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Post-tsunami parenting no task for the faint of heart

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“I want him to grow strong, become a strong person who can survive no matter what happens, even in this disaster.” 

The hopes of Koya Takahashi for his son, Nagato, are understandable given all that the child has endured in his first few tumultuous months of life. 

Koya’s wife, Megumi, was due to deliver the couple’s first child on March 11, the day a 9.0-magnitude quake triggered a tsunami that ripped through her hometown of Minamisanriku. Though the couple’s home was on a hill and was spared, because of her delicate condition they were in no way out of danger. 

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

Koya Takahashi, 28, and his wife, Megumi, 27, hold their 3-month-old son, Nagato, outside Megumi's parents' home in Minamisanriku, Japan, on Monday.

She prayed the baby would stay inside her belly a little longer since all of the roads to her home were blocked by tsunami debris. 

The next day, the military flew Megumi, 27, to a Red Cross hospital in the nearby city of Ishinomaki. There, she sat in a chair for five days before going into labor. Though the petite Megumi had wanted a C-section due to the size of her baby -- 9.5 pounds – the operating room was jammed with the tsunami wounded so she went through 25 hours of natural childbirth instead.


 Throughout her ordeal, the hospital was in chaos, as more wounded and other pregnant women were rushed in, including one whose baby was crowning. 

“It was full of people and more and more people came in,” said Koya, 28. “People were covered in mud and blood. They put a blue tarp on the floor. People were sleeping there with blankets.” 

Nagato Takahashi was born healthy, but his parents and others in the devastated areas of northeastern Japan are now weathering another kind of storm: raising their infants in a disaster zone. 

Nearly 60 percent of the homes in the fishing community of Minamisanriku are gone, many livelihoods have been washed away and people don’t know where their next paycheck will come from. And many of the stores where baby milk, diapers and food once could be purchased have vanished. 

“Many mothers are under a lot of stress,” said Yumie Ikeda, an obstetrician who is also a health and medical advisor for the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF). “Many mothers are just moving from one place to another, especially in this town. … They know the evacuation center is not a good place for their children. That’s why they are moving, sometimes to their relative’s house and sometimes to their friend’s house.” 

Seven mothers of toddlers, boys and girls around 10 months old, gathered on Monday at a local school for the first health check-up held by the town’s health care and welfare division since the tsunami. It’s common in Japan for mothers to obtain their children’s check-ups through such a government-run facility. 

Kyle Drubek for msnbc.com

Left to right: Yukari Miura watches over Riyo Takeda, 11 months, Ryuto Takahashi, 13 months, and her own son Taisei, 11 months, while waiting at a health check up at an elementary school in Minamisanriku, Japan.

“Our health care center was destroyed,” said Hatsue Kudo, 51, head of the division. But despite the dual disaster, “Our kids are growing.” 

“We started from nothing -- no water and no food -- but now we have water that we can use for washing and cleaning even though the drinking water is not fully recovered yet,” she said. “Life has been coming back to normal. Having been through that, we all became stronger.” 

The toddlers acted like normal kids at the check-up: they took each other’s toys, crawled as far as their mothers would let them and suddenly burst into tears or big grins for no apparent reason. Some did not enjoy their lesson on brushing their teeth, while others just ended up sucking on their toothbrushes. 

During a routine check-up, mothers practice proper dental hygiene on theirĀ  toddlers under the guidance of volunteer health care workers in Minamisanriku, Japan.

“I am sure that the kids are feeling stressed, too, and this baby, when we first evacuated, he suddenly woke up at night and start crying, because where we were staying was not our home,” Kumiko Takahashi, who is not related to Koya and Megumi Takahashi, said of her son. “I think it must be a frustrating situation for them, too. As a mother, I have to be strong and raise them.” 

Kumiko Takahashi, who also has a four-year-old daughter with her husband, said their home was washed away by the tsunami. Now her husband, who fishes oysters and scallops, has no work since the fish market is closed, so he is working as a security guard for much less pay. 

“For the first two months we were getting lots of supplies from the government and other groups of people, but as time passes, we are getting less,” she said. “At the moment, we have enough necessities and food. But if we get less baby food, I’ll worry. We buy what we don’t have, for now.” 

The disaster has left parents with a host of new concerns, including whether radiation that continues to leak from the Fukushima Daichi plant, 120 miles to the south, could affect their children. (On Wednesday, Japan Today reported that Fukushima city would give dosimeters to measure radiation doses to 34,000 children there starting in September due to increasing worries about radiation exposure.)  

“I’m worried about the air and also the water, if they are contaminated or not,” said Megumi Takahashi. “From time to time we check on the (prefecture’s) website because they check the radiation level … and we also keep checking news reports, too. If the radiation spreads more, we might think of possibly moving.” 

For others, radiation concerns are secondary to daily needs. 

“I’m worried about infectious diseases because I’m not getting water at home and also because of this disaster there is water contaminated by the tsunami,” said Yukari Miura, 33, who fled with her now 11-month-old son, Taisei, as the water filled the first floor of the family’s home. “It’s stagnant and the mosquitos are coming so that could eventually spread disease, that’s what I’m afraid of.  For drinking water, we go to the shelter to get bottled water.” 

Kumiko Takahashi said she was more worried about the dust and sand from the cleanup and reconstruction and the lack of infrastructure in Minamisanriku. 

“Our concern about this disaster is the reconstruction,” she said. “ … I’m more worried about it than the radiation at Fukushima. … (Also), my house was washed away and there are no shops around. There are not enough lifelines around to make a living.” 

Koya and Megumi Takahashi also are coping with the economic disruption that the tsunami has left in its wake. 

Koya’s truck driving job petered out with the loss of many of the fleet’s trucks and then he broke his ankle at a construction site. But while the challenges are considerable, they feel lucky to have a safe place for their baby at the home of Megumi’s parents, which is on a hill away from the devastation. 

There, with cows mooing in the distance and a man driving a red tractor back-and-forth, it is possible to feel hopeful, both for themselves and their young son. 

“The city is still destroyed and I have worries, but now I have a baby,” said the soft-spoken Megumi. “My will is strong. I am quite positive.”