If I were a stronger woman, I could duck out of the Tiger Mother conversation that has bunched our national panties beyond our fingers’ reach.
However, since the eensy beensy bikinis started their hike up Mt. Buttock, dozens of people have asked me to weigh in, which I did inthis post. Most recently, people have asked whether the highly-educated, highly-competitive mothers on urban discussion boards are an iteration of the tiger mother.
I believe that the phenomena are related but different. Both “Chinese mothering” and “western mothering” are three-way relationships, each with its big cat. After that, they diverge.
To understand, we must see that “intensive mothering” and mommy wars did not emerge in a vacuum. Many women make sacrifices on the way to, or during motherhood. Whatever path we choose, women give something up. We’re trained not to expect or want “it all” before we set eyes on our babies. We often buy into the idea that being “a mom” means that these are solely women’s concerns—and this impression is validated everywhere we look. By the time we visit a parenting site, we’ve conceded something.
The media is fascinated with privileged women bickering about the choices we’re fortunate enough to have, but spends little time addressing whether men play a role in this war, or whether the mothers with fewer choices deserve more column inches. I have to admit that I’m complicit in this, even though I like almost every mother I meet and empathize with every struggle apart from “maternal guilt.”
Enter the tigers.
In Chua’s portrait of Chinese mothering, there are three players: the tiger mother, the daughter on the piano bench, and the world. The world swallows mice but a tiger can swallow it. The American world is populated with herbivores and declawed tigers—which leaves a vacuum at the top of the food chain. The tiger mother knows that the top spot is ripe for the taking—but only for a tiger. The person on the piano bench is not a deer. She is a tiger cub.
So-called “western women” may also function in threesomes. I have observed two types.
First, what some call helicopter parenting. Helicopter parents attempt to reduce perceived risks to zero. They protect children from being the youngest in kindergarten, exposure to a microgram of bacteria, and from receiving the Bs they earned. These parents sacrifice to give their children a place at the top of the food chain. Like a housecat rearing an orphaned squirrel, they seek to empower by providing. In these cases, the sibling kittens, though its natural predators never eat the squirrel because the mother cat eliminates the risk. Squirrels raised this way typically can’t function in the wild. There’s no data showing that children of helicopter parents are similarly challenged, nor am I qualified to say.
As I see it, this is the helicopter threesome: the parents are nurturing cats. The children are orphaned squirrels that the parents perceive as uniquely miraculous and uniquely vulnerable. The world is the litter of sibling kittens. It can be shooed away and sated with milk, uninterested in consuming a squirrel. If necessary, the world can be picked up by the scruff of its neck and shaken.
Then there is the soldier in the mommy war, who isn’t a tiger either. By the time we become mothers, we’ve read “what to expect” and we expect to sacrifice. It isn’t true that no one is prepared for parenting. We at least know where we’re going to sit.
We are the girl in the bench. We forego dinner until noses are wiped, fevers are cooled, homework is done, and the hamster is mourned. We calculate whether we can afford not to work—or afford to work. We take sick leave for our child’s annual check-up, accept lost pay, or regretfully forgo it.
We all sit on the piano bench. Some have the power to take a bathroom break. Sometimes we wonder if we’re rearing tigers that are eating us one pound of flesh at a time. The outside world we used to inhabit is a deer the cub chased down and extinguished. We are in awe of the beautiful cub, but sometimes wonder if we’re sending a deer out into a carnivorous world. Most of all, we hope that life will not pin our daughters to the piano bench. That the world will be kind to deer, or that we are raising tigers.