My Tiger Mother, My Self

January 24, 2011

I have been following all this stuff about the superiority of Chinese mothers vaguely – reading with interest but not following every link. I didn’t want to write about it because I hadn’t read the actual book. And then yesterday afternoon the mother who dropped R off from the playdate handed me the actual book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.

I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, which says more about the book than it does about my reading speed. I was shocked.

The whole time I have been following this conversation about Amy Chua, I have been thinking of myself as the mother. I’ve been comparing myself to her, or to the bits of things that get repeated in articles and blog posts about birthday cards and garbage and such. Reading the book, though, I realized that I am a little bit like the mother – but my real role in parallel to this book is the role of the daughter.

My mother is not Amy Chua. A lot of the most extreme stuff that has been circulated in the last couple of weeks is stuff my mother would never, ever do. But a lot of the stuff in the book – big and small – brushed at my memories of childhood. I only had sleepovers with my cousins. I scraped the piano with my teeth and made a mark. I was expected to be totally respectful to my parents and older relatives.

There was a time, eight or so years ago, when I would see little half-Asian kids and I would want to walk up to their parents and say, “I am what your child will grow into.” There just aren’t very many adults my age who are that kind of mixed race, but there are tons of little kids running around who are. I forgot about them for the last few years, I guess, or I have not been thinking about it so much. I forget that I am – and will always, for the rest of my life be – at the leading edge of a cultural shift around intermarriage and multicultural families.

The parallel with Amy Chua is problematic – she’s Chinese-American, raised in the Midwest with her immigrant parents but not an extended Chinese family; my mother is third-generation Japanese American raised in a Japanese-American community. So Amy Chua is both more and less Chinese-American than my mother is Japanese-American, and their parenting is both more and less Western (as Amy Chua is calling it). I am very, very glad for all the crazy ways my mother was not like Amy Chua, most of all including but not limited to the fact that she did not stand over me at every moment that I was practicing piano and let me quit at some point because I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t care about it.

The thing that Chua hints at but does not explore is the thing that I think is the most interesting about the way that I co-parent with Ellen. Ellen and I have a huge culture clash about parenting on a daily basis, and the way we negotiate that constantly is the most intellectually stimulating part of our marriage for me. This went down in our house, word for word, a couple of days ago:

Me (yelling at B): When I tell you to do something, I tell you ONE TIME. Then you do it. I do not have to ask you more than once. When an adult tells you to do something you do it immediately!

Me (to E): Did your parents EVER have to ask you more than once to do something?

E: Yeah, they did. All the time.

I was shocked. It never occurred to me that in any family, anywhere, ever a child could think that a parent’s request was ignorable, negotiable or even postponable. I had no idea. I’ve been thinking about it ever since that dialogue, trying to re-arrange my conception of what I think B and R’s obligation is to me as their mother. I don’t even know what the conclusion is, yet, but this kind of thing – the stuff that I take as set in stone that Ellen casually dismisses – these things are the things that make me grow the most as a person as I try to be a good mother. I get the sense that Amy Chua isn’t co-parenting like this. She’s not trying to compromise and learn because there are good things about every way to raise a child – and there are also supremely messed up ways, and they exist in tandem in each parent and in each cultural conception of parenting. If you say that you are going to do it all one way, you are missing out on new ways of shaping your children and shaping yourself. I love E so much, and I hate so much about the way she parents, and I love so much more about the way she parents even more. I would not want E to hand over everything about parenting to me – and if I handed over everything to her I — I don’t even know. It’s not possible.

“There is no true collaboration without disagreement,” one of my favorite work colleagues said to me once, more than a decade ago. I think about that at least once a day about work-work or about Jewish community work, but mostly about my marriage with E. The glory of living in the U.S. in the 21st century is that we have this incredible opportunity to collaborate with people from many cultures – and they are in our families.

(Just to restate for the record: my mother never, ever called me garbage. She never would.)

The Telecommuter

January 9, 2010

Virginia Heffernan is writing about working from home in the NYT Magazine this week. It think it is only slightly ironic that it came up in my RSS feed while I was working from home on a deadline. She’s saying that the thing that is going to make working work for women (she writes “women” but I think she really means “mothers”) is telecommuting.

She writes, “I submit, in all seriousness, that women have benefitted more (even) than men by telecommuting technology. Downloading school forms, pumping breast milk, tending to a sick kid, loading up the crockpot, straightening the kitchen — all this can be done with a BlackBerry in hand. None of this can be done — done well, anyway — at the office.” Mostly those are mother functions. She’s also writing about how you don’t have to commute, don’t have to dress up – both things I enjoyed before I had kids and loathed when we moved to the suburbs because of the kids.

She writes, “…working from home does mean avoiding the “second shift,” that ’90s horror, in which the workday was said to be followed by a day of housework and child care, somehow all in 24 hours.” I don’t think it means avoiding the second shift. I work just as many hours and just as hard from home as I ever did in an office. When I do run downstairs to throw something in the oven or move the laundry from the washer to the dryer because E ripped up her shoulder, it makes me even more on edge about my deadlines, not less. When she writes that thing about pumping breast milk with a BlackBerry in hand it just makes me even more tense. Working from home won’t erase the second shift. It will just make it harder to distinguish from the first shift and thus harder to ameliorate the image of the mother as the overly-busy multitasker.

Don’t get me wrong: I love working from home and, because I do, my home life is more relaxed. However, 80% of that is because I cut out 100 minutes of commuting a day, not because I can get so much more of my housework done at the same time. I can’t do housework and office work at the same time. If I did, the office work would suffer. I am committed to giving my office work my best – and not trying to cut corners at my job in order to mitigate the stress of being the multitasker mother.

Every once in a while a colleague who works in a distant unit of the company will call me to ask me about working from home. I them, “You have to have child care. There is no way you can have your kids at home, even a baby who sleeps most of the time, and get the work done.” This was something that E and I established early on, back when B as 3 and I started working from home occasionally. If you are going to work from home and be just as productive as you are in the office you can’t pile on too much more.

The other thing is that there are large swaths of professions that don’t make working from home an option. It’s not entirely a class thing, but it’s true that bus drivers and hotel maids can’t ever work from home – and journalists like me and Heffernan can. I remember a transit strike in NY several years ago and one of the really interesting conclusions people reached is that there are a lot of people, more than they thought, who can’t work from home. College professors and litigators have to show up, teachers and musicians and store managers. Working from home is fantastic, but I don’t think it’s applicable in enough cases – or really able to give you so much more freedom – to be a societal game-changer for large swaths of women.

The Daddy One

July 14, 2009

Ruth is way more into the concept of “daddy” than Jacob was. Or at least I thought she was because she said, “daddy” all the time and he never mentioned it. However, she never says “daddy” in relationship to herself. Occasionally she’s identifying a specific individual, as in, “Robin’s daddy,” but more frequently she’s using it to denote the size of objects, as in she sees a medium sized glass next to a large one and she calls the medium one “the mommy one” and the large one “the daddy one.”

I’ve asked her a couple of times if she wants a daddy and she always says no. Lately I’ve realized that she’s not talking about “daddy” all the time because she wants a father or even because she is thinking about fathers specifically. She’s a girl, so she wants to group objects by relationship. Calling the glasses “the daddy one” and “the mommy one” just indicates that she wants to put a label on their relationship to each other. Jacob would have been content with calling them “large” and “medium.”

Daddy intimacy

June 25, 2009

A few times a week I look a Popsugar. It’s for work, I tell myself, because I need to know what is going on in the culture. Today I got down to the bottom of the page and I clicked on a link to Popsugar’s 35 favorite celebrity dads. I was barely paying attention to a phone meeting and I started clicking through the pictures.

They were mostly paparazzi photos, and that was what made them so interesting. Matthew McConaughey offering his son a bite of pear, Keith Urban with a diaper bag over his shoulder, Ben Affleck lugging the carseat, Usher with the toddler on his hip, Tobey Maguire crouching in the little space at the top of the slide, Matt Damon with the baby in one arm and the preschooler holding the other hand – so many of these men were doing the utterly mundane work of parenting in a totally natural way. They were doing something with their bodies that signaled that these children were theirs to nurture.

There are no pictures of my father looking anything like these men. My dad was more involved in my life than, say, my mother’s father was in hers. When I was born, in December of 1969, my dad was present. It was unusual, and it signaled that he wanted to be engaged with me in a way that men of his father’s generation were not. He went as far as men went in the 70s. He read to me. He taught me how to fry over-easy eggs. Still, I am willing to bet that he never, ever carried me on his hip the way Usher does his son. And there’s no way he ever walked down a sidewalk with my baby brother in one arm and my hand in his like Matt Damon. This weekend my father told me that I think about parenting in a way that he never did. Not like he was apologizing, but that he was acknowledging that there was something he had not done. “It was a different generation, Dad,” I told him. It was. I don’t fault him for it – but I do see it.

There’s a qualitative difference between the way fathers handled their children 40 years ago and they way they do now. In the paparazzi pictures on Popsugar, the fathers were physically intimate with their small children in a way that they likely would not have been a generation ago. That hip-carry Usher uses was exclusively the posture of a woman-caregiver for thousands of years.

You can tell that all these men had changed diapers because they wanted to. That’s the way to learn a small child, by changing diapers. Not just once or twice as a favor to the real person who should be changing the diapers, but seeing the changing of diapers as part of your own responsibility. That NYT article pointed out that Jack Nicklaus would read his kids bedtime stories – but Tiger changes diapers. Michael Lewis points out that the difference between him and his father is that his father didn’t change diapers. The diapers aren’t a metaphor, here. I think that you can see the result in those paparazzi pictures of all those men, mostly in their 30s and 40s, who are physically intimate with their young children.

There were two items in the NYT on Sunday that played into the things I’ve been thinking about fathers. There was an article about Tiger Woods’s enthusiasm for being a father. It talked about how Jack Nicklaus would read his kids bedtime stories – but Tiger changes diapers. Woods took a nine-month break from golf because of an injury, which gave him extended time at home with his daughter. “The best thing in the world was actually to watch her grow and, you know, each and every day have fun with that and teach her different things,” Woods said. “I really enjoy that type of life.”

Woods, like Michael Lewis, discovered that the way to really get to know a small child is to get into the details of taking care of the child every day. “The person a baby loves best is the person who changed its diapers the last ten times,” is what Ellen said, soon after taking over that duty from me. And then, as they get to be toddlers like Woods’s daughter, teaching them some small thing day after day until they learn it. You have to know a child in order to love a child, and in order to know a very small child you have to be able to see their smallest details. You can only see the small details when you watch them over time. (When we moved out of our DC apartment shortly before B’s third birthday, our upstairs neighbors, childless, told us that it had been a privilege to get to see B change a little tiny bit every week. Big, gruff JP actually got tears in his eyes.) Older kids are different, in large part because they can talk.

When my uncle was here a few weeks ago, he told me something my grandmother said soon before she died. She said, “I wish I had done more. I thought that my job as a mother was to feed you good food and keep your clothes clean.” I don’t think that my grandmother’s fault is personal, even if she might have. She grew up in the Depression and had two small children in an internment camp. Food and clean clothes were tall orders for her, and she was a fantastic cook and accomplished seamstress.

I think that she came to her regret very late, after she saw my mother and aunt parent in a very different way. They were deliberate about teaching us, coaching us through school and through childhood. My grandmother might have, in the 80s, looked back on her own parenting in the 40s, 50s and 60s and found it lacking in comparison. I think that the idea of parenting thoughtfully, the way my mother did, could not have existed for my grandmother. The basics – the food and clothes – took all of her time and focus. My mother, with her dishwasher and clothes dryer and abundantly stocked supermarket, could spare the time and attention for directing my childhood. My mother, and the parents, mostly women, of her generation, developed that style of parenting that Tiger Woods is describing, the teaching a little every day parenting. My mother and the parents, mostly women, of her generation found the deep significance and great joy of that kind of parenting as well.

It is based, first and foremost, on time. You only get it by spending time, much of it spent on what might seem to be chores: changing diapers in the beginning, then helping with homework. One mother I know likes driving carpool because it gives her time with her daughter. Jacob cuddled up with me on the couch tonight. “He never cuddles with me any more,” Ellen said. Jacob still cuddles with me because we spent years cuddling in synagogue when he was little. Now, because I put in the time being patient when he was a toddler and needed lots of attention during shul, he can’t imagine any other way of sitting next to me in synagogue. I put in the time and the work and now I get the precious reward.

Which brings me to the second item in the NYT yesterday. In the book review Leah Hager Cohen quotes Virginia Woolf. “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room.” Hager Cohen continues, “If you think this belief is dated, think again. Just two months ago, Joyce Carol Oates told The New York Times Magazine why violence is so often the subject of her fiction. ‘If you’re going to spend the next year of your life writing,’ she explained, ‘you would probably rather write Moby-Dick than a little household mystery.'”

I have a great deal of respect for Leah Hager Cohen. However, Tiger Woods and Michael Lewis might represent men who would finally turn that Virginia Woolf quote on its head. These men – and the other men of their generation they represent – are seeing the deep significance and great joy my mother and the women of her generation found in leisure-enabled parenting. The men are looking into the realm of women with respect and desire. They see parenting as – to paraphrase Woolf – an important book that deals with the feelings of women. It’s a book they have discovered they want to read.

The sport of fatherhood

June 10, 2009

“The guy who wrote the book you left on the stairs was on the radio,” Ellen said.

Michael Lewis truly is the best sportswriter I have ever read. It’s not the beauty of his prose but the depth of his insight that I find most striking. I was hoping that he would bring that same sharp insight to his book about fatherhood. I would love to find a father who is writing about the changing nature of fatherhood the way that Michael Lewis writes about sports.

I read the whole book today, in the time it took me to ride BART into the city in the morning and back home in the evening. In the introduction, he steps right up to the plate the way I was hoping he would:

This book is a snapshot of what I assume will be looked back upon as a kind of Dark Age of Fatherhood. Obviously, we’re in the midst of some long unhappy transition between the model of fatherhood as practiced by my father and some ideal model, approved by all, to be practiced with ease by the perfect fathers of the future.

But there, in the middle of that second sentence, he backs away without taking a swing. He makes a self-deprecating joke about perfection on page 11 and then he stands in that exact spot for the rest of the book.

Don’t get me wrong; he’s a good writer and the book is well written if what you want are sweet stories about a very thoughtful guy who is trying to play a father role he didn’t know he wasn’t prepared for. He spends the whole book with that slightly-amused tone he uses when he writes “…to be practiced with ease by the perfect fathers of the future.” It’s lovely. It’s not what I want.

I believe that we are in that intermediate stage Lewis is talking about. I also believe that the way to make the transition is for fathers to take more of the initiative. When his wife insinuates that he should not have given their daughter cereal before dinner, I wanted him to defend himself. What’s wrong with cereal before dinner? It isn’t the exact thing she would have done, but that does not make it wrong. What if it represents a better way to interact with a child that we’ve never known about because it’s been driven by mothers, mothers, mothers who think they are right and they don’t take what the men do seriously?

Lewis doesn’t defend himself. At the time, he shrugged and backed away. In the book, he gently makes fun of his wife a little and resigns himself to the idea that he just isn’t as thoughtful a parent as his wife is.

Michael Lewis is a plenty thoughtful guy. I want him to think more about fatherhood. I want him to have something to say. Over and over in this book, he tries to do some parenting task. He puts his heart into taking care of his kids … and then his wife undercuts him and makes him feel that what he’s done is inadequate. She’s doing what I see a lot of mothers doing to a lot of fathers when she undercuts him. And then he agrees with her. I don’t want him to agree with her. I want him to do it his way.

Near to the end of the book I feel that he gets closer to what I was hoping for. His youngest child, a baby, is in the hospital. Lewis ends up taking care of the baby in the hospital alone, without his wife. The staff keeps coming in and waking the baby. The baby needs to sleep to get better. Lewis puts a note on the door and he blocks the doorway with his chair to protect his son from the constant interruptions. He writes:

I repel several more assaults until, finally, word must have spread that there’s a total asshole guarding the little boy in Room 5426, because we find ourselves well and truly alone. I change his diapers and feed him and suction the mucus from his nose. I notice for the first time that he has my hands and feet. I study the heart-shaped birthmark on the back of his head. I discover that if I hold him to my chest and hum against the back of his neck, he falls right asleep. Tabitha comes and offers to take over, but the truth is I don’t want to leave. He feels like my jurisdiction. After every new child, I learn the same lesson, grudgingly: If you want to feel the way you’re meant to feel about the new baby, you need to do the grunt work. It’s only in caring for a thing that you become attached to it.

Lewis writes: He feels like my jurisdiction.

That’s the very beginning of what I think Michael Lewis, and so many other fathers, can say about parenting. When they feel like it’s truly their jurisdiction I believe that men can remake parenting. I want them to believe that they are in the middle of a cultural transition. They can get caught in the transition – or they can direct the transition. The great majority of this book describes Michael Lewis being caught in the transition. I want him, and the fathers like him, to direct it. I want that brilliant sportswriter Michael Lewis to write about it.

I want the martini

January 30, 2009

I want the fucking martini.

I want to come home from work, put my feet up, and have my wife hand me a drink. I want to come home on Friday night and the table is already set for Shabbat dinner. Not always but sometimes I really wish it worked that way.

It does not. I mostly love my postmodern marriage, where E and I get to break the gender roles up into tasks – and then put them back together in the way that works best for the two of us. There’s no way that I truly want to go to shul at the end of the day on Friday, walk home singing Shalom Aleichem to see the Shabbat candles already lit, make Kiddush, bless the children and eat gefilte fish. I don’t really want to slam through the door in a bad mood, take off my tie, ignore the kids, drink the alcohol my wife anticipated I would need. However, I really see the appeal of those scenarios.