What if your very worst moment as a parent became the defining moment of your life? What if, in a moment of weakness, a sleep-deprived haze, as one more request put you over the edge, you made a bad choice, were reported to the authorities, and the powers that be deemed you an unfit mother? What if your child was taken away, and you had to prove your worth as a mother because of that one, horrible mistake?
If this sounds unspeakable, it is. And yet Jessamine Chan’s debut novel, The School for Good Mothers, delves deeply into just such a situation. While at times painful to read, the conversation it engenders is also necessary. Within the heartbreaking situation that frames the novel, readers will find questions all too relevant to conversations about motherhood today. What makes a good mother? Why is motherhood so hard? How exactly can we succeed at an impossible task?
The protagonist, Frida, is a recently divorced mother with an 18-month-old daughter. She is new to dividing caretaking responsibilities with her now ex-husband, plus her daughter has been dealing with an ear infection that leaves her inconsolable at night. Frida works full-time but on the days when she has custody of her daughter, she cannot imagine surrendering those precious hours to someone else. Thus, she endeavors to work from home while tending to her toddler (an insanity-producing experience that many of us can relate to after two years of pandemic parenting).
Though Frida recognizes that the situation feels untenable, she doesn’t see an alternative. “It’s better than sending her to day care. I don’t want strangers taking care of her,” she convinces herself. This aversion to having strangers care for our children is so ingrained in our society that we rarely question its validity. As essayist Kimberly Harrington writes in her collection Amateur Hour: “I hated telling people my kids were in daycare because there was always a look, that look, that said, ‘I’m sorry you don’t love your baby enough to stay home with her.”‘
It is Frida’s attempt to work and mother at the same time, unable to focus on either task fully, that ultimately drives her to make the mistake that sets up the premise for the book.
I found Frida deeply relatable, for what mother hasn’t tried to fit work around the needs of her children? One of the most haunting components of the novel is the depiction of the hunger Frida feels for her daughter after she is forced to be separated from her. So often as mothers, we want to escape our children, even just for a moment, to get out from under the burden of their care. But what if the privilege of caring for them was taken away, and there was nothing you could do about it? Frida’s longing for the smell of her daughter’s head, the soft cushion of her cheek, the slight weight of her body was so palpable that it often left me wanting to put the book down and go embrace my children in the next room, aware of my great privilege to do so.
The heart of the book centers on the remedial program Frida is sent to, to learn how to be a good mother in hopes of regaining custody. The School for Good Mothers is for mothers who have been deemed negligent or abusive by the state. It is in this setting that the book hits its stride and delivers its most searing social commentary: The lessons these “bad” mothers are taught about what it means to be a good mother are no different than the mainstream messaging of motherhood today. But somehow, with those lessons coming out of the mouths of instructors, the reader witnesses how impossible modern motherhood has truly become.
According to The School for Good Mothers, one of the main deterrents to good mothering is desire, because to want something means to be distracted from your charge. “What I’m not understanding is why you’d put your selfish desires before your mothering,” an instructor says to Frida. “. . . [A] mother who is in harmony with her child, who understands her place in her child’s life and her role in society, is never lonely. Through caring for her child, all her needs are fulfilled.”
Even though the expectation that mothers should just stop wanting is insane, not to mention inhumane, it doesn’t feel that different from the messages that surround us every day. Every time a mother is questioned about going back to work after childbirth, the implied message is: Why? Isn’t everything you need at home with your baby? To want something outside of your relationship with your child does necessitate turning away from them, even briefly, to pursue it. But squashing desire is what can lead mothers to feel like husks of who they were before, barely human, solely receptacles of need rather than generators of desire.
In another example of this kind of heart-breaking clarity, illuminating what makes motherhood so difficult, the mothers at the school are told, “All accidents can be prevented with close supervision,” and then tested on their hypervigilance. They cannot look away. They cannot take a break. They must be on at all times.
Every mother is familiar with the burden of this kind of pressure. Anxiety becomes a constant companion the moment you give birth; scanning for potential harm is a secondary job well into the toddler years when curiosity leads children to constantly ingest things not meant for consumption. But does it ever really stop, this need to be ever on alert? There are dangers lurking everywhere—the internet, the street corner, the food we so carefully prepare for them to put into their bodies. Today, there is danger in the very air we breathe. What mother hasn’t berated herself when something goes awry? If I’d only paid more attention, checked in more, been less distracted. This grasping for control is futile. And yet we know that everyone expects us to keep our children safe, just like the instructors demand.
Though it is clear the book is set in a kind of vaguely dystopian world, with surveillance and expectations on steroids, it feels like a place we are doomed to end up if we don’t start dialing down the expectations forced upon mothers. “The instructors tell them to manage their frustration. By staying calm, they’re showing their children that a mother can handle anything. A mother is always patient. A mother is always kind. A mother is always giving. A mother never falls apart. A mother is the buffer between her child and the cruel world. Absorb it, the instructors say. Take it. Take it.”
It is in these passages that Chan made me feel seen as a mother. Although I have not attended this program, I have ingested this doctrine. I feel this pressure, I face these expectations, I feel like I am always failing. In some ways, having Chan put these unrealistic expectations on display was immensely validating even as it made me want to throw the book at the wall.
As Frida and her fellow failed-moms attend course after course, and then are tested on their progress, it seems clear that there will be no happy ending. The standards are unattainable; the expectations are too high. The reader, like Frida, begins to despair. Will she ever get to hold her little girl again? The School for Good Mothers is not just a riveting read but an unflinching depiction of motherhood. I applaud Jessamine Chan for her bravery in putting such a story out into the world and exposing the impossible parameters of what it takes to be a good mother.