One thing I managed to do on my weekend "pause" was begin reading Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I finished this past weekend. With all the controversy surrounding the excerpt in the Wall Street Journal, I thought it would be worthwhile to read the book itself and see whether, in context, the text was indeed more of a memoir than a parenting guide, as Chua has claimed. But I also wanted to read it because I was really curious to know how she’d done what she did — after all, Chua faces similar work-life balance issues as other academics. As a law professor married to a law professor, how did she and her husband balance their commitments to their research, their students, their children, each other? Inquiring minds want to know.
So, I was able to answer the first question: yes, it’s a memoir. It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone would adopt Battle Hymn as a parenting manual. Its pages are filled with tales of yelling, screaming, tears, and anger. While it is in some sense a “success story” — the yelling and screaming are indeed followed by successful performances on piano and violin, at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere — the book ends with Chua’s second daughter Lulu ordering her mother to back off her intensive parenting when she begins to get good at tennis, telling her not to “ruin” it as she “ruined” violin for her.
In fact Chua’s greatest success as a parent seems to come with her two Samoyeds, dogs who fail to learn anything much from their training but are nonetheless represented as loving and beloved.
But as far as managing work-life balance, I’m mystified. Chua’s breezy memoir is a fast read, skipping over 16 years or so in about 250 pages of short chapters with little reflection. Chua notes at one point that she omitted a good deal of material she had written about her husband, figuring that it was his story to tell, not hers. Fair enough. The memoirist must come to her own decisions as to the balance between candor and privacy, and Chua frequently seems to have chosen privacy.
Still, it would be nice to have more than one sentence on the nanny. Early in the book Chua mentions hiring a nanny to speak Mandarin to her girls (she doesn’t speak it, but insisted on it for her daughters). Unless I missed it, that’s the only mention of the nanny. How long did she care for the children? What, besides speaking Mandarin, were her duties? Did she ever accompany the children to their music lessons? Was she part of the after-school homework regime? Was she one of a series, or did she stay with the family for an extended period?
Chua does include periodic mentions of her work, mostly when it intrudes on her parenting. We learn, for example, that she sometimes had to interrupt her office hours to pick up a child at school and drive her to a music lessons, then returning to complete her office hours before going back for the music lesson pickup. We also learn that she left corporate law for academe at least in part because it was more family-friendly, lived apart from her husband briefly while first starting out in academe (she was at Duke, he was at Yale), and sometimes had to travel to promote her books. The details of how she worked these things out, though, are almost entirely lacking.
Of course no one said Amy Chua had to write the book I want to read. She’s free to leave out the mundane details of household management if she wants to. But it’s a curious thing, this memoir, at once self-deprecating and self-congratulatory, breezy and funny but deadly serious. And the missing nanny seems to me symptomatic of the book’s confusion: she acknowledges that the work she did required resources (time, money, and other people), but then takes all the credit (and, to be fair, the blame) for the outcome to herself.
Chua’s memoir demonstrates, however, that parenting takes a village, trite though the cliché has become. Her villagers sometimes go unnamed, but they are there—the students who waited for office hours, the nanny, the music teachers (who do play a large part in the memoir, and are named), the colleagues, the husband and father. As Katha Pollitt has recently noted, Chua’s children started out with the odds in their favor, with educated and ambitious parents who had the resources and the determination to assemble the village Most of us reading Inside Higher Ed might make different choices than Chua did (I know I have!), but we, too, have our villages. I hope we remember them when we tell our own stories.