“Chinese” Mothers aren’t superior; they’re just scared (how our fears affect our parenting)

I’m a bit tired of responding to Amy Chua’s heavily viraled piece from the Wall Street Journal. However, what the article did manage to do (aside from alternately confusing and disturbing me) was get me to think about the root of what drives us as parents.

Growing up in an immigrant household, I was well aware of the motives behind my parents’ push for us to excel academically: fear of poverty.

Despite having a college education and professional background as a teacher, with little English skill my mother had no choice our first eight years in America but to work in a sweatshop, producing garment pieces for 1 cent a piece. My father worked as a dishwasher before moving up to bus boy, waiter, and then, one day, co-founder and co-owner of his own restaurant.

Their fears of poverty and instability manifested themselves in what my brother and I often thought were unreasonable demands for good grades and top schools. But in Asia where my parents came from, one’s future success (i.e., ability to lead a normal life free of hardship) really does hinge on that one university entrance exam score and one’s ability to get into one of the very small number of top schools in the country. They didn’t fully grasp that, in America, there is still hope even if you don’t get into Harvard, that that is why we’re called the Land of Opportunity.

As a mother now, I have my own fears, some of which are completely different from the ones that drove my parents, some of which are perhaps similar.

I am fearful about self-esteem, or the corrosion of it. The excess focus on external achievement with which I was raised and the deprivation of my voice created an Ivy League graduate who was a shell of a person. In my 20s I had written in my journal, “Sometimes I feel so insecure and so unsure of myself that I think I am going to fall apart.” I obsessed about my abilities, my personality, my physical looks, other people’s opinions of me. I was all skin and no core.  

As a mother I worry the most about the strength of Fred’s core. Is he happy? Am I giving him enough positive messages about his self-worth? Am I damaging his self-esteem if I scold too much? This worry makes me a bit zealous in protecting his feelings.

I fear making Fred feel unloved, and so that has made me more lenient than necessary when it comes to setting limits and expecting independence. 

I fear depriving him of opportunity and thus failing to maximize his potential, because I had either missed or passed up so many chances of my own growing up and wonder to this day if I could’ve been greater. This has pushed me to involve Fred in a number of activities, and I fear both continuing and cutting back.  

I fear that if I don’t make all the right moves with the chess pieces of his life, I will fail to equip him with the wisdom and guidance that I had felt so lost without growing up. This makes me hover too much.

Deep down, I fear that how “successful” Fred will be will be a reflection of me and my competence in my most important life role, and that’s in part why I care about what reading and math groups he’s in and why I can’t help mapping out his educational path in my head. 

Deep down, I fear messing up as a mother, and producing a child who will be unhappy or unsuccessful academically/professionally or both. I want him to be happy and carefree at the same time that I want him to be among the best. I strive for a middle place, but my uncertainty as to how to navigate this terrain makes me parent inconsistently and with mixed messages.

A confident mother produces confident children. A mother who is comfortable and at peace with herself has the appropriate vision and distance to raise her child independent of any fears, insecurities, or unmet needs on her part. Our – my – biggest task is to understand where those fears end and where our children begin.

18 thoughts on ““Chinese” Mothers aren’t superior; they’re just scared (how our fears affect our parenting)

  1. Do you know what I was thinking as I read that post?

    How I read every single word of your posts. I don’t skim, I don’t do top paragraph, then skip down to the last paragraph.

    I read every single word.

    And I always feel the same way as you feel.

    I am so glad you blog..I feel less alone and more understood.

    We are so much alike.


    • I’m so glad, Alexandra. It wasn’t easy to admit those things, and to be honest I kept editing and re-editing, but like I said to Delia, we can gain more solidarity when we’re not afraid to admit our shortcomings…

    • It’s a relief to hear that, Delia. I was starting to worry if I might get trashed for some of the things I wrote! Once again, I’m reminded that it’s more important to be honest – in admitting the not-perfect I might find myself in bigger company…I’m so glad you could relate.

  2. Cecilia, once again you are speaking my language. I love the phrase, “I was all skin and no core.” I understand exactly what you mean.

    Parenting is so difficult and the stakes are so high. I wish I had some answers to share. But it’s nice to know that I’m not alone in my struggles and inconsistent parenting.

    • I think that’s what we as moms all just want – to know we are not alone. That itself makes all of this uncertainty easier to stomach!

  3. Thank you for writing this brave, honest, thoughtful piece, Cecilia! As I read, I was thinking about your love for Fred, your vision of the happiness you wish for him as an adult, and your openness to the many possible routes by which he may get there.

  4. This is so thoughtful and honest. Thank you. You capture here personal aspects of your own experience as well as universal fragments of what it means to be a parent. At bottom, I think we are all so full of fear – that we are doing something wrong, that our own insecurities will manifest in our progeny in sinister ways, that we are missing something. It is so good to know that I am not the only one full of questions and doubts. So genuinely thrilled to have found your blog; Thanks so much for your comment on mine!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Aidan! I love the title of your blog, and remember thinking, okay, I’m not alone, when I saw it 🙂 I’ll look forward to reading more of your work.

  5. Parenting is hard enough without adding even more pressure and negative emotions into the mix. I can absolutely empathize with your struggle to find balance between your child’s success and happiness. I agree this is our most important life role, this role of mothering. And it’s also the toughest. Every day I am reminded of that.

  6. I LOVE that line: “A confident mother produces confident kids.” Can I say “amen”?

    I can’t begin to name the number of times that I have tried to be the best mother that I can be, but my own insecurities got in the way, sabotaging my efforts at doing what is also “right” or “best” for my child.

    I have realized through doing some soul searching on my parenting fears that I was mostly afraid of myself, I think. I didn’t always trust myself because I was overburdened with a desire to create a emotionally fulfilled, perfect life for my daughter. I didn’t set boundaries in my parenting because I was overly worried that she would one day hate me for it.

    Only recently, as in the last few weeks, have I come to the conclusion that I can only do what I think is best and live with my parenting decisions. I will still strive to raise a confident, emotionally fulfilled child, but in order to do so, I must first begin with creating a confident, emotionally fulfilled me, a me who lets go of fears about what will be or what once was and lives for the moment, for the right now.

    • I really believe that, Jessica. We need to work on ourselves first in order to be the best parents we can be; otherwise we end up using our children to meet our needs. Thanks for this thoughtful comment!

  7. I could have written this myself for the most part. Where do our fears end and our children begin indeed? (Great ending, by the way).

    I am hopeful for my daughter’s future but fearful of what I’d do to her if I don’t do things “just right” but does anyone really have an answer to what exactly defines “just right”. Parenting styles not only differ from one parent to another but it also needs to be addressed at the level of the kids. One kid may respond to one style but not the other, so we either have to make adjustments or be prepared for the consequences. No matter how we look at it, despite our own parents’ flawed reasons for making the decisions they did for us, they had our best intentions in their hearts, and hopefully our kids will remember that of us as well.

    As with everything, but mostly with parenting, here’s to hoping (and constant wondering)…

  8. “they had our best intentions in their hearts, and hopefully our kids will remember that of us as well.” – Amen, Justine! This is what I’ve had to tell myself over and over to reconcile my childhood with my parents. They did the best they knew how, and really went above and beyond. Most importantly, they gave me incredible love. This is all we can ask of our parents and of ourselves.

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