Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is
to watch the year repeat its days.
It is as if I could dip my hand down
into time and scoop up
blue and green lozenges of April heat
a year ago in another country.
—Anne Carson, Glass, Irony and God
On the day she gave me away, my very bad mother told me I was the love of her life. I was twenty, legally an adult but still very much a child, and after a series of very bad days, over the course of some very bad years, I told my mother she was toxic, abusive, and that I needed space. My mother seemed to interpret this as the rejection of a lover—she wanted all of me or nothing—and in the seven years since, we haven’t been mother and daughter.
But I still think about that day. I still think about the rivers of stretchmarks on her stomach, the ones I used to trace with my chubby finger when I was a toddler. Now, I let my hand swim down the rivers of my own stretch marks, on a belly that has housed life but not brought life to fruition.
My life has been defined by having a very bad mother, by worrying that I will be one too—an unavoidable inheritance. Even now, after tens of thousands of dollars spent on therapy, I still sometimes want my mother to be punished. Against all my professed abolitionist values, I want my mother to pay for being a very bad mother. But who will punish her for being a bad mother? Who will punish me?
In Jessamine Chan’s debut novel, The School for Good Mothers, the question of how to punish bad mothers is answered by the state, in an America not much different from our own. The main character is not a very bad mother, but she does have a very bad day, and she does a very bad thing. On her very bad day, sleep deprived and divorce-weary Frida, an upper-middle-class 38-year-old Chinese American mom, leaves her 18-month-old baby, Harriet, at home for two-and-a-half hours. Frida plops Harriet in a baby saucer that Harriet is growing too big for (and could conceivably climb out of) and then she walks out of the house. Frida leaves while her baby’s back is turned, before Harriet can conceptualize that she’s being abandoned.
Frida spends every second following that moment atoning for her decision, regretting the two-and-a-half hours that she spent partially out of her body, partially out of her life. A Good Samaritan hears Harriet screaming and calls the police, who tell Frida to come to the station where her journey of criminalization begins. Harriet is then given over to Frida’s white ex-husband, Gust, and his young, white girlfriend Susanna, who Gust left Frida for when Harriet was only three months old. Frida begins a year-long separation from her baby, all imposed by the state and exacerbated by Susanna’s increasing role in Harriet’s life as Frida is incarcerated. She is given the choice to either enroll in a “school” that trains America’s bad mothers or lose custody of Harriet forever; not much of a choice at all.
The school is part of a secretive and revamped parenting education program run by Child Protective Services, one that Frida’s lawyer says focuses “on transparency and accountability, something about data collection, giving parents more opportunities to prove themselves.” (The lawyer says this before knowing any concrete details.) Frida is surprised when she hears about this, saying she heard nothing about it in the news. “You probably didn’t pay attention, because it didn’t apply to you. Why would you?” her lawyer responds.
Chan is an exceedingly impressive writer. One can imagine her playing the role of surgeon, calmly humming as she threads, trims, and carves this gorgeous story. This dystopian book isn’t about the end of the world, but it’s still deeply apocalyptic. It’s about the potential end of one woman’s world—her relationship with her daughter—as she disappears into the jowls of the state. When children are so young that their age is measured in months, every second away from their parents sears unbearably—the kind of pain strong enough to render both parent and child unable to function.
“Preserve them,” Frida prays on Chinese New Year while locked in the school where she can only discuss herself in relation to her daughter. She’s frozen in time while her loved ones age and change. “Preserve them,” Frida prays, hoping that perhaps, if she follows the rules well enough, if she moves through the days without jumping to her death or going crazy, her world might stop ending, and she might be reunited with her daughter. This suspension, this further subsummation of the self into the identity of the mother while also being deprived of the ability to mother, is a key part of the atonement that the state demands from Frida.
“I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good,” the school’s
prisoners attendees recite, an invocation with an undercurrent of both rage and hope. How many times must they say it before their children are returned?
Chan didn’t write this book about the Trump era or the dismantling of abortion rights by the Supreme Court, but the connections resonate. Given recent events, dystopian fiction authors are generally finding it increasingly difficult to shock their readers. Plot points about fascist conservative populism mapped out in 2014 came true in 2016, and plot points about losing abortion rights came true in 2021. In light of what is happening in Texas and in many U.S. states, Leni Zumas’s beautifully written 2018 novel, Red Clocks, which depicts an America where abortion, IVF, and single people adopting are all illegal, feels almost dated. The moral arc of the universe is plummeting, and the genre can’t keep up.
Smartly, Chan decides not to aim to shock, scintillate, or overwhelm her readers with detail after detail of the society that Frida resides within; in one interview, Chan described her approach as “dystopian minimalism.” Other than the overhaul of CPS’s Parenting Education Department, hints of political turmoil come and go quickly, like a passing mention of how many liberal arts colleges have gone bankrupt in the past decade (the school is set in an abandoned one).
“I’m really interested in really minimalist world building,” Chan tells Bitch. “As a writer, I just like cutting things. I didn’t want to get bogged down in saying, ‘Here are the Supreme Court cases, and here is the new bureaucracy.’ I just wanted to give readers a hint, whatever couple of lines were enough to set off their imaginations to fill in the rest.”
It’s a tactic that works well for gender-based dystopia, which often, in its mission to shock readers, ignores existing and historical oppression based on race and gender. Chan’s world does not falter here. Frida constantly grapples with and reflects on how her race both protects her from and makes her more vulnerable to the state. Black and Latinx characters—as well as low income and mentally ill characters—are given stronger voices to illustrate how commonplace this policing has been for the most marginalized of parents. The horror of The School for Good Mothers is not that upper-middle class white women are having their children taken away—indeed, the racial makeup of the school is overwhelmingly Black and Latinx with a smattering of white mothers, and Frida is the only Asian—it is about the horror of a system that has always criminalized mothers and separated families. Chan does not invent or ignore social issues, she moves within and through them, creating a compelling read.
“I was really shocked when I did a little bit of reading on the subject,” says Chan. “You would think that the parents who get in trouble with Child Protective Services have beaten their children because that’s what we see in the news, but it turns out that the majority are punished for a really broad category called neglect, which can mean all sorts of things. And in some cases, it just means poverty. I went down the rabbit hole of reading about moms who had lost custody of their children, [and I was struck by] how much of it was impacted by race and class and how much of the surveillance they were under by the police and the community (social workers, teachers, and doctors) was influenced by race and class. [I was also struck by] the kind of innocuous offenses they had been punished for.”
She added: “I wanted to at least gesture toward those real-life dynamics, even if the world I’m depicting is much more of a social satire, and I’m using some of the speculative elements both to raise the stakes and try to capture some of those dynamics.”
“I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good,” the school’s
prisonersattendees recite, an invocation with an undercurrent of both rage and hope. How many times must they say it before their children are returned?
Like one of her favorite dystopian novels, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Chan’s novel is “not following the genre conventions in terms of world building. I was really doing it in much more bare strokes,” says Chan, in an effort to “create more of a mood rather than trying to create a totally different world. I would love the mood and the emotion and the characters to resonate over time.”
The mood of The School for Good Mothers is, for most of it anyway, confusion and rage. Then there are undercurrents of profound loneliness, starvation of love and hope, and dry humor. Above all, there is violation. There are countless violations on a spectrum, from Gust’s abandonment of Frida to Frida getting her phone “privileges” repeatedly revoked—causing her to lose precious time and forget precious details of her child’s face. There are violations of Frida’s heart, mind, body, and autonomy. Chan writes Frida and Harriet’s separation vividly, a violation almost as intimate as if the state reached into the wet cavity of Frida’s stomach and pulled her child en caul.
Technology intersects with old prejudices to reshape how these “bad mothers” experience state oppression. Before putting her in the school, the authorities monitor Frida, using cameras that collect data to analyze her feelings (of course, the data reveals to them that she is an unfit mother). In the school, she’s handed a creepy life-like toddler doll, which honestly doesn’t feel too outlandish in 2022, that measures her heart rate, facial expressions, temperature, tone, and so on, all determining whether she is learning to be a fit mother. Author Kim Brooks looks at similar issues in her memoir, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, where she recounts the consequences she faced after leaving her son in the car while she went into Target. She explores the real-life company Cognition Builders, whose “family architects” use webcams to embed themselves into a family’s home, providing parenting instructions in real time over a period of months or even years. And, of course, this privilege of surveillance costs an astronomical amount of money.
But there is a difference between the surveillance you pay for—surveillance that is meant to signal class privilege, an investment in a kind of American upper-middle class parenthood that Brooks calls a “new kind of secular religion”—and the surveillance that the state imposes through far-reaching punitive measures for nearly every marginalized person in society. The surveillance in The School for Good Mothers may feel thematically similar to Cognition Builders, but the difference is the fear, the inescapable nature of it. Perhaps what does link them, though, is shame: the universal shame that we can never be good enough parents, that someone is always watching and judging. American parenting in the age of fear is all about shame.
Along with anxiety and fear, shame has come to define modern motherhood. Unlike Brooks, Frida’s offense lies just outside of the realm of defense. We can understand why Frida left an 18-month-old alone for two-and-a-half hours while she escaped for a coffee. We can empathize. But at the end of the day, it’s still two-and-a-half hours and most would never brush it off saying, “she was fine.” Frida feels the shame keenly, and in one vivid scene, the other moms who have physically abused their children identify with her and comfort her. Like my own fear that I will be like my abusive mother, this scene sinks Frida deeper into shame. Are these very bad mothers mirrors of her? The question is haunting.
“I was really interested in a very messy Chinese American heroine,” Chan says, noting that she wanted Frida to grow over the course of the story through these connections with the other mothers. “But I was also interested in exploring her guilt and shame over the very bad day. It is very hard for her to forgive herself for doing something that shapes her family’s life forever.”
It’s undeniable that Frida did something wrong, but the book makes us think about the scale of her wrongdoing, how she should atone, and what an actual solution might be. Every possible option to improve this situation—more quality time with Harriet, a nanny, a therapist for Frida, Gust contributing more financially, Frida’s parents flying in to aid her, Gust moving to a city where Frida has more support—is ignored, never given a chance. Instead, she faces pointless lessons in “motherese” that include caring for a realistic robot doll; she’s forced to practice hug sequences on this symbolic daughter as an apology, as she suffers the pain of losing her human daughter forever. The inanity of the prison-industrial system—inseparable from CPS—is inescapable.
This exploration between penance and resistance, the tension between moms who are hitters and moms who are nonhitters, makes The School for Good Mothers a (perhaps unintentional) commentary on abolition. The book constantly challenges us by presenting mothers who did something as simple as letting an 8-year-old walk two blocks to the library to presenting mothers who burned their children with cigarettes. It asks, “Is she a bad mother? Does she deserve to be here? Will it help her or her children?” No matter what the offense, the answer to the third question is always a resounding no. Very few characters are the picture of sympathy; they are people for whom outrage is usually nursed. Those are uncomfortable questions to ask in a society obsessed with punishment, obsessed with lessons and consequences and incarceration. Chan does not offer policy solutions to these questions, but she asks them, which is sometimes even more powerful.