The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

This is one of those books that takes an every day event and pushes it just past the line of ‘that couldn’t/wouldn’t happen’ here. The event in question is when Frida, a new mother exhausted from lack of sleep, her husband leaving her and demanding work, goes out for a cup of coffee and to pick up a file from the office and loses track of time. By the time she looks at her watch, children’s services have her child, Harriet, and she has to go to the police station to answer some questions. And everything else stems from this one error.

Her ex-husband and his new girlfriend take custody of Harriet and Frida has cameras set up in her house to monitor her: to watch how she behaves, what she has in her fridge and how she responds to daily life. However, the male judge is still not satisfied that she has shown she can ge a good mother and so she has to attend a new programme for a year that is part prison part school to learn with an AI doll built to be similar in age to her daughter. The robots are not quite ready for use but the Easter egg hunt is one event that does go ahead ending in a debacle of hitting and snatching eggs away from others.

She is a bad mother for never taking Harriet to an egg hunt. Easter was one of those holidays when her parents tried hard to be American. There was a trip to St. Louis when she was in elementary school, a pink frilly dress. Her mother had her wear a white straw hat, even though white is the color of mourning.


What part do cultural influences play in being a good mother? In the book, Frida is not Chinese enough because she doesn’t speak mandarin to her child and not American enough in other respects. She can’t win!

It is almost impossible to pass the tests at the school to prove how ‘good’ you are – most mothers must feel like this at some point and it is the focus of the book. Can we measure what a good mother is? What about supporting mothers who need it or even those who don’t think they do? Would this support look and feel like a school/prison? Should people be punished after one misjudgement with no possibility of ever seeing their children again? What does it mean to be a good father? Should parents be judged by people who do not have children?

These questions are so pertinent to our times. Covid has meant that families have been shut away, possibly at their most difficult times with no one to help and now social services are overwhelmed. It is at these times when mistakes are made – by both parents and the state. Where is the safety net?

The three front covers are interesting and I agree that it must be quite difficult to sum this book up through an illustration. The first one gives the impression of a haunted school and is not really at all reflective of the content. You might be a bit disappointed if you picked the book up based on that cover. The second does give the impression of never-endingness which is related to the fact that you can’t win but quite abstract. I think the third is probably the best front cover to depict what the book is about, an empty cot signifiying that a child has been ‘taken away’ although at this point you don’t know that it is the state that has done this.

Which would you say best represents the book?

If you like this book, you might like:

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

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