Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tiger Moms and Me

When my daughter was born, I held my tiny baby girl in my arms, and hoped she would one day play Little League baseball.

This is particularly strange when you consider the fact that I did not think about future baseball teams at all when my son was born, two years earlier. Eric could play baseball or not, and I would be content. But my daughter... I wanted sit in the stands and cheer my daughter on as she helped lead her Little League team to victory.

The reason is that I never got a chance to play Little League baseball. I loved baseball when I was in third grade. I had a baseball glove, which my father taught me to use, and I practiced hitting and catching with my cousins and best friend’s brothers. I watched the Red Sox every chance I got. But I didn’t play Little League, because in the 1970s in my hometown, girls just didn’t. My mother suggested that when I got to high school I could play softball, like my cousins, but no one ever suggested I challenge the boys-only assumptions of Little League, and I probably wouldn’t have done it if they did. By the time I got to high school, it was clear I lacked my cousins’ athletic prowess, so I never did play organized sports.

So when my daughter was born, the first thing I wished for her was the opportunity I hadn’t had. I imagined myself sitting in the summer sun cheering her on as she deftly fielded ground balls and hit line drives that made the boys duck out of the way.

As it turned out, Becky had other ideas. I convinced her to try T-Ball when she was 5, and she hated it. She was bored by the waiting and discouraged by the difficulty of hitting and catching. What she loved was gymnastics and dancing, those eminently girly-girl pursuits, with pink leotards and cute little skirts. Sigh. So I dutifully sat outside the dance studio and the gymnasium at the YMCA while Becky took her lessons, and have had to content myself with sitting in the baseball bleachers to watch my son play Little League -- because baseball turned out to be his favorite sport.

This probably tells you a lot about my parenting style -- and it’s not that of the Tiger Moms everyone seems to be talking about right now. If I were a Tiger Mom, my daughter would have played baseball, by gum. And she’d have been good at it, because I’d have thrown balls at her for hours, and spent all winter with her in the batting cages at the local indoor practice arena. I’d have sent her to baseball camp for weeks on end. I wouldn’t have let her wimp out after that first season because baseball was “boring.”

It is quite possible that if I had made her stick with it until she got good at it, Becky would have come to like baseball. And I’m betting she would have learned a lot by being the only girl on her team, and beating the boys at their own game. It certainly would have been good preparation for a successful career in a competitive world. Maybe the Tiger Moms have a point. These are, after all, the parents who produce concert pianists and Olympic swimmers, not to mention students that get into Harvard, which is currently one of Becky’s ambitions. It may be that in my lack of Tiger Momishness I am failing her -- that if I’d just pushed her harder when she was in kindergarten to excel at baseball, she’d have a better chance to fulfill her dreams when she’s 18.

But the truth is, I just don’t have it in me to be a Tiger Mom. I am just not very good at the kind of intense, demanding, fiercely detail-oriented, utterly child-centered approach Tiger Moms are supposed to adopt. I’m lucky if I remember to check and see if Becky has remembered to practice the piano at all, much less give it the kind of intense focus that perfection demands. The reality is I’d just be a bad Tiger Mom, because you can’t be a Tiger Mom if you sometimes forget to take the child to piano lessons.

Does that make me a failed parent? It occurs to me that the question, itself, is what’s wrong with the whole debate. The furor over the Tiger Mom is just another example of our national obsession over the “right” way to be a parent. Working vs. stay-at-home, demanding vs. relaxed, strict vs. not, Tiger Moms vs. whatever I am: Inherent in all these arguments is the assumption that one way is right and the other is wrong. And while there are clearly some parenting approaches that are wrong -- abuse and neglect are never OK -- I think a lot of our parenting controversies are less about right vs. wrong than they are “it depends.” I think the best parent you can be is the one that reflects who you are.

I may be a lousy Tiger Mom, but I think I'm a pretty good mom-who-plays-D&D-and-talks-about-almost-anything-you’re-interested-in. My parenting traits are curiosity, willingness to engage in discussions about almost anything, and eagerness to learn new stuff. I’m the mom who delights in museums and travel to new places, and doesn’t get upset when creative exploration in the backyard results in mud-covered children and a knee-deep hole. I may not be a mom who produces Olympic athletes or concert pianists, but I am the mom my son's friends hang around the kitchen with because they know they'll be taken seriously. They complain that every topic ends up coming back to religion, but they keep coming back with new questions.

In other words, maybe instead of the "right" way to parent, what we need to know is who *we* are as parents. Maybe there is no "right" way to parent anymore than there is a "right" way to pray. Will my style of parenting shape my children in particular ways? Absolutely. But what if there isn’t a “right” shape for human beings, either? What if it doesn’t really matter if they go to Harvard or become Olympic swimmers?

Little League was my dream, not Becky’s. She will be a different person because I didn’t force her into fulfilling my dreams, for better and for worse. It may be that her dreams will have more power because of it -- Becky is already mapping out how she will get into Harvard, after all, while I bemusedly look on. And whatever college she goes to, she’s learned to dream her own dreams and take responsibility herself for making them come true. And I’m really proud of that, even though sometimes I feel guilty that she’s learned self-reliance because I’m so bad at even the basic Tiger Mom stuff.

In the end, parenting is more about relationship than it is about a puzzle to be solved, or clay to be sculpted. And just as all the other relationships in my life have good parts and not-so-good parts, so does my relationship with my children. Parenting, for me, means giving my children the best I have to offer -- and letting them learn to cope with me at my worst. And really, that’s all any of us can do, Tiger Mom or not. Maybe we are so anxious about parenting styles because we are so afraid of that “worst,” so afraid that our children will end up the sum of our weaknesses. But we cannot make our weaknesses go away by trying to be something we’re not: Mostly, doing so only accentuates our weaknesses and buries our strengths. And one thing my children have taught me is that sometimes, my weaknesses allow them to develop their own strengths.

Ideally, in parenting we learn how to be what we truly are, and to teach our children to be what they truly are. So I think it will turn out just fine that Becky and I muddle along while we figure out what it means to be a Priest/Writer Mom and her Tiger Daughter. And I’ll wait for a granddaughter to come along who loves baseball as much as I did.