I sometimes feel very sorry for my children: because how I am caught between two worlds, they too are caught between two worlds.
Many of you have commented on my responses to the Tiger Mom Controversy with great insight, grace and kindness. One comment that made me pause and reflect upon the factual state of what I am doing to my children came from MacDougal Street Baby:
Nobody knows what happens behind closed doors. We can pontificate all we want about how others are raising their kids but, really, there’s no way to know what’s going on. Believe in your own way. Trust yourself. And then deal with the fallout.
It is this unwavering conviction that has been eluding me ever since I became a parent. I am torn between the “Chinese way of parenting” and the, for the lack of a better term, “Modern American” way.
So I wobble.
One day I am a Chinese mother. The next day I am an American mother. I feel so schizophrenic and now am worried what this kind of wishy-washy parenting is doing to my children: they have no way of knowing which mother will be greeting them every morning. It is like living with Eve White.
Either way, I am constantly feeling guilty because of the pressure coming from both sides.
I am either too strict and overprotective or too lenient and permissive.
The worst would be when I am “confronted” by other Chinese parents either in this country or back home.
I am not kidding when I mentioned my brother asking me whether he could discipline my children on my behalf. “Just a slap on the face will solve all your problems!” In fact, he did not even need my approval since he is my elder brother and as their uncle, he has all the “right” to discipline my children the way he sees fit. Even my nephew, who was a so-called “problem child” in his youth (with petty misdemeanors, unfinished high school and truancy which constituted as “family scandals” that shall not be spoken of, and who, one would thought, should hate this kind of heavy-handed, literally, parenting style), asked quite a few times with exasperation, “What do you mean you cannot beat your child? Oh I am telling you, it pangs me to watch them misbehave so much that my hands are itching. Could I please just hit them upside the head?”
(If you are wondering WHAT crime did my children commit to deserve such wrath? My kids were simply, according to the American standard, “being independent, rambunctious boys”.)
We have a babysitter that comes every morning to accompany Mr. Monk to his bus stop: I have to leave before that in order to catch my train downtown and my husband travels a lot. We are now on our second babysitter who started last month. Our babysitter does not need this job: she lives in a house bigger than ours and drives a Mercedes. As a fellow Chinese, she is doing this as a favor for me and for that, I am very grateful. But I am afraid that she is going to quit very soon.
Mr. Monk was reading at the kitchen table and ignoring both of us when we asked him what he would like for lunch. I could see his finger moving across the page. I could tell that he was frantically trying to get to a place where he could stop without losing his place on the page.
He is a child of many peculiarities since birth. I have learned to go along with these special requirements of his to keep a smooth and orderly existence. I have learned the hard way.
If it were his elder brother at the table this morning? I would have punished him for blatantly ignoring me.
“You are very permissive. I would have snatched that book away this instant.” My babysitter commented in Chinese.
I explained to her what Mr. Monk was trying to do and his needing such an order in his life.
“You should have fought to get him to change. You should have made him change through persistence. If it were my daughter, I would have taken that book away already.”
I made some feeble attempt to explain why I did not. Could not. “He’d be harping on this for the rest of the day if I did so. Maybe even tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. He’ll remember this for the rest of his life.”
“My daughter remembers everything too. Oh she fought but I persisted. You just have to be persistent and make them change their ways. It is not possible for him to not change if you just work harder.”
“You must have been very strict with your daughter?” I asked, as a compliment.
“Yes, I was.” She beamed with pride as she should since her daughter is now a VP at a prestigious investment bank on Wall Street.
“Oh she hated me back then. I am pretty sure she hated me but I persisted. She is very nice to me now, she calls me all the time. I think she finally understands why I needed to do what I did. She can see now.”
“You know, I cannot do that.” I admitted to her. “It must have taken a lot of strength on your part to remain strict.” I stopped short at telling her, “But I need my children to like me, and I cannot stand the thought that they may hate me.”
“Yes.” She paused. “But I did what I had to do.”
In traditional Chinese culture, (Warning: Gross generalization ahead. Buyer beware!) your success as a parent is not evaluated by how happy your children are but by how obedient they are when young and how successful they are when grown-up. Providing your children with a happy childhood is not a requisite for being a good mother. I am not suggesting that Chinese parents go out of their way to make their children miserable but rather that IT is not a priority. Or rather, the definition of happiness is quite different, and also who gets to define happiness is debatable since we were often told, “You don’t know what you want. You don’t know what will make you happy. You will know when you are older.”
I am happy for her and for her daughter’s accomplishment. As I said, I am grateful for her coming here every morning so that I could keep my job. But it feels like an indictment of me as a parent every single morning. I will be getting out of the house as soon as she arrives from now on.