Frida is tired from caring for her sick toddler, Harriet, and running on little sleep for days. In a moment of exhaustion and bad judgment, she walks out of the house, leaving Harriet alone for two hours. A neighbor reports her to the police and Frida loses custody of Harriet. In order to get her back, Frida needs to spend one year at a new school intended to retrain bad mothers into the state’s vision of a perfect mother. Along with the other women at the school, Frida must care for a lifelike AI doll and go through a series of exams to prove her fitness as a mother. As these exams prove increasingly challenging and the metrics for success change constantly, Frida begins to lose hope of ever having custody of her daughter again.
This is the kind of book that makes your heart ache from page one and it never stops aching. I thought it was beautifully and compellingly written, but I found it to be a tough, haunting read.
When Frida walked out of the house and left Harriet alone, I immediately got a sinking feeling in my stomach. I’m not a mom, but I can see how a person could get to that point when they’re caring for a sick child, not sleeping, and having to do everything on their own because they recently were left by a cheating husband. It’s just so much to take on, and I think we as a society expect so much from mothers. At the same time, I am a mandatory reporter and I would’ve absolutely reported Frida for neglect. I think the point of the story is for us to live in that uncertainty- understanding how it got to that point while also feeling like that will never be us.
I think the most gut-wrenching part of the story is when the School for Bad Fathers is introduced into the story and we see in stark clarity the double standard of parenting. The women in the school are made to repeat the mantras, “I am a narcissist. I am a danger to my child.” and “I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good.” At the men’s school, no such mantras exist. The men have a much more relaxed atmosphere and never have their phone calls taken away as punishment. For the men, this school is a minor inconvenience on the road to reclaiming their child, while for the women it is a deeply traumatic experience that almost inevitably ends in disappointment or tragedy.
I think this novel makes for great discussion of what society expects from women versus men. There is no way for a woman to win, everything she does is manipulated to suit the state’s narrative. The women go through invasive monitoring where every small movement is analyzed and used against them. Though it is a dystopian drama, there are some really pertinent points about parenting that apply to our society today.
There are so many layers to the story and each layer is cloaked in a feeling of desperation and isolation that was hard to embody for so many pages. Still, I think it’s an excellent and thought-provoking book that is well worth the pain!
CW: child abuse, death, suicide, depression, talk of miscariage, emotional abuse, racism