Soccer moms, it seems, are so last decade. The latest fashion in parenting is animal moms.
The trend is being fueled largely by the book that has everyone talking, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." And by "everyone," I mean other moms, as well as TV talk-show hosts, media pundits and late-night comics.
The new memoir, by Yale professor Amy Chua, chronicles the author's efforts to give her two daughters what she considers a traditional, ultra-strict Chinese upbringing aimed at producing successful kids.
She writes, for example, of forcing her girls to practice piano and violin for hours on end without breaks, even on vacations; considering any grade below an "A" as a disgrace; banning TV, computer games, play dates and sleepovers, and resorting to name-calling and threats to force her will on her daughters.
The "Tiger Mother" moniker stems from the fact that Chua was born in the Chinese Year of the Tiger, and she occasionally references the animal as a symbol of power, strength and respect.
The "Tiger Mom" stands in contrast to another animal metaphor made famous by Sarah Palin: the "Mama Grizzly," which she uses to connote the power of mothers to influence politics.
The fad has inspired other mothers to declare themselves "Dolphin Moms," "Lion Moms" — the list goes on.
While these nicknames are used to make various points, the animal-mom theme carries a common thread: We mothers should be courageous, unflinching beasts who are unafraid to do battle, whether it's with our own kids or the world at large.
This caused me to wonder: Am I a "Tiger Mom," or a "Mama Grizzly," or some other animal-person hybrid? And how helpful and meaningful are these identities, anyway?
In my quest for clarity, I decided first to find out which animals truly are the best mothers.
Turns out that's not so easy.
I looked up Animal Planet's "Top 10 Animal Moms." Among those making the list were: elephants (they give birth to the biggest babies on earth — no way on this one); polar bears (they double their body weight during pregnancy, then sleep through the birth — I could handle that); orangutans (build new nests every night, and never put their babies down — forget it), the octopus (moms go hungry while guarding 50,000 eggs — again, forget it), and koalas (they feed infants their own feces — no comment).
Then there's the female sea louse, which earns the distinction of No. 1 on the list because when her babies are ready to be born, they eat her from the inside out. I am officially on record promising not to complain about the pain of childbirth ever again.
Lacking inspiration, I called Yadira Galindo, spokeswoman for the San Diego Zoo, who told me that the definition of a good mother in the animal world varies according to environment and biology, but that every mother is fierce in her own way.
A tiny sparrow can protect her young ones from a mighty hawk. A turtle mom abandons her eggs, but only after she's satisfied they're in a good area. Kangaroos carry their blind jelly bean-sized babies in their pouches until they're able to survive outside.
Tiger moms, ironically, greatly value playtime, allowing their cubs to wrestle and tumble with each other in order to learn skills used in hunting. So much for no play dates.
The bottom line, Galindo said, is that good moms "prepare kids for the real world."
It sounded like I was on to something, but I needed more information.
I contacted Jerry Weichman, a Newport Beach-based psychologist and authority on parenting issues, who sees the animal-mom phenomenon as a "push back" against past eras of passivity among mothers. The trick, he said, is finding the right balance between being overly pushy and a pushover.
I then decided to consult the ultimate experts on the matter. I solicited feedback from about three-dozen friends — all, like me, Newport Beach moms. It's a highly unscientific sampling, I know, but I believe these women know their stuff.
The responses I received were thoughtful and good-humored.
Many of my friends jokingly referred to themselves as a variety of species — lions, bears, monkeys, birds, lizards — while some gave themselves other nicknames, such as "Mommie Dearest" and "Mean Mom." But they generally regarded such sobriquets as little more than facile marketing hype — a useful way to sell books, but not all that helpful when dealing with the complexities and nuances of raising children.
Some women said they respected Chua's ferocity and dedication, while not agreeing with all of her methods and beliefs. One mom e-mailed me to express that while she wasn't a fan of labels, she appreciated the opportunity the "Tiger Mother" controversy has afforded to bring parenting issues to the forefront of public discussion.
"I think it gives us all good food for thought, and reminds us of the importance of having high expectations for ourselves and our children," she wrote.
And so, after all my research and deliberation, I decided that I don't want to be a tiger mom, mama grizzly or any other animal. I'm just a flawed but well-meaning person, trying my best to prepare my kids for the real world we humans inhabit. I'm just mom.