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Being a parent is a public act. Whether performing competence in front of other parents at the playground or feigning avid interest in rocks and sticks for your child, someone is always watching and, in many instances, judging. Especially if you are a mother.
Learning to be good
The consequence of this judgment is swift and severe in Jessamine Chan’s electrifying debut novel The School for Good Mothers. Frida Liu is a struggling single mother of 18-month-old Harriet, living in the Passyunk neighborhood of South Philadelphia. On a trying and exhausting day, Frida leaves Harriet home alone for two hours while she runs a work errand. Neighbors alert the authorities and Harriet is taken to live with her father, Gust, and Susanna, the woman for whom he left Frida. Frida is sentenced to a year at the School for Mothers, a reformatory outside of Philadelphia where she must pass a series of tests to prove that she is a good mother or lose parental rights of Harriet.
The school is an authoritarian prison where the mothers are identified by their offense (frequently neglect), given animatronic, eerily lifelike dolls to practice on and record their progress, and compelled to repeat the mantra, “I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good.”
Though speculative fiction, The School for Good Mothers is inspired by the reality of many women when Child Protective Services enters their homes. Chan was first tipped off to these practices by the 2013 New Yorker article “Where is Your Mother?” by Rachel Aviv, but a recent NPR story about parents being charged for their children’s foster care (thus making it even harder for them to get their children back) seems to point to a system that is still broken and punitive towards parents almost a decade later.
Through the characters of the other mothers, whose transgressions range from physical abuse to having a 12-year-old cousin babysit, Chan dissects these problems from all ends, from poverty to racism to a lack of support (most of the mothers are single). Chan uses the neighborhoods of Philadelphia, “a city where it feels as if everyone has known each other since kindergarten,” as an effective shorthand to pinpoint the race and class differences between the mothers. Frida worries that her daughter’s Chinese identity is being erased while being raised by her white father and his white girlfriend. Recalling her childhood as the daughter of immigrant parents who worked in academia, Frida wonders if she was ever equipped to be the person, let alone parent, the system expects her to be.
Chan also offers a blistering satire of parenting: the women’s re-education evokes an industry of experts who tell parents that if they’re not doing everything wrong, they could be doing it better. The antics of the uncanny dolls, who are just as wild and unpredictable as real children, are poignant and hilarious. In one ludicrous lesson on empathy, the children are instructed to bring injured birds to their mothers, resulting in birds being thrown or stuffed in the mouth. In these exercises, Chan reveals both the difficulty and absurdity of raising humans.
But just as Chan elicits laughter in one line, she tears your heart out in the next. Frida’s journey is brutal, from the school’s psychological abuse and mind games, Susanna’s microaggressions, to her eroding relationship with her daughter. In the face of these challenges, Frida grows steadily submissive, making her trials feel even more wrenching.
Yet what choice does she have? What would any of us do if our children were on the line? Chan doesn’t excuse what Frida goes on to call her “Very Bad Day,” but does make her lapse credible and subsequent actions understandable and relatable. I couldn’t help but imagine what I have done as a parent that could land me in the school.
This is enraging—not escapist—fare, which feels even more timely due to a pandemic that has unduly impacted women and shown just how little we support and value caregivers. The School for Good Mothers may make you want to burn it all down. But you may also give grace to parents, and to yourself if you are one.
What, When, Where
The School for Good Mothers. By Jessamine Chan. New York: Simon & Schuster, January 4, 2022. 336 pages, hardcover. $27.00. Get it here.
On Thursday, January 27, the Free Library and Blue Stoop will present an in-person conversation between Jessamine Chan and Philadelphia author Liz Moore. Register online through the Free Library.
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