Before I go, I have something to say

Crouching Tiger, Single Mother

You’ve no doubt heard about the Tiger Mother controversy. Either you’ve read excerpts or seen its attractive author interviewed – more like grilled – on some talk show or other. You’ve heard about the death threats, and the voices of support, including those of her own daughters, who seem to have survived just fine.

Amy Chua is the self-proclaimed Tiger Mother, her term for the kind of parents she had and the kind she has tried to emulate for her own children. That she is not “just” a mom but also a Yale law school professor certainly seems to give her a leg or two to stand on. That she loves and respects her parents doesn’t hurt, either. All this, despite the fact that her father told her to “never, ever disgrace” him again by winning only second place in a school contest, and despite the fact that he called her “garbage” when he felt she wasn’t trying hard enough.

I doubt my kids would label me any kind of tiger mother, but this controversy certainly has made me think back on those long, arduous days of single motherhood when I sometimes thought I deserved a medal for getting them through the school door each day. Though I answered to “Mrs. Zordell” just to make things easier, I was divorced from the time my daughter was seven and my son was four, and just showing up on time often felt heroic, if not tigerish.

I did not join the PTA. Nor did I volunteer to drive, bake, chaperone, or coach. (Coach? Are you kidding? It’s a miracle I taught my kids to tie their shoes!) Sorry, but I was working full-time, and worried enough about what my latchkey kids were doing while they were home alone. (Not being from Dubuque, I had no handy extended family upon which to draw for babysitting.) But I attended every parent-teacher conference, my head full of questions, my heart full of angst, and it was there, I hope, that the teachers realized that this little-seen mother was more than a name on a permission slip.

My son’s teachers, many of whom were men, became like surrogate fathers, at least in my mind. Not that I expected them to come over and put Dan’s new bike together, but it meant more than they can know to have another adult, a good male person, sharing my concern for his well-being. I could do a lot, but I could not be his only role model.

The Tiger Mother dishes out her discipline with rote learning, hours of practice, severely limited social engagements (no sleepovers! no school plays!), harsh criticism, and only hard-earned recognition. “No Whining” might as well be tattooed on her forehead. That wasn’t me, though I did expect my children to do well in school. They were smart, they were clever, why wouldn’t they excel? The fact that public education mostly rewards only one kind of learning – listen, read, ace the test – didn’t occur to me, because I was that kind of learner.

So I was a mostly-A student, not counting gym. (For me, the major perk of being a grown-up is the absence of enforced “lifelong sports.”) Was my mom a Tiger Mother? Hardly. I think I absorbed the necessity of mastering school from watching my older sister flail about with her homework, all of it on the “retarded track,” all of which I could do myself despite our eight-year age difference. She had the low IQ; therefore I had to be the brilliant one, the one who not only got As but went to college, achieved Phi Beta Kappa, and subsequently collected three – count ‘em – master’s degrees, just to put enough distance between me and scholastic failure. Nobody told me to do that, but I absorbed the message.

With my kids, I tried. I asked about homework, struggled with numbers. (I should have one of those t-shirts that reads “I was an English major – you do the math.”) I recited spelling lists, read countless books and listened as they read to me. At our house, they certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of reading material. But was the TV on too much? Oh yes. Did I check that homework was completed before they went out to play? Not always. Did I have serious career talks with them as the end of high school loomed? Not so much.

Because I worked at a college, they could attend a number of schools tuition-free. So they did, right after high school, ready or not. One was ready, the other less so. Embarrassingly, faculty kids were famous for dropping out and coming back to their parents’ school. Dashed hopes – but whose hopes were they? The kids’, or the parents’? I was just happy my daughter figured out her major, and graduated.

As for my son, my darling boy, he figured a lot of things out on his own. Such as: He wasn’t ready for college. What he needed to do was live on his own, save his money from a series of low-level jobs, and travel the world (Peru, Ecuador, Dublin, Paris, Rome). Then, once his mother stopped asking when/if he planned to finish college, he began taking gen ed courses at NICC, and when that was done, transferred to Iowa State. That he figured out exactly what he wanted to do with his life and, therefore, precisely what he needed to study, floored me. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. He’s always been like that. Tiger Mom tactics don’t work on him. He just tunes them out and calmly goes his own way.

Same with his sister, really, who is about to finish graduate school with a high GPA. So call me Distracted Yet Proud Mom. It works for us.


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