Battle Hymn of the Soccer Mother

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Tigers make good mothers

Amy Chua created much uproar earlier this year with the publication of her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In this memoir she describes her “demanding Eastern” parenting model as opposed to the “permissive Western” model exhibited by her fellow American mothers. Parents and experts were shocked by some of her bordering-on-abuse anecdotes and strict rules. Her two daughters were not allowed to: attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, or not play the piano or violin.

In American culture, much more pervasive than the Tiger Mom is the Soccer Mom, complete with her own set of rules.

Tenets of a soccer mom:

  • My child is the brightest, funniest, cutest, most wonderful child ever born, and I will make sure he or she knows I feel that way.
  • I will sign my child up for many sports teams, visual arts classes, music lessons, and summer academic camps so that he/she will find his/her own passion at a young age.
  • Any attempt at any of these passions will be met with extreme enthusiasm: my child’s artwork will cover my refrigerator, I will send out copies of my child’s first grade poem to friends, and I will casually let it slide at the office that my child placed high in a state math examination.
  • If called upon to coach my child’s sports team, I will allow all children equal playing time, and not favor my child over any other.
  • My child’s team doesn’t need to win the game to be successful. The goal is to learn to be good teammates.
  • If my child does lose a game or make a mistake at a piano recital, I will tell him/her that he/she did his/her best and I’m proud of him/her no matter what.
  • I will bring healthy snacks for all the kids after a game, including nutritious granola bars and 100% organic juice boxes.
  • For my child’s birthday, I will send along treats to school and make sure my child hands them out to all his/her classmates, excluding no one. In this way, my child will learn to be both humble and generous.
Any other Soccer Mom rules?

Mothers in literature

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Yesterday I said that having a bad mother as a central character is somewhat taboo on TV, but books seem to be full of them. Classic literature presents us with some pretty scary moms: Medea who kills her two sons, Grendel’s swamp-mom who comes to take revenge on Beowulf, and Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude.

Hester Prynne: good mom, bad mom?

Some might include Hester Prynne, protagonist of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, on a list of bad moms. She has a child with a man who is not her husband, after all, and is forced to wear an A for Adulteress wherever she goes in her puritanical town. But Hester Prynne has a special place in my heart. My ninth grade English class read The Scarlet Letter and enacted a mock trial in which Hester was put on the stand to testify for the custody of her daughter, Pearl. I played the part of Hester. And I won the case.

The prosecutor argued that I had condemned my soul to Hell for my adultery, and a woman without a soul is not fit to be a mother. I knew I couldn’t argue on the basis of religion, so I said instead, “Perhaps you’re right. But I still have a heart, and I still have a mind, and I will use both to my best ability to raise my daughter.” That won over the jury and the judge–my teacher–ruled in my favor. I was granted custody of Pearl (played by my friend Charlie, who was unconvincing as a girl toddler) and my defense team celebrated with lemonade and cookies. So there, Puritans!

I took on the part of Hester because I do, in fact, consider her to be a very strong protagonist and role model for her daughter. Even though she is scorned by the townspeople, she does not reveal the name of her lover and she protects her husband’s identity as well. She accepts full responsibility for a crime that she clearly didn’t commit by herself, and goes on to raise Pearl alone. All in all, Hester doesn’t have much of a chance in her society and yet she carries herself with as much dignity as possible, showing her daughter that she will not be defined by what others say about her.

Who are some of your favorite moms in literature, either good or bad?

TV’s worst mom

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Surely there are other contenders for this title but my vote goes to Nancy Botwin. Heroine of the FX show Weeds, Nancy starts selling weed in her blah soccer-mom suburb to make ends meet after her husband dies of a heart attack. Through the seasons she goes from small-time dealer to grower to drug mule to the wife of Tijuana’s mayor who also happens to be the ringleader of a drug cartel. She does all this while raising two sons, Silas and Shane, who are firsthand witnesses to the negative effects of the life she’s chosen. I’m not quite sure how she survives from one season to the next, and it’s hard to empathize with a mother who puts her family in such danger, but Nancy is one of the most incredible characters on television. As Mary Louise Parker, the actress who portrays her says, it’s somewhat taboo to center an entire show around such a bad mother, such an unapologetically flawed woman.

Here she is on Silas’s 18th birthday (she’s driving to Mexico to reveal to her drug-lord mayor husband that she’s ratted his ring out and is fully expecting to be killed):

How to be a mom

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What you’ll need: unconditional love, diaper bag

Songlist: When You’re Good to Mama from Chicago, Cry Baby Cry by the Beatles

Further reading: Our Mothers, Our SelvesAre You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman

Puppies are like babies: needy. Also, cute.

I dogsat for several families this past winter partly as a trial to see if I would want a new dog in my life. Though I loved all of the dogs, taking care of them ultimately made me not want to own one myself. As I complained to my mom, these animals were so freakin’ needy. They got me up in the middle of the night to go outside. They were insistent when they wanted food. They craved attention all the time.

My mom laughed at my complaints. Remember this, she said, if you ever think about having children. Oh. Right.

Besides taking care of needy dogs, I worked in elementary schools for the past two years. After school, while herding crying children onto buses, teachers would talk about their days. If one particular teacher had had a difficult day, he would invariably say, These kids are the best birth control out there. Certainly there were students at that school who would’ve scared even Angelina Jolie off from being a mom before she had her modern version of Josephine Baker’s Rainbow Tribe.

What I gather from caring for dogs and schoolchildren and having an incredible mother of my own, being a mom requires selflessness and generosity in sometimes inhuman amounts. It helps if you are also slow to anger, quick to comfort, and at all times ready to defend one’s children from the ills of the world.

In short, I’m currently unqualified. But someday I’d like to try to be a good enough person to be a mom. For even though the dogs and the schoolchildren in my life were exhausting, they were also sweet and loving and made me smile daily. And someday I wouldn’t mind having a daughter who loves me as much as I love my mom.