“I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good.”
Jessamine Chan’s dystopian novel “The School for Good Mothers” is not perfect by any means — neither is its heroine, Frida. However, Chan has constructed both a novel and a character that demonstrate the desperate yearning and burnout of motherhood with a level of depth that few other works of literature have achieved.
“The School for Good Mothers” focuses on Frida Liu, a Chinese American mother living in a near-future, seemingly normal version of Philadelphia, who is exhausted from fighting her ex-husband over custody of their baby, Harriet. Frida’s postpartum depression, Zoloft withdrawals and exhaustion produce a state of fatigue that leads her to leave the house and Harriet for a few hours. Upon returning home, she is confronted by the police and her ex-husband who send her to a rehabilitation camp for a year, where she will learn how to be a good mother. The middle portion of the novel is set in the “school,” located in an abandoned college campus, where mothers are subjected to strange, unspeakable horrors. If Frida doesn’t succeed, she will lose her ability to see Harriet.
Motherhood is often talked about in art but until recently, has rarely been contextualized in the limitations of humans. Maternal mental health, especially, is overlooked; more than one in ten mothers struggle with postpartum depression, but the topic has long been considered taboo. Frida Liu, Chan’s protagonist in the “School for Good Mothers,” is deeply depressed. She’s also a single mother fighting for custody. As Frida flounders, the novelist displays a tension between the needs of a drained mother and her baby.
In demonstrating this tension, Chan undertakes a hefty task: to persuade the reader to see the humanity in a mother who did, in fact, neglect her daughter. The novel is an excellent, compelling commentary on what it means to deal with mental illness as a mother. Frida struggles against herself, attempting to change; however, a lack of support stemming from society’s refusal to see mothers as people sends her character further into heartsickness.
“The School for Good Mothers” not only highlights the challenge all mothers face of being “good” in the eyes of society, but also makes room for the compounded pressure placed upon women and mothers of color to assimilate to the status quo. One specific way Chan accomplishes this is through the character of Frida’s ex-husband’s mistress and new girlfriend, Susanna. While Frida is away learning how to be a “good” mother, Susanna parents Harriet with methods that seem to be taken straight from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop: she is the epitome of white “woke” motherhood and pseudoscience, laden with essential oils and organic foods in lieu of medical necessities.
Additionally, women of different races are treated differently by the “school”: white and Asian women are offered easier chores, while Black and Hispanic women are regularly forced to do taxing manual labor. Additionally, these mothers are offered less forgiveness by the government, as well as the camp’s administration. Frida is relatively privileged, yet she is constantly singled out by others for being “alien” — as the only Asian American person in the camp, Frida is judged as a function of her “otherness.” Chan demonstrates different levels of a specific racial hierarchy in “The School for Good Mothers” in a way that feels like a microcosm of American tensions as well as a perfect portrayal of how strict socioeconomic expectations of motherhood harm marginalized communities of color most.
Throughout Frida’s time at the “school,” she is consistently corrected by her supervisors for being too cold and apathetic in her parenting style, while she feels she is simply mirroring her own more-than-adequate upbringing. “The School for Good Mothers” highlights the difficulties mothers face, especially those with intersectional identities: are styles of parenting normalized in marginalized communities simply misunderstood by a majority-white society? Or are they harmful? Frida turns this dichotomy over her mind, eventually believing in the inferiority of her parenting the longer she stays in “school.” Frida’s own parents, however, truly love and care for her; they support Frida while she struggles, and cry when they see her mistreated. Chan illustrates the difficulties and insecurities of child-raising vividly: the competition, the enforced heterogeneity, the suppression. When mothers exist in an echo chamber of opinions of what is “best” for their child, they feel it is necessary to hide their complexities. Frida is consistently forced to hide multiple parts of her identity in order to be a “good mother,” which is a realistic depiction of the way many today are expected to parent.
One of the story’s weaker aspects was its lack of commitment to other main ideas outside of or overlapping with the struggles of motherhood. At times, it seemed that Chan wanted to make a point regarding the issues that less economically advantaged mothers face, yet nearly all of her main characters were well-off. Chan also seemed to want to use the opposing “School for Good Fathers” to highlight the special pressure placed on mothers as opposed to fathers, but failed to make any deep cutting remarks on the subject, nor did the introduction of the counterpart “school” for fathers allow for any meaningful character development for the mothers. Other thematic discrepancies, such as inconsistent characterization and the unclear explanation of the dystopian setting, left this novel feeling more like a first draft than a final and complete piece of work. The real triumph comes from the personal and intimate portrayal of Frida’s struggles trying to be “good.”
Make no mistake — parts of the story feel too on-the-nose. A hallmark of good dystopian fiction is its plausibility and hypothetical history; however, aspects of “The School for Good Mothers” feel heavy-handed and unexplained, so much so that it was hard to accept as believable. The entire premise of Frida being cast off to a parental rehabilitation camp for leaving her baby alone for a few hours feels like overkill for a governmental system so vaguely addressed within the novel. Additionally, the lack of motivation provided for most characters in the novel made them feel like caricatures. “School” facilitators such as Ms. Khoury and Ms. Russo felt like one-note villains who were unsympathetic in their actions and words; it felt hard to believe that while torturing and separating troubled mothers from their children, they offered fake sympathies because they “get it” — they have a niece! However, if you strip these parts away, what’s left is the intense story of a complex character who is struggling against mental illness while trying her hardest to be a good mother.
The middle section of the novel, in which Frida is sent to the actual “School for Good Mothers”, drags. This isn’t necessarily a mistake — in fact, the novel’s form vividly portrays the deep depression into which Frida sinks. However, the unnecessary abundance of detail weighs the book down. This novel would be best read in chunks, because it can sometimes read as though the deeply flawed Frida is pulling the reader down with her. Still, in its redeeming parts, Frida’s emotions are so exhaustively detailed that they feel tangible: whenever Frida interacts with Harriet, whether it is through a phone call, a social worker or even through her thoughts, the stressful desperation is overwhelming. The most rousing part of the novel is the conclusion, which is a wild, vague reversal of the beginning that leaves the reader reeling in shock.
While there were definite flaws within “The School for Good Mothers,” the book offers raw emotion from a complex antihero in a rare fashion. The quick bursts of feeling are enough to keep the reader going (but not fully satisfied) while slogging their way through the novel. Additionally, the small mentions of Frida’s parents trying their best to take care of her are incredibly grounding. The book isn’t perfect, but Jessamine Chan’s novel is nothing if not an intense, messy and sometimes beautiful portrait of motherhood that will make readers question their perception of what being a “good mother” really means.