Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photo courtesy of Lulu Chua-Rubenfeld.

When Your Mom Is “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua

Featuring Lulu Chua-Rubenfeld, age 21.

In this series, kids (and not-exactly-kids-anymore) review how well their parents balance life and work. To nominate a potential subject ideally between the ages of 5 and 17, email humaninterest@slate.com.

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Lulu Chua-Rubenfeld, 21, is a senior at Harvard, where she is majoring in history. Her parents, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, live in New Haven.

Tell me about your relationship with your parents.

I’m very close to them in different ways. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that my mom and I are increasingly similar. When my friends meet my mom now or if they read the book [Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother], they always come up to me and they’re like, “Oh my gosh. You sound exactly like your mom.” I probably would not have wanted to admit that when I was younger.

What makes you similar?

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I mean it sounds cheesy, but I think I’ve really absorbed a lot of her values. My mom loves to pass on these little tidbits of knowledge, and I find myself giving them to my friends now in a very mothering way.

She likes to say, “If you want to feel good, look good.” I love that because it just reminds me in the morning to brush my hair, the little things that you don’t expect to do and then when you go into your test and you don’t look a mess, you actually feel better. I think a lot of people assume that my mom is the kind of person who would be upset if I got a bad grade on something, but that’s really not at all how she operates. She always says, “Have no regrets. If you work really hard and you have no regrets, you don’t think that you could’ve done more, then you should happy.”

I think I’m maybe more similar to my dad in that I really, really love academia. My mom was an econ major. She writes books. She’s very creative, but my dad and I love the library, love writing papers.

What does a typical work day look like for your mom?

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My mom is such a hard worker, but in the craziest of ways.

She will wake up at probably around six in the morning every day. She will write for a couple hours because she says that’s when her mind is freshest. She’s very, very addicted to caffeine. She drinks very sugary coffee with a lot of heavy cream in it. Then she’ll stop working around noon and then she goes on a long walk or run with my dog. Then she works a little bit more in the afternoon and then she stops. She can’t really work after midafternoon.

What about on days when she’s teaching?

It’s the same routine but she prepares for her classes in the morning. She prepares a lot. She’s very nervous about extemporaneous speaking, as am I. She’ll get up and make sure she’s very prepared for her class. She’ll print out all her notes. It’s basically the opposite routine of my dad who starts working at 11 or midnight and then works until four in the morning.

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Actually, when they were writing their book together, sometimes he would be going to sleep when she was waking up and they would just cycle through their work like that.

Do you think that dynamic is taxing for their relationship or works well that way?

I think it’s sort of like a symbiosis because they never have to be clashing while they’re writing. They just have their own separate schedules.

What is your dad’s job exactly?

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He’s also a professor at Yale Law School. My dad does more like hard law. He teaches constitutional law and criminal law. My mom teaches contracts law and international business transactions.

What’s your dad’s morning routine like?

He sleeps in. I think before my mom really pushed him on this, he was more of an off-the-cuff sort of professor. My dad is really a genius so he can just get away with being a very dynamic speaker, but my mom, she’s obviously incredibly intelligent too, but she’s a person who has to be meticulous or else she’ll just panic.

Do you get the sense that work consumes your mom all the time? Or is she good at compartmentalizing?

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Something I’ve realized now looking back on it is that as a woman, she had to compartmentalize in ways that my dad or other working men do not. … She has the same job as my dad and had to spend the same amount of time on that, but then also raise two kids and in my mom’s case, really spend a lot of time with us.

The worst part is that growing up I think I always just assumed: She’s my mom, she’s going to make dinner tonight. She’s going to drive me to New York every single weekend for my violin lessons.

How would you say your relationship with your mom has changed since the days when you were living at home?

When I was younger, we really did fight all the time. We were just at each other’s throats so much because she pushed me a lot when I was younger. I think, as a 15-year-old, nobody wants to be studying or playing violin when you could just be out with your friends. I think I was just super resistant to my mom throughout high school. I was probably a bit of menace.

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Since I left for college, we’ve become a lot closer. I found that I have really thrived in an environment of independence, maybe more so than other kids.

Do you think both your parents like their jobs?

Oh, yeah. I think my parents love their jobs. My dad loves the law itself while my mom really loves teaching. When I was in high school, I was like, “You’re so nice to your students. Why aren’t you slave-driving them like you’re pushing me?” She always has students over for parties and is a really, really conscientious mentor.

How attached are your parents to their phones?

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My parents are both technologically pretty inept. My dad doesn’t really know how to use his phone that well. I think he maybe makes a couple calls a week.

What happens when your mom is working? Can you talk to her or is she in the zone?

I would say she’s really in the zone in the morning. She is totally locked in. Before Battle Hymn came out, my mom was a lot more stressed out in general. She really wanted to make an impact. She wanted to do something really big. And during my childhood, she seemed really anxious about making that impact on the world. Since Battle Hymn, her life has changed a lot. I think now she’s sort of let up a bit and allowed herself to become less anxious. She and my dad watch so much TV now. … They love the show Vikings. Oh my gosh. They’ve just seen everything. They’ve literally seen absolutely everything.

Did the backlash to the book bother her? The people who were like, “You’re a horrible parent”?

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Yeah. I think a lot of people assume that she would just relish it, that she wanted to just start controversy, but my mom is a very trusting person actually. She sees the good in everything. She was just devastated by the backlash. I think that was probably the hardest period of her life, and I would say it probably brought our family closer. After that period, I think she became a much stronger, different person.

How do you think she transitioned from feeling devastated by the backlash to feeling proud of the impact of the book?

Because of the way our family came together. When I was younger, we had so much stress between us as a mother and daughter with big personalities. When we saw that my mom was really facing not only scrutiny, but just cruelty on the internet, I think we rallied around her as a family because of course, you love your parents. You don’t want to see them being attacked by trolls online. I think that we really rallied around her and she sort of got a sense that as a family, we did love each other.

Do your parents work on the weekends at all?

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Oh, yeah. For my mom, the work never stops. She can’t take breaks, really, from work.

For some people, that would be really stressful, but I think my mom just really enjoys having something to do. She’s a very active person. For example, vacations in the Caribbean are her worst nightmare. She can’t stand the idea of just sitting idle and tanning. She needs to be doing something even if it’s walking my dogs or going on a run or sending emails, talking to her parents on the phone. … Whereas I need time to just veg.

Are you more like your dad in that way?

Yes. My mom hates that my dad will watch the Yankees game with me. My dad and I are big baseball fans. He plays little Scrabble games on his computer. My mom would not do that. My dad loves the outdoors and lakes and peaceful environments and beautiful mountain scenes, and my mom just sees no appeal in that.

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So your mom does not love beautiful mountain scenes.

My mom is not a lover of the great American expanse. She always says, “I love infrastructure.
I love infrastructure and bridges.”

When we’re driving into New York, she’ll look at all the bridges and be like, “My favorite thing about America is how we were able to build all these amazing bridges. That’s why America is the best country in the world.”

When you were growing up, did your parents have rules for you around screen time?

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I wasn’t allowed to watch TV until college. That’s a weird fact. I didn’t discover Netflix until freshman year and my mind was just absolutely blown.

Did your parents obey those rules themselves?

Yeah. I don’t even think they had a TV in their bedroom until I left for college. Then I came back my first Thanksgiving and they were binging some trashy show on Netflix, like watching a season a night. I’m like, “What has happened here?”

Do you have a sense of what you want to do for work one day?

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I don’t know, honestly. I’m considering going to law school mostly for the fact that I love school and I want to delay entering the real world for as long as possible.

How do you feel at this point when people call you Tiger Daughter?

I love it. I mean, I love the whole thing. I think I was protected from the more difficult aspects of the whole firestorm because of the way my mom wrote the book. She wrote my character as a heroine, so even the people who don’t like my mom like me, which is very unfair. Whether you like my mom or not, people see me as this sort of sympathetic figure. So that’s great.

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