“The School for Good Mothers” by Jessamine Chan

This is a quick and interesting read — a thought provoking premise and plot, though it does drag in patches. The novel is mainly about the insanely unrealistic societal expectation of what makes a “good mother.” Other themes include gender and race inequity, model minority bias, mental illness, governmental intrusion and oversight, etc.

Frida is the narrator, a new mother coming apart at the seams, the only daughter of immigrant Chinese parents. In a nutshell, on page 1, Frida has a “bad day” (her words, oft repeated) and walks out leaving her toddler unattended for a few hours. Child protective services gets involved and the rest is a mixed bag with a little bit of a plot, mostly showcasing how absurd it is to try and find a metric for what makes a good mother. The plot line is weak, but the vignettes are powerful. The author dwells at length on Frida’s internal monologue — about her childhood, her marriage, her conflicted feelings about her child and the overwhelmed feeling that all parents know only too well. Also powerful are the stories of the women Frida meets in the Orwellian state-run re-education school that purportedly will teach her to be a good mother.

Most devastating are the standards for being a “good mother” — they are absurd, self-contradictory, and set a bar virtually impossible to meet. If you add in the need for most women to earn a living, to eat and sleep and care for themselves and others, being the ideal mother becomes an even crazier pipe dream. In the satirical presentation of these “good mother” standards, the author is making the point that societal and cultural expectations are warped and pushing women to unreasonable lengths.

Relatively few books I have read mention the duality of parents’ intense emotions towards a baby or toddler. At times, you cannot bear to be apart from your child and at times you simply want to be alone for a breath (or an hour, a day, a week!). There is little understanding and acceptance of this conflict and a lot of judgmental attitudes. The School for Good Mothers brings up this ambivalence and also the harshness with which it is vilified not only by outsiders, but by the very women who experience it.

The details of the weeks and months spent in the reeducation program dragged a little, as did Frida’s occasionally annoying neediness. But all in all, I would recommend this for a quick read and some deep thinking.

The School for Good Mothers
Author: Jessamine Chan
Publisher: ‎ Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: January 2022

Contributor: Seema Varma is a reader of fiction — fantasy, mystery and more

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