The motherhood book you should be talking about now

I am definitely experiencing “Tiger Mother” fatigue now and I know I am not the only one. I have to say I am astonished by the level of attention Amy Chua’s book has gained–a Time magazine cover story, really? (Yes, I am jealous of that one, I will admit.) I guess controversy is truly irresistible because everyone has an opinion. I read and reviewed the book and I was very disappointed by its effort to glorify what I consider totally unacceptable parenting decisions. As Chua tries to backpedal from her words and soften her message, she should remember that all we have to go on is the book she wrote, so who are we not to take her words at face value? We can’t see in to her heart, we can only go on what she wrote in her personal memoir. Several sources have commented that Chua reminds them of Charles Barkley when claimed he’d been misquoted by his own autobiography.

I have to agree with Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker who wrote in her review:

“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” exhibits much the same lack of interest in critical thinking [as Chua's self-described approach to law school]. It’s breezily written, at times entertaining, and devoid of anything approaching introspection. Imagine your most self-congratulatory friend holding forth for two hours about her kids’ triumphs, and you’ve more or less got the narrative. The only thing that keeps it together is Chua’s cheerful faith that whatever happened to her or her daughters is interesting just because it happened to happen to them.

So what do I think we should be talking about? There is another new, provocative new book about raising daughters that is getting a lot of deserved attention. Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter is challenging, thoughtful, and well-researched. She may upend the way you think about Disney Princesses and more. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I would learn anything new about this topic because I thought I was already well-versed in girlhood and growing up. But after hearing Orenstein interviewed on The Diane Rehm Show last week, I was riveted by what she had to say and I read her book over the weekend. Whether you agree with her arguments about the pressures that girls face or not, I think you need to read the book and see what you get out of it.

It rang very true for me. Not just from raising my own daughter, but from my time teaching high school. I always thought the girls in particular were “walking a narrow path of safety,” (my own term for the challenges girls faced) where there was such a small and strict safe zone between not being sexy enough (a “bitch” or a “dyke”) and being too sexy (a “slut” or a “whore” to be blunt about it). You were supposed to be pretty, accomplished, attracted to boys and attractive to them, attentive to others, not stuck up, smart but not intimidating–etc! Who could be all that? It leads up to what was identified at Duke University as the striving for “effortless perfection,” which makes me tired just thinking about it. And yes, apparently only women are expected to maintain this particular facade being “smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular — and that all this would happen without visible effort.”

But let’s be honest, do we as Moms feel that way, too? I think I’ve realized how much I have wanted to give that impression of effortless perfection myself, even when maybe I wasn’t fooling anyone! I recently told my husband “I can do all this, I just can’t make it look easy,” and if I really think about it, I probably need more help “doing it all” in the first place. It’s a work in progress. Even as “Mojo Mom” herself.

As for Orenstein’s book, I thought I knew all about princesses and sparkles, but she wove it all together in a way that was a lot more persuasive and compelling than I thought possible. She goes from Belle and Cinderella to Miley Cyrus to the stultifying path of “pink” to girls exploring new identities online to teens coming to feel that their sexuality is based on appearance and performance, not truly experiencing how they feel. When she reported that researchers had to tell girls that “looking good is not a feeling” I really felt Orenstein was onto something important. I have to say it was overwhelming to read it all at once, and I will slowly pull myself off the ceiling the next few days to put it into a wider perspective. I know my daughter hasn’t been ruined by Cinderella or even sparkly t-shirts (I hope, or else we’re in trouble) but the wider, total context is important to consider. How many “choices” do girls have in their path of socialization, versus being funneled into a narrow definition of femininity and acceptable behavior? I am well aware that boys are constrained as well, in different ways focused on masculinity, but that is an issue to explore separately another day.

So, take a listen to Orenstein on The Diane Rehm Show, read her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and let me know what you think.

Schedule an interview: Dr. Amy Tiemann is a frequent guest expert on parenting websites, national radio tours, magazines from Redbook to Glamour, and TV including ABC News, the CBS Early Show, and NBC’s Today Show. To schedule an interview, please contact her publicist Jill Dykes, jill@jilldykespr.com or 919-749-8488