Last year, Rebecca Hogue, a mother whose boyfriend killed her two-year-old son when she was out at work, was found guilty of first-degree murder under Oklahoma’s controversial “failure to protect” law, narrowly avoiding a life sentence. The case has drawn attention from women’s rights groups – and makes Jessamine Chan’s New York Times-bestselling debut novel, set in a near-future Philadelphia where state surveillance has decimated personal privacy, look more prescient than speculative.
What makes a good mother, and who decides? Is raising your own child a right, or a reward? What is the appropriate level of state intervention? Chan, a former editor at Publishers Weekly, explores these questions by imagining every mother’s worst nightmare: a fleeting lapse with devastating, irreversible consequences in The School for Good Mothers.
Frida Liu is a second-generation Chinese-American single mother, working from home while bringing up her 18-month-old baby daughter Harriet. Custody is shared with her ex-husband Gust, who left her for a younger woman, when Harriet was three months old. When sleep-starved Frida leaves her unattended to run a work errand, a neighbour reports her, and child protection services swoop in.
Having “traumatised” Harriet, whose “brain, the judge said, may develop differently because of those two-plus hours alone”, Frida is stripped of her parenting rights. Her history of depression is weaponised against her, and she’s enrolled in a year-long residential programme, where errant mothers must exhibit their penitence and prove their worth by “learning” on AI-powered dolls. If they measure up, they’ll be granted access to their children; if not, their claim will be terminally rescinded. Subjected to relentless monitoring and assessment, they must repeat such mantras as “I am a narcissist. I am a danger to my child.” Their struggle is Sisyphean: the standards unattainably high, the punishments disproportionately draconian.
It’s impossible not to boil with rage at the injustices of this institution, but the bleakness goes too far – insights into the motivations of the staff (who seem far more robotic and emotionally impotent than the dolls) would have added nuance and tension. As it is, the system is so stacked against the mothers that their plight feels hopeless, and the novel sags in the middle as tests and training become repetitive.
Setting insurmountable standards
Chan highlights a broken system that is routinely failing women: the glaring inequalities of parental leave, the failings of family law, the prohibitive cost of childcare.
Chan also challenges the idea that a good mother should wholly sublimate her own needs and identity to her child. Although her characters aren’t financially supported, the school narrows their aspirations, reconditioning them as stay-at-home mothers. As Chan’s dystopia is relatively close to our society – there appears to be a free press – you wonder how the state is getting away with all this.
Nevertheless, it is a clever premise, well executed in lean, lucid prose – The Handmaid’s Tale for the Squid Game generation. The relationships between the mothers, and Frida’s anguished longing for Harriet, provide the book’s emotional core, and its villains, including wellness warrior Susanna, are enjoyably hateable, if one-dimensional. It also considers racial prejudice, cultural differences, our reliance on data, and our hunger for contrition.
By illuminating the artificial binaries of the idealised and the monstrous mother, it presents a compelling case for “the good enough mother”, as proposed by British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in 1953. Frida is ambivalent about motherhood – frazzled by Harriet’s crying, intimidated by the playground’s judgemental eyes, embarrassed by the mindless patter of “motherese”. For that, she is brutally punished and “fixed”. Yet isn’t it important, Chan suggests, that we allow space for imperfection in our idea of parenthood?
The Daily Telegraph