Soccer mom? Nurturing mom? MILF? Tiger Mother? With so many conflicting messages about how to raise your children, what’s a modern Asian American mother to do? One mom-to-be searches for answers.
ISSUE: Spring 2012
STORY: Teena Apples
ILLUSTRATION: Luke Inki Cho
For years I’ve watched with awe — and, at times, a concerned eye — as friends and family have shared their joys (“Every day is a gift!”, “It’s a blessing to have children!”) and their woes over parenthood (“Treasure your life while it’s yours,” “You think you’re tired now”). And, of course, when you do try to chime in with what you think is some valuable direction, there’s the embittered “Until you have one, you have no idea” response. Well, I’m just months from taking on that precious title of Mom and here’s my battle cry: Bring. It. On.
Ever since my bulging tummy gave my new life’s path away, you better believe everyone — even those with no kids — has expressed an opinion on how I should approach motherhood. My friends warned me of such attention. In a world abuzz about the wrath of Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother and the flood of self-help parenting media, it’s fascinating to wade through all the voices and know-it-alls who want to
make the future of my child — I should say “our child,” as my husband shouldn’t be left out of this future family equation — their business.
So I reached out to Asian American mothers from a variety of family upbringings and structures to see what guidance they
could offer first-time mothers like myself. Each has a valuable perspective, and I definitely feel every generation could benefit from a little MAAM (Modern Asian American Mother) insight, starting with this:
You have choices. This may sound like a no-brainer, but I feel this isn’t expressed enough. We all know the Asian parent stereotypes, thanks to Chua and the American media broadcasting them to the world. And yet, excelling in academics at all costs is still the
mantra that many Asian immigrant and Asian American parents drill into their kids. To the everyday American, such parents may be perceived as overly strict, with harsh expectations and impossible-to-reach goals taking priority over developing close, loving relationships with their children. OK, sure, we all want our kids to be successful; the question is, at what cost? Interestingly, as most of the mothers I spoke to will concur, you can shape what “success” means for your child.
My husband reminds me of the feeling among many immigrant parents that their kids don’t appreciate, and ratherabuse, the freedoms and opportunities they have living inAmerican society. I suspect my own parents felt that way when, as 20-somethings, they moved from the Philippines to the States in pursuit of the American Dream and to start their family. As they were both raised in strict households where academic success was how they were judged — period — this practice naturally became part of their parenting, and we often heard those lines “We work so hard to provide for you … I didn’t even have [fill in the blank] growing up.” In short, we received hell — unpleasant physical punishment and verbal lashings — if we didn’t deliver “A” after “A.” (Yeah, my sisters and I received good marks in school, learned piano and graduated with college degrees, but doctors and former child prodigies we are not.)
“But we don’t have to raise our kids like that,” says my sister, Tricia, a mother of two. “I feel being a modern Asian
American mother means adapting to your environment. It’s an evolution of sorts, which also means encompassing the
ideals of our spouses — at times, a non-Asian spouse, whose parenting style is not rooted in Asian stereotypical high- achieving expectations.”
She does add that something to admire from the generations before us is a mother’s dedication to her children, and the evolution of that is the “nurturing mother” — something American children’s lives — thanks in part to our exposure to the physically affectionate American mom figure we see in popular culture.
This is not to say, however, that we shouldn’t establish boundaries. “One has to balance the freedom and opportunity that children have here in the States with discipline and guidance,” says Helen Mendoza, also a mother of two. “Kids here
are so sophisticated and advanced — and they have the opportunity to do more, see more, experience more — very often they get themselves into situations that are beyond what they can handle in terms of maturity.” In other words, we as parents do not have to fall into the behavioral patterns of previous generations — we do have choices. And here’s another: You can have a career, be a mother and not feel guilty about it. This, of course, is not news to anyone. Many of the women I corresponded with had been raised in households with work-
ing mothers, as was I. And I, too, will definitely fall in that category, as my husband and I are unable to raise a child or sustain
our current quality of life (thanks, student loans) without two incomes. Though it need not come down to necessity, either.
For so long Asian women have been raised to put family first, but it doesn’t have to be so cut and dry, as Chinese American mother Vikki Law explains: “For first-time mothers, I would advise them not to feel that they have to give up who they are or what they do because they now have a small child or children. Even in 2012, there’s still the societal pressure on mothers to stop everything else and to devote all of their time to raising their child and being the best mother there is.” She adds, “I think that children benefit from having mothers who
are involved in the world and who are pursuing things that make them happy even if, at times, this means that their children aren’t the center of attention or that their children have to wait for their mothers’ attention.”
At the same time …
Work and family don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s inspiring to hear how so many women have struck a creative and fulfilling balance of the two, by combining them. Law, for instance, is a writer, photographer and prison justice organizer, who involves her 11-year-old daughter in all aspects of her life. “I not only explain to my daughter what is going on in the world, but take her with me to social justice events, whether they be rallies, marches or mass actions like Occupy Wall Street,” says the author of the 2009 book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women. “And when she was old enough to ask questions, I explained to her what the purpose of the event was and why we were going.”
Rubyellen Bratcher, whose days are documented on the whimsical blog Cakies (mycakies.blogspot.com) and whose equally imaginative creations are sold on Etsy, has lovingly brought together her many passions online: family, crafts, faith, and fashion. With four kids — True, 5; Brave, 4; Soul, 2; and Glow, 4 months — that gives her plenty to write about. And her background in teaching certainly was valuable when the Filipina American and her husband made the decision to homeschool their children. “I used to teach fourth grade at a
local public school, but I want my children to have the one-on-one attention and be able to cater their learning to what best suits their personalities,” she says.
As a working comedian, actress, writer and mother of Aubrey, who plays toddler Lily on the hit ABC show Modern Family, Korean American Amy Anderson introduced her 4-year-old to the world of entertainment, and has managed to
pursue her own career and invest in Aubrey’s future as well. “The entertainment industry is our lives,” says Anderson. “Every day is different, but it’s always the same: It’s centered on our jobs, whether it’s me getting on a plane to fly across the country to do a show … or I drive Aubrey to the set to spend five hours on the studio lot with her … and then she has to go to an audition with me.” While that may sound like a hectic schedule to some, the self-proclaimed “momager” emphasizes, “at home, we’re just regular people. Nick Jr. is on
TV, we’re making macaroni and cheese and we’re taking the dog for a walk.” As different as all these mothers’ everyday lives and
occupations may be, I think they would all share this belief: The only family structure that really matters is one filled with love. Does having a nuclear family equal a happy ending for a child? Of course not. Maybe in the minds of our parents’ generation— and especially conservative America’s view — it’s the proper way to raise children, but life is much more complex and richer than that. While some Asian American women may feel that shame is still associated with divorce, raising a child out of marriage or never getting married, really the only true disgrace would be raising a child in a home without love. I grew up in a household with two parents and three siblings under one roof, but if I were to talk upbringing, we, like many immigrant families, were raised by an extended family of lolos and lolas and a wonderful nanny, Manang Mary (a gentle soul who also cared for my father in his youth), while my and my cousins’ parents worked full-time jobs. I knew no other life, and I never went to sleep at night thinking I wasn’t loved. “If I had to try to label my family structure, I would call it co-parenting with two separate parenting households,” says New York–based Law. She and her daughter’s father are responsible for their child half of each week. Anderson also is in a co-parenting situation. “I’m a single mom, in every sense of
the word,” she says. “I don’t have a boyfriend, I do not have a nanny, but I do co-parent with my daughter’s father. We split
when she was just an infant, so she doesn’t remember us being together as a couple.”
Filmmaker, singer and “mostly a stay-at-home mom” Mendoza, on the other hand, is married. The Filipina American and her wife, Pam, have been together for 18 years and have “a 12-year-old girl who loves to dance and a 9-year-old boy who loves to ice skate.” Their children’s upbringing, Mendoza feels, is not so different from the one she had, raised in the East Coast where her immigrant family was the only Asian family in the neighborhood. “Our kids are being raised in a two-mom household, and we have to account for that in teaching them early and often tolerance and respect for others,”she says, “but also teaching them how to protect themselves from bullying, and stand up for who they are and who their family is. In my case, it’s not that different from how I was raised as the immigrant kid.”
The modern Asian American mom is raising her kids in so many more configurations these days. I applaud my sister who has done an incredible job rearing a teenage son (granted, a task not without its headaches and drama) and 4-year-old daughter as a single parent. Should we look down on her or feel pity because of her situation? If she and her kids go to sleep every night knowing they’re loved, that’s something to treasure. And on that note …
Embrace every moment.As I reflect on what choices I’ll have to face as a mother, I definitely feel that being a minority in America will no doubt inform my parenting. I take each of these women’s words (and even those of my own parents’) to heart as I embark on my
Modern Asian American Mom journey. Who knows? Maybe I can throw a little French flavor into my parenting as well to keep
things interesting. (While I write this, the French-parents-know-best tome Growing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman is currently making headlines.) But for now, I’m just trying to enjoy this special gift of life that stirs in me each day.
The other day my dad said to me, out of nowhere, “Teena, I think you’re going to be a strict parent.” I agreed with him, not because of my “Asian” upbringing per se, but because the teenage version of me was no angel. But I did get good grades. So I’ll take what I can get from my little one as well.
I know one thing for sure: This kid will not find his or her way in the world without help, nor will I as his or her mom. (My husband and I like surprises.) As Anderson reminded me, “You do need help; there’s no shame in taking it.” Thankfully, my own modern Asian American mom tentatively penciled herself in for a day or two a week once her apo (grandchild) arrives, as long as we order the Filipino Channel on cable. Well, that’s a start.