KYD associate editor Jo Case struggles past the media hype to discover the real message at the heart of Amy Chua’s controversial ‘mother memoir’.

Once upon a time, motherhood memoirs were carefully painted in pastel hues designed to flatter the artist– if they existed at all. But just over a decade ago, the unexpected success of darkly complex books like Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood (1997) broke new ground. Maushart exposed the myth of the instantly competent, serenely fulfilled transition to motherhood and the reality of the physically and emotionally demanding 24-hour role of ‘mother’. She was soon followed by UK novelist Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work (2001), a stark, intricately observed personal account of reconciling the pre-motherhood independent self with the post-pregnancy primacy of a new baby. Many women were relieved to read accounts of finding life with young children challenging, or unfulfilling, or even boring.

These days, the shelves are full of ‘bad mother’ memoirs. (Which is not exactly what the Maushart and Cusk books were – in fact, Cusk has called the genre she helped spawn ‘a toxic and dishonest form of writing’.) There’s even one called Bad Mother (2009), by US author Ayelet Waldman, who caused an uproar with her 2005 essay admitting that she loves her husband (Michael Chabon) more than her children. The controversy landed her on Oprah; the book was a bestseller.

Enter Amy Chua, America’s ‘bad mother’ of the moment, whose mega-sales are mirrored by her countless column inches and sacks of hate mail. In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the Yale law professor and parent of two stratospheric-achieving daughters outlines her hardline philosophy for raising children, along with its results. ‘A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids,’ reads the first line of the first chapter. She goes on to offer an insider’s answer to this tantalising question: ‘even when Western parents think they’re being strict, they usually don’t come close to being Chinese mothers’. (And for the record, she acknowledges up front that ‘Chinese’ and ‘Western’ are shorthand for certain parenting styles, and that ethnically Chinese parents can be culturally Western parents and vice versa.)

If you’ve read the weekend papers lately, or peeked in on the many furious online debates (see links above), you’ll already know the items on Chua’s list of things her daughters were never allowed to do, which includes: attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, get any grade less than an A. You may know that her daughters were forced to practice their instruments for hours every day while Chua supervised; that Chua once threatened to burn her daughter’s stuffed animals if she didn’t play a piano piece perfectly; that she called her daughter Sophia ‘garbage’ for being disrespectful; that she put her three-year-old daughter out in the freezing cold for disobedience; and that she refused her daughters’ handmade birthday cards, asking them to redo them, and make an effort the next time.

Like many others, I read these accounts and was fascinated, appalled and self-righteous. But I also wondered I there wasn’t something more to it. Why would an obviously smart woman like Chua, with two serious books under her belt and a presumably savvy author husband, dob herself in so badly? There must be more to it than simply showing off her own bad behaviour (which she’d surely know would be read as such by most American readers) and excusing it with her seemingly exemplary results? (‘Other parents were constantly asking us what our secret was. Sophia and Lulu were model children.’) So I tracked down the book, and was unsurprised to read another, less sensational side of the story that rendered the experience of reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother less like the prurient, smug, slightly shameful experience of watching bad reality television (‘I am a MUCH better mother than that. What is WRONG with these people?’) * and a more nuanced reflection than you’d think on parenting styles and the pitfalls of extremes.

There are clues throughout, embedded in the theatrical accounts of hyper stage-parenting, that Chua is more self-aware than she seems, that she’s deliberately building herself up as a villainess begging for an eventual come-uppance. Her tone, as elder daughter Sophia recently pointed out in print, is deliberately self-mocking, often tongue-in-cheek. As a child who grew up in the Mid-West wishing for ‘a bologna sandwich like everyone else’ in her lunchbox, she’s finely attuned to cultural differences (in fact, one aside mentions that ethnicity is her ‘favourite thing to talk about’). The shocking incidents she relates are carefully selected and framed to have exactly that effect on the reader.

On the other hand, she does firmly believe that liberal Western parents coddle their kids – and, ironically, that their focus on nurturing their children’s self-esteem can have the opposite effect. ‘Chinese’ parents expect their kids to excel and thus send the message that they’re capable of excellence. ‘They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.’ While of course there are plenty of examples of this backfiring badly, she does raise some valid points worth thinking about regarding the flaws in the liberal approach. For instance, there are some highly credible tales of her daughters’ friends being bribed for B grades or to practice their instrument, and she has a point when she says that hard work is required to excel and kids rarely choose on their own to work hard or stick with something that’s difficult. She tells her daughters, ‘My goal as a parent is to prepare you for the future – not to make you like me.’ That’s something worth remembering.

The fine print of the book’s preface (talk about signposting!) reads: ‘This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.’ And indeed, it’s part parenting manifesto, part mea culpa, as Chua learns, through her rebellious second daughter, Lulu, that there is no one-fits-all parenting style.

‘In American culture, kids in books, TV shows and movies constantly score points with their snappy backtalk and independent streaks,’ she writes early in the book, comparing this to the Chinese reverence for obedience. ‘Typically [in America], it’s the parents who need to be taught a life lesson – by their children.’ Here, she’s setting the stage for the eventual showdown with her American teenager. In the end, despite all the emphasis on Chinese values, this is an essentially American book, with a typically American message. Chua ends up finding her own blend of two very different parenting cultures to create one that suits her beliefs, family and experience embodies the self-invention mythologised by the country her immigrant parents chose for her.

Her message for other parents is not, contrary to widespread belief, that Western parents should emulate ‘Chinese’ parenting in order to create their own ‘model children’. It’s that both parenting cultures could learn from each other.

*like Toddlers and Tiaras, not that I’d know anything about that …

Jo Case is editor of Readings Monthly. She has written about parenting for The Age and tries every day to strike the right balance between ‘Western’ and ‘Chinese’ parenting.

(Cross-posted from the Readings website.)