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.