cleaning after bedtime? Staying out of the house as much as possible? Cleaning while kids are awake? Purging often? Cleaning schedule?

Meh... let's just say if you were to surprise me on any day but a Friday, there would likely be a mess in our apartment. At a minimum I keep up with the dishes and have the kitchen cleaned every night, but I'm constantly behind on the laundry and the girls scatter toys throughout the apartment on a daily basis. I don't mind doing OR folding the laundry, but really hate putting it away! So it's very normal to have baskets of folded laundry sitting in our room for a week straight. Yes, this is totally a cause of stress for me and I would really like it to change. Could I have a spotless house daily? I think so, but it's just something that's not my #1 priority right now.  Three mornings a week we are rushing to get out of the house, and it's often just me and the girls because Joe leaves early for phone meetings with the California offices. Then I'm either working, running errands or out and about for the rest of the morning. By the time we're all home again for the afternoon my energy is low and it's already time to start on dinner. And, quite simply, I'd rather be playing with the girls than following them around with a vacuum. Vicky comes on Fridays to either clean or babysit or BOTH (how does she do it??) so I am very lucky in that regard.  At least I know the bathrooms and floors are CLEAN even if they are covered in legos, books, crayons and dolls most of the time. 

Is that Mary Poppins? Nope, just Vicky doing some Easter Crafts with the girls
Loving life in Japan!
California babe turned big city girl
Lizzy taking a break at Meiji Jingu Shrine
Summer festival in our neighborhood
Shopping in Shibuya
How do you handle any mommy guilt that comes with your role?
I suffered some major guilt when I made the agonizing decision to send Annie to nursery school full time for a variety of reasons I won't get into here.  We would really prefer that she only go a few hours a day, two to three days per week, which is what we were planning on back home before we moved to Japan.  So while it's not ideal for us, she really loves going and the school year has flown by. The guilt still surfaces every now and then, and one way I deal with it is by spending some special "mommy - daughter" time with Annie as often as possible.  We also frequently play hooky and go to Tokyo Disneyland.

But as far as date nights, girls nights, occasional kid free lunches and my very part time job - none of these are sources of guilt for me!

-Is this your ideal situation? If not, what is?

My current situation is working out great for the time being.  I love being in charge of all things domestic even if it's a little overwhelming at times. As I touched on briefly, "career wise" it would nice to have my own training clients and be my own boss, but I'm not quite ready to jump into the challenging world of building my own business.  There have been a few times when we would have liked to go back to the US with Joe when he had long trips, but because I had my commitments at TAC, we were unable to join him.  Aside from those infrequent inconveniences, what we're doing now works!

Also, in an ideal world, my kids would watch less TV, eat more healthy foods, I would have more patience and Joe and I would have more quality time together. :)

-Tips on how you make your situation work for you:

I'm not afraid to ask for help! Having weekly help is a splurge, but one that I think helps keep me partly sane.  Other than that, I am not a fountain of knowledge when it comes to parenting.  Some days, I feel like a picture perfect mom who knocked it out of the park and other days I think my only accomplishment was keeping the kids alive. Finally, I couldn't make any of this "work" at all if I didn't have an amazingly helpful and supportive husband.  I know back in the day lots of dads didn't even change a diaper, and I'm sure glad things have changed since then! There is nothing like seeing Joe blow dry Lizzy's hair or coming home to a clean kitchen after an evening class. I know how hard he works to make our lives easier and more enjoyable and I feel very lucky for that.

{Thank you, Mary! Find the rest of the MMIW series here}


  1. This was everything I hoped it would be and more!!! We NEED to get there but I continue to have panic attacks thinking about the travel with my ... challenging ... baby (and Eddie for that matter). You are awesome, Mary! I often think how lucky Joe was to find you/convince you to marry him. You are a trooper with all his travel and with, I don't know, moving to JAPAN for three years with two little girls. I don't know if I could do it without convincing my mom to move with me :). This was hilarious and so well-written, and I loved reading every word!! Lots of LOLz.

  2. What a fun read! I related to so much. I'm an American living in Africa...cannot even fathom flying back and forth 9 times within a year. Whoa. Also, love your bike!

  3. I loved this, too!! Was excited when I saw your pic show up on Julia's Flickr awhile back. :) Sounds like you are really enjoying life in Tokyo - so fun to follow in your daily life!

    Those pics of the girls all over Asia are amazing - even if they won't remember the travels, even just having the pics and being able to tell them they saw all these incredible places will be so cool!!

  4. Love this! Moving to a foreign place would definitely be difficult to adjust to but it would be an amazing adventure.

  5. I am absolutely in love with this post! And it makes me want to move to a foreign country. And get an awesome mom-bike! Thanks for sharing!!

  6. I totally loved this post! I'm still not brave enough to have the hubby pursue overseas opportunties but this sounds like such a great experience! Loved reading her story and all her real mom moments and choices she has to make. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I love all the photos of the girls!! Such an amazing opportunity, but definitely ups and downs - it would be really hard to be away from family for those years of the kids' life, and to miss new family members being born... but yet I also know logistically this is the easiest time to do it with schooling/activities! So fun to be an "adult dorm" :) A pretty swanky one, at that! I love seeing your adventures on IG, it was really cool to get even more of an inside view into what life is really like over there. Thanks for writing!

  8. Wow! I read this post with such interest - what an amazing adventure to live in Japan. And it sounds like they are making so many wonderful memories.

  9. One of my favorite entries by far! This is something my husband and I would love to do if the opportunity presented itself. All your travels throughout Asia are amazing, with kids too! We plan on taking a trip to the Philippines in the near future with our kids even though it seems daunting (flight over the Pacific with 3 kids eeks!), but your ability to pretty much puddle jump from country to country is awesome. I loved browsing your blog (and will definitely start following) and seeing all the countries you have visited. If you happen to move back to Burbank, lots of good ramen places out here too to satisfy your cravings.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Anne! I remember reading your post for this series and thinking you looked familiar. I wonder if we ever crossed paths when we lived in Burbank? Is that where you guys are? Good luck with your trip to the Philippines! That's definitely on our list. The first long flight with young kids is definitely the worst, after that you feel like you can conquer anything :).


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