To my daughter on her birthday
Early Memories with Long Echo
My mother never seemed to be happy with me—not when people called me a model girl – because I took after my father in appearance and character. Not when I made the grades in school – because all you needed for it was to try harder, no big deal. Not when I exceled at the University – because majoring in English appeared insignificant compared with Medicine or Sciences which she respected most. I knew I scored higher after defending my doctorate and getting full professorship – because she gave me an emerald ring-and-earrings set to mark the achievement, but not a word of praise. I was longing for her hard-to-get approval my entire life.
Thinking back, I believe it was my mother who pre-conditioned me for immigration, unwittingly molding my character like they do it with steel, applying heat and cold treatments in turn, until qualities such as hardness and strength appear. I indeed needed a lot of strength to leave a plum University position – and jump continents and cultures to risk-and-restart my life overseas. This turned out well for me, after all. But I still hear the childhood echo.
Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child?
Never a spoiled child, I was born a splitting image of my father: sensitive and sentimental, open and optimistic. As if to alleviate that, my mother stuck to the time-honored discipline not allowing us kids deviate from her canons: task or homework first (with mathematics and sciences before literature and English); restricted time for playing; home chores included plucking chickens, a hateful must-do; no ice cream whatsoever, to avoid cold, and such. Rod wasn’t applied; instead, the silent treatments she reserved for punishment were hard on me. I remember how once mom came over to my bed to give me, half-asleep, a kiss—and I burst into tears, overwhelmed: displaying warm emotions was not our family custom. What I took away from my early years was that “crime” is always followed by punishment, and, by extension, that everything has consequences, so think before you leap. I tried.
Was it that strict upbringing that shaped me? May be. After all, I learned to keep my sensitivity to myself, veil my eager openness with some caution, and check natural optimism with research and experiential know-how. Good for me? A good question!
“Crime” had a broad meaning in our home. First, my obsession with books was near-crime: reading for pleasure before doing homework (the book conveniently open in my desk drawer that could be quickly shut at the first sign of mom’s inspection); or reading in bed; or even worse, reading at night under the blanket, with a flashlight.
Second, my occasional “B’s” were almost crime—subject to investigation! I remember how in the 2nd grade my mom stood behind the classroom door, to make sure I spoke loud enough, because my teacher complained I mumbled in too soft a voice. I certainly made great strides to speak louder—and kept on trying, remembering mom’s promise to come check on me periodically. That served as a huge push for my speaking skills: I practiced enunciation and “expressive reading” at home, like actors do, and before long the literature teacher started selecting me to read extracts from poetry/prose in front of the class. When enacting the literary heroes, I learned to grab everybody’s attention and lead by the voice: it gave me the first taste of inclusive leadership; my classmates and I shared tears and triumphs of the heroes we followed together. It was a transformative experience.
Discreet and rather reticent, I was still called to perform on a school stage, act on a University stage, then on many conference stages, and years later, on corporate stages, podcasts, radio and TV interviews, etc. Feeling the power of your voice and your ideas getting traction is something special. It’s about impact and responsibility. And for me, it started with imagining my mother—my strictest critic of all—listening to me from behind the classroom door, assessing my performance. Here’s her picture with me and my brother Simon.
Never a spoiled child, I always performed to her silent applause.
Mothering Across Cultures
In fact, my mom was a Tiger Mother long before this word-combination became common. It’s more typical of the foreign than native-born American women. Thus, from many immigrant women I interviewed for my book, I learned that tiger-mother-ism, or pushing kids to aspire/reach higher, is a distinctive cultural trait. Irene Natividad from the Philippines, Irmgard Lafrentz from Germany, Elena Gorokhova from Russia, and many others – all had strong demanding mothers leading by example and holding them to the highest standards, which have been big factors of their success. Success under stress, for there’s no other success in the US: you must win whatever it takes. “Loser” is a bad word here. If you are not prepared to risk everything and work your ass off – stay put, do not come to America. Be, or become, a person with a “growth mindset” – an undaunted get-up fighter. Others need not apply.
A cradle-to-grave non-stop care of the kids is something that we as adults on a receiving end often consider excessive or frustrating, or both. But look at it from another side of the aisle: the devoted mother’s side. She’s convinced it’s her sacred duty to make sure her child realizes his/her potential to the fullest—and this caring trait is handed down the generations. A case in point: although growing up in silent opposition to my mother’s pressures, I displayed much of the same attitude to my own daughter Helen—only to see her developing the obstinate opposition to me; I persisted anyway, like I’ve been programmed for it (see her as a senior lecturer at UT in Austin, TX).
Will Helen continue in the similar vein with her own daughters, Anna and Maggie (pictured wearing Ukrainian blouses)?
Hmm… they say that cultural DNA is slow to change.
Mother Is a Verb, not a Noun
Don’t you think “mother” is not only a noun but also a verb? Used in excess or in moderation, “mothering” is an in-built capacity that one cannot get rid of, like a leopard cannot change its spots. What we can do is to be more aware of its pros and contras—and try to control selves when we want to control others.
Although carrot-and-stick upbringing methodologies take different shape across cultures, they all belong with a motherly approach. “Mothering” acquired some negative overtones lately. I believe this negativity is overblown. We should know better, and here’s why:
- Wasn’t it the motherly approach to my own child that I extended to my pupils in school when teaching English as a foreign language? I did a lot of methodological construing of whatever tools I could lay my hands on, and went a long way adopting the newest language teaching tricks – to engage my classes emotionally and intellectually, have them focused only on the structured learning of English. It’s hard to keep the kids’ attention for 45 minutes straight, but controlling them was a shortcut to acquiring English effectively (in Ukraine), so the lessons had to be fun-fun-fun, even if the teacher had to perform a snake dance J. I know they loved me, my kids, for many chose English for their majors.
- Wasn’t it the same motherly approach I used to spearhead my University students, pressing them in every way possible towards reaching our goals? To my utter surprise, some still remember my teachings not as pressures but as genuine sharing: they quoted me back when we met after my 22 years in America, very flattering! Yes, I did push them, insisting with attitude, “Love comes and goes but profession stays” when urging to focus on language studies rather than romantic life. But influencing worked! We just need to dose the push and make it feel more like fun. That’s all there is to it.
Many other cases demonstrate just as well that being a mother is an attitude, not a biological relation, so mothering is all right. Right?
All Roads Lead to Mothers
The influence my own mother had on me becomes clearer as years go by, and now, years after she passed away suffocating in a house fire, her impact arises from the past like a morning fog lifting on a sunny day. My attitude to it changed. Why? Because my mother’s advice on remembering that “everybody has his/her own truth”; on necessity to stay fit and attractive at any age; and on marriage—everything I thought of as simplistic or over-the-board or meddling—now makes sense. Time is the best medication to alter attitudes.
Whatever roads we take, they all lead to our mothers, and sooner or later we all quote them. I’ve finally grown up to do so too. Not sure I’ve become wiser with years but today I love my late mom more than ever before.
Helen Schneider says
Interesting read! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
I’m happy you liked it, Helen. I should probably strive to write more about the outstanding women on my family – for the world can learn a lot from them.
Kayondo Michael says
Oh dear Fiona thanks for great work you do for women & your mother. May God bless you & reward your works.
Many thanks, Michael, for appreciating my work: I certainly try to do my best.
Jennifer Ghymn says
Very special and interesting post. I can relate on many levels! Keep up the good work.
Thank you so much, Jennifer: I’m glad you can relate on many levels.
Jan Manimoi says
As I have grown older and have spent more time with my 79 year old mother, Yvonne, I notice more of our similarities and common interests than differences. There has to be a strong connection between mother and me because I have half of her DNA. I was a father’s girl, too.
Fiona, thank you for sharing.
Isn’t it remarkable that the longer we live, the more similarities with our mothers come up? Importantly, we also inherit the cultural DNA from them.
Thank you Fiona! It was very interesting read.
I am so grateful for your interest, Svitlana.
Simon Voitanik says
Very good and deep. Thank you for share it with us. Simon
As time goes by, I think I understand our mother better and deeper.
Ljiljana Knezevic says
This is a very nice and vivid description of family and mother – daughter relationships Fiona! Besides, I would say you seem to be talented as a writer! Nice indeed!
To hear your approval is very important to me–thank you!
Joeb Martinez says
I love it Fiona
Many thanks, Joeb: it made my Sunday!
Kendra Brill says
I think this is a beautifully written, honest, & sentimental read. I’ve struggled with issues with my mother, & her verbal abuse, & alcoholism. I wish my mother would right her wrongs & dedicate a blog to me. This gives me hope for a chance to gain my mother’s love, respect, & admiration for once.
I hear you, Kendra! Mother-daughter relationships often go on a roller coaster but mature and get quieter when both women acquire adult attitudes and mentality. I too looked for my mother’s approval; I know that deep down she loved me but was unaccustomed to show her warmer side. God bless you!
Zoltan Vadkerti says
Very interesting article, one you rarely come across nowadays in the internet. Thanks Fiona and please keep sharing and writing similar stories about your personal journey. Zoltan
I am really touched that my personal journey was found interesting. Thank you so much!
Aadil Saifi says
Very Intresting and appreciated..!!!
I am humbled to see how my personal story echoes with you. Thank you!
Thank you, Fiona, for sharing your thoughts and emotions.
Accolades to you for this well-written, heartfelt article expressed in a language which is not
your native tongue and one you have mastered so well.
I always felt that your Mother and I had a special bond. We did not share the same native
tongue but we managed to communicate in caring ways.
I will conclude with the following saying: “There are only
Two lasting bequests
We can give our children–
One is Roots,
The other Wings.”
Your words brought tears to my eyes, Esta-Ann: indeed, the most meaningful and empowering bequests to be given to our children–and to be inherited–are our roots and our wings. Let’s try and do our best at this!
Andrea Breidenbach says
Fiona, I can sooo relate to your story, having had a similar experience growing up in Germany (with a ‘Tiger-Mother’) and immigrating to the US at age 19. Thanks for sharing! Andrea
Andrea, to the best of my knowledge, all women who grew up with strong mothers have a special core in common. And I believe they pass it on to their own daughters too, so it lives on – well, may be somewhat diluted by the generally more relaxed US attitudes.
Very soon this web site will be famous amid all blogging people, due to it’s pleasant articles
From your mouth – to God’s ears! Thank you so much for encouragement.