Ideas & Advice

‘The School for Good Mothers’ Probes a Mom’s Worst Nightmare

'The School for Good Mothers' Probes a Mom's Worst Nightmare
Written by Publishing Team

There was the morning I took out the trash and didn’t rush inside, instead enjoying some quiet seclusion while my 2 year old son sat alone in the living room. There was the one time I activated the YouTube app, dropped it in front of the TV, and stopped paying attention long enough for the algorithm to find a nightmarish CGI car crash simulator. . There was the loud voice in the playground, the corruption at dinner time, the countless times I sat at the kitchen table on my laptop while he asked, with a lisp so sweet that it’s almost too much on the nose: “Can you play with me?” to please ?

These are the moments that crossed my mind as I read the excellent and provocative debut novel by Jessamine Chan, The school of good mothers (january Today’s show Book Club pick, which is being turned into a TV series by Jessica Chastain’s production company) is a book that forces the reader to face an uncomfortable question: If the state quantified what it means to be a good mother, would I pass the test? Frida Liu, our doomed protagonist, fails miserably.

Frida is a 39-year-old Chinese-American mother and writer, and when we meet her, the police call her to tell her that they have her 18-month-old daughter, Harriet, in their care. This is the end of a chain of things that went very wrong, from the birth of Harriet (a traumatic emergency cesarean) to her husband who left her for another woman (three months after giving birth). ) trying to deal with a toddler as an unexpected single mom. , in a town where she only moved for her (now) ex. Who wouldn’t crack? But Frida screwed it up: running on little sleep and running behind a deadline, Frida decides to leave Harriet home alone, happily strapped in a bouncer, while she runs off to get some coffee. And then, since she is out, she runs to the office to retrieve an important file. And then, while she’s there, why not quickly catch up on some work? When she receives the call from the officers, it has been two and a half hours since she left. Her neighbors heard Harriet cry. She swears she never intended to be out for this long.

Harriet returns home with her father, Gust, and his future second wife, Susanna, a 28-year-old former white dancer who seems to exude maternal instincts, or at least traits that have become de rigueur American style. mom sphere. Frida spends months under surveillance in her own home, now equipped with cameras, and on supervised visits with Harriet, but ultimately her judge is not convinced she has learned her lesson. Frida is therefore sentenced to one year in a brand new public establishment that exists somewhere between the school and the prison. There, working with a robot girl the same age as Harriet, Frida “will demonstrate her ability to experience genuine maternal feeling and attachment, refine her maternal instincts, show that she can be trusted.” In case of failure, his parental rights will be terminated. (Mothers and fathers are sent to separate institutions with separate curricula; not surprisingly, fathers’ programs are much more lenient.)

The school of good mothers

School success measures are clinical, evidence-based, misguided attempts to identify the mechanisms of maternal love. Frida’s class works through units on “motherese” (“the delicious high-pitched patter that lasts all day between mother and child”), appropriate types and duration of hugs, getting the dolls to eat enough vegetables or fall asleep within a reasonable time. amount of time. The problem, of course, is that the data ignores the nuances. What a relief it would be if such an intangible, high-stakes concept like good parenting could be hacked, reduced to action items, but precision does not guarantee results, for mother or child. It is not surprising that mothers are the only ones to see the futility of workshops, useless in the face of the real world, impossible to predict: the instructors have no children of their own.

There is nothing like passing these tests, whether in school or throughout the tests that precede it. While home alone and under surveillance, Frida is obsessed with how to appear remorseful, but everything she does is read with suspicion. Why isn’t she crying? Where are his friends? Why is her house so clean? In her supervised visits with Harriet, Frida’s tears and affection are proof of her “need”, ultimately used in his testimony against her. The dominant wisdom for mothers is to trust your intuition. In theory, this is an inclusive statement, but in practice, it is a way of blaming mothers when they inevitably get the unspoken rules wrong.

This is the common thread of the book: the doomed pursuit of something that doesn’t really exist, that Platonic ideal of the good mother. The closest approximation is Susanna, whose crisp, demonstrative, “toxin-free” love is totally alien to Frida, the hyper-successful daughter of Chinese immigrants who lived their love rather than flaunt it. Frida has everything against her and she knows it, from her first meeting with the social worker who makes her a handicap: her professional ambitions (she left her child to go to office?), her history of mental illness (is it true that she takes antidepressants?), and especially her ethnicity. The social worker tells Frida that her parents “are held back” when she describes the lack of demonstrative affection in her childhood, but she insists he cannot “judge them by American standards.” At the same time, he is disappointed to learn that Frida is not teaching Harriet to speak Mandarin, just as Susanna is surprised that she does not fill her house with ancient healing crystals. Frida is both too Chinese and not Chinese enough; there is no gain.

It’s tempting to lunge The school of good mothers in science fiction — Robot children! State surveillance! – but as the book continues and it becomes more and more clear that success in school is nearly impossible, I couldn’t help but wonder if these more explicitly dystopian details were still needed. At times I have found myself distracted by the logistics of the AI ​​dolls, and their existence has opened up great questions about consciousness and humanity that persist. They ultimately function as tools of discomfort, which is where Chan really shines. In a book full of characters obsessed with the idea of ​​who is and who isn’t a good mother, Chan is confident in her ambivalence, never allowing the reader to get too comfortable in a clear answer. . From the second sentence of the book, Frida’s mistake is described in deliberate isolation, called her “a very bad day.” “What happened last week, what I did, doesn’t represent… what kind of mother I am,” says Frida, and the truth of this defense is so simple it hurts. If we are looking for a moral, a simple and reasonable one would be that a mother is more than her worst mistake.

But two things can be true at the same time: a person is more than his worst mistake, and a bad mistake can cause irreversible damage. Chan cleverly places Frida’s poor judgment just beyond relativity: Frida leaves her toddler home alone for two and a half hours. Indeed, Harriet could have died. Frida knows it and we know it, but as we get to know Frida and inevitably sympathize with her, the nagging fear changes. The scariest thing about The school of good mothers is it not that government excess could allow the state to terminate parental rights on the basis of an error; it’s that your worst mistake might turn out to be something you never thought you could. “It was not violence,” Frida told her lawyer. “I’m not like those people.” She believes so, but do these distinctions make sense? Frida assumes that the judge will be lenient, will be able to see that her error was an error in judgment rather than a flaw in character, based on the data points that Frida herself finds significant: she has no criminal record, no history of addiction; she holds a master’s degree in the Ivy League and a 401 (k). These are her prejudices, no better indicators of moral strength than another mother’s ability to make a toddler stop screaming in the streets.

What Frida finds in common with the other women in the school, despite the demographic differences and the offenses that range from pampering them to beating, is their isolation and alienation – the stripping of their power while always remembering that everything failure is their fault. Frida’s agency was snatched from her in countless ways before her very bad day: she couldn’t block Susanna’s intrusive (and often dangerous) beliefs about raising children. The on-call schedule was adapted to Gust’s work. She was pushed into an emergency Caesarean section and then examined for her recovery. “Maybe some people weren’t supposed to claim their space,” Frida thinks. “She claimed it for two and a half hours and lost her baby.” It is easy to bristle here at what seems intentionally reductive. Leaving a baby unattended for several hours is more than “clamoring for space”. But the two are linked. If Frida had felt able to claim a place elsewhere – for herself, for her work, for her views on Harriet’s education – maybe she wouldn’t have fled. What if mothers in distress were supported instead of punished? What could functional and preventive care look like? These are the most important questions in the book, the most difficult, and the most important to answer.

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