Book Review: The School for Good Mothers
“It was a mistake.”
This is Frida Liu’s plea to Philadelphia police officers who discover her 18-month-old daughter Harriet alone at home in an ExerSaucer. Frida, a sleep-deprived, stressed-out single mother, had slipped outside to pick up a coffee and stayed away far too long.
The chain of events that follow in Jessamine Chan’s haunting debut novel, “The School for Good Mothers,” are swift and merciless. Child Protection Services begins to monitor Frida’s every move. A report determines that her behavior is too erratic, her attitude too abrasive, her expressions too angry, and her relationship with Harriet too needy.
A few months later, a judge sentences Frida to a year of rehabilitation at a school where she will learn, with other neglectful parents, how to be a good mother. Harriet is sent to live with her father, Frida’s ex-husband Gust, who left Frida for another woman when Harriett was a newborn.
The school is a former liberal arts college that now resembles a prison. An electric fence surrounds the property. The mothers don jumpsuits. They spend their days taking care of lifelike dolls that, cruelly, resemble the children that court orders had stripped from them. Frida’s doll, like Harriet, is biracial — Chinese and white — and walks and talks like a toddler. Frida must learn how to properly hug the doll, soothe her cries, and teach her to respect rules and play nicely with the other dolls.
Chan paints the school instructors as well-mannered but cruel henchmen. They dangle the possibility of mothers reuniting with their real children at the end of the year like a carrot. What’s more, they expect the mothers to ignore their own needs and give the dolls their undivided attention.
“The dolls have an off switch,” says one of the instructors. “You do not.” It’s an absurd anthem that captures a truth that extends far beyond the imaginative world Chan has created.
Chan artfully straddles the realms of realism and science fiction in a story that feels much more like reality than fiction. “The School of Good Mothers” is a searing critique of the unreasonable pressures society places on mothers while rewarding fathers for doing the bare minimum of caregiving. Gust is an able, loving parent, but after Frida is sent away, he passes most of Harriet’s primary caretaking to his partner.
The book is a timely reflection on the child welfare state, family separation via incarceration, and the policing of parenthood. In a country that lacks paid parental leave and high-quality affordable childcare, mothers, especially Black mothers, are routinely jailed and stripped of custody for leaving their children unattended.
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has paved the way for states to ban or severely restrict abortion. Right-wing lawmakers have introduced hundreds of personhood bills, which would grant a fertilized egg the same rights as a person under the law. Cash bail systems, which require defendants to pay large sums of money to maintain their freedom before trial, continue to disproportionately keep Black mothers incarcerated and away from their children.
Chan tackles these real-world issues. Frida struggles to balance caring for Harriet while working a full-time job. The dolls at the school have far more agency and control than their real-life mothers, much as embryos do in fetal personhood bills. At the school, the white mothers feel more confident in breaking rules, while the Black mothers know they’ll be more severely punished for even minor infractions.
As an Asian woman, Frida understands her own racialized position is also precarious. And not unlike the punishing system of cash bail, the mothers’ freedom hinges on their ability to score enough points on behavior tests that are impossible to master.
Frida is like many single mothers — she lacks a support system and is just trying to survive each day.
She is at wit’s end. She lacks what all mothers of very young children do — rest, reprieve, and brief tastes of freedom. And yet, even when she makes a bad decision, to her, it still feels a little bit right. “What she can’t explain,” Chan writes, “what she doesn’t want to admit, what she’s not sure she remembers correctly: how she felt a sudden pleasure when she shut the door and got in the car that took her away from her mind and body and house and child.”
Frida’s desire to escape is understandable. Unfortunately, the punishment she receives far outweighs her crime.