The yelping emails from obsessive friends, the soul-searching that degenerates into bitchiness—we have seen this reaction before to books, blogs and movies, wherein mommies harangue other mommies for how they run their homes, raise their kids and ruin everyone’s lives.
What makes all the ranting and raving about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother so new and fascinating (and queasy-making) is something that has gone practically unmentioned: Amy Chua’s memoir represents perhaps the first time that a Chinese author has thrust herself into the center of the all-American “Mommy Wars.” And unlike past skirmishes, which invariably have been forms of class warfare—professional women vs. stay-at-home mothers, secular elites vs. Palin and Schlafly, soccer moms vs. “welfare queens”—this latest epic battle pits an empire in the ascendancy against one hurtling (we fear) into economic and social decline.
The subtext of Chua’s ferocious mothering is that her extremely privileged daughters—and Asian children raised like them—aren’t just going to play Carnegie Hall and sail into Harvard; they’re going to rule the world. Not 100 years from now, either, but as soon as they get their law degrees and PhDs and start applying themselves to more important things than earning straight A+s and placating Mommie Dearest.
Meanwhile, the American doofusses who spend more time texting than studying, who stay up all night giggling with their friends instead of worrying about the piano recital and the AP test, are doomed to …well, not even ruling their own undisciplined desires.
So, just as mothers have been blamed for every social ill since Eve, American mommies are now being blamed for the decline and fall of the American empire.
Now, there’s a surprise.
The Mommy Wars have never been about mothering. They have always been about guilt and rage, insecurity and the kind of self-loathing/self-torture that white, middle-class American girls—and the women they grow into—especially seem to excel in. The conflict at the center of the Mommy Wars is simple yet seemingly unresolvable: the need to participate in the wider world as fully equal and responsible citizens, versus the desire to stay home playing Legos, making lasagne, and raising our kids to be the fully equal and responsible citizens that many American women find it so difficult to allow each other to be. For the last 20 or so years, the feminist-backlash side has been winning: the ones who insist that day care is bad, that formula is evil (but please don’t breastfeed in public!), that choosing career over family is selfish and damaging to the fragile psyches of our precious offspring. Then came the Great Recession—and suddenly, working outside the home didn’t seem so selfish anymore.
The villains of the Mommy Wars are invariably either poor, marginalized women of color or upper-middle-class white professionals. Poor women are attacked for having no discipline and ambition; affluent white women for having too much: How can you put your dreams of becoming a Supreme Court justice ahead of being a room mother? The ultimate proof that white professional moms can’t win came a few years ago, with a spate of stories about the so-called “opt-out generation”—women who went to the best schools, got the best jobs, and married the best providers, only to quit the workforce to stay home and be full-time nannies/cooks/chauffeurs/maids. They were roundly condemned for wasting their educations, micro-managing their children, and endangering their marriages by turning into perfectionist harpies while simultaneously letting themselves go. Of course, if they hadn’t “opted out,” they would have been condemned just as fiercely.
Blaming the mother, it must be noted, is not a male-dominated sport. In public and in private, American women are far better at hating on each other than any American man. That’s one reason why Tiger Mother is, in its extreme way, so familiar. Another is the focus: professional women who, like Chua, could—and should—be pushing, prodding, bullying and insulting their children into “excellence” but are, as usual, failing miserably at the one job that really matters. Bad mommy.
This time, though, instead turning white moms against each other as usual, Tiger Mother has done the unheard of and united them against a common enemy. Chua—a law professor whose two previous books (World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability and Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance and Why They Fall) also took a skeptical look at American might—has tapped into the economic terror of the American professional class (the kind of people, after all, who read articles about parenting and sign their kids up for music lessons whether they show any interest or not). At the root of all the current screaming and yelling is a different kind of anger and fear: “America’s going down the toilet and taking our children with it. Ohhh nooooooo….”
The irony, of course, is that in China itself—a nation of only children, each one indulged by his or her own personal horde of doting parents and grandparents—the parenting style (from afar, at least) is looking a lot less Tiger Mom and a lot more American Whatever.
What a relief. Maybe the American empire is safe after all.
New America Now's Shirin Sadeghi interviewed Amy Chua on her book and the controversy it has created. Listen here.
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