Last year, after the controversy over Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I read through it, curious to determine what the fuss was about. And then recently, I learned about another book, So, Brothers and Sisters of Peking University, written by “Wolf Dad” Xiao Baiyou.
After reading some of his quotes (“From three to 12, kids are mainly animals. Their humanity and social nature still aren’t complete. So you have to use Pavlovian methods to educate them”) and learning that his methods involved beating not only the offender, but also the older siblings for not setting a good example, I could not bring myself to read his book.
But both hair-raising tales struck an unexpectedly poignant chord that reverberated deep within me. Even though my mother is not a Chinese mother (or any kind of Asian; she springs from good Scotch Irish blood), she comes horrifyingly close to meeting the exacting standards laid out by the Tiger Mother. Fortunately, her parenting methods did not include beatings à la Wolf Dad; even so, scars linger, layered one on top of the other.
And so this is my story, told from my admittedly skewed perspective. It is why both books, frankly, appalled me: they’re perpetuating the myth that just because you’re the parent you get to be a bully.
Loving and firm guidance: Yes, always. Controlling by any kind of force – emotional, mental, physical: No. No way. Not ever. It leaves a permanent mark, a secret stain, even if it’s not visible to the parent who imprinted it.
I always sensed that I was raised as a possession: a living, breathing testament to my mother’s perfect parenting. That probably sounds harsh, but sadly, it’s a fairly accurate assessment. My father tended to be extremely passive; he played almost no role in our upbringing except to pay the bills. All of us, my father included, lived and breathed under the controlling thumb of my mother.
Some of this demand for perfection sprang from my adoption and my mother’s need to prove that nurture trumped nature. Many adoptees of my generation would admit to (and have admitted to) similar childhood experiences: adopted to be “saved” from a life of sin, poverty and despair – many of the earliest international adoptions were faith-based and religion-driven – and we were expected to be constantly grateful. Naturally, we were grateful – who wouldn’t be? – but having this continually reinforced created an emptiness in the soul, a loneliness and a hurt, for we were never told that love was the overriding, motivating adoption factor. And always…always, we lived with the unending guilt over never quite being grateful enough, never proving worthy enough.
Throughout my childhood, I was never allowed to sleep in; my mother considered it the height of laziness, both physically and morally. I lived in terror of being sick; my mother found illness to be a personal affront to her parenting. When my eyesight began failing in 3rd grade, I devised all sorts of tricks to avoid telling her and shaming myself (and her). I’d crumple up notebook paper and pass in front of the chalkboard to throw it away, scanning the words as I walked by. I cried when the school discovered my myopia the following year. My mother reacted as expected, researching obsessively about my “deficiency,” feeding me carrots until I turned orange, attempting to “strengthen my eyes” by not allowing me to wear my glasses, and taking my books away, declaring I read too much.
And the lessons: I have such mixed feelings about the lessons and the practicing. She’d awaken me extra-early every day so I could practice the piano before school. For a short time, I slept with blocks between my fingers to stretch them after I (figuratively) hit a wall because my tiny hands couldn’t reach octaves (she read Chopin did something similar). After school, there were ballet lessons. On the days we didn’t have ballet lessons (three times a week and all day Saturday), there was a barre in the basement for my sister and me to practice. After ballet, I practiced the clarinet and then the flute. And I did my homework. And I completed the extra lessons she would assign to make sure we stayed way ahead of the class academically. Sundays were consumed with church, bible study and the church choir.
My emotions are mixed because of course, I do not regret the knowledge I have or the appreciation I hold for the arts. I love that I love music, especially, and Ms. Chua is right on one count: Getting good at something is fun. But my mother chose all of the wheres, whys, whens: the activities and the lessons and the teachers.
As a child, one of my absolutely favorite pastimes was drawing. I’d sketch on everything: my school desk, my notebooks, the newspaper. But those were the lessons my mother withheld: she declared I had no artistic talent. Ironically, when I reached high school and finally took art classes, I won several major prizes for my work (by then I was allowed some “fun” because my “role” had become the “arty” one whereas my sister was the “brainy” one). My high school art teacher encouraged me to create a portfolio and apply for scholarships.
But the line was drawn there: I was not allowed to pursue art further. My path had been chosen: I was going to be a music major, attend a rich-kids’ “finishing” college of my mother’s choice, marry the doctor of her choice (she had him lined up already), and take my place in society. The only point on which I defied her was when I refused to marry the doctor, but even then, it’s almost embarrassing to admit how hard that was for me to take that stand (it took me years to say no and she has never forgiven me).
And despite our efforts to please her, we were never quite good enough. Praise didn’t come easily, if at all; affection was meted out according to accomplishment. When I was winning awards for my music, I was the golden-haired child. When my sister was accepted into one of the military academies, she took my place and has remained elevated there ever since.
My sister was never quite thin enough. Like Ms. Chua’s daughter, she was belittled and called “fatty.” My mother even imposed a two-week, water-only fast on her so she would be weight-perfect for the academy – where she didn’t want to go in the first place. I (the shy one) was told I’d better learn how to accommodate because I’d never attract a man based on my looks or my brains. I was much too “Oriental” and God didn’t give me too much“upstairs,” so thank goodness I was a hard worker and had common sense.
Today my sister is unhealthily rail-thin, obsessed with her weight, which my mother grills her about every time they talk. And I still think…well, let’s just say what I see in the mirror and what I see in my mind have never quite meshed.
There are so many more stories; I could go on and on. And my mother, like the Tiger Mom and the Wolf Dad, had the best of intentions. But monsters have been unintentionally created, demons that I fight constantly, always battling myself to fully believe I am good enough, worthy enough, accomplished enough, deserving enough. I witness different monsters warring in my sister, who grapples with her own self-image.
And I wonder what damage I’ve done to my children by trying so hard to not be my mother. I know I’ve been a little too passive. I do understand there’s a point in any task when becoming better becomes increasingly difficult; sometimes a bit of an encouraging push is needed to get over the hump. My son, for example, seems to have musical talent. He’s absolutely pitch-perfect and pure-toned when he sings. When he was little, he tore through piano books, devouring them eagerly, completing at least one weekly, sometimes even daily. When he was forced by scheduling to join the middle school band, with no experience and not much interest, he immediately shot to the top of the section, was chosen to solo in the talent show and to represent the band in the regional competition; the band director was absolutely salivating over his talent.
But of course, even with his natural talents, getting better became hard at some point. He wanted to quit. And eventually I let him, each and every time. Not because it was necessarily the right thing to do, but because I didn’t want to be my mother.
It’s different with my son’s true grand passion: chess. He loves it so much that he’s self-directed. And my role becomes ridiculously easy then: almost anything he wants or needs to follow his interest unfettered is championed, encouraged and pursued by me. Because it’s his choice; his passion. Not mine. Period.
As the years go by, my mother has mellowed; I’ve mellowed, too. We share a quirky, cautious kind of love between us even though she still asks how much I weigh (always too much) almost every time we speak.
I’ve grudgingly come to accept that’s just who she is, although I admit it irks me and yes, it still hurts me. Whatever she did was not malicious; it simply was the only way she knew how to parent. But I cannot see how a childhood of being pushed and prodded and being treated like a possession has benefited me. I cannot see how being insulted or belittled, even under an umbrella of security and stability, has strengthened my ego.
When all is said I done, I cannot agree with these extreme versions of parenting, even if done with the best of intentions. Because to me, the “Chinese” mother, especially, sounds a little too much like my “Scotch Irish” mother – and just because these children seem fine and healthy on the surface, I can attest that public and private personas can be two very different animals. Every insult, belittlement, and disparaging remark lodges somewhere in the psyche and causes damage and wounds, micro-thin layer upon layer. And knowing one’s parent will react scornfully if one shows weakness – well, can that child ever reach out for real comfort? No. And so, isolated and fearful, that child learns how to cope alone. And endure on the inside while smiling on the outside.
But overcoming the ensuing self-doubt and insecurity takes a long time – perhaps a lifetime – with a lot of heartache and much reprogramming required along the way.
And in the end…for what purpose? Whose interest was best served?