Child(ish) Reads: The School for Good Mothers

Surprise! This is the first time Child(ish) Reads has reviewed a fiction title. So, a couple rule changes:

  1. I’m not going to spoil the ending.
  2. There will be no actual “advice”.
  3. Judgement-free zone here. Let’s call it a mix between a book review and coffee chat.

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

Blurb: Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.

Until Frida has a very bad day.

The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.

Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.

Instead of sharing my biggest WTF parts of the book, I want to bring up a couple points in the plot that speak to how mothers are viewed in the mainstream. In a couple places, I’ve seen this book categorized as dystopian, but nothing about it suggests that. It is not far from our reality whatsoever.

  • What makes a “Good Mother”?

Just from reading the blurb, yes, Frida does get convicted of child negligence and abandonment as a result of her very bad day. The program she gets sent to is NOT a prison sentence but a year-long “school” where she gets graded on a specific mothering curriculum and attends mandatory therapy.

Another element? Mothering skills are not only observed by program counselors and teachers, but each mother receives an A.I. doll that measures emotional levels, pain, nurturing, etc.

So what actually makes a “good” mother?

Is it how little their child cries? Is it how much their child grows or how little they get sick? Is it measured by the amount of time or touch each mother dedicates? How caring and nurturing their voice is?

And if being a good mother is measurable and so important to society, how come there aren’t more public resources or support systems for parents who don’t see themselves as particularly “maternal”?

Yes, it’s a lot of questions, but it illustrates that “good mother status” is not something you can study for and attain. There’s no parent Olympics or a license to parent. In the 18 years we are legally responsible for another human being, there are probably going to be some bad days. Bad days don’t make you a bad mother.

To steal from the book I’m currently reading, “There’s no such thing as bad people. We’re all just people who sometimes do bad things.”

If I can be frank, barring abuse and trauma, I think the only people who can truly say what kind of mother you are are your actual kids. No other opinion matters.

  • Who’s Judging?

In the first chapter, we learn that someone has called Child Protected Services on Frida. She suspects that it’s her neighbor since Harriet, her 18-month-old child, has an ear infection and has been crying for three straight days.

Once Frida arrives at the school, all of the mothers have to label themselves by their name and their offense. While there are mothers who admit to physical and emotional abuse, others are there for more judgmental reasons: posting too many photos of their kid on social media, being on their phone too much, coddling their teenager too much, looking away for a split-second and their kid has an accident. How many of us are guilty of something along these lines?

We learn that some of these offenses were called in by angry ex-boyfriends, judgy peers, doctors who just assume negligence, etc.

At the school, we also learn that the teachers and counselors (referred to as pink lab coats) who are instructing and grading each unit aren’t actually parents themselves. One admitting to being more of a cool aunt. Another said she was a fur parent to her dogs.

I’m all for people who choose not to have kids, but no one really knows what it’s like to be a parent, let alone be a mother, until they actually become one. And even then, no two people have the same kid, the same situation, same lifestyle, same upbringing. So let’s take off our judgy pants for a bit.

  • Expectations

Frida works as an editorial assistant for a local college’s law review magazine. On her very bad day, she is past due on an assignment and at the point of burnout, leaves Harriet alone at home while she runs to the office. Why she doesn’t bring Harriet with her, she doesn’t say.

After being reported and temporarily losing custody of her child, Frida reflects back on her job situation. She recalls her boss saying that even though she works at home on the days she has Harriet, she must put work before everything else. Work comes first.

Once Frida is in the program, all of the instructors mandate that a mother must always be watching their child. The child always comes first.

Later in the year, Frida forms a relationship with a father in the same program. Once this is seen, she is written up. How can she have a relationship when her child should come first? How can she expect to be a good mother with this distraction?

For the first issue, I know this is where working parents struggle to find balance. Pre-children, I would have no problem working late or traveling on short notice. Those expectations are much more difficult to put on parents, especially those who do not have the privilege of extra help. How can we expect work to come first when so much of our day is really just a fine balance, if that? Do parents not work as hard as those without family obligations, or are employers just not respecting boundaries?

Secondly, where is the boundary when you say that a child should always come first? This type of mentality, while good-intentioned, is unrealistic and can lead to crazy amounts of burnout. I can’t watch my kid like a hawk 24 hours a day. No phone, no multitasking, not even doing chores. I did it when my girls were potty-training and it was mind-numbing.

I love my girls and will always put their well-being first, but to say that parents can’t have other parts of their lives that bring them joy is unfair. I do think as a result of the pandemic, people have shifted their expectations of the work/life juggle and are more aware of parental burnout and self-care. Let’s not make it a passing trend, and actually try to create well-rounded lives without the burden of unrealistic expectations or 24/7 availability.

  • The Complexity of Parental Burnout

I wrote an earlier post about parental burnout and how it’s the combination of so many outside factors. In the book, Frida has work noise, financial noise, noise from her divorce, jealousy noise from her husband’s new girlfriend, all on top of trying to co-parent. Being a parent is not like having a job. You can’t just walk away after eight hours. Similarly, when we are at work, we’re still parents. When we’re at the gym, or in the car, or while they’re sleeping, we still think and worry and plan around our kids. It can take up so much mental energy, especially during the first five years, simultaneous with trying to be a functional, responsible adult.

Frida is in obvious intense burnout when she has her very bad day. When she loses her custody before her court date, you’d expect the extra free time would help get her ducks in a row. Instead, Frida falls into a deeper depression. All of this is made worse by a social worker, who again is not a parent, judging and making demands during her short, supervised child visits.

I enjoy my kid-free time, but if someone were to forcibly take my kids away, that is actual loss. It’s not like dropping an inconvenient obligation. In the book, Frida is in varying stages on depression throughout her year in the mothering program, several times contemplating suicide.

In those first chapters, I could feel myself looking for reasons. “If she was a good mother, how could she just leave her kid? How do you justify that?”. The truth is, I understand it completely.

When I’m in burnout, I find myself making aggressive comments. I’m short-tempered, irritated, and find myself seriously questioning if I am a bad mother. I love my kids. I hate this right now. Back and forth, back and forth. It sounds completely paradoxical and I have to really reel myself back in.

Please please please don’t take parental burnout or PPD/PPR/PPA lightly. Or think that once you get out of a bout of burnout that you’re suddenly cured and it’ll never happen again.

  • Humanity

So many times in the course of reading this book, I audibly said, “Omigod, give this woman a break.”

On social media, I’ve been seeing people posting more often about giving yourself grace; a little room, a little forgiveness, a little compassion.

Throughout the book, from Frida’s initial interrogation through her sentencing and through the program, you see this loss of humanity; the leeway allowed for being human and making mistakes. If the mothers fail to complete the program, they are put on a Bad Mother watch list, similar to a sexual predator list.

Frida is beat down so many times by people who have never stopped to consider circumstances beyond the surface. Even the A.I. doll who she grows to love continuously shows lower than average readings because her design is based on such a flawed metric.

Throughout, the women in the program are made to recite this mantra: “I am a bad mother, but I’m learning to do better.” Touching on the fact that if you keep telling someone that they are bad, they will eventually believe it and become it. (It’s also worth noting that the men in the program do not have to recite anything.)

It’s heart-breaking to see the shame and condescension put on these women who know very well that they have made mistakes. A person cannot grow to become better if they are surrounded by negativity, punishment, and judgement. So in addition to giving yourself a little grace, allow it for others as well.

There are so many different layers of this book to explore: economic bias, racial and gender bias, punishment versus rehabilitation. I love this book for showing the social problems and hypocrisy surrounding parenthood and family law, but it’s infuriating. It’s like Orange is the New Black, but for moms.

I came out of this book wanting to fight madly for my kids, and to normalize the real experiences of motherhood.

I want you to read this book for the sole purpose of reclaiming what being a parent means to you, and understanding how complex, irrational, passionate, and personal parenthood can be.

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