I am an Old, and I am also happily free of children. The desire for children is one of those things that has completely baffled me my entire life. Not that children are bad. I have met some very nice children. I like my sister’s kids a lot, and seeing them go from squalling tiny creatures on my living room floor to responsible, kind grown-ups whose company I genuinely enjoy has been a real trip. But the idea of giving up my entire life so that I could have some kids of my own has never been anywhere in my realm of possibility. I remember telling grown-ups that I was never getting married or having children when I was six years old. Of course, I got a deeply patronizing response, one that I would become quite familiar with as I grew up and heard it over and over again: You’ll feel differently when you’re older. And yet? I do not feel differently when I am old enough to render the entire question of wanting children moot due to my Advanced Age.
But as a woman, there is always that ambient societal pressure to pair off and have kids. It’s everywhere, this heteronormative concept of family. And it’s on the milestone checklist for a “good life”: finish school, get married, buy a house, have kids, get a dog (or maybe the dog comes first), raise kids, retire, die. It’s what you’re “supposed” to do. And a lot of people do! This is not a judgement on them. But I cannot fathom it. I seriously hope I don’t die alone in my apartment, my corpse left to rot until a neighbour complains about the smell, because I didn’t birth some people who would feel compelled to check in on me from time to time, but I can’t imagine a day when I would regret not birthing those people.
Which is why a book like Kimi ni Aetara is so fascinating to me. Kiri, a freelancer in her mid-thirties, is married with a cat, but no plans for children on the horizon. She’s in that grey space that I imagine so many women occupy these days. She’s got a great job and a great relationship, a nice apartment; she doesn’t feel any real lack in her life. She’s happy with the way things are. But she also knows biology is thing working against her here, and if she and her husband do want kids, they are going to have to start doing something about that or her womb will fill with desert dunes. She gets to thinking about this seriously when she finds out that a colleague is pregnant, and after an awkward conversation with her husband, she tips over onto the side of yes, let’s have kids.
It’s no spoiler to tell you that she gets pregnant. It says so right on the cover of the book. And if that isn’t enough, the book is structured so as not to leave any doubt. Each chapter is a month of pregnancy, “1st month”, “2nd month”, all the way up to “10th month”. (Fun fact: Pregnancy in Japan is ten months long because they count a month as four weeks, rather than the actual months of varying numbers of days.) The first two months are Kiri agonizing about pregnancy and then getting pregnant. The rest of the book follows her as she gets bigger and bigger and her own life shifts around this new life she is bringing into the world. While there is a decent amount of the sort of thing you’d expect—visits to the doctor, maternity clothes, cravings, hormones—most of the book is dedicated to the changes in Kiri herself and her relationships with herself and the people in her life. Rather than simply documenting a pregnancy, Nemu uses the pregnancy as an opportunity to interrogate gender expectations, women in society, and our own relationships to our bodies.
When her husband expresses his certainty that it will be a girl because girls are great and boys are just awful, terrible creatures (he is quite vehement in his disgust with boys), Kiri realizes she also has all these internalized ideas of what girls and boys are “supposed” to be, and she wonders how these ideas have damaged her own self, if they haven’t lead her to close some doors that might otherwise have been open to her. Later, as she goes into labour, she wonders why it’s only women who have all the pain when it comes to reproduction: the pain of menstruating, having sex for the first time, being pregnant, giving birth. She starts to see herself and her body in a new light.
Her relationships go through the same wringer. She and her husband are on pretty different pages at the beginning of the pregnancy, mostly because he is not really taking it that seriously. But they use their words and actually get to the same place. And you know I love to see people healthily seeking what they need and want in their relationships with other people. Something similar happens with her editor/friend when they find themselves suddenly in different places in life when they had been sisters on the battleground of childless career women.
This is one of those books that’s far less about plot and far more about characterization, mood, and ideas. And Nemu is the perfect person to pull it off. Her art is expressive and gentle with a rounded softness. And everyone has great, super cute hair that moves so naturally. Her panelling is also great, with a cinematic edge and the best close-ups and shots from below. The panel when she goes into labour is done from a particularly perfect angle that expresses exactly what Kiri is feeling.
Obviously, this book has not flipped me over to the “have kids” side of the fence. But I love seeing honest representations of women’s lives in stories, and this is exactly that, albeit a kind of best-case scenario since I know not all pregnancies go so smoothly. (And this one does have its stormy moments.) Nemu Yoko’s been a name I’ve heard here and there, but clearly, I am going to have to start paying more attention to her.