Much ado about (Tiger) mothers
Amy Chua’s recent memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” produced a maelstrom of outrage, fear, and a bit of nervous guilt among American mothers. As is now well-known, Chua boasts that her traditional Chinese and highly authoritarian parenting style has produced daughters who have and will succeed as she did, leading commentators to both rail against her for cruelty to her own children and to cringe at the thought that parenting is one more area in which the Chinese are superior to Americans.
But what is the fuss about, really? Who cares if a Chinese-American law professor from Yale drives her daughters like a banshee? We do. The rules of one of our favorite spectator sports, competitive mothering, are at stake. If she is correct, then the legions of “helicopter mothers,” who have carefully organized their children’s lives to reinforce their self-esteem and sense of entitlement, have failed. Instead of encouraging their children’s innate giftedness, they should have berated them to do better. Chua is the Simon Cowell to a nation of mothers who truly thought their children were talented, only to learn too late that they are tone-deaf.
And yet, is the agitation produced by this little tome really about competing styles of mothering, or is it simply one more reflection of the culture of competitive motherhood that has taken over middle- and upper-class life? As Stephen Colbert noted in his hilarious interview with Chua, “Moms alone determine how our kids turn out. Couldn’t be dads because we’re never there.” He holds up his hands, “No fingerprints!”
I continue to be astonished that as the number of mothers working outside of the home continues to rise, and the number of hours fathers spend with their children rises too (though not as quickly), Colbert’s joking statement continues to ring more true than it did when my mother stayed home during the first few years of my life. Sure, mom was important in the 50s, and 60s, but so were factors like innate temperament, IQ, and the influences of other children. I’m not suggesting that we should return to measuring children’s abilities based on these other influences, but that maybe we need to lighten up on mom.
This is no small task. Even though advice books and magazines euphemistically use the word “parenting,” we know that they really mean mothering. And in every bit of advice on cognitive stimulation, socialization and proper nutrition, there is a hidden caveat: “if you don’t heed this advice, your child won’t get into Harvard.”
We laugh at this well-worn trope, but there is no question that the stakes have never been higher for childhood success. The Millenials are the first generation since the Great Depression who are likely to be worse off economically than their parents. The gap between the middle-class, the rich, and the super-rich are expanding like never before. Like it or not, Americans view mothers as the last bastion against downward mobility. Producing upwardly mobile or at least economically stable children is hard work, and it is women’s work.
In my own research on nannies and their employers, Shadow Mothers, the central tension between employer and employee was the paradox of upper-middle class mothers trying to reproduce their cultural capital via working-class or poor nannies. The belief in child perfectibility combined with long hours away from the children turned otherwise intelligent, reasonable women into unreasonable employers. If, as Sociologist Arlie Hochschild has stated, the family is the ‘shock absorber’ for changes in the economy, the mother-childcare provider relationship is the shock absorber for the gap between working mothers’ aspirations for their children and reality.
Chua is similar in many ways to the mothers I interviewed. She hired a nanny who speaks Mandarin in order to increase her children’s cultural capital. Likewise, the mothers I interviewed strategically employed particular types of Spanish- or English-speaking nannies to broaden their children’s language skills. Their mothering practices differ not in intensity or anxiety, but in tone.
Our blame-the-mom and fear-of-children-falling obsessions get in the way of successful childcare partnerships. They also create the kind of hysteria that met Amy Chua’s somewhat silly and self-indulgent book. More importantly they place relentless pressure on both mothers and children to live up to unattainable goals. Ultimately, is the practie of making children the primary product of their mothers’ time, energy and money healthy? Is it good for mothers to spend less time with their friends, their spouses and themselves in order to invest more time and energy in producing the perfect child? This relentlessness may be no good for anyone, regardless of whether it takes the form of the Tiger mother’s threat or the helicopter mother’s micromanagement. Fair or not, both sets of mothers face an all-consuming job in which their children’s long-term success will be the measure of their worth.