The Varying Degrees of Ferocity in Performing Mothering as a Chinese American Mother

Catherine Ma, Ph.D.

My definition of ferocity in performing mothering as a Chinese American mother is intricately tied to the mundane experiences of mothering that possess great wisdom but are often overlooked. Having been trained as a researcher, I understand the importance of having concrete and significant findings to support theories and frameworks in what can be considered the truth. These clear-cut boundaries are useful in determining the truth from falsehoods but the answers surrounding mothering are rarely as clear and often shrouded in doubt. Negotiating my way through this space is still difficult for me but I’ve noticed that reading auto-ethnographies written by mothers has helped me find steadier ground amongst these grey areas. I hope to add to the growing literature by including my voice in how I perform ferocity in mothering to expand the current wisdoms of motherhood to include the voices of Chinese American mothers.

The origins of my ferocity

Being a Chinese woman often evokes in others the exotic and subservient Asian woman stereotype (Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, & Torino 76). I’ve experienced this microaggression where others expected me to be silent and I used to fit that description for most of my pre-mother days. It did not seem to make a difference to me in whether I spoke up or not but since becoming a mother, I often find myself as my children’s advocate. Those Asian stereotypes of being quiet, meek, or self-effacing still haunt me but motherhood and experiencing multiple difficulties in breastfeeding became the catalysts that transformed the very nature of who I later became. Being silent, submissive or modest did not serve me anymore because motherhood often necessitated that I stand up for my children and myself. As I struggled as a first time mother trying to breastfeed my newborn, my difficulties in breastfeeding became fertile soil in which the seeds of my ferocity were sowed. Dealing with the plethora of breastfeeding challenges where others tried to dictate how, when, or where I should nurse my infants resulted in the emergence of a woman who mothers with a ferocity that I never knew existed within me. My definition of ferocity began as a single-mindedness in protecting my children when they were younger but I am learning that ferocity can also translate into controlling how I respond to others or being passionate in what I do. I am learning that as the needs of my family change, so does the intensity of my ferocity. I begin my story by reflecting on the pros and cons of ferocity and how I navigate between these two extremes.

A ferocious tiger mom

Being a ferocious mother has served my family well because I am a staunch advocate for my children and family. There was an incident when my daughter who was only 3 years old at the time, needed surgery to fix a cyst that repeatedly became infected by her ear. Our pediatrician recommended a local otolaryngologist or ear/nose/throat (ENT) doctor who misdiagnosed her with a brachial cleft cyst. Being a researcher and trusting my mommy instincts, I poured through medical journals until I found out what she really had which was a preauricular cyst. If I had kept silent and not challenged this doctor’s diagnosis, he would have operated on the wrong part of her. At our last office visit, I brought the copies of my medical journal articles to show him what I had found. I was careful not to offend him by questioning his authority by politely asking him if this could be a possible diagnosis, expecting him to review my findings with an open mind. What transpired was not what I had anticipated as he verbally attacked me and shouted that I was an overprotective mother. I was a little surprised at his outburst but his reaction taught me that my voice and research skills were powerful tools. In contrast, our pediatrician valued my judgment as a mother, researcher, psychologist, and professor. The quality I most admired about him was that he really listened to my concerns regarding my children’s health. He understood that any decisions regarding their health was ultimately up to me and I was merely consulting him on his medical expertise in pediatrics. He would often joke that he has to offer his medical advice because he is our pediatrician but he respected my decision that I may not always follow his suggestions. We shared a mutual respect for one another and that was the type of doctor I sought for my family’s medical needs. Unfortunately, most physicians I have encountered are more similar to that ENT doctor who was narrow-minded and egocentric. That experience also highlighted to me the characteristics I value in a physician which include being willing to incorporate my concerns as we both work together to develop the best treatment protocol for my family. Eventually, I posted my predicament in my online mothers support group and asked if any of their children were diagnosed with a preauricular cyst. One mother quickly answered my post and we soon made an appointment with her physician who confirmed my diagnosis and performed my daughter’s surgery to remove her cyst. I am still in awe of the powerful network of my online mothers support group as they came so readily to another mother’s rescue and to share their own experiences. I have been fortunate to be the beneficiary of numerous mothers who have been so generous in assisting others who are essentially strangers to them with the only common thread being motherhood.

Another advantage of mothering with ferocity is in dealing with bullying. When my youngest was in pre-kindergarten, there was a bully who poured his bottle of water down my child’s back which brought out the tiger mom (a stereotypically strict and controlling Chinese mother characterized by Amy Chua) in me as I ran across the school yard and began yelling at him. That boy engaged in profanity on a regular basis while his parents laughed it off and attributed his behavior to having an older brother in high school. I have little tolerance for neglectful parenting but what struck me was that I was the only parent who yelled at him and explicitly showed him that I was not going to tolerate his behavior. Subsequently, I noticed that my tirade resulted in him not bullying my child as much. There still have been some transgressions that have annoyed me but my son was not that bully’s regular target and I believe that this outcome was related to that fateful day when tiger mom paid a visit to the schoolyard. Sometimes, it seems easier to stop the bullies but as my children grow older, I have had to learn how to rein in my inner tiger mom, which means working on adjusting and embracing change in how I mother.

Changing my stripes

There are times when my children do not appreciate their ferocious mother as I notice the look of disdain on their faces. It is difficult to quiet my voice when I see a clear violation of justice. In taking my daughter shopping for a prom dress, I found great displeasure in listening to the false compliments about how perfect this one dress fit her when I knew it was a size too small, hearing other young girls lamenting about looking fat as they tried on size zero dresses while their mothers said nothing to the contrary, or feeling that the saleswomen thought I could not afford anything in their store. Although my experiences as a researcher and professor had exposed me to the intersectionality of female self-hatred, racism and classism, I still felt unprepared for the actual experience of it all as a mother. Even though I wanted to tell the saleswomen that their compliments sounded insincere and their assumptions of my inability to pay were false, I stayed quiet because my daughter was happy to try on dresses that she liked and eventually found a dress from that store for her event. I just smiled as I disguised my true feelings, asked for the wrinkles in the dress to be steamed out, and paid for her dress. I tried to focus on the positive side which was that my daughter was comfortable in her own body which was not a size zero and did not lament at how fat she imagined herself to be. Her reaction made me feel that maybe I am raising a confident daughter who has a positive body image so I kept quiet. I knew if I had spoken up, she would have felt embarrassed and that would have taken away from her joy.

I am learning that it is possible for this tiger mom to change her stripes as my ability to control my fierceness is often tested while visiting colleges with my daughter. A part of me wishes to dominate the conversations with the admissions officers and tour guides but I am learning to keep quiet so she can take the initiative and start those conversations for herself. It is not always easy for me to step back and blend into the background because a part of me wants to be the domineering mother but the other part of me wants my children to learn how to be independent and self-efficacious. Although I can be described as a reluctant and slow learner at balancing this aspect of motherhood, I am becoming better at assessing whether she wants my opinion or needs my assistance. This can be a more difficult task as it denotes control, awareness and forethought. It reminds me of the days when my daughter was younger and being pressed for time, I chose to do everything myself because I could do it better, quicker, and more efficiently but I began to realize that my ultra-efficiency was taking away opportunities from her to figure things out on her own. Being a more experienced mother, I made more attempts to stand back and allowed her younger siblings to do more on their own at an earlier age. As a result, it seems as though my youngest is the most adept at problem-solving and embraces his independence much more so than his two older siblings. I consider him to the be the fiercest little Chinese boy I have ever met because he has tenacity, thinks outside of the box, and engages me in many deep discussions that help me become a more critical thinker. Of course, this can be the result of birth order, gender, or a slew of other variables but I prefer to think it is because he grew up with a more experienced mother.

Transformative lessons

It is critical for me to be my children’s ferocious protector because a big part of me wished that my own mother could have been more adept at protecting and standing up for me as a child and an adult. One poignant memory was the time when I was a child and cried in front of her. Her response to my tears was, “I hate children who cry.” When I share that story with my developmental psychology classes, some students thought her response would make me cry even more but I told them that it had the opposite effect where I stopped crying around my own mother and never went to her when I was in trouble or in need of comfort. Her response taught me a longstanding lesson that I could not trust others with my vulnerability. In many ways, her inability to protect me as I wished shaped my ferocity in how I mother my own children. As an adult, I realize that maybe she is being the best mother that she knows how to be and even though it may not match my standards, it is her own definition of ferocity. A friend of mine gently reminded me that one of the reasons why I am a good mother is because of the mother I grew up with. Hearing this explanation was initially a shock to me but as I reflected upon her statement, I realized the truth in those words. In many ways, how I was mothered and becoming a mother to my own children has made me more reflective in how I parent my children. Such deep contemplation is one way that motherhood has helped me grow as a woman, professor, wife, daughter, and mother. My children have taught me two of the most valuable lessons in life that have greatly influenced my ferocity which revolve around finding my passion and learning how to forgive myself.

When I first became a mother, I was a struggling graduate student who was suffering from a severe case of imposter syndrome that permeated not only my academic work but also my mothering. I was anything but fierce, yet those struggles helped me find my passion in research which is studying how first time mothers learn about and experience breastfeeding. My passion in this area of research has made me quite the fierce researcher as I am using my research expertise to challenge the current breastfeeding paradigm and empower first-time nursing mothers to resist biomedical discourses (Ma 100; Ma, 2016). Prior to finding my passion in research, I was merely trying to stay afloat amidst all my breastfeeding difficulties which seemed insurmountable. I felt as though I was a grave disappointment to not only the institution of motherhood but also as a woman which imbued in me a deep sense of failure during those early postpartum days. For me, first time motherhood did not result in postpartum depression but felt more akin to postpartum aggression because I was angry that no one prepared me for the difficulties I would encounter as a new mother who wished to breastfeed her baby. Although those early mothering days were difficult and riddled with doubt, little did I know that the anger I felt would become the seeds of ferocity that grew within me as I read about the structure of breastfeeding in the United States through the critical lenses of Gabrielle Palmer (1988, 2009), Penny Van Esterik (1989), and Joan Wolf (2011). Those struggles revealed to me the passion I had for giving mothers who were disenchanted with breastfeeding, a voice to share their experiences that made them feel less isolated and alone. The combination of my newly found knowledge and personal experiences led me to examine critically the effects of a biomedical discourse on breastfeeding experiences that often created obstacles that hindered a mother’s ability to successfully breastfeed her child (Kukla 161, Palmer 24, Van Esterik 14, Ma, 2014). In using breastfeeding as a way to empower women, I have also become empowered in finding my own voice in mothering which has helped strengthen my identity as a Chinese American mother and academic. I often found it ironic that the decision to start our family while I was in graduate school slowed down my progress in my doctoral program but it was motherhood that ignited my love for research on breastfeeding. I used to be jealous of the passion other researchers had for their areas of expertise because I did not feel the same regarding my previous research interests. For quite some time, I was not entirely sure if I would ever be that passionate about research but experiencing all my difficulties as a young nursing mother showed me a pressing problem in how women are currently taught to breastfeed that has largely been ignored. My realization of this problem became the inception of where I could help make a difference for other nursing women and put my mark on the world.

The second lesson my children taught me that has greatly affected my degree of ferocity was learning how to forgive myself which was a lesson I could have only learned from them. This lesson shaped my ferocity as the tables turned and I became the recipient of their unconditional love. When I was in elementary school, I asked my mother to help me with my homework in math. What transpired was a tearful experience which taught me to never ask her for help again. In hindsight, what happened on that fateful day repeated itself decades later as I found myself repeating the same punitive teaching style as I “helped” my children with their homework. I was part tiger mom and part drill sergeant, and easily frustrated as to why they could not understand my explanations or were often unable to complete problems we had just reviewed. I have multiple graduate degrees, conduct research and statistical analyses, teach undergraduates, mentor students, and excel at the whole academic gamut but I could not teach my own children without a torrent of tears and angst. I would yell with fury and they would cry which would further incite my anger. This was a painful cycle but the aftermath was worst because I would dwell on the pain I caused the little people I loved the most and ruminate for weeks over my epic mothering shortcomings. I felt ashamed at the ferocity I had belittled them over something that in hindsight seemed so insignificant, and relived my own childhood trauma of being called incompetent by my own mother so many years ago.

I am ashamed to admit that my homework tirades continued for a good number of years until I realized that my own children forgave me for my indiscretions far quicker than I had forgiven myself. The intensity of their love for me taught me one of the most valuable lessons I needed to learn. It took time for me to grasp the magnitude of the love and forgiveness they bestowed on me because I did not feel worthy of their forgiveness but their continual forgiveness of me eventually taught me how to forgive myself. This is one of the most important lessons of my life because it helped me move forward with an openness that I had never felt before nor did I think was even possible. A big obstacle for me was trying to move beyond my sense of failure as a mother when I was yelling and disparaging my children for things that sparked issues I needed to deal with based on my own mother’s parenting. It was not always easy to separate my own issues from those of my children and sometimes my ferocity temporarily damaged our mother-child relationship but fortunately, their tender hearts were more forgiving of me as compared to my own angry heart that would ruminate for weeks over my misgivings. Fortunately, I learned from my own children that I did not have to waste so much time ruminating when they had already forgiven me. I was the only one torturing myself by replaying every angry word that spewed from my mouth, revisiting every hurt and tearful look they gave me, and punishing myself for failing as their mother. What their forgiveness taught me was that we can be angry one minute but forgiving the next minute. The power of their forgiveness gave me a different kind of ferocity. I learned to become more confident as a mother, a better listener, better able to cherish the time I spent with my children, and mentally present when we did spend time together. All these aspects helped me become a much more patient, tolerant, and loving mother. This fledgling sense of confidence spilled over into other aspects of my life and career. I became less stressed about being the perfect mother and more accepting of the mother I actually was which ran the entire spectrum of critical and fun but also strict and nurturing. This acceptance of the dichotomies inherent in motherhood reinforced in me the power of forgiveness. If I had a bad day and was impatient with my children, it became easier to see that as one moment in time where I made a bad decision but tomorrow would be a new day where I could make better decisions. I learned how to forgive myself and move on instead of ruminating about my transgressions which I now realize were a waste of time that could have been better spent in more productive ways. Rumination was like being frozen and paralyzed to change my negative ways. I felt trapped to review my negative behavior repeatedly and incapacitated to change because I was too concerned with the negative self-talk that focused on only one small aspect of my mothering. Once I embraced the lesson of forgiveness, I was able to move on after a bad episode, reflect on how I could do better, and act on those changes.

The multiplicity of mothering

Being more confident in my mothering abilities helped me learn that in order to be an effective mother, I do not always have to channel my inner tiger mom as I began to realize that there are a multitude of ways to mother. This realization taught that I did not have to be the same kind of mother as my own. I could incorporate aspects of her that I admired and create the mother that I had always wanted for my children. Being able to move beyond the mothering that I had grown up with can be a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because I do not have to repeat the same mistakes my mother made with me. I was worried that I would become the same mother I grew up with and that frightened me when I was first pregnant. As an adult, I have a deeper understanding of how my mother grew up with my grandmother and the circumstances that surrounded her upbringing. Based on that understanding, I realized that she was successful in creating a family environment that was better than the one she had to endure. The ability to move past the mothering I grew up with can also be a curse where I often find myself grasping in the dark without any roadmap in how to mother. I am fortunate to have a supportive network of mothers who I admire and are willing to mentor me. A major benefit of this mother-mentoring is that I get a wide exposure to many different types of mothers and mothering styles which offers me a variety of choices to build my own mothering template. This experience has taught me how flexible mothering can be which has been vital in helping me transform my mothering to keep up with the physical and psychological changes of my children as they become young adults.


In taking a critical eye to mothering, I am still learning about the varying degrees of ferocity in motherhood. It is this ever-changing nature of mothering that leads me to believe that flexibility is key in how I mother my three children. It is normal to feel that once you have mastered one aspect of motherhood, your entire foundation shifts yet again as your children mature leaving you once again trying to figure out the best way to mother them. There are days when I dread the monotony of motherhood and I still dread doing homework with my children but I can say with all sincerity that motherhood has been the single most enriching life event that has helped me grow as a person. I am beginning to see how my initial ferocity as a mother is actually transforming itself into my own approach towards life. The day I accepted who I was as a mother was the day I found my voice and began my journey towards self-acceptance.

Works Cited

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