03/24/2011 03:48 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mommy Confusion

As I read Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, all I could think of was how happy I was that my own daughter was settled happily in her dorm room at college. I really don't have to worry about this, I thought. Whatever parental good I did or damage I inflicted on my little darling is already on the books.

But with my relief came a question. Why is being a mother so hard? And why do we all harbor such emotionally corrosive fears that we aren't doing it right?

Mothers rose in anger when Chua talked about the full-contact parenting that denied sleepovers, play dates, TV, computer games -- and where anything less than an A on a report card is a family disgrace on a par, at least by U.S. parental standards, with knocking off a Seven-Eleven.

But I have to think that the outrage was tinged with uncertainty and, quite possibly, a pinch of guilt.

Some of that is personal. By failing to enforce the no-TV-before-homework rule, have I invited my child to be less than she can be? Some of it is cultural paranoia. The Chinese are going to run global trade, build a dominant military, call in our debt and colonize Mars. And it's all my fault.

A catchy title and a little fear of inadequacy makes for a best-seller and some good headlines. But this is actually nothing new. The angst over our supposed failings as mothers is a long running serialization that bounces from too much to not enough to wrong kind to complicity in America's decline.

Before being compared to Tiger moms, we were taken to task for being helicopter moms: same idea, but much gentler on the self esteem. Over-parenting sold a lot of cue cards for one-year-olds, lent logic to playing Mozart in the nursery, made for a lot of very stressful parent-teacher meetings and, at least to some extent, led to the end of dodge-ball and the rise of personal Little League coaches. Generally, instead inflicting outrageous expectation on our kids, we inflicted it on every one around them.

Many helicopter moms, of course, were decorated veterans of the "mommy wars" -- the internecine battle for superiority that pitted working mothers against stay-at-home mothers. The battle lines: working mothers short-change their kids in the name of career; stay-at-home moms are trapped in an unnatural remnant of an earlier time. Those chaffing under one choice would take it out on those who made the other. "If you're wrong, then I must be right -- even though there are a lot of days I don't feel right at all."

As a working mother who raised two kids, I helicoptered in with impunity -- never shy about sharing my thoughts with teachers, coaches or anybody else who affected my offspring. I was on the front lines of the mommy wars -- a stalwart defender of working and parenting.

But in a career studying families, I was also blessed with a chance to observe a rich variety of mothers in action. Particularly during the work on my previous book Raising Boys Without Men, I got to know single mothers by choice and circumstance. I got to know two-mother families. I met a lot of great kids, and a lot of strong women who worked very hard to make them that way.

Because of their circumstances, they were a little too busy to fight the mommy wars, and didn't have much time to over-inject themselves in their children's lives. And I don't think they worry much now about how they measure up against Tiger Moms. They love their children dearly, try to raise them with values, challenge and help them to succeed, and protect them with everything they have.

Best-sellers aside: maybe that is all a mother should have to be.