Tiger Motherhood

This essay, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,  came across my facebook newsfeed and pretty much gave me post-traumatic stress.   This essay is an excerpt from the soon-to-be published book, The Battle Hymm of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua.  The article recounts Ms. Chua’s own parenting philosophy, contrasting the Chinese parent and the Western parent.  There is a particularly harrowing scene in which Ms. Chua, trying to help her daughter master a piece on the piano, tries to “motivate” her daughter by calling her “lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, and pathetic.”

If I had a dime for every time my mother called me “lazy,” “undisciplined,” or “stupid.”  Her favorite phrase was, “What’s wrong with you?”  She was trying to “motivate” me too.  Intellectually, I know she did so out of love.  She wanted me to succeed so that I would be accomplished and financially secure in America, and accomplishments and financial security is what she equated with happiness.  Intellectually, I understand why my mother parented in this way.  But emotionally, I have always felt unworthy of my own mother’s love.  This has made me feel unworthy of love in general, an insecurity which has plagued my friendships, relationships, self-esteem, and marriage.  In so many ways, I have failed my mother’s expectations of me.  I was not very good at piano, I did not become a doctor, I didn’t marry a doctor or even someone I could call a sugar daddy.  As a writer, I am far from financially secure.  And now, as I am a mother myself, my mother can be critical of how I mother my own child.  It never ends.

I’m far from alone.  Most of us who have Chinese mothers can relate.  The top comment on the New York Time Motherlode column is this, from “Catie”:

I was raised by a Chinese mother like Ms. Chua, with the added “bonus” of frequent and harsh corporal punishment.

The postitive side of this style of parenting: I have a couple of advanced degrees and a faculty position at a prestigious University. I own a home and am financially stable.

The negative side of this style of parenting: I have no emotional connection to either of my parents and I was greatly relieved when my mother passed away. I moved thousands of miles away from my father to get away from a man who stood idle while a small child was beaten, degraded, and humiliated. I have stayed in abusive relationships because I have an unhealthy threshold for mistreatment– it’s easy to minimize bad behavior when my own mother treated me even worse in the name of love.

Is it worth it? My parents would probably say that it was, and that academic/financial success, social prestige, and family honor outweigh any of the emotional and psychological consequences. I disagree.

Needless to say, Ms. Chua’s essay struck a chord with many.  It recalls some primal defenses many of us developed against a barrage of criticism, of growing up in a household where love was withheld unless you performed perfectly.  Mine is a generation of Asian American adults that collectively struggles with the collateral damage of what the essay calls Chinese parenting.  We vow not to do the same with our own children, but we have no models of how to do it better.

To be fair, as I read through the essay, I did not get the sense that Ms. Chua was actually advocating for “Chinese parenting.”  (I put this term in quotations because I am loathe to generalize all Chinese parents.)  I thought the essay was an attempt to shed light on the differing parenting philosophies and how each of them find the other equally horrific.  Westerners would call “Chinese parenting” borderline abusive.  Chinese would call “Western parenting” undisciplined and self-indulgent, a failure to prepare a child for survival in the big, bad uber-competitive world.  Westerners value self-confidence and critical thinking and individuality to make one’s dreams come true.  Chinese value honoring the family and the ancestors through tradition and virtue.

My husband is a Westerner who can trace his lineage back to the Mayflower and he was raised with a fairly Beaver Cleaver childhood.  His mother is the sweetest person ever and he calls her several times a week.  They can talk for hours.   But, quite frankly, my husband, with his Beaver Cleaver upbringing, has as many dysfunctional issues as an adult as I do.  Even his mother would say so.

Of course, my husband had a visceral reaction to Ms. Chua’s essay.  He couldn’t stop talking about how wrong she was and trying to poke holes in her argument.

“Argument?”  I said.  “I don’t think she’s trying to argue for anything.”

“But she titled the essay, ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.'”

“Hm,” I said.  “I highly doubt she chose that title herself.”

I know a thing or two about publishing and I know the writer doesn’t always get full control of how his or her material is marketed.  A headline like “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” is designed to get people to read it.  I suspected the essay itself may have been edited to create buzz/interest/outrage about the upcoming book.  Nothing helps book sales better than controversy.

It turns out I was right.  A few days after the essay was published in the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Yang, who writes the AsianPop column in the San Francisco Chronicle actually read Ms. Chua’s book and interviewed her for his column, which he entitled “Mother, Superior?” From the article:

Apparently, it [the essay] had been edited without her [Chua’s] input, and by the time she saw the version they intended to run, she was limited in what she could do to alter it.

“I was very surprised,” she says. “The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.”

Because of the Wall Street Journal essay, Ms. Chua has received a firestorm of criticism from the public, accusing her of being a horrible mother, “wrong,” “a monster,” “pathetic.”   (Hm, criticism not unlike that from a Chinese mother.)  But it seems the publicity is doing its part.   Discussion of Ms. Chua’s “excerpt” has been on the Today Show, NPR, The Huffington Post, and all over the blogosphere.  Advance book sales of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother have been through the roof.  Unfortunate how Ms. Chua’s reputation has to be sacrificed for the business of publishing.

My mother did cut out a copy of “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” and gave it to me, two days after I had already read it online.  She probably read it as a justification for her parenting style.  I get it, I want to say to her.  You did it out of love.  But the damage has been done.  I don’t tell her this, of course, because my mother has never listened to me, as much as I’ve tried and keep trying.  On this occasion, it’s too much emotional energy to spend on a talking to a deaf ear.

My relationship with my parents is strained at best and we will probably never be “close,” the way many Western families tell each other everything and can talk for hours.  As much as I wish things were different, I don’t really blame my parents for their shortcomings.  They didn’t know any other way of parenting.  They had Chinese mothers too.

I will write more about this, I’m sure.  As Flannery O’Connor said, anyone who survives childhood should have enough to write about for a lifetime.

My mother and me, circa 1972

Baking Day

This morning, there was a complication with our husband-installed geothermal heating system.  These past few nights, it’s been bitterly cold (below 10 F) and our well, which feeds moderate temperature water into the heating system, was having some difficulty keeping up.  Blake decided to scale back on the heat in order to let the well catch up a bit.  But today it was all of 12 F outside and we couldn’t very well do without heat.  So Blake decided to supplement our heat by turning the oven on.

Since our heating system was sketchy, I had canceled the playdate we were scheduled to host today.  But with the “supplemental” heat, I couldn’t very well leave the oven on and not put something inside it.  So I decided to make it a baking day.  In between chasing Milo (who is walking!) and changing his diapers, this was my day:

10:30 am  Turn on oven at 350 degrees

Milo helping Mommy's baking chaos

11:00 am Roasted pumpkin (1 hour)

12:30 pm  Roasted sweet potatoes (1.5 hours).  Served lunch.  Peeled & cored apples while Milo sat at table and took a bite out of each apple piece.

2:30 pm Roasted apples for applesauce (1 hour).  Peeled & pureed roasted pumpkin into mash for pumpkin bread.

3:45 pm Roasted Pumpkin seeds (1 hour).  Pureed applesauce to sweeten pumpkin bread.  Prepped mac & cheese

5:00 pm Baked Mac & Cheese (1 hour).  Prepped pumpkin bread batter.

6:00 pm Baked pumpkin bread w/applesauce.  Served dinner of Mac & Cheese and salad.

7:00 pm Put Milo to bed.

7:30 pm Pumpkin bread finished.  Turned off oven.

The kitchen stayed nice and warm all day and now we have tons of food.  Some time towards the end of the day, Blake got a call from the well driller with a hopeful solution to our well problems.  So the day, which started off with much weeping and gnashing of teeth, turned out to be quite warm and productive.


Fruits of my labors (clockwise, from lower left): roasted sweet potatoes, spiced pumpkin seeds, baked mac & cheese, pumpkin applesauce bread

Milo turned 1

on November 30th!


Nanowrimo 2010

 I’m a winner!  This was my third year participating in National Novel Writing Month.  Last year, I went into labor on November 30th with only 1400 words left to go, and I didn’t finish.  This year, no such excuse, although I did almost not sign on because I felt I was too busy being mommy to Milo.  But I couldn’t use that excuse either because I had a few friends who were also busy moms sign up.  So there I was, cranking away at my word count late into the night.  My “novel” is mostly word vomit, but it does feel good to come to the page daily, even if what I write is utter crap.  Hooray for word vomit!

Composting Diapers

Being a good, conscientious liberal, I was torn between disposable and cloth diapers for Milo. Daddy is clearly a convenience guy when it comes to diapers and he convinced me to go with disposables when Milo was first born. There were all these changes in our life, nighttime feedings, hormonal changes, no sleep, etc., why make more work for ourselves? Go with the disposables. I agreed at the time, but every week, when I lugged a big bag of used diapers to the transfer station, I feel my liberal guilt weigh me down. All that shit goes to the landfill. All that shit from my one little baby. Wow.

So when Milo was six months old, a friend lent me some cloth diapers to give it a trial run. Prefolds and diaper covers, pocket diapers, al-in-ones. It turned out to be less scary than I had thought; even Daddy had to admit it wasn’t so bad. By this time, Milo was pooping only once a day (as opposed to the 4-5 times a day when he was a newborn), so changing a pee diaper that was cloth was very manageable.

But the problem was laundering. Daddy (who was an environmental economics major) felt the laundering used so much water that from an environmental standpoint, it was almost as bad as shoving disposables into the landfill. I was not as convinced of this as he was, but the laundering was quite time consuming. Using disposables, we did Milo’s laundry once every 5 days or so. With the cloth diapers, we were doing laundry every other day.

The diaper system I chose was a hybrid system, which means you can use both cloth and a biodegradable/flushable insert in the diapers. During the day, we use cloth, but at night, we use the flushable insert because they are much more absorbent. However, since we have a septic system, it’s not possible to actually flush the insert down our toilets. Bummer. It is, however, possible to compost the diapers. (The pee ones, at least. The poopy ones are much more complicated. We just toss those, but since we’re using the inserts only at night, they’re typically not poopy.)

layer of diapers on the compost pile

So a few weeks ago, we build a compost pile and threw in five months’ worth of pee diapers. I’d been keeping the pee diapers in a big paper bag on our porch. We mixed the diapers in with layers of mulched dead leaves, kitchen waste, and soil. We used the compost recipe from How to Grow More Vegetables, by John Jeavons, which calls for 45% mature organic material (like dead leaves), 45% immature organic material (like kitchen waste), and 10% soil.

I had been storing up my kitchen waste for several months and much of it already started decomposing by the time we opened it up to build our compost pile. It seemed like we ran out of kitchen waste quite quickly. But Daddy thought our diapers could be categorized as “immature organic material” because of the nitrogen in the urine, which is what you really want from “immature organic material.” So we went with that. No idea if it will work. According to the book, we should turn the compost pile once, about three weeks after we built it. After that, leaving it alone, we should have cured compost in about six months. In the springtime, we should build another pile. So we’ll see if the diapers actually do compost well and add all that nitrogen to our compost.

Milo had great fun the day we built the pile. A fall day out in the yard with Mommy and Daddy and his diapers. What could be more fun?

Composting is fun!

Here’s the Skinny

Milo is a long, skinny baby.  He is currently 10 1/2 months old and he weighs just under 16 pounds.  He’s fallen off the growth charts.  Granted, these growth charts are predominantly Caucasian babies and Milo is half Asian.  (Asian and Latino babies tend to be smaller than Caucasian babies.)  Still, the low weight is a little disconcerting.  It’s not like he doesn’t get enough food.  In fact, he eats about 1000 calories per day in solids, plus 4-6 feedings of breastmilk.

Our pediatrician is not too concerned at the moment, as long as there is an upward trend in Milo’s weight gain, however small that might be.  Also, he is on the chart in height–currently 27 inches.  We do note that Milo is an extremely active baby and always has been.  He is constantly moving, crawling, climbing, bouncing.  Our pediatrician thinks this could account for the slow weight gain–he’s just burning off the calories faster than we can feed him.

Both grandmas think we should be spoon-feeding Milo to get more down him (see previous post on Baby Led Weaning), but we are quite confident this is not the problem.  Milo has a friend, born on the exact same day, who is also feeding himself by Baby Led Weaning and he weighs over 20 pounds.

At this point, Milo refuses to be fed by the spoon anyway.  But he still eats plenty.  A typical lunch includes the following:

Milo stuffing his face with carnitas

  • 2 slices of pear with soy butter   (188 calories)
  • 2 pieces of roast beef   (100 calories)
  • 6 chunks of sweet potato  (100 calories)
  • 1/4 cup of whole milk yogurt  (85 calories)
  • 2 slices of cantaloupe  (35 calories)
  • 4 tablespoons hummus with pita bread  (150 calories)

TOTAL  = 658 calories

That’s a big meal!

Still, because of Milo’s high metabolism, we’ve been charged with trying to feed him even more calories.  In particular, more fat.  So now we pour olive oil into his vegetables and dunk his fruit into yogurt mixed with coconut milk.  We fry up his sweet potatoes in bacon fat.  We slather butter onto his bread.  It’s a totally different diet from one we might consider “healthy.”

I’m not entirely sure the added fat will make a difference, as I note Milo eating a little less when we make his food richer.  It makes sense.  He’s used to self-regulating his food intake, so he stops when he’s satisfied.  He’s not waking up hungry every hour at night (he feeds 1-2 times at night), so that would seem to indicate he’s getting enough food and calories during the day.

Hubby and I argued over the addition of sugar to Milo’s diet.  Hubby thinks allowing some sugar would get additional calories into him.  I have been adamant about avoiding sugar.  To me, it is critical that we instill healthy eating habits in Milo early.  His palate is very sensitive at this age.  He already gets plenty of natural sugars from fruit.  Refined sugar would be like crack to a baby.

But after one discouraging weigh-in (he gained only 1/2 ounce in a week), I relented and agreed to let Hubby try some added sugar.  We went to the health food store and got some “all natural” fig newtons and some organic whole milk ice cream.  Milo seemed to take to the fig newtons fairly well and now he eats maybe two a day (for a total of 140 calories).  Hubby was particularly excited about the ice cream, loaded with both calories and fat (and sugar).

One afternoon, when I was out, Hubby fed the ice cream to Milo.  Evidently, Milo liked it a lot.  He ate spoonful after spoonful and Hubby felt quite good about feeding all those calories to his skinny baby to fatten him up.  Until about 30 minutes later.  Milo, usually fairly mellow and even-tempered, started rooting manically on Daddy’s knee.  Rooting is a combination of sucking, slobbering, and shaking his head, searching for something with his mouth.  As a newborn, Milo would root for my nipple in order to nurse.  Rooting on Daddy’s knee was an entirely futile exercise, but under the influence of ice cream, it was essential to his survival.  He was like a muppet on speed.

After this episode, Daddy agreed to lay off the ice cream.  Like crack to a baby.

Other than the weight issue, Milo is a perfectly healthy baby.  He’s meeting (and surpassing) all his developmental milestones.  Our pediatrician is not too concerned.  She doesn’t want us to freak out.  Milo could just be a small baby and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that.

I do find myself (and everyone around Milo) overly anxious about what my baby eats.  I’m sure Milo must sense this.  It is important to me that Milo develops healthy eating habits, but maybe this is more likely to happen if everyone around him just relaxes.  We’ll do our best to feed him healthy foods with his share of fats and calories.  He feeds himself quite well.  And even though he refuses to be fed by a spoon, I note with particular pride that he will–quite happily–eat off my chopsticks.

How to Sleep Like a Baby

We’re in the middle of “sleep training” Milo, which means we’ve been letting him cry it out during bedtime.  If this seems horrible and cruel, believe me, it feels that way too.

We had tried some sleep training when Milo was younger, about 5 months old, at which point he cried for maybe 10 minutes before falling asleep.  It still felt horrible and cruel.  But we felt lucky that he was crying for only 10 minutes and believed we had an angel child.  Unfortunately, Milo’s weight gain had stalled around that time and we felt like he still needed his night feedings, so we went back to soothing/feeding him whenever he cried at night.

Since Milo’s birth, we’ve been co-sleeping with Milo in our family bed.  This decision came about mostly out of necessity.  It was too taxing for me and my 41-year-old body to get up to feed Milo 3-5 times in the middle of the night.  By co-sleeping, Milo sleeps next to me.  When he’s hungry, I can offer him my breast and rest or even fall back asleep as he feeds.  Co-sleeping has saved my sanity.  I am not someone who does well without good sleep.

We’ve been putting Milo in his own crib at his bedtime (around 7:00 pm) and feeding him when he cries.  When he cries around 1 or 2 am, I would go get him and bring him into our family bed for the rest of the night.  This arrangement worked fairly well for several months, but we found it was impossible to leave him with a babysitter even after he goes to sleep because he wakes up expecting Mommy’s breast and fails to be comforted without it.  We also started witnessing instances of night waking, in which Milo, without waking, would roll and flail around restlessly in our family bed.  On one occasion, he did this almost an hour.  We have a king-size bed, but nobody was getting much sleep with a flailing baby.

There are some philosophies of parenting that encourage co-sleeping and going to comfort your baby every time he cries.  As a liberal Californian, I could see the value of such “attachment parenting” and a lot of it made sense to me.  But Milo often seemed tired.  He has never been that great a napper; his naps are typically 30 – 45 minutes long and he usually wakes up tired and cranky.  Once he started night waking, we knew something had to change.

I decided Milo needed some more structure  and discipline to his sleep schedule.  So I got a book out of the library and set out to “sleep train” my baby.  The idea behind sleep training is to train/allow/force your baby to self-soothe himself to sleep.  All babies (and humans) sleep in cycles, meaning we fall in and out of sleep throughout the night, so a baby will wake in the middle of the night.  If he is accustomed to Mommy coming in and giving him a boob every time he wakes up, he will learn that this is the only way he can fall asleep.  By not going in to soothe him, he is trained/allowed/forced to fall asleep himself and this, eventually, should lead to deeper, more quality sleep.  The problem is, for the baby who is accustomed to getting the breast when he wakes, withdrawing the breast means there will be some complaining, i.e. crying.

So the first night, I prepared myself with a bottle of wine.  Daddy put Milo down to sleep around 7:30pm and he slept until almost 10:00.  Then he cried.  At first, it was a quiet whimpering for 10 minutes or so.  Then the crying got louder, like he was asking, “Hello?  Hello?  Yoohoo?”  He didn’t sound like he was in pain, but it felt bad not responding.  What kind of Mommy doesn’t answer when her baby asks, “Hello?  Hello?”  He went on like this for 15 minutes or so.  And then he started complaining.  It was a higher-pitched cry, as if he were yelling, “Where are you, Mommy?”  This went on for another 10 minutes.  And then he started getting mad.  Shrieks now.  “I want the boob!  I want the boob!  Where’s my f$%#king boob?!”

Meanwhile, Mommy is sitting in the hallway outside the nursery door with her glass of wine, quietly weeping.

Ten minutes or so of shrieking tires him out.  He’s starting to losing some steam and the shrieks become less intense, slightly more spaced out.  But a full hour of crying and Mommy can’t take the guilt much more.  I go into his room, pick him up, and offer him my breast.  Milo sucks weakly a few times and falls asleep.  That night, he wakes up one more time, at 2:00am.  I go in and feed him almost immediately.  He feeds normally and falls asleep.  He stays asleep until 6:00am.

The next night, we go through the same bedtime routine.  Daddy puts him to bed at 7:00pm.  He wakes around 10:00.  Mommy is ready with her glass of wine.  This time, Milo goes through the whole cycle–whimper, hello, complain, shriek–in 15 minutes.  And then silence.  The next night, he slept from 7:30pm to 4:30am with hardly a cry.  And the next night, he slept from 7:30 to 11:30pm, had a feeding, and then slept until 6:30am.

It’s been 2 weeks since we’ve started sleep training.  Milo is averaging 5-6 hour stretches of sleep, which is much better than the 2-hour stretches he had before.  He still needs at least one feeding to get him through the night; his weight gain is still on the low side and we want to keep his calorie count up.  In general, though, Milo is much better rested and happier when he’s awake.  His naps are even longer during the day.

I wish I could say this means Mommy is better rested, but that’s not the case.  It’s hard to wake up, drag myself out of bed, go into the nursery and feed Milo at 4:00am, and then get up at 6:30am when he wakes up.  For me, it was easier to have him in our bed, snuggled next to me, offer him my breast whenever he fussed and fall back asleep in our warm bed.  Maybe the verdict is still out on attachment parenting and my status as a California liberal.

To be fair, it would help if I went to sleep earlier.  So now the sleep training will be for Mommy and Daddy to go to bed at 10:00pm.  Time to put the whole family on baby time.

Milo gets his beauty rest

While I haven’t been posting here as often as I should, my fans (all 2 of you) will be happy to know that I have been writing.  I won a local mommy blog contest and am now one of the featured bloggers for the Merrimack Valley Moms Blog.  I’ll be posting twice a month on various topics.  My first two blog posts are already up.  Check it out:

A Toy Story
My thoughts about too much baby gear for the modern American consumer.

Empty Shoes
A tribute to a friend who recently passed away, one month after giving birth to twins.

It’s been great to meet people and build some community through the blog.  The deadlines are totally helpful to get me writing and I’ve enjoyed having this outlet to express some thoughts about motherhood.  While it’s true that being a mom takes a lot of time and I’m constantly tired, it’s also been good for my writing.

My goal, really, is to make Milo a local celebrity.

Our head shot for the Merrimack Valley Moms Blog

Because passport fees went up on July 13th, on July 12th, we took Milo to the local post office to apply for his passport.  We intend to expose Milo to as much of the world as possible, so he needs his passport.  Baby passports are good for five years.

Milo is coming up on 8 months.  He has already traveled to the West Coast twice and will do so again next week.  He has been on 9 plane flights.  And, before the year is out, we hope to use his passport.  At the very least, to visit Canada!

To put things in perspective, Milo’s mommy was on her first plane flight at age 7, which is also when she got her first passport.  That flight was from New York to Iceland and eventually to Brussels, Belgium, where my family lived for one year.

Milo’s daddy was on his first plane flight at the age of 19, which is also when he got his passport.  He flew from Portland, Oregon, to Costa Rica, for a month-long adventure.

We figure Milo will be a precocious kid, so we’re starting early.  Travel is good for the soul.  Hopefully, he’ll thank us for making him get his passport so young.

Old Mommy

Well, my age finally caught up with me.  This morning, I was rolling around on the floor with Milo and something tweaked in my back.  My whole back cinched up and I couldn’t stand up or walk.  I had to crawl–literally– out of the room and into bed, flat on my back.  Milo is crawling better than his Mommy can right now.

Thankfully, Hubby and I are both working from home these days, so Hubby was on Milo duty most of the day.  He would just bring Milo in for nursings, which old Mommy would accommodate by rolling gingerly onto her side and pulling up her shirt.  Or Milo would accommodate Mommy by finding a new position to nurse, bellying up to the bar, if you will.  And then he would hang out with Mommy in bed, crawling over my supine body as if I were some obstacle course.  He seemed happy enough, even if Mommy couldn’t move.

Hubby didn’t get much work done today, but I did.  He brought me food and was at my beckon call.  I couldn’t move much, but I was pampered.  I think Hubby was kind of sick of it by the end of the day and he sure as hell hopes I feel better tomorrow.  Taking care of Milo full time isn’t any easy job, is it?

As pampered as I was, it was hard not being able to hold Milo or pick him up.  When he was crying, I just wanted to run out and comfort him, but I couldn’t.  And sometimes, only Mommy can comfort him.  It’s hard not to feel helpless when you can’t pick up your child.

As soon as I’m better, I’m getting back to my yoga routine.  Milo is only going to get heavier, so I’d better be ready.

Milo waves his magic wand over his sick Mommy.