In the wave of reaction to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the focus has been primarily on the kids and whether the Chinese parenting methods described could be considered child abuse. What has not been discussed is that Asian-style intensive parenting falls squarely in the mother’s lap. It is not the father, or both parents, but the mother who is 100% responsible for the child’s academic success.
By extension, if the child does not “succeed” by getting the highest grades, and getting into a top university, then it is the mother’s fault. An extreme version of the Asian parenting game plays out in Japan and South Korea where mothers are under tremendous pressure from their own husbands, in-laws and parents to remain out of the workforce to focus all of their efforts on enabling their children’s academic achievements. Anything less would be a betrayal of the child and of the entire extended family.
How do I know this? In 2008, I was invited by the U.S. Embassy in Japan to keynote an international symposium called “Creating a Second Chance for Women”, examining the topic of women returning to work after a career break. As part of the trip, the embassies in Japan and Korea had me speak for two weeks before audiences of at-home moms, and before interested employers, academics and media representatives. As exciting as it was to make these presentations, I was unprepared for what happened off stage. Time and again, after I spoke, I was pulled aside by women who confided they wanted desperately to be working, but the demands of intensive Asian parenting methods to maximize their child’s academic performance were keeping them at home. The pressure started almost as soon as a child was born: “My daughter was my walking report card in diapers,” whispered a Japanese mom.
On top of this, because of cultural and societal “saving face” conventions, these women could not discuss their situations publicly. They had to smile and indicate to everyone outside the family that things were just perfect at home. Curious about whether I was experiencing anecdotal anomalies or whether these private confessions were indicative of a larger national problem, I consulted my venue hosts and fellow symposium speakers, most of whom were Japanese and Korean themselves. They acknowledged the issue was widespread. My status as a Caucasian mother of four from the U.S. who had relaunched my career after years at home made me a trusted, accepting confidant as opposed to a Japanese or Korean peer who might judge them negatively for their true desires.
Now, over two years later, I’m about to return to Japan to speak again on the career reentry topic. Japan’s prolonged economic recession and the associated financial pressure on families mean traditional attitudes towards mothers working may be changing of necessity. However people view Professor Chua, no one can deny she was able to devote the hours necessary to mother Asian style while gaining tenure at Yale Law School. Apparently, the buzz about her book has reached Asia, and this detail about her professional life will not be lost on her readers in Japan and Korea. In this context, perhaps she can be valuable as an example of how to combine traditional Asian mother duties with a career outside of the home. In this sense, her experience may prove to be both helpful and liberating for at-home mothers in Japan and Korea.
Carol Fishman Cohen is the co-author, with Vivian Steir Rabin, of career reentry strategy book Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work and the co-founder, also with Ms. Rabin, of career reentry programming company iRelaunch. She can be reached at info@iRelaunch.com.