More than 40 years ago, I was introduced to a holistic way of understanding the world that has profoundly influenced how I live, how I eat, and how I have raised my children. Back then, words like organic, holistic, locally grown, and eco-friendly were neither mainstream nor commonplace. Today, happily, parents have myriad choices for keeping their children healthy. Many of these choices embrace a nurturing view of parenting and a harmonious, healthy, and environmentally responsible lifestyle. I relied on these principles as I raised my two daughters and as I founded my company, i play., Inc.
I created this guide to help you navigate the maze of information, products, and trends in caring for your baby. The information in Grow Healthy. Grow Happy. The Whole Baby Guide is based on my background in child development, my decades of experience with the traditional Japanese approach to health and well-being, and my practical experience as both a mother and the founder of my baby products company. [The] book is designed to be concise, comprehensive, and holistic, with many interrelated parts. All of its content—theories, activities, stories, photos, reference information, charts, recipes, and shopping lists—support the ideal of a natural lifestyle. My intentions are to offer a variety of information; to help you develop your own philosophies and values as a parent; and to assist you in taking an informed, active role in your child’s health care, education, learning, and emotional and character development.
Emi, Becky, and Mari
My personal experiences influenced my parenting philosophy. In college I studied child development and was inspired by A. S. Neill, a progressive educator from the UK, and by Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, among others. Their philosophies on the nature of childhood integrate physical, mental, and emotional development in a holistic and experiential way, and that view resonated with me. Burton White, a child-development specialist and the author of The First Three Years of Life, also made a significant impression on me. He believed that the time when you can make the greatest impact on your child’s development is during the first three years of her life. According to White, by the time a child is three years old, the foundation of her physical, mental, and emotional development has been established. She has learned to smile, eat, crawl, walk, talk, think, and express her feelings, and her birth weight has multiplied by four or five times. She will never learn that much in any other three-year period of her life.
After college, I enrolled in classes in traditional East Asian cooking and philosophy in Boston. The classes focused on Japanese cookery and a philosophy called the “yin and yang” theory. I explain this theory in depth in the [Nature’s Principles for Whole Parenting article], but basically, yin and yang are two opposite qualities like light and dark, or hot and cold, that support each other and, when in balance, create health and wholeness, like coming home. I found these principles logical and practical as I applied them to my daily life, especially in relation to food choices and preparation. To create balance in my diet, I began eating primarily whole grains and vegetables, which made me feel physically healthy and gave me more energy, clarity, and purpose.
In 1976, I went to Japan and was hired to teach at a preschool, Muso Yochien (Dream Window Kindergarten), which had more than 300 students. Hideko Yoshida, the school’s founder and principal, had a primary intention to teach children to be independent and to develop their own judgment while connecting with nature. Under her guidance, I learned about early-childhood education and the traditional Japanese lifestyle. I took classes in Japanese cooking and studied with Takehara-sensei, a Japanese cook who had many years of experience with traditional foods and healing remedies. Her cooking was wholesome and deeply satisfying. She offered a variety of colors, textures, and tastes. She said that traditional Japanese seasoning was like a symphony, with rice as the steady bass notes and different flavors as various notes: vinegar, sweetener, salt, ginger, mustard, soy sauce, and herbs. I enjoyed her simple, fresh, delicious whole-foods cooking—and I lost 30 pounds.
Dream Window Kindergarten
While in Japan, I married Naoki Kubota, an acupuncturist, who had studied the same philosophies of natural healing that I had studied in Boston. Before my pregnancy with Emi, my first daughter, most of the Japanese people I encountered saw me as an outsider. With my curly brown hair, fair and freckled skin, and Mississippi accent, I stood out. The Japanese tend to be polite and accommodating, but they saw me as different. I was a gaijin—a foreigner. However, once I became pregnant, I had an entirely new status in Japanese society. I was about to become a mother, which continues to be a highly honored role for a woman in Japan. As my pregnancy became more visible, people on the street greeted me differently. In the shops and on the train, they spoke to me about the joys of pregnancy and parenting. I discovered that the average Japanese person, regardless of gender, knows a great deal about pregnancy and child development because of the cultural emphasis on children and child rearing.
When I was three months pregnant, my obstetrician, Dr. Watanabe, insisted I wear a hara-obi, a long cotton cloth that is wrapped around a pregnant woman’s belly. It provides support to the growing uterus and helps protect the baby inside. Dr. Watanabe told me to come into his office so that his staff could teach me how to wrap my hara-obi on Dog Day, a specific day on the Japanese and Chinese 12-day zodiac cycle. He said that learning to wrap a hara-obi on Dog Day is auspicious because dogs have easy births. I was surprised that my scientifically trained medical doctor included folklore in my health care, and I have heard that this is still a custom in Japan today. When I wore the hara-obi, I felt snug, warm, and protected. It proved very helpful while I was teaching kindergarten, because I did not have to worry as much about lively five-year-olds bumping into my belly.
After I gave birth to Emi, my pediatrician and other Japanese friends and associates encouraged me to stay in bed for three weeks to allow my body to rest, to heal, and to produce ample milk to nourish my newborn. Several Japanese women told me that if I rested after giving birth, my milk would be especially sweet and nutritious. They insisted that I eat a variety of strengthening and medicinal foods, such as mochi, a nutritious pounded sweet rice that is known for its milk-producing properties. Following their advice, I also ate a healing soup loaded with root vegetables because, as one friend said, “Roots give strength from the earth.” Miso soup with wakame sea vegetables was another Japanese staple food recommended to me after childbirth, because it easily assimilates protein and has a rich supply of friendly bacteria that promote healthy digestion. It also has abundant minerals that strengthen the immune system, and promote healing.
Traditional Japanese baby care also influenced how I diapered and carried Emi. I first encountered the wool diaper cover in Japan and found that in combination with a cloth diaper, it was very effective in keeping Emi’s bottom dry, while also letting in air for circulation. In the winter, like many other Japanese mothers, I wore a “mama coat”—an overcoat that was big enough to cover us both, with Emi securely nestled in a carrier underneath. My baby and I were warm and cozy.
Far from home, I missed my mother and other family members during my pregnancy and childbirth, but I was comforted by the support of a society that honors and cherishes family, tradition, children, and motherhood. My time in Japan gave me some practical and natural experiences that I was able to use in my daily parenting. I also came to appreciate the high quality and special functions of Japanese baby products that were designed with babies’ needs and health in mind. In Japan I discovered items with thoughtful and convenient features, such as flip-pocket bibs, soft cotton muslin wipes, clothes with seams stitched on the outside for comfort, and scissors for cutting toddlers’ food.
Becky & Emi
Mari, our second daughter, was born in 1982, after we moved to the United States. I had some of Emi’s hand-me-downs, but I missed the unique baby items that I had bought in Japan. Even though I did not want to live a completely Japanese lifestyle, I appreciated many of their common-sense ways of parenting and integrated them into my Western routine. Traditional Japanese ways of living inspired me to discover natural traditions both from my own heritage and from other cultures. I made Emi and Mari’s clothes with natural fibers and prepared their food without preservatives or refined ingredients. I wanted to provide a healthy environment and diet as a foundation, especially during their first three years.
As I blended my Japanese experiences into my parenting principles, I did the same in my career. My first entrepreneurial venture, together with my former husband Naoki, was the East West Center in Asheville, North Carolina. Naoki set up his acupuncture practice in our house and taught martial arts. I held classes in natural-foods cooking and hosted weekly dinners, boardinghouse style. We offered a meal from soup to dessert for three dollars. Together we offered natural healing consultations and hosted seminars on traditional East Asian medicine and philosophy, including the principles of nature that form the basis of [my] book.
When I was pregnant with Mari, I often had insomnia and found myself sitting in my spare bedroom in the wee hours of the morning and dreaming up ways to provide natural baby products to other parents. I wanted natural products like those I had found in Japan when Emi had been born—products that were made with the baby’s needs in mind. My Japanese mother-in-law sent me wool diaper covers, and I sold them through mail-order from my home. I packed orders for UPS delivery while Mari took her naps and Emi played.
As I developed my business, the first products I sold related to the health, environmental, and economic impacts of cloth diapering. After working for many years with a company that imported diaper covers, I started designing my own products, such as a patented Ultimate Swim Diaper, which is made to support safe swimming. I introduced products made from organic cotton and other natural materials that were not very popular at the time. I researched the dangers of plastic additives, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and bisphenol A (BPA), before others in the industry did, and I developed brochures to educate parents about the dangers of these chemicals.
The business started to grow, and I hired my first employees to help pack orders in laundry baskets in my garage. I gathered a team of women to sew my swim diapers in their homes. At one point, my team made 10,000 swim diapers a week! I experienced firsthand the demands on working mothers. Emi and Mari learned to take care of themselves, yet I was there if they needed me. They helped pack diapers in our living room while UPS waited at the door.
In 1995, I moved the business to an office park, began in-house manufacturing, and shifted from retail to wholesale channels. Because I did not study business in college, the financial, operational, and management aspects of business have always challenged me. However, through trial and error and with help from dedicated, bright people, I have learned how to run a business and make it grow. My company, i play., Inc. (first called Woolies, and then Family Clubhouse), has grown from a mail-order operation to an international business that now supplies a range of natural baby products, including feeding items, toys, baby care products, apparel, and food. I started the business as an outgrowth of my commitment to my own children, who inspired me to keep going during challenging times. Even now that my children are adults, we are still working together in my business. Emi, my first daughter, is in a leadership role, and my second daughter, Mari, who is an acupuncturist and natural healer, is a contributor to the wellness section of [my] book.
My company was founded with a commitment to researching and carrying the best products and using practices and manufacturing methods that support a life of health and happiness for babies. The information I offer in [my] book reflects my philosophical commitment to furthering a holistic view of child rearing and parenting.
With a background in child development, I did not intend to go into business, and I was never sure that running a company was my passionate life’s work. However, writing [a] book has helped me integrate my passions and bring purpose and meaning to my business. I appreciate the opportunity to share Grow Healthy. Grow Happy. The Whole Baby Guide and to help you offer your baby a radiant life.