The ‘Good Enough’ Mom
To my mind, Tiger Mom author and Yale academician Amy Chua is a genius–in much the the same way Madonna is. Her double whammy book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Wall Street Journal article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” are quickly becoming runaway best-seller material. Kudos to Chua for deftly tapping into two of American society‘s most vulnerable trigger points right now: the “How can we stop America from falling behind?” and the “How do I measure up as a mom?” nerves. I’m going to address the latter here; I doubt I have anything enlightening to say about the former.
Make no mistake: My parenting style bears absolutely no resemblance to Ms. Chua’s, nor would I want it to. I disagree with most of her points, except the part about how sometimes you have to nudge your children in their pursuits–be they academic or extracurricular activities–to get them to reach a level of self-satisfaction and, eventually, mastery. I’ve seen this first-hand with my daughter in her study of karate. It wasn’t until she reached orange belt this past December that she started to really look forward to attending class. Still many years away, the vision of receiving her black belt seems tangible to her now. So I will keep pushing her to achieve that goal.
I don’t object to Chua’s ideas even though I may disagree with many of them. What troubles me more than her controversial parenting techniques is our reaction to them. The Tiger Mom is the most current popular culture example of our collective obsession with being the “perfect mom.” This pursuit has become competitive sport to some, elevating motherhood to the female equivalent of a pissing contest. And this, in my view, is not only misguided, it’s damaging on both a personal and communal level.
I first came to abhor this obsession with perfection when my daughter was a baby. Then, there was much talk–and misguided criticism–directed at Brooke Shields, who wrote a courageous book about postpartum depression, Down Came The Rain. The book hit home for me, as I suffered from several months of postpartum anxiety; a talented therapist worked me through it without the use of drugs, though in retrospect it may have resolved sooner had I medicated. At the time, I was dumbfounded by the hoopla this book received–it is estimated that one-third of all women experience some form of postpartum issues, be they “baby blues” or all-out depression–and that this percentage is likely low because many women are ashamed to admit anything but joy after giving birth. When I told my friends and family what I feared was happening to me, I was shocked to learn that two of my closest friends had similar experiences. They didn’t tell me, they said, because they didn’t want to admit it. It felt like defeat.
This again leads me to the conclusion that we are striving for an impossible standard: perfection. I’m not sure where we got this messaging, but it makes no sense to me. As if motherhood weren’t hard enough, do we need to make it harder on ourselves? In a word, no. No, we don’t. And we shouldn’t.
But for some reason, my generation of parents seems to be über aware of how we parent. We seem to revel in being “on” 24/7 for our kids. This is why we’ve been dubbed “helicopter parents.” My friends and I joke about how different parents today are versus when we were kids, basically left to our own devices for hours at a time, parents having only a vague notion of where we were. (“I’m going to the park.” From upstairs, “OK, be home before dinner.”) Parents today don’t let their kids walk to school alone before middle school. We pre-screen films (I know some who will watch a whole film before letting their kids see it.) Meanwhile, back in the fast-and-loose 1970s, I vividly recall my dad taking my brother and me to Animal House when I was eight! I’ll cut him some slack for this one; he mistakenly thought it was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. “This movie is a classic!” He said as we entered the theater. Ha! But why he took us to The Shining a year later, I have no idea. Thirty years later I still shudder, able to vividly recall the scene with the twin girls in the elevator. I still cannot watch horror films.
When I was new to motherhood, I recall the advice my father’s first cousin, Richard, an uncle figure to me, gave me. He said, “Don’t try so hard to be good all the time. Just be good enough.” (said slowly with emphasis. He is a theater director so he knows how to deliver a line.) You know in “The Graduate” when one of Ben’s father’s friends advises him that the future is all about “plastics”? But Ben, though now an adult, doesn’t live in his parents’ world of security and conventionality. He is experiencing a generational disconnect–this advice makes no sense to him at all. When Richard told me to strive for “good enough,” I couldn’t connect it, either. Shouldn’t I try to be the best?
But unlike “plastics,” I get Richard’s point now. And it’s a good one.
Let me ask you: Do you love your kids? Do you show them and tell them? Do you try to teach them right from wrong, how to work hard and achieve goals, how to be a good future citizen of the world, how to be a good friend, how to deal with disappointment? Are you there to celebrate their victories and listen to their sorrows? OK. So, some more questions: Do you make mistakes? Do you sometimes yell or act impatiently with them? Do you have trouble knowing what to say or do, and sometimes say the wrong thing? Do you worry about your children too much? Yeah. Me, too. Nobody’s perfect–not even moms! Many people seem to accept their imperfections with the rest of their lives, but don’t cut themselves enough slack when it comes to their parenting.
I’m not trying to be an apologist for mediocre parenting here. I think it’s good to be the best you can be and keep working on getting better. My strategy for continuous improvement involves keeping an open mind and knowing my strengths and weaknesses, leaning into the strengths and working on the weaknesses. My natural tendency, for example, is to be nurturing, empathetic and fun; I didn’t come into this role as a terribly good disciplinarian. Acknowledging what you lack and then working on these skills is half the battle. But just like the rest of your life, effective parenting is always a work-in-progress. There is no cookie cutter approach to it.
So no, I will never be a Tiger Mom. Or a perfect mom. I’m happy with being “good enough” now. Because in calm moments, I like to take a deep breath and think about what my daughter will be like when she grows up. I know that one day she’ll look back and think that I was good enough for her. And that’s the standard I hope to live up to.