Amy Chua's essay "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" (Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2011) brought back vivid memories of my Chinese parents and a profound relief that, with their blessing, I am parenting in a very different way.
My mother once told me if I got a B to not bother coming home. My father drilled me in math until I developed a lifelong fear of math. To "lose face" for the Chang family name by letting my parents down in any way, after all they had sacrificed for me, was unfathomable.
Their tough love, like Chua's, was out of deep love. But did it work?
For a while. Until I couldn't do it anymore. Chua's children were never allowed to "not be the No. 1 student in every subject but gym and drama." My parents also expected me to be #1, and through elementary school I worked so hard to be #1...but guess what? So did my best friend! Her Korean Mother wanted HER to be #1. So every day, someone was going home a disappointment to her family.
Over time, I developed a fear of trying things that I couldn't excel at. I rebelled toward subjects my parents couldn't tutor and train me in: creative writing, African dance. I hungered for praise, and applied myself wholeheartedly in every class, every job where I got any. My drive to succeed propelled me to the Ivy League, to the media elite, to The New York Times -- and a near nervous breakdown.
I was good at my job. But I had chronic hives. I couldn't sleep, and when I did I would wake up with fingernail imprints in the palms of my clenched hands. I couldn't get pregnant. I was 30, a success, but felt a failure.
When we adopted G from China, I had no idea how much my world view, and my parents' world view, was about to change.
G wasn't like us eager-to-please Changs. She had her own way of doing things, and no amount of pressure, firm or soft, cajoling or demanding would sway her. Things that were easy for us, paying attention, following directions were impossible for her. "She's so smart. She could be such a success," relatives would say. Read: It must be your fault.
We spent years struggling to keep G in public school, pressuring her to keep up with everyone else. She is intelligent, creative and full of potential. But it turns out she also has Tourette Syndrome, and has developed many associated neurological complications that make getting through each day a challenge. When we finally moved her into a special ed setting, her relief and subsequent blossoming made me mourn all the days we sent her out into the world feeling less than.
Chua's conviction that her way is superior eludes me. She assumes strength but I have seen fragility. And you can't treat them the same. I have traded in conviction for the agony of questioning and experimenting. It is painful, not having the answers all the time. But in humility I have been able to get the help my kids need. And in humility, there is freedom. We don't compare our kids to anyone else. We're off the road to nowhere. In the here and now, we do the best we can. And appreciate every moment.
We, and no one more than my parents, have chosen to evolve. Our definition of success has changed dramatically. We still have high expectations. They're just appropriate for G, at this time. Our sense of family has solidified. Once you adopt, you open your heart and home, period. No one has to achieve to belong. You belong because you're loved. My parents tell me all the time how good G is, how hard she tries, how proud they are. And what do they think of Amy Chua's approach? "Tai guo fen" -- too much -- my Chinese mother said. "And besides, every kid is different. I might have agreed with her back then. But I've progressed."