When a Tiger Mom Meets a Penguin

            Isn’t it perfectly natural, even expected, for an overachieving professional Chinese woman to become a Tiger Mom as she enters motherhood?

            Or maybe it’s just me?

            I’m your poster child of an overachiever. Being the oldest of three in the family and with parents who lacked the opportunity to fulfill their dreams and potentials, I am the one who needs to make it. And I do, if you measure “it” with the years spent in the ivory tower and the degrees up in my sleeves.         

            All these overachieving hustles did not present a quiet moment for me to listen to my tickling biological clock until one day, when all things fell into place, specifically after I was tenured, I heard the clock striking loud and clear. It was time for a baby, and given my age, my only baby!

            I plunged into it with gusto like anything else I did. Before I conceived, I visited my doctor for prescribed prenatal vitamins and DHA/EPA capsules. During the nine months when that little zygote metamorphosed to an embryo and then a fetus inside me, I maintained a textbook-perfect picture of health with excellent blood glucose levels, blood pressure numbers, and weight gain pounds. I was proud. I’d been good with this pregnancy thing. I felt helpless towards the end of the third trimester when I couldn’t get up from bed unless I turned sideways and pushed myself up with both hands, but that was temporary. I felt good and in control. On New Year’s Eve, I glided through the dance floor, albeit a bit heavy, in my pregnancy glow. Little did I know that would be the last New Year’s Eve Dance for a long time!

            When I nested like a spring mama bird, read and sang and played Mozart to the baby in utero, and felt the little kicks and saw the moving hands undulating under my belly, I thought about how to raise him. I will have a balanced approach to his education, equal parts of Chinese and American. He will know that school is more important than being popular or sports (assuming no athletic genes from us) or dating. But he doesn’t need to get all As. I care that he tries his best and follows his passion. Hey, if he wants to be a poet, I’m not going to stop him! The two parts are going to be united smoothly by the essentials every child needs to learn: kindness, compassion, the value of hardwork, and a love of books.

            I don’t recall when exactly we realized that our baby boy was not “typical.”

            Was it the sleep training? We started that when he was nine months old, urged by everyone. I regret to say that sleep training took a long time. A very, very long time.

            Or was it the time when he was scolded and punished daily at the pricey prep school because he couldn’t sit still, or follow directions, or wait for his turn to run in gym classes? He just learned “yes” as a great affirmation, but his enthusiastic “yes” to the teacher, when asked if he did something wrong, was labeled as having an attitude. Sending my three-year-old to a private school that did not have any intention to work with children who could not conform to its rules was my first mistake as an aspiring Tiger Mom. I had fallen for the promises of perfect SAT and ACT scores and a 100% college admission rate, of which a high proportion was for Ivy Leagues.

            By the time teachers from three different daycare and preschools shared their concerns, we had been taking him to the University Children’s Hospital for evaluation. How could he have language and communication problems? He had hit all his milestones, remembered entire books, loved to talk, and used those big words! But we learned something called scripted speech. Our smart little guy had taken all those words that’d been spoken to him and read to him, and returned them to us as an unopened wholesale package, without rummaging through it and making items his own.

            Neither do I recall one single moment when I felt the world came crashing down on me, not even on the day when I held that thin piece of paper weighed down by the formal diagnosis. Rather, it was small fragments of time here and there when I realized…that I may not be able to share with him my favorite books and movies. I may not be able to co-write a book with him. It’s when I envy friends who complain about running out of books for their kids because their advanced readers have read the entire library. It’s when I see some of his babyhood friends have grown distant, yet he continues to long for friendship that seems so out of reach.  It’s when I must retreat into my own cave after dealing poorly with a meltdown and question if I can do it. Forget about Tiger Mom. I just want to be good enough.

            Yes, being “good enough,” my revelation of how to be a mom, which means always asking, does this matter to him or to me? And now when I watch the fifth-grader in wondrous awe as he chooses work before play, happily donates his books and toys, sings Broadway tunes on top of his lungs (Wicked is the current favorite), plays piano with deft fingers I can only dream of, builds magnificent castles in Minecraft, knows every single model of John Deere tractors, and proudly calls himself an “American and Chinese boy,” I think I may be doing good enough.

            A penguin may never fly, but its spirit soars as high as an eagle. Call me what you want. I’m here to march with my penguin, one step at a time, while he teaches me empathy, patience, and the sheer joy of life, every single day. And together, we keep our spirits soaring.                    

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!

We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

We hope you’ll join us.

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