In The School for Good Mothers Jessamine Chan borrows from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to create a story that is new and disturbing. It’s a success.
The book opens chillingly when Frida is informed by voicemail message “We have your daughter.” Frida is having “one very bad day.” She has left Harriet, her 18 month old daughter, alone at home for a few hours, and the police have been called. Now child protective services is involved, and this admittedly terrible decision changes Frida’s and Harriet’s lives. “Mommy is on time-out.” That’s how it’s explained to Harriet. The truth is far worse. Frida has been deemed a bad mother, and she has been given the “opportunity” to go to The School for Good Mothers – an experimental one year rehabilitation program where Frida will be “fixed” (neutered?). Her parental rights are at stake, so failure has real consequences.
Motherhood has been unexpectedly difficult for Frida. “She thought that becoming a mother would mean joining a community, but the mothers she’s met are as petty as newly minted sorority sisters, a self appointed task force hewing to a maternal hard line.” It does not help that her husband has a young girlfriend and wants a divorce. Additionally, Frida is something of an outsider. She’s a first generation Chinese-American, so she is constantly battling stereotypes and covert (sometimes overt) racism.
The School for Good Mothers is a typical bureaucracy. So it’s a nightmare. When Frida informs a doctor that a mistake has been made, the response is “Oh, no. That’s not possible. We don’t make mistakes.” I say that about myself all the time. Doesn’t mean it’s true. The “bad” mothers must repeat demeaning mantras (“I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good”) because monotony, nonsense, and humiliation will obviously make them good. Punishments are arbitrary and petty. Sometimes they’re just cruel.
As Frida soon realizes, nothing they learn relates to real life. That’s unhelpful, but it’s worse. It’s nonsense. “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.” Unsurprisingly, the instructors spewing this crap aren’t mothers themselves.
The School for Good Mothers is soul crushing, but the story allows Ms. Chan to eviscerate society’s lies about motherhood. The school is bad, but the mothers aren’t. Some of them are desperate. Some do need help. But some just had a bad day. Society’s response is disproportionate and devastating.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor