CBR 14 Bingo – Font (for the font of knowledge you’d get from this amazing school for mothers! jk)
This novel would be well suited for a book club – it’s accessible and easy to read, while also brimming with topics that groups (largely of women, often of mothers) enjoy debating. The book has a point of view, but it also leaves a lot of room for the reader to consider and interpret. The title begs the question – what is a “good” mother? Is the experience of mothering something that can be taught, and evaluated by society? What is the role of society in mothering anyway? (Don’t we expect a society to prepare citizens, would that also mean that we expect society to take charge of parenting for a variety of reasons?).
The plot revolves around Frida, mother to Harriet, who is not yet two years old. One day, Frida, overwhelmed by motherhood and a mentally demanding job and the pain of her husband Gust leaving her for the other-worldly Susanna, Frida makes a bad choice. She leaves the house, at first to get coffee, then to pick up papers she needs from work, and then just to stay OUT for a while, and by the time she returns, her life is turned upside down. Before she left the house, she secured baby Harriet in an exersaucer and left her home alone – and that one decision mires her in a bureaucratic nightmare. Frida must attend a year-long re-education program for mothers, complete with robot-children substitutes, racism, sexism, and psychologically damaging “units” about motherhood.
While the premise seems dystopian, it’s actually not quite as far from reality as one would hope. People do lose their children to “the system”, often based on an event that, while not great for the child in question, can have multiple interpretations. Yes, these people are not perfect parents, and sometimes that egregious – but it’s always only other humans who are deciding when the circumstances merit removal of the child, and sometimes other humans take the concept of protecting a child beyond its reasonable point. Sometimes, it’s just one bad day, one bad moment, and the parent, without any intervention from the state, can do better. Is it permanently damaging to a child to have an imperfect parent? If a child falls due to inattention from a parent, or is left alone for a long time, is there a way to repair that harm? When parents genuinely love their children, is it more important to have a “good” parent or is “good enough” okay, even if it means sometimes children are harmed?
It’s really hard to think about the level of harm at which someone should intervene in parenting. As a mandated reporter, I can and have reported cases of suspected abuse and neglect – so I’m participating in that system, too, because I do think that we have a better society when we protect children. But as a mother, and a human who has occasionally had a bad day (sure, it hasn’t been to the level of texting while my kid falls out of a tree, or leaving my baby unattended at home, but anyone who had children in March 2020 probably has a story or two about parenting on autopilot that doesn’t reflect awesomely on them) I know how devastating it would be to have someone else judge me by my worst day, rather than the love that I have for my kids.
Although some situations feel a bit far fetched, I think the story remained rooted in a complex narrator. The role of race was mentioned, considered by the narrator (an Asian woman) and other characters – I think it could have gone even farther with this, but the racism and sexism inherent in the system were made very clear in this novel. It’s well worth a read!