Hey! I had a tiger mom, too!
That was my knee-jerk reaction when I first encountered the WSJ excerpt from Amy Chua’s controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (which I’ve yet to read). Like Chua’s children, I started piano lessons in fifth grade and kept it up through high school, even though my fingers failed to outperform leftover sausages. Anything other than an “A” was a failure—even an “A-” incited a flurry of name-calling and abuse. I could barely see friends outside of school, and certainly couldn’t date. I couldn’t go to school dances or concerts (although I did manage to make it out to some anyway).
But as I peered more closely at my upbringing, I had the strangest revelation: My mom lacked the discipline to be a true tiger mom! Sure, she was bossy/demanding/overprotective, rarely doled out praise or affection, and shared the same birthday as Adolf Hitler, but she was also scatterbrained and fickle. She would start projects but seldom finish them, just like she enjoyed buying the latest anti-wrinkle cream and abandoning it a week later for another pricey beauty product. She (and my dad) never picked me up from my piano lesson nor paid the bill on time, much to my piano teacher’s chagrin. But she had once juggled a career, night school, and parenthood, and her know-how and determination made owning several businesses possible. Unfortunately for me, she was also unwavering when it came to saying no—no to going to a friend’s house, no to going to the movies, no to going to concerts. No to anything that wouldn’t boost my academic career.
Based on accounts from other people who’ve had them, true tiger mothers rarely relinquish their reign even when their children leave the lair. They continue to monitor and possibly steer their children’s progress, and may even attempt to shape their grandchildren. Thankfully, my mom gave up trying to shove me into her mold several years ago. If she hadn’t, thinking about my child- and teenhood would probably still dredge up incredibly angry, bitter, and resentful feelings. Nowadays I just shake my head and laugh, confounded by the choices my parents made.
For one, I never understood how they could be so overprotective when it came to leaving the house but hands off (some might even say negligent) within the home. Somehow it worked out in their favor. By the age of six, I was waking myself up in the morning, making my breakfast of cereal and milk, and walking myself three blocks to school. I didn’t know any different, and quickly learned from my mistakes: don’t pour cereal milk back into the container (it curdles the rest of the milk), don’t leave refrigerated Sunny Delight out for the day (it starts mildewing). Around that time, perhaps when I was seven or eight, I stopped asking for help since I’d either get yelled at for being stupid or be told to figure it out myself. I couldn’t bear to be yelled at so I sewed my own Halloween costumes, taught myself how to ride a bike, did my homework without prompting, and went to bed as I saw fit. Thanks to Judy Blume, I knew what to do when my first period came; had my younger brother not outed me in his usual way, my mom probably wouldn’t have known until a year later.
I even handled some minor medical procedures on my own, such as cleaning and dressing gaping wounds, extracting foreign objects from various body parts (the sewing needle through my big toe was the worst), and piercing my own ears (after my mom had forbade me to do so). One time I accidentally swallowed homemade bubble-blowing mixture (we were using straws) but was too embarrassed to tell anyone. In the end, I discovered that drinking a glass of milk was the only way to get rid of the bubble burps and that awful burning sensation in my throat and stomach.
Ironically, had my mom been a more dedicated tiger mom, I might not have gained such practical knowledge and learned how to tackle sticky situations at an early age. Instead, I might’ve committed the Oxford English Dictionary to memory and been able to solve quadratic equations in my head—handy talents, certainly, but useful in the warzone that is life?
As I got older, the self-sufficiency my parents (inadvertently?) instilled in me backfired on them. The battles between tiger mom and tiger daughter were brutal and loud, and I was constantly grounded for circumventing her/their tyranny (stories for another day, perhaps).
I may not look back on the bulk of my childhood with fondness, but I’m happy with the way I turned out (although I do sometimes wish I was taught better manners and housekeeping skills). For that, I wish my half-assed tiger mom a Happy Mother’s Day.