Sunday, 18 May 2008

The Henpecked Husbands Meeting

"What the hell is this?" my husband demanded one day, slapping a piece of paper in front of me. He'd brought it back from our kids' nursery school. It was all in Japanese except for the title, in English: WELCOME ALL YURI GUMI FATHERS TO A HENPECKED HUSBANDS' MEETING!

I should point out here that Japanese nursery schools name the various year groups after flowers, and our five-year-old was in yuri gumi, the 'lily group.'

"It's from Ayaka's dad," I said, reading it. "He wants to start a fathers' group. He's proposing a get-together of all the yuri gumi dads."

"But why henpecked husbands?"

"Beats me. I guess you'll have to go to find out."

My husband groaned, not being a terribly social animal. The school organized enough events as it was; the last thing we needed was an extra group activity.

The nursery school our kids attended was for the children of working parents. Given how busy we all were, we found ourselves amazed and overwhelmed by the number of extracurricular activities parents were expected to attend. Over the course of a year, you were expected to attend New Year's parties, classroom observations, parent-teacher meetings (yes, even for babies and tiny tots in nursery school), summer festivals, sports days (obligatory all-day events of vast importance), school concerts and recitals, Christmas parties, and more. And I really do mean more, too: there were school weed-picking details, rice-pounding ceremonies, potato pot cook-outs, girls' and boys' day events, fund-raising and recycling get-togethers, and a host of other 'volunteer' activities.

In the U.K., we were one day to find out, parents get off easy.

For instance, a Japanese friend of ours went to live in Cambridge for a year with her husband, a visiting scholar, and their fifteen-year-old son, who has Downs syndrome. Not knowing any better, she dutifully attended every event her son's school put on. In fact, she was amazed at how few there were and how poorly they were attended by the other parents. Just before she went back to Japan, the entire teaching staff came out to see her off. "We wish all the parents were like you!" they said, hugging her and shaking her hand. "They actually had tears in their eyes," she told me. "Just because I turned up to a handful of events and made a few dozen cupcakes!"

Although we exerted ourselves far more than we wanted to at our kids' schools, I know we left the opposite impression in Japan. We got into big trouble when our eldest was a year old and we failed to show up at her nursery school's sports day and the summer festival. We had no idea attendance was mandatory.

My husband was desperate to get out of the henpecked husbands' meeting.

"I go to all the mothers' meetings," I told him.

"But this is just a bunch of fathers--"

"I did the weed pulling and the curtain laundering," I pointed out. "You ought to meet the other fathers. You guys hardly ever see each other." This was true: most of us mothers saw each other when we picked up our kids or at the supermarket. We talked a lot.

"I've got nothing in common with these guys!"

"You all work full-time, your wives all work, you have kids who attend the same school, you're tired all the time--"

"But I can't speak Japanese!"

"You can speak enough for something like this!"

"This is just so stupid," he fumed. "What are we going to talk about?"

"Do what we Moms do. We talk about our kids."

He looked incredulous. "For three straight hours?" From nine to midnight was written on the flier.

"Three hours wouldn't be enough time for us."

I knew Ayaka's mother pretty well, so the next time I saw her, I mentioned the henpecked husbands' meeting. She snorted. "Henpecked husbands! Where does he get off calling himself henpecked? I told him not to call it that!"

A few of the other mothers objected to henpecked too, when they found out what it meant.

"I work full time," one of them sighed. "I get up at six in the morning and leave the house at seven thirty and I don't get back until twelve hours later. I do all the laundry, most of the shopping -- and I clean the toilets. If my husband thinks he's henpecked, what does that make me?"

All week long, my husband moaned and fretted about the Henpecked Husbands Meeting. So did Ayaka's mother, who resented her husband for considering himself henpecked.

My husband eagerly embraced this as an argument against attending the meeting. "It's sexist! I don't want to get together with a lot of guys who want to whine about their wives."

Ayaka's father smiled and shrugged when I mentioned his use of henpecked. "It's just a joke," he said. "Mainly, I'd just like to meet the other fathers."

On the night of the Henpecked Husbands Meeting, my husband dragged his feet every inch of the way, leaving the house as late as he possibly could, looking sulky and miserable. The entire time he was gone, I pictured him glowering over his beer, taking furtive peeks at his watch, itching to go home.

He got back very late that night. "Was it awful?" I asked.

He shook his head. "I had a great time. They're really nice guys."

I was relieved -- and amazed. "What did you talk about?"

My husband smiled. "We talked about our kids."


The Anti-Wife said...

Men are totally confusing! No wonder I never married.

Kim Ayres said...

Well of course he would have said that. They probably held the meeting in a lap dancing bar...

debra said...

Funny how the things we most dread can be the most fun--------or.......

Carolie said...

I love these "slice of life" stories from your time in Japan, Mary. And it's great to get a glimpse of The Husband!

Men are so funny...and so hard to understand sometimes! Good thing we love them.

ChrisEldin said...

Men need to be told what they will like and won't like. It's the nature of their species.

Mary Witzl said...

Anti-wife -- I was just glad he actually went along with this. Most of the time I got stuck with the whole social thing.

Kim -- Whatever they got up to that night, they all bonded beautifully over it. After that, they were all good buddies.

Debra -- Oddly, I used to dread the PTA meetings. And sadly, they were always crushingly boring. Plus, it was awful sitting in the tiny little-kid chairs for a whole three hours.

Carolie -- Do most husbands hate doing social things like this? Mine absolutely loathed and dreaded this sort of get-together. He's never been the sort who liked to go out with the boys for long drinking sessions.

Chris -- I really didn't expect him to like the Henpecked Husbands Meeting; I just got tired of doing all the school-related social occasion myself. I felt the least he could do was go along with this one event HE was invited to.

Ello said...

That was a great post! I don't know. As long as there was beer and food, I don't think my husband would have complained!

The Quoibler said...

My first thought was along the line of Kim's...

Oh, well. As long as nothing too naughty went on, live and let live, right? :)


Mary Witzl said...

Ello -- There was beer, I believe, and a little food too. Your husband would have fit right in, being one of the club. In fact, with three daughters he would definitely have been a senior member, high up on the pecking order.

Angelique -- The reasons I'm pretty sure there was nothing like this were as follows: 1) our town was small -- word would have gotten back; 2) my husband gave a very good report of all the things they talked about, including the subtle ways the other guys bragged about their own offspring and the things they were all worried about (bullies, bad teachers, long commutes, etc.) (Not like I grilled him or anything) It actually cracked me up: the fact that a bunch of fathers got together and spent the entire evening discussing their kids. Though, who knows? Maybe they really did hang out in a lap dancing bar, in which case they covered their tracks so well I'd almost be filled with admiration for them if I found out they had.

Eryl Shields said...

Good story, glad he had a good time whatever they talked about or got up to.

I thought I'd pop over and see you one day this week if you are free.

Merry Monteleone said...


I loooove your stories! I do try to get to all of the kids' events at school, though this year they're at two different schools, so I don't make every event for all of them anymore - especially when they're the same days... still, it sounds like the school events in Japan are practically a full time job!

I have to say, I'm with Kim... but as long as there were no bodies to hide or anything, well, at least the boys bonded :-)

Alice said...

I'm torn - because some of the school events are SOOOO boring, but it's also sad to see the kids whose parents are missing on special days.

Great story!

Kanani said...

I remember going to mother's groups and wanting to talk about anything except my kids or my husband.

I would have liked a discussion on politics, on public policy or even on shoes and fashion.

I guess it's no wonder why I never lasted in any of them!

Kanani said...

By the way... you might post over on Min's blog. She's planning a trip to Scotland soon.

Sam, Problemchildbride said...

I show up for all the voluntary events and plays and ceremonies and activities and fairs our school has. I bake cupcakes and help fundraise. I see other parents all the time and most of them are great but I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to think of a parents club as anything other than an obligation. i tend to look upon these evenings with dread but I reckon my attitude's just bad. If I went into it more positively it would probably go better. The idea still turns me off though.

The formal nature of a meeting suggests some sort of a structure to the thing that, in this instance, might not be there, leaving people shuffling around awkwardly. The purpose seems too nebulous for people to all have the same expectations.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- They really did have a good time together, and that was the truly amazing thing. I expected my husband to walk through the door vowing never to do anything like that again, but he was all misty eyed and filled with admiration for his fellow (not)henpecked mates.

I'll be here all week long, most likely out in the garden cursing ground elder. Come on by!

Merry -- Almost every other wife figured they were up to no good, but I was pretty sure they'd go through with the beer and manly talk thing. My husband did say that some of them discussed C++ and the new computers they hoped to buy, but that was about as racy as it got.

As for the school events, you'd have to live in Japan to see just how crazy it got. If you're a parent and live in Japan, the idea is that a great deal of your free time will be spent down at the school, giving freely of your talents. Those of us with jobs tended to resent this. Those of us who were foreign were particularly obnoxious about it.

Alice -- I was torn over whether this almost-mandatory attendance was a good thing or a bad thing myself. On one hand, it's great to involve the parents in the education of their kids, and here in Scotland not enough of us take part. But in Japan, you get a good view of the other extreme. And boy, I used to get tired of going down to the school! I never knew ANY parents who didn't make it to the school events, though. Only the utter dregs would have stooped this low.

Kanani -- When we first showed up in Japan with a nine-month-old, whenever I met other mothers the first thing they asked me was what my husband did. He was a house husband at the time and I was going out to work, and this answer did not go down well at all. I yearned for pals who would not judge me by the fact that my husband had come to Japan on my working visa. At our nursery school, all the other moms had outside jobs too and we could have talked about ANYthing. I have never felt such complete solidary with any women in all my life. The moms who sent their kids to yochien (fancier kindergartens NOT for kids with two working parents) were a whole different story. They tended to talk about slipcovers and how to make cute boxed lunches. Not that these aren't interesting topics, of course, but jeesh...

I'll get over to Min's blog later!

Sam -- You are so right. The formal nature of these meetings were what irked me. After every first teacher-class meeting, they always chose the first 'volunteer' PTA officers. This meant that you were told to volunteer and then if no one did, each and every person was grilled as to why they could not 'volunteer' their time. Having a full time job was NO excuse. And always after these meetings, there was what was called a 'kondankai' which literally means 'friendly chat meeting.' That was so weird. There you were in the midst of a group of women (99% were women) who were largely strangers, expected to chat in a friendly way. Still, it did get easier and a lot of the women were wonderfully funny and entirely capable of friendly chat.

Carole said...

John and I are just the opposite. He loves all the social things and I hate them. I go as often as my guilt forces me and leave the rest to him.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oh this would drive me insane. I always went to all of my son's activities at school but hardly ever went to the "parent's" things. I needed to support my kid but didn't want the hassle of being "supported" by other parents who just wanted to jabber.

Tabitha said...

LOL!!! What a great story, thanks for sharing. :)

I can't blame the wives for getting upset over the "henpecked" thing. I think it's a silly, testosterone thing. My husband is a good guy, and he's the breadwinner. And because he's the breadwinner, he seems to think that automatically makes him the harder worker...though he can't handle half a day home with the kids. Makes you wonder. :)

Carolie said...

I can't help it. I have to comment on the various remarks about "lap dancing bars" and such, as they made me giggle. I really wouldn't care if my husband wanted to go to a strip club with a bunch of other guys. If it got him out of the house and out of my hair, I might even make sure he had a handful of single dollar bills!

I don't care what starts the engine, as long as I am the only one who gets to drive.

Err...perhaps that was too much information.

Middle Ditch said...

I laughed out loud. How funny! My sister had something like that with her husband. Moans and groans all the way round but when it came to it, who enjoyed himself most? Yes you guessed right.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Lucky, lucky you!

In Japan, even the people who hate social get-togethers are expected to go to them. Only the most pathologically shy or misanthropic people don't show up. My husband managed to weasel out all too often because he wasn't as fluent in Japanese as I was. So the truth is, I was delighted when Ayaka's father suggested this all-dads meeting.

Charles -- It was infuriating to have to attend these meetings when all too often very little got done during them. I would sit and doodle and surreptitiously study the other women, thinking of my filthy house and all the laundry I needed to be doing. Japan leads the world in superfluous meetings.

Tabitha -- My husband spent a total of three months as a stay-at-home father while I went out to work. He could not cope. One day I got back and listened as he told me all about a brand new flavor of jello he'd found -- I kid you not. That was the moment we realized he needed an outside job.

Carolie -- Hahahaha! I have to agree with you, though I think I might have given mine a good pile of 50-pence pieces instead, being something of a skinflint. Though I'm guessing it would be more time-consuming to gift a lap dancer with a 50-pence piece...

Middle-ditch -- I'm glad I'm not the only one with a less than socially inclined husband. Most of the time when I get my husband to go along to a party or whatever, he is miserable, so I never expected him to enjoy this meeting. Good thing your brother-in-law enjoyed himself too!

Robert the Skeptic said...

We all formulate preconceived notions in our heads which color our expectations... often we are very wrong.

I would have never thought, for example, that the best part of my entire vacation would have been sitting in a one-foot deep "kiddie pool" at a 5-star Hawaiian resort with my grandson and a red plastic bucket!

Gorilla Bananas said...

Japanese men are henpecked by their wives? There's another stereotype shattered.

Eryl Shields said...

Great, I'll come over tomorrow (Thursday), today I must clean and try and finish writing up my next campervan instalment.

Are you doing anything on Friday (I replied to the comment you left on my blog asking you this but no harm doing it here too)? Esther and I are going to see a play at mid-day in Dumfries at the university. I'll tell you more about it tomorrow. There are a couple of other things too.

Susan Sandmore said...

My poor husband really IS hen-pecked, poor thing. Or --wait, no maybe he's the hen. Whatever. I sent him off to the oldest's school concert last night while I stayed home with our youngest. I promised him it would be half an hour of screechy violin and that was it. They came home three hours later. It was an all-school concert, not just the violin kids. Oops.

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- When I first read this, I feared that you weren't having much fun there in Hawaii. Then it struck me that I was mistaken: you have discovered the true nature of happiness. There was a time I thought that having fun had to be something big, like a rip-roaring adventure or doing something others deemed exciting. Now I know different: I have all sorts of fun that might look deadly boring to others.

GB -- There is a common saying in Japan that after WWII, two things got a lot stronger: women and socks. That image of Japanese women as meek and obliging is largely a fiction; though there are a few women who fit this stereotype, their number is rapidly dwindling.

Eryl -- I'll leave the door open tomorrow, so just walk right in and holler -- I'll be home. Don't mind the inevitable dead rodent in the conservatory if I haven't had a chance to clean it up! I may be baking a birthday cake, but other than that, my time is free.

Susan -- Your poor husband! I wish I had a dime for every awful kid performance I've sat through. It's bad enough having to hear your own kids squeak out their tunes, but having to sit through a whole program of these really does require nerves of steel.

Kim Ayres said...

If you want to put in an order for a cake in advance, I'm sure Rogan could have it ready for you to pick up over the weekend if you're coming down for Spring Fling...

(Don't worry, I'm not really applying pressure :) )

Kara said...

weed picking? WEED PICKING?

i'm speechless.


Danette Haworth said...

Henpecked? Ooo, there'd be trouble in my house!

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- If only you lived closer, I could give Rogan some good business! I have been intending to bake my eldest a birthday cake for the past week now, but I cannot work up the enthusiasm to do it (it doesn't help that she keeps 'forgetting' to tidy up after herself in the kitchen). It's just getting to CD and back that's the problem -- and me learning to drive our new car. I will e-mail you!

Kara -- Believe me, so was I when I first heard about this. I had no idea the weird stuff I'd end up doing on behalf of my kids, and pulling weeds at the school AND washing the school curtains were just two minor things. We were also on the school patrol (had our own patrol arm bands and everything), 'volunteered' at the school bazaar, went to each and every sports day -- and plenty more. And yet it was well known that we didn't involve ourselves much in school activities.

Danette -- Don't worry: Ayaka's Dad got plenty of trouble from his good wife. The whole henpecked thing was an attempt to mitigate his ambivalence over his wife earning as much as he did. Making the transition from sole to joint wage earner is tough for a lot of men.