The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan is a story that makes you question the role of an ideal mother and the perils of modern parenting. An excerpt:
It’s the first Tuesday in September, the afternoon of her one very bad day, and Frida is trying to stay on the road. On the voice mail, the officer tells her to come to the station immediately. She pauses the message, puts down her phone. It’s 2:46 p.m. She meant to get home an hour and a half ago. She pulls onto the first side street off Grays Ferry and double-parks. She calls back and begins apologizing, explaining that she lost track of time.
“Is she okay?”
The officer says the child is safe. “Ma’am, we’ve been trying to reach you.”
Frida hangs up and calls Gust, has to leave a message. He needs to meet her at the station at Eleventh and Wharton. “There’s a problem. It’s Harriet.” Her voice catches. She repeats the officer’s promise that their daughter is safe.
As she begins driving again, she reminds herself to stay under the speed limit, to avoid running red lights, to breathe. All through Labor Day weekend, she felt frantic. Last Friday and Saturday, she had her usual insomnia, sleeping two hours each night. On Sunday, when Gust dropped off Harriet for Frida’s three and a half days of custody, Harriet was in the throes of an ear infection. That night, Frida slept ninety minutes. Last night, an hour. Harriet’s crying has been relentless, too big for her body, too loud for the walls of their tiny house to absorb. Frida did what she could. She sang lullabies, rubbed Harriet’s chest, gave her extra milk. She laid on the floor next to Harriet’s crib, held her impossibly perfect hand through the bars, kissed her knuckles, her fingernails, feeling for the ones that needed to be trimmed, praying for Harriet’s eyes to close.
The afternoon sun is burning as Frida pulls up to the station, located two blocks from her house in an old Italian neighborhood in South Philly. She parks and rushes to the reception desk, asks if the receptionist has seen her daughter, a toddler, eighteen months old; half Chinese, half white; big brown eyes, curly dark brown hair with bangs.
“You must be the mother,” the receptionist says.
The receptionist, an elderly white woman wearing a smear of pink lipstick, emerges from behind the desk. Her eyes flick over Frida from head to toe, pausing at Frida’s feet, her worn-out Birkenstocks. The station seems to be mostly empty. The receptionist walks with halting steps, favoring her left leg. She leads Frida down the hall and deposits her in a windowless interrogation room where the walls are a cloying mint green. Frida sits. In crime movies she’s seen, the lights are always flickering, but here the glare is steady. She has goose bumps, wishes for a jacket or scarf. Though she’s often exhausted on the days she has Harriet, now there’s a weight bearing down on her chest, an ache that has passed into her bones, numbing her.
She rubs her arms, her attention fading in and out. She retrieves her phone from the bottom of her purse, cursing herself for not seeing the officer’s messages immediately, for having silenced her phone this morning after getting fed up with endless robocalls, for having forgotten to turn the ringer back on. In the past twenty minutes, Gust has called six times and sent a stream of worried texts.
Here, she writes finally. Come soon. She should call back, but she’s afraid. During her half of the week, Gust calls every night to find out if Harriet has new words or motor skills. She hates the disappointment in his voice when she fails to deliver. But Harriet is changing in other ways: a stronger grip, noticing a new detail in a book, holding Frida’s gaze longer when they kiss good night.
Resting her forearms on the metal table, Frida puts her head down and falls asleep for a split second. She looks up and spots a camera in the corner of the ceiling. Her mind returns to Harriet. She’ll buy a carton of strawberry ice cream, Harriet’s favorite. When they get home, she’ll let Harriet play in the tub as long as she wants. She’ll read Harriet extra books at bedtime. I Am a Bunny. Corduroy.
The officers enter without knocking. Officer Brunner, the one who called, is a burly white man in his twenties with acne at the corners of his mouth. Officer Harris is a middle-aged Black man with a perfectly groomed mustache and strong shoulders. She stands and shakes hands with both of them. They ask to see her driver’s license, confirm that she’s Frida Liu.
“Where is my baby?”
Excerpted with permission from PRHUK.