Parental Expectations: East vs. West (#263)

My husband had Chinese-American parents. Mine were white, uptight, and Anglo-Saxon Protestant/ Atheist.

Andy was expected to obey his parents without question. If his parents said his curfew was 10 PM, Andy was home at 10 PM. If Andy’s father wanted to sit on the couch and watch TV, Andy could forget about participating in Little League or any other sport.

I was expected to obey, but not without question. My mom was an attorney. Dinner table discussions in her house ranged from abortion to capital punishment. Everyone was encouraged to express their own opinions and defend them. If I could present a good argument for a curfew change or pierced ears, these items might be considered. (Lost on curfew, won on pierced ears.)

In the minds of Andy’s parents, raised mostly in Hong Kong, a disobedient child was unacceptable. Filial piety has been considered one of the highest virtues since Confucianism. A disobedient child is, in effect, immoral and will cause a parent to lose face in society.

In my house(s), my sisters and I weren’t judged as bad or immoral because we argued with our parents. We sometimes gained respect, even as a parent sent us off to our rooms. “She’s got a mind of her own,” they’d say, sighing with equal parts frustration and admiration.

My first experience with a contrary child was Baby Brother. I was thirteen, attempting to get a usually compliant three-year-old ready for the family trip to the library. I crouched at the end of the hallway and held my arms out wide, calling, “C’mon, Baby Brother! Let’s go!”

Usually Baby Brother would run into my arms for a hug. I’d scoop him up and we’d be off.

This time, though, he gave me a huge grin—before turning his back on me and running away, giggling.

My jaw dropped. I gave my mother an outraged look, only to find her doubled over. Laughing. “Oh, my God,” she howled. “You used to do that all the time. I thought I’d have to wait until you had kids to see that happened to you!”

Baby Brother and me last century.

Baby Brother was just one of many baby siblings (and actually the least contrary). By the time I had a child of my own, I expected him to have a mind of his own.

Andy did not. Andy remembered doing what his parents told him to do and figured kids automatically did that.

Andy’s paternity leave ended about the time Baby D was becoming mobile. Because our child was such an early riser, Andy usually only had a few hours with Baby D after he got home during weekdays.

I was the primary caregiver to our increasingly contrary child. Alone. My mom didn’t live long enough to see any of her grandchildren, and other grandparents were hundreds or thousands of miles away. I had my friend JM as an occasional babysitter and Childwatch at the YMCA.

Every few months, I’d call Andy, yelling something along the lines of, “I can’t even get a shower!” or “He hit me in the eye with Toby the Tank Engine!” or  “I can’t take it anymore!” Mostly I got voicemail. Sometimes Andy answered, listened, and offered to come home early. Once he DID come home early.

I thanked him that evening and said I was sorry about the ranting.

Andy said, “Yeah, about that. I really hate listening to all that yelling, especially when I’m miles away and there’s nothing I can do. It’s so upsetting.”

“Really. Is it as upsetting as getting a black eye from Toby the Tank Engine?”

“Uhhh…”

“Look, sometimes I’m so frustrated and exhausted I have to vent. And is it better that I yell at Baby D, or is it better that I put him in his crib and call and yell at you?”

“But why do you have to yell at all?”

Which of course made me want to yell right then and there. Because unless you’ve cared for a demanding child who doesn’t nap for 12 hours, you just don’t know how exhausting it can be.

Andy was about to learn, though. Not long after I realized I needed more breaks and my husband needed to shoulder more Baby D responsibilities, his parents called from Hawaii and demanded a visit. They hadn’t seen the Number One Son of the Number One Son in a year. Of course they didn’t want the bother of traveling to us. They insisted that we go to them. Again.

I put my foot down. “You can go. You and Baby D.”

Andy blanched. “By myself? On a five-hour flight?”

“I took Baby D to the East Coast to see my family alone because you had to work. I’ll give you my finger puppets, the activity book, and some games for him.”

“But…”

“My plane ticket would cost another thousand dollars,” I reminded my frugal husband, and then added the coup d’ grace. “Plus a few hundred dollars for dog sitters.”

Andy couldn’t argue with that. He cautiously scheduled a five day trip to Hawaii for the two of them. On the day they left, he was confident he could handle solo parenting and looking forward to their vacation.

Thirty minutes after their plane touched down, Andy called.

“Are you guys okay?” I asked.

“No!” Andy yelled.

“What’s wrong? Is he hurt? Is he sick?!”

“He’s fine, but he only took a half-hour nap and I had to entertain him the whole flight! And now we’re in the rental car, but he’s refusing to get into his car seat! He wants to climb all over the car and put the seats down and mess with the controls and it’s so hot and I had to manage him and all the luggage and carrying the heavy car seat! And I finally got his seat installed and he refuses to get into it! He crawled into the tiny space below the back window where I can’t get him and he won’t come out!” Andy ranted.

“Okay, okay, I understand,” I said. Because I did (and also because “Ha! Welcome to my fucking world, it only took you seven hours to crack!” would not have been helpful). “I know it’s really frustrating that he won’t listen. But he’s been cooped up for hours. Just turn on the car, crank the AC, and wait. He’ll come down eventually.”

Andy grudgingly agreed. I kept him on the phone until he was cooler and calmer. Baby D finally climbed into his carseat and fell asleep on the way to Nai-Nai and Yeh-yeh’s house.

Andy did okay after that. For two days.

And then the next call came.

“Do you know what your son just did?!” Andy yelled. “We’re on our way back from the Pineapple Plantation, and he’s waving his blanket around, and I keep telling him not to wave his blanket, so then he throws his blanket on the floor, where I can’t reach it, and now he’s screaming for his blanket! Only there’s nowhere to pull over and get it!”

I could hear Baby D over Andy’s rant, wailing. “Blankey! Want Blankey!”

“It’s okay, honey, there’s nothing you can do,” I told my husband. “Eventually he’ll tire himself out and fall asleep. At least you’re in the car, that should help.”

“Yes, but we’re not moving! And he won’t quit yelling, and it’s his own fault!”

“He’s a toddler, honey, not a rational human being. Just turn on the music and try and ignore him.”

“Do you know how hard it is to ignore someone who is screaming at you?”

I deserve an Oscar for keeping all irony out of my voice as I answered,
“I do, honey. I do.”

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

20 thoughts on “Parental Expectations: East vs. West (#263)”

  1. “Andy said, ‘Yeah, about that. I really hate listening to all that yelling, especially when I’m miles away and there’s nothing I can do. It’s so upsetting.'”

    OH MAN. My husband says this to me already without the kid.. He also asks me why I yell, and it takes all of my patience and restraint not to go postal.

    Also in full agreement about obedient Eastern babies (or should I say… Confucian babies?). I once told a Chinese friend that I almost never do what my parents tell me to, and his jaw dropped to the floor. He couldn’t believe anyone would defy their parents. My mom also was in constant frustration with me, because growing up she always obeyed her Vietnamese mother without complaint–but then with me, she was constantly pulling her hair saying: “why you never do what I say?!?!? AHHHHH!!!!” My brother obeys like a good Asian son, while my mom and I fight so loud the neighbors have threatened to call the police! It wasn’t until I moved to Asia I realized why my mom was so frustrated with me and vice versa.

    Glad you gave Andy a taste of the screaming baby medicine. Again, this is the whole reason men want kids more than women–they don’t fully comprehend all of the turmoil that comes with a (screaming) child!

    BTW, your childhood photos are so cute!

    1. I may have called and yelled at Andy a few times BC (Before Child). Usually when I couldn’t find something. He hated that also.

      I am never sure if more obedient babies were more likely to survive in a Confucian society and thus had a Darwinian advantage, or if the environment simply left very little room for opposition and it was eventually beaten out of obstinate children.

      1. Reading this after literally dropping from exhaustion at work today and being sent home. Dreading the drive to pick up 5 month old soon and that I still have to pump at least twice more before he goes to bed.

        You are a saint for figuring out a way to have five whole days to yourself. I got so much guilt after my last 4 day work trip when he was 3 months.

        1. God, it’s so hard, isn’t it? We’re somehow expected to be a perfect caregiver 24-7, never mind that kids were raised in extended families with lots of caregivers until the last 70 years. And now we’re supposed to have a career, too, and yet never let our children slip through the cracks.

          And if we do get a moment or day away, we worry and are consumed by guilt. I was absolutely certain their plane would crash and it would be all my fault and exactly what I deserved for trying to get a break.

          If it makes you feel any better, I had to make the decision to put down my beloved, but ailing Bat Cat while they were away. And one of those phone calls was when I was in tears afterwards, but my husband never even asked about it. (Future post.)

  2. This was so perfect. I hope it brought better understanding but I think there are more stories to this trip. I doubt if Baby D listened to anyone. How accommodating were the grandparents.

  3. Heh, you gotta love those un-involved dads who want more kids. We had 2 and the wife was thinking of having another….I said not possible since I had to do a lot of childcare due to wife’s anxiety and how hard 2 were to wrangle (wild animals, a bit tamer now). We both value our alone time, so another kid would reduce it too much for our sanity.

    Plenty of other families with 5+ kids out there. I think Andy forgets in most Chinese households are multi-generation, so there are always multiple caretakers around to wrangle children. And of course the cultural expectation that Men don’t deal with kids. Although his parents don’t sound like the typical Chinese super-involved grandparents. They sound like they’d boast of the kids to their friends, “gaining face” but then bail out on the actual responsibility.

    So sad to hear about Bat Cat, but you gave him a loving home, and saved him from a early death. I console myself with this reasoning for my previous cats.

    1. Hats off to all the kid wranglers. Yes, Andy has forgotten that he spent a lot of time with his beloved Popo, especially after his younger brother was born.

      Good for you for saying no to more kids. I tend to give everyone with more than 2 a lot of side-eye, especially those who have a hard time managing the first two.

      Thanks for the kind words about Bat Cat. That death was hard–got talked out of one treatment by a young white male vet that turned out to be the right treatment because he wanted more expensive diagnostics. Some guilt is with us forever. (But the vet is not. Female and vets of color forevermore.)

  4. My birthday is today. Read the post and thanks for the laughter. I can sympathize with having a son who wants a lot of attention. When his father came back for a vacation from Guam, i fantasized often about sending him and Zachary to a favorite arcade place where he will have to run after our son ans climb stairs 500 times, but alas it didn’t happen. Entire time his dad was here, it was stressful, not because we argue with each other, but because his father has no idea what to do and wasn’t helpful whatsoever in an instance where Zachary got tempermental and I had to take him home. Get this: his father and I have only Zachary in common. We are not in any sort of relationship, yet he expects me to pay for a Cantonese school that he wants his son to attend in the future from child support he sends me each month! Do forgive me, but we are not married nor engaged nor dating, so why should I spend child support money for him to go to Cantonese school that his father wants him to attend in the future?

    1. Happy Birthday! Zachary is lucky to have such a dedicated mom.

      Zachary’s dad is, indeed, quite clueless. If he wants his child to go to a Cantonese School, he should be prepared to pay for it. Do you think it would be a good choice for Zachary? My husband speaks some Cantonese and understands it quite well, but I feel like Mandarin would be more useful when he is an adult.

  5. My mom is a full time housewife on top of being a full time nanny. She took care of us and other kids. Unsure how she did that without going crazy. My dad had a very demanding job. Managing huge projects involving difficult tenders. If she’d called him up just to vent, she’d be divorced ages ago. When my dad didn’t have a good day, she’d take in all his complaints and scoldings as well. She used to be pretty in her youth. Growing up, I never saw her splurging money to pamper herself although she could have. I’m so glad I had the choice to take on a different path in life. Sometimes, we need to be a little selfish (attend to our needs first) in order to take good care of others. I learnt that kids can wait or scream their lungs out while adults pee or take a shower. Just make sure to put them in high walled play pen. Ignoring them is a good strategy unless they are so ill to the point of requiring immediate medical attention. Great move as I’m sure Andy learnt his lessons well. The kind of lesson he cleverly imposed upon himself in the name of tradition.

    1. It’s true, a little waiting won’t kill a child. I couldn’t stand to hear him cry, though. (Temper tantrums are one thing, distressed baby crying is another.) But I’ve watched far too many parents–especially dads– start off with “just leave the baby in the playpen for a while” and have it turn into their default parenting mode (playpen eventually turns into screens). Just because you can ignore a child doesn’t mean it comes without psychological repercussions. The more interaction a youngster has, the better they do in school and life later.

      But, yeah, putting on one’s own oxygen mask first is also a good skill, and one mothers tend to forget more than fathers.

  6. I would be so scared of flying alone with my baby. This trip to Spain was fine and he slept almost all of the time, though. But I don’t want to try my luck, haha. Now I’m battling with a jet lagged baby, it’s been 3 nights and I guess I’ll still have 2 or 3 more. Taking care of a baby is so much more exhausting than working, hahaha!

    1. That’s a really, really long flight. Very daunting. Our 5-6 hour flights to Hawaii and New Hampshire are much easier by comparison.

      Jet-lagged baby is real. The worst is taking an early riser east — it’s 3-4 AM and the kid is all, “Can we go to the beach now?”

      “The beach is closed! The fish are sleeping! Everyone is sleeping! Except you!”

      1. Yes!!! When we went to Spain he didn’t seem too bothered by the time difference (or maybe I didn’t notice because anyway he always wakes like 3 times per night to nurse). But here… OMG. It happened exactly like you said: The first day he woke up in the middle of the night and sat on his bed like “Are we going to the swimming pool now?“. It took him (and us) almost 4 hours to go back to sleep. The next day it was 3 hours, the next one 1.5… and finally last night he didn’t fully wake up but nursed 7 times. I have so many white hairs now. It’s because of sleep deprivation, I’m completely sure, as they were not there a year and a half ago!!

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