When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a ballerina. More than anything, I wanted to be a ballerina. And so I asked to take ballet classes and I donned pink tights and black leotards and pranced my way through class after class after class. I practiced plies at home, and spent hours standing in front of the mirror, holding my arms aloft, trying to achieve the perfect arc. I read books, and listened to Tchaikovsky, and imagined that I was Margot Fonteyn or Suzanne Farrell or Karen Kain. For years I did this, dreaming of the day that I’d be able to put on toe shoes and do pirouettes and leap across a stage.
That day never came. By the time I was 12 or 13 my interests in musical theater (ask me some day about the time that I directed and starred in my own production of Annie) and writing had overtaken my interest in ballet and I hung up my dance slippers. I forgot, for the most part, about my early dream to be a ballerina until I decided to take classes again in university, at which point I discovered that I sucked at ballet. Badly. I mentioned this to my mother. She raised an eyebrow at me.
“I always knew that, honey.”
“But you let me take classes for years!”
“I know. But you loved it so much, and you worked so hard, and once or twice I told you that the school had closed, but you would get upset and insist on taking ballet somewhere else, so I just kept enrolling you in different schools at the same level. You never advanced. You danced your heart out, but you never advanced.”
“And that’s why your father and I encouraged your love for music and theater and writing. You were actually good at those things. We knew that your passion would pull you fully into those things eventually, if we kept encouraging you. And it did.”
My mom was not a Tiger Mom.
A Tiger Mom – as anyone who has read, at the Wall Street Journal, the excerpt from the book ‘Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mom’ will know – would not have tolerated my ongoing failure. She would have demanded that I work harder, that I study more, that I devote more hours of practice. She would have insisted upon my success. She would have not been afraid to call me names in order to motivate me to do so. That’s assuming, of course, that she deemed ballet an acceptable enterprise, like violin study, and not something downmarket and ignoble, like sport or theater. If she were not a particularly aggressive Tiger Mom – is there such a thing? – she might have acknowledged my limitations v.v. following choreography and moving in a straight line and decisively removed me from ballet, despite my protestations, because what are childish protestations, anyway, but childish protestations? Children do not know what is good for them.
My mom was not a Tiger Mom. She was, maybe, more of a Bobcat Mom. Or a Mountain Lion Mom. She could be demanding. She was demanding. She (and my father) demanded that my sister and I do our very best at whatever it was that we set out to do. She demanded that we commit ourselves – that we commit our time and our energies and our talents – to school and to extra-curricular learning, but also to being to good people, and to having fun. She demanded that we work hard, and play hard, and laugh hard. She expressed disappointment in us when we failed at something because of laziness or inattention. She praised us when we tried something, and applied ourselves in the effort, and failed, ebecaus how else, she and my father would ask us, rhetorically, are you going find out what you can do, what you’re capable of, what you love? When you try, try hard, and don’t be afraid to fail. From failure, you learn.
We learned a lot.
The problem with Amy Chua’s piece in the Wall Street Journal is not that it champions extreme discipline and emotional and verbal abuse (and if you doubt that what she describes is or borders on abuse, ask yourself whether, if a man wrote an article describing how he calls his wife ‘garbage’ so that she’ll be motivated to be a better woman, we wouldn’t all be posting the names and addresses of women’s shelters.) That abuse is troubling is obvious; that discipline can be taken to extremes is obvious. That calling your children names, as a matter of parental practice, is disturbing is, I think, obvious. But the article does raise interesting questions about the assumptions, biases and prejudices of Western parents (and I use ‘Western’ loosely, as Chua does), and demonstrates and problematizes the fact that there are certain tropes about parenting and motherhood that are themselves, for Western parents, just ‘obvious’ (not least among these: that the so-called Good Mother is always gentle and accommodating.) It reminds us, in the harshest terms, that there are other modes of parenting; there are other ways of doing things; there are other models of ‘the Good Mother.’ We do well to remember this when we turn our judgments toward each other.
But therein resides the problem of the Chua’s representation of the Tiger Mom: she presents her – she presents herself – as the superior mother, the true Good Mother, the Best Mother. It is parenting presented as extreme sport: this is balls out parenting, this is parenting without fear! THIS is how you parent if you really fucking mean it! NO GUTS NO GLORY! It ups the ante, and then puts a rocket under that ante and blasts it into space. All you other mothers, thinking that you’re such good mothers? All you other mothers, lording your hand-milled organic baby food and your crafted-by-Tibetan-monks silk sling and your Latin edition of The Cat In The Hat and your baby on the boob at age two over all the other mothers? YOU ARE AMATEURS. YOU ARE BABIES. SHE LAUGHS AT YOUR PATHETICNESS.
It’s tempting to sit back and regard this as the final, apocalyptic expression of the idea of the Good Mother, which, along with the idea of the Bad Mother, is, after all, an idea that has persisted for as long as there have been mothers (poor Eve messed up by getting herself pregnant in the first place, and then, yikes, her boys, running wild and committing fraticide and all! What Amy Chua could have taught her!) It’s tempting to laugh at the whole thing (did you, like me, think that that article could have appeared in the Onion? Did you wonder if it was satire? Did you laugh awkwardly, a lot?) and tell one’s self that, yes, finally, this is it. We have reached the event horizon of absurdity in parenting debates and are crossing over into nothingness. There is nothing more to discuss. We can finally turn to each other and say: it’s settled. This is where the discussion leads us. To discursive annihilation. Now let’s get a drink!
Sadly, however, that won’t be true. We’ll debate this, the Extreme Good Mother (soon to be a series on the Discovery Channel: Extreme Mothers! They do it without parachutes! They do it without fear!) – I’ll debate this; I’m debating it right now; don’t think I don’t know that – and we’ll wring our hands and we’ll wonder, what does it mean for us? Where does it fit? – and she’ll go on the Today Show, if she hasn’t already, and Jezebel will snicker because lo, the mommy bloggers are pitching fits again! and the wheel will turn, around and around, and even though it dizzies us, we’ll stay on.
When, really, we need to make the decision to jump off. We need to be able to look at something like these and roll our eyes – after, maybe, pulling out an insight or two that serves us in some constructive way – and set it aside and then turn back to our children. And watch them dance, and enjoy it, regardless of whether they do it well or badly.