At a pivotal scene in Chihayafuru season 3 episode 11, former karuta Queen Inokuma Haruka descends into panic thanks to an unlikely adversary: her hungry newborn son.
Minutes before a high-stakes match against the western challenger, Inokuma first must calm down somebody who doesn’t respond to reason and certainly doesn’t know how to be patient for his meal. It’s a moment that every new parent will experience at least once—when your own wants and needs butt heads with your obligations to your kid.
At 34, Inokuma is a rare older character in a show that most frequently focuses on high schoolers. Like me, she’s a mom to a newborn baby, a woman balancing her own pursuits with her role as somebody else’s primary food source. Her struggles are so relatable that I wouldn’t be surprised if Chihayafuru author Suetsugu Yuki has at least one kid of her own.
More than the lost sleep or altered daily routine, nursing my newborn daughter has marked the biggest lifestyle change for me. The tug-of-war between my determination to return to normalcy and my new physical, sometimes painful connection to my baby is reflected perfectly in the show.
Not so long ago, Inokuma was on top of her game: a karuta Queen who was able to retain her title for four consecutive years. Then, she went on maternity leave—twice. In season three of Chihayafuru, she’s just getting back into the game. But now, by necessity, her karuta comes second to keeping her newborn, Jin, happy and fed.
Even though it’s clear that Inokuma and her supportive husband balance parenting duties equitably, breastfeeding is something only she can do. That leads to some hassle, like having Mr. Inokuma quickly hand off Jin for a quick meal before her next match. “Come on, Jin! Eat fast!” she encourages the baby under the modesty cloth while her long-time friend and rival Sakurazawa Midori, herself childless, uncomfortably looks away.
I get that discomfort. Before I had Eva, it was hard to act natural when a parent friend popped out a boob, even if it was for a completely non-sexual reason. That was, of course, before I spent eight hours a day(!!) nursing a baby. It’s a full-time job: my baby needs to eat around every two hours during the day—and thankfully we’ve gone from three times to just once at night.
Parents who choose to breastfeed can either nurse directly or pump milk for another carer to feed the baby from a bottle. Even if the baby has a bottle of milk ready to go, the breastfeeding parent will need to keep up their milk supply by pumping as often as the baby eats, even if they’re just going to dump it down the toilet when they’re done—like we see Inokuma do on the train.
Wait too long and it gets uncomfortable. I can tell when it’s time, like Inokuma, who remarks “I’m tight as a drum,” when it’s time to pump. The consequences are physical and immediate: first discomfort, then pain, then illness.
When I was traveling for my sister’s wedding, our schedule got out of whack as I arranged feedings around my bridesmaid duties instead of Eva’s cries. When I got home, I developed a fever of 102 with chills—mastitis, which feels like the flu. It’s surprisingly common for a disease that is usually hushed up except in parent circles: as many as 1 in every 10 parents who breastfeed get it at least once. As Inokuma puts it: “I guess nursing babies and their mommies are made to never be apart.”
Not so long ago I would have found Inokuma’s constant references to feeding her baby vulgar. Like other bodily functions, breastfeeding feels like something private. At a karuta tournament, why can’t her husband just feed the baby some milk pumped previously?
I soon figured out why. Though my husband John and I try to balance parenting duties equally, we joke that our baby is just a little bit sexist. Eva wouldn’t—and still doesn’t—reliably take a bottle. This may be inconvenient, but it isn’t unheard of. Some babies are just picky.
However, this means that I have nursed my baby in all sorts of mixed company. Despite my belief (and, as of 2018, the law of every state in the US) that parents should be free to breastfeed in public, it wasn’t a choice I planned to make for myself until Eva made it for me.
I’ve seen the same look that Sakurazawa gives to the nursing Inokuma from my own friends, their voiced understanding paired with unmistakable visual discomfort. We all want to be progressive, but it’s hard to undo decades of media-driven programming that breasts are supposed to be sexy and nothing else.
Not every parent who can breastfeed chooses to do so, and that’s a perfectly valid choice. But in my experience, there is a lot of positive reinforcement (and pressure) to do so. Hospitals said to be “baby-friendly,” a US government designation, really just make it very difficult to choose formula feeding even if that’s what the parent wants. This designation is becoming rightfully criticized, but the cult of “breast is best” persists.
I gave birth at a hospital that was not “baby-friendly,” but there was still almost a fetishization of the practice. My baby’s bassinet marker, which denoted her name and vital stats, was provided by breast pump company Medela. “I’m A Breastfed Girl!” the text exclaimed above Eva’s tiny head, just in case I got cold feet.
Two different lactation consultants stopped in to teach me how to feed Eva, each one leaving helpful tools (a hand pump, a nipple shield, cream to help with the soreness) that were essential to me. Breastfeeding is natural, but so is dying of measles. I needed tools and training to do it at all. Every day, all kinds of parents manage to breastfeed or chestfeed (trans parents, people with partial mastectomies, people with milk underproduction or overproduction). But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
In the beginning, breastfeeding was a struggle. I got over the idea of my breasts being private after my first attempt: me, my mom, and a hospital nurse all held my breast in place to get Eva to finally latch onto it—a six-hand job! But after a few weeks, feeding Eva didn’t take all of my focus. I could return to my old interests: I could read, watch anime, and even write essays like this one on my phone while she nursed (and you better believe I wrote this whole essay while breastfeeding; it’s the quietest time I have to write).
But balancing feedings with my pre-mom life is going to be a struggle as long as I continue. No matter how well you plan, your baby will have a plan of their own. Babies don’t always follow a logical schedule; periodically they go through stages of “cluster feeding” when they eat far more often than they did previously. This is probably why Jin unexpectedly needs to eat right when Inokuma is about to start her televised match for the right to challenge the Queen. It’s lucky Mrs. Oe was there to point out that the holes in kimono sleeves are wide enough to slip a hungry baby in.
During this scene, Inokuma almost gives up. “Is karuta… more important than my children?” she wonders, voicing her uncertainty that she can give her all to both her hobby and her kids. But when Mrs. Oe, a fellow mom, helps her out, the balance becomes less daunting.
Inokuma’s breastfeeding is the physical manifestation of parental sacrifice—around 25 ounces of milk a day, or roughly 500 calories—for her kid starting on Day One of their life. It can feel a bit dehumanizing. Am I a person, or an all-you-can-eat buffet? Am I more than what my body is going through right now?
That’s what makes me cheer for Inokuma. Her realization that responding to her kids’ needs isn’t all she is serves as an important challenge to social pressures placed on many people (in Japan and abroad) to be defined solely as mothers if they have children—and reminds me that I’m more than just somebody’s mom, too.
With Jin sleepy and fed, Inokuma sets out with new determination to retake the Queen title. Win or lose, she’s given her kids a lesson that will last longer than any feeding or playtime session: that being a parent doesn’t mean giving up all of yourself.