The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt: Reassessing Motherhood

Amy Chua is at a dinner party when she tells the story about how her daughter is disrespectful to her, and she responds by calling her daughter "garbage." The reaction of the guests is intense. She is ostracized and one woman breaks down in tears and has to leave.

I wonder what I would have done if I were at that party. Depending on how much wine I had that night, I very well could have been the person to cry and leave. I'm a very weak woman.

I'm also like so many moms who are fascinated by Amy Chua's article comparing Western and Chinese moms. As I read her column (I don't think there is any way that I could make it through the book without a bottle of wine, which means that crying and leaving would quickly ensue), so many thoughts swirled around me. Guilt seems to be my most accessible emotion. I'm always worried that I'm messing up somehow.

I'm a pastor in an affluent area. Most pastor parents and preacher's kids know what that means. We make one-fourth of what our neighbors make. We are not powerful. We have a lot of conversations with our child about the inequities in Christmas gifts. We have access to this world of influence, but we're not exactly a part of it. Our parenting looks different sometimes. We don't have the same educational expectations of our child. We don't have the money for private schools or tutors. Both my husband and I work a lot of hours, juggling numerous jobs to make ends meet, so we don't even have a lot of our own energy to be funneling into forming the perfect prodigy. In all of it, we are constantly trying to figure out what's important and what's not important in parenting.

As I read Amy Chua's article and the responses, that question kept ringing in my mind. What is the most important in our parenting?  What do we want for children? Is it success? Is it happiness? Is it something else?

For me, because of my faith (and maybe even because we simply can't keep up with the Joneses), it is something else. As a mother and a Christian, my greatest hope is not that my child will be a gifted concert pianist by the age of fifteen. It is not even that she achieves academic success that reaches far beyond her peers. It is not that she attends an Ivy League school. Don't get me wrong. I'm not an anti-intellectual. I would be incredibly proud of that sort of success, but it is simply not the most important thing that I want to model or instill.

I'm not even sure that my greatest hope as a parent is that my child will be happy. Happiness is noble goal, but it also seems fleeting. On most days, I'm a happy person. But with the burdens of humanity there are times, in the face of death or tragedy, that happiness is not even appropriate.

No, my greatest goal as a parent, the thing that I hope to model and endue is love. I'm not merely relating that I want my child to know that I love her, even if I call her "garbage" in front of a dinner party and a million readers. What I'm saying is that I want to instill a notion that we are to love our neighbors. No matter how successful they are, no matter how much they accomplish, we care for one another because all humans have dignity and worth. When a person doesn't achieve in our Western society, we already have a culture that already denies them food and a place where they can relieve themselves. My hope is that within our home, within our church, in our neighborhood, our children will be able to develop a sense of compassion, care, and empathy.

And, my faithful hope is that each child will be able to love him or herself. I'm not talking about a child developing a narcissistic gluttony where she devolves into Hannah Montana rockstar fantasies or someone who gains affirmation through amassing friends on Facebook. I am not talking about a bloated sense of entitlement, or the often-shallow pursuit of self-esteem. No. I hope that a child would learn to love herself so deeply that she is able to look in the mirror and appreciate what's staring back. I'm talking about growing into a comfort with her own skin, even when it stretches and changes beyond recognition. I am talking about a love that is so fierce that when a child fails, she is able to know that she is still a good and worthy human. When a child is able to perform beautifully, or when she can never quite succeed, she is able to love. I am talking about having the internal strength that she is able to say "no" when she needs to, that she will be able to negotiate exactly what she needs in her job. I hope that a child would be able to love herself enough that she would never put up with abuse from any other human. And I hope that she loves herself enough that she would never inflict any abuse upon herself.

I have no doubt that Amy Chua loves her girls. I agree that we have a different notion about what that parental love might look like. And I'm thankful that Chua has given moms a chance to pause and to reassess. Success, happiness and love. These are all good things, but for me, the greatest is love.

[Taken with permission, the blog of the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt. Originally posted 1/19/2011]