What To Expect When You’re Expecting the Unexpected

‘School For Good Mothers’ is a helicopter-parenting dystopia

Everyone likes to judge how mothers take care of their children.

Jessamine Chan takes this idea and runs with it, spinning a debut novel that has elements of The Handmaid’s Tale and Orange is the New Black but is altogether new and terrifying. The School for Good Mothers is not one you want to attend.

The School For Good Mothers

Frida Liu struggles as mother to toddler Harriet. Her ex, Gust, has set up house with lithe Susanna, younger and full of Instagrammable parenting advice. Frida’s boss is peevish, the demands of solo parenting unrelenting. It adds up to what she calls her “very bad day.”

She parks Harriet in the exersaucer so she can dash to the office to pick up a file. Alas, she loses track of time, and the police phone her. The neighbors heard Harriet crying. Her daughter is down at the station. Can she come in?

It’s a believable set-up and the first of many smart plotting decisions from Chan. Her ability to nudge the story along from relatable frazzle to police procedural to emotion-laden court fight lulls the reader into expecting a more conventional tale.

Instead, here comes dystopia. A judge sends Frida to a year-long stint at the school of the novel’s title. It’s a new residential program, her lawyer explains, and she’ll have weekly video phone calls with Harriet, who will live with Gust and Susanna while Frida learns how to be a better mother.

Quickly, despair mounts. The childless women who run the quasi-prison unveil a series of skills each mother must master, a Squid Game-like hierarchy of talents. Failure at any level results in additional “talk circle” or removal of phone privileges. The constant penitence includes the refrain: “I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good.”

What makes this all the more wrenching is that the government-run school’s syllabus mirrors real cultural pressures. Good mothers are self-sacrificing, and also perfect. They anticipate their children’s needs and calm distraught toddlers within minutes. They never yell.

The writer Jessamine Chan (USA), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 17, 2020. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

The School for Good Mothers is also the school for helicopter mothers. They are rarely to let their young charges out of their sight. The group trains to repel kidnappers and pedophiles and rescue a child from a burning building. (A parallel school for fathers which appears later in the book has far less stringent standards.)

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re fighting one person or twelve,” the instructor insists. “A parent should be able to lift a car. Lift a fallen tree. Fend off a bear. … You have to find that strength inside yourself.”

Frida’s childhood as the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants leaves her ill-equipped at times to parse the expectations of those in power. Her own parents share society’s disappointment in her lapses.  Among Frida’s many fears during her isolation is that Harriet will lose touch with her Chinese heritage, since both her ex-husband and his new mate are white.

There are plenty of breezy novels that use harried moms for rueful laughs. The hurdles Frida must clear in The School for Good Mothers, on the other hand, are heartbreaking. Chan’s gift for reflection makes her novel a carnival fun-house mirror, rooted in reality but tilted just enough to make us pay attention.

(Simon & Schuster, Jan. 4, 2022)

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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