The Quick Recap and Chapter-by-Chapter Summary for The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile’s review of The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan.
The two-paragraph version: Frida is a mother who gets reported for neglect when she leaves her baby daughter, Harriet, alone for a few hours. Child Protective Services separates her from Harriet, investigates her and determines that she must enter into a year-long prison-like rehabilitation program to assess her capacity as a mother. In this unforgiving and intrusive environment where they track their every move, the mothers are given lessons and prescriptive instructions on how to raise children, followed by periodic evaluations. They are given life-like robot stand-in doll to work with. They are also taught to ignore their own needs and desires for the sake of the children, and they are told repeatedly that they are bad mothers.
Finally, Frida completes the program, but the judge determines that her performance was unsatisfactory and terminates her rights. In the end, Frida kidnaps Harriet to spend a little more time with her, knowing she will go to jail as a result. She hopes someday as an adult Harriet will come find her and that she can perhaps help Harriet raise her own child.
In Chapters 1 – 4, Frida is contacted by the police that they have her 1-year-old daughter Harriet in their custody after neighbors reported hearing the girl crying in distress. Frida, who shares joint custody of Harriet with her ex-husband Gust, admits her mistake that she left the baby alone for a few hours. Harriet is taken away from Frida and placed with Gust and his young girlfriend Susanna (who Gust cheated on Frida with) while Child Protective Services begins their investigation of Frida.
Soon, cameras are installed in Frida’s home, along with tracking devices on her phone and computer. Frida sleeps poorly and loses weight from the stress. She is given two short visits with Harriet, both of which go poorly. They are rushed, Harriet is distressed by the separation from her mother, and Harriet responds poorly to the social worker’s demands that Frida play with Harriet instead of comforting her.
Finally, when her hearing arrives, Frida is determined to be unstable and a bad mother. She’s ordered to attend a year-long rehabilitation program if she wants any chance of restoring her parental rights.
In Chapters 5 – 7, Frida begins the program in December, which takes place on former college campus. They are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements to prevent them from talking about their experiences in the program. She not permitted to bring personal possessions with her and is assigned a small room and a roommate. They are given jumpsuits to wear along with other basic necessities. They are only permitted to 10 minutes on Sundays to make calls to the outside, and they cannot receive letters or packages.
The mothers there divided into small cohorts based on having children of the same gender and age group. Frida’s group consists of Linda, Lucinda (“Lu”), Beth and Meryl. They are each given alarmingly life-life robot dolls that resemble their own children in terms of age and ethnicity. The dolls run on a type of blue liquid that must be changed monthly in a process that causes the dolls great discomfort.
The mothers are told they need to bond with and treat these dolls like their own children, since they will be assessed accordingly. Frida names hers Emmanuelle. The curriculum for the year consists of a series of units, followed by an evaluation after each unit. The first unit is about care and nurturing, and the mothers slowly start to bond with their dolls. Frida’s first evaluation goes smoothly.
In Chapters 8 – 11, Lu’s doll dies when Lu allows it to play in the snow without a hat or mittens. Lu is distraught and gets into a fight with Linda. It results in Lu’s expulsion, which means she has lost custody of her child permanently.
Soon after, Frida is distressed when she learns that Susanna has put Harriet on a low-carb diet. She ends up pinching Emmanuelle in a fit of frustration. For this offense, Frida is sent to “talk circle”, where the mothers are told to talk about their transgressions, to refer to themselves as “bad” mothers and asked intrusive questions. Frida’s next evaluation — where they are tested in their ability to calm their doll down and put them to bed — goes poorly. Frida loses her Sunday phone privileges, which means she is cut off from contact with Harriet.
A few weeks later, there are two days when all the mothers get their phones back temporarily, and Frida is finally able to call Harriet. It’s part of a lesson on parenting with distractions. Frida is torn between her responsibilities for the doll and her desire to make the most of her contact with Harriet. When their time is up, it turns out all the moms did poorly by indulging in contact with their children instead of staying focused on their dolls. Frida and the rest of the mothers are chastised for poor impulse control and for their “narcissistic” desires.
In Chapters 12 – 13, Frida gets sent to “talk circle” again, this time because she yelled at a boy doll who hit Emmanuelle and refused to apologize. In another lesson about distractions, Frida does poorly when she allows herself to be distracted by them showing her a video of Harriet who is upset about Frida’s absence.
When they hit the six-month mark in the program, Frida is given a brain scan as they evaluate her responses to images of her experiences at the center. They also interview Emmanuelle to see how Frida is progressing as a mother. They determine that Frida’s prognosis (for her chances of having her custody restored) are “poor to fair”.
The next two units are about teaching the dolls how to play peacefully and Frida does well in both of them.
In Chapters 14 – 15, the father’s rehabilitation candidates (housed across the river from them) are bussed in for a picnic to kick off the co-ed portion of their training. Frida meets Tucker, a 40-something father who was reported for negligence when his young son fell out of a tree on his watch. Frida is surprised to learn that the father’s campus is much less restrictive and much more supportive. As they co-ed training continues, Tucker tries to flirt with Frida. While she desires him, she resists his advances since fraternization is off-limits here.
At Frida’s next evaluation, her prognosis is upgraded to “fair” and her phone privileges are restored. She’s surprised to learn that Susanna is now 21 weeks pregnant and that Susanna and Gust are getting married in December. Soon, when Frida is caught flirting with Tucker, her phone privileges are taken away again.
At the end-of-summer, a dance takes place but is interrupted when they determine that three people have escaped from the facility — Meryl (a teen mother), Roxanne (Frida’s roommate) and Colin (one of the fathers).
In Chapters 16 – 17, Frida is placed on a watch list since she was close two of the three escapees. Meanwhile, the next unit is about protecting their dolls from dangerous, and the parents are put required to do things like fight off potential attackers. Like many of their lessons, the setup of these lessons are overly reductive and formulaic. Soon, Tucker’s flirting lands Frida in “talk circle” yet again.
When Meryl shows up again, they learn that she made it home, but her mother reported her and refused to let her see her daughter. Meryl was then brought back here and trapped in the basement for a while.
As the end of the program nears, Susanna gives birth early to a baby boy, Henry, and is at the hospital. Meanwhile, Emmanuelle is doing well and Frida manages to place first in her cohort for the final evaluation, which is about teaching moral responsibility. She has a final brain scan and counseling session. She is feeling hopeful, but she starts to worry when there seems to be focus on her flirtation with Tucker. While she resisted it, she is being criticized for desiring him instead of focusing on mothering Emmanuelle.
At Meryl’s final evaluation, it becomes clear that Meryl is unlikely to get custody of her daughter, Ocean. Moreover, social workers have deemed her mother and the baby’s father as unsuitable guardians. Therefore, it is likely Ocean will be sent to foster care. That night, Meryl kills herself.
In Chapter 18, Frida’s final hearing determines that she is not a fit mother, and she permanently loses custody of Harriet. She is also not allowed to reach out to Harriet. She has a final 30-minute visit with Harriet, which is tearful and upsetting. Since Frida gave up her apartment and job to attend the rehabilitation program, Frida is now staying with Will, a friend who is also Gust’s best friend.
Frida attempts to move on with her life. However, one night Gust gets called to the hospital regarding baby Henry, he asks Will to watch Harriet. Frida decides to ask Will to let her in when Harriet is asleep so she can watch Harriet sleep. Will reluctantly agrees, and he steps out to give her some privacy. When he does, Frida packs up Harriet’s things and drives off with Harriet.
The book ends with Frida driving down the highway with Harriet, knowing that she will be stopped and locked up at some point. However, she wanted to spend a little more time with Harriet. Frida hopes that someday when Harriet is older she will seek Frida out, and Frida hopes that if Harriet has her own kids someday that she can help raise them. Frida also puts a photo of herself and Emmanuelle in Harriet’s pocket in the hope that Gust and Susanna will find it and ask her lawyer about it so there will be inquiries into what is going on exactly at the rehabilitation center.
In the afternoon on the first Thursday of September, Frida, 39, receives a phone call letting her know that her baby daughter, Harriet, is at the police station. She calls her ex-husband, Gust, who she shares custody of Harriet with, to let him know as well.
At the station, they chide Frida for leaving Harriet alone for two hours while she went to work to grab a file. They explain that the neighbors heard the baby’s cries. Frida thinks about how she had placed Harriet in the ExerSaucer so that Harriet couldn’t go anywhere so that she could pop into the office quickly. However, she’d lost track of time answering e-mails.
Frida had been worried about keeping her boss happy since she didn’t want to lose her work-from-home privilege which she had negotiated to able to watch Harriet on the days she had custody. She needed the job since Gust was only paying a small amount in child support since his job didn’t pay much either. Frida had originally given up her job in New York for them, but she hadn’t asked for alimony.
At the station, Gust, 42, and his wife Susanna, 28, arrive. Susanna, a former dancer, gives Frida a hug, though Gust gives Frida a hard time, saying that she should’ve called them if she needed help. Gust, a landscape architect, tells Frida that he’ll be taking Harriet home with him for now. Frida originally moved to Philly from Brooklyn with Gust for his work. Frida has no support system here and only a few acquaintances.
After Gust and Susanna leave with Harriet, the social worker meets with Frida. The social worker confronts Frida with how Harriet was crying when she was left alone and wound up dehydrated by the time they got to her. She also brings up how dirty the house was when they found Harriet. Frida tries to explain how she simply had one bad day and isn’t a terrible mother. Privately, she admits to herself that she just wanted a quick break from Harriet and then she enjoyed the break so much that stayed away longer than she should have.
Finally, the social worker then lets Frida know that Harriet will need to undergo therapy and that both Frida and Harriet will need to be evaluated. Frida returns home and cleans the house and wearily sleeps. When she wakes, she sees that she’s missed e-mails from her boss. She calls him back, apologizes and asks for an extension on what she’s working on. Frida then contacts her divorce lawyer.
That afternoon, Frida meets with Renee, her divorce lawyer, who chides her for not calling her yesterday. Renee also tries to impress upon her that this is a serious situation and that she could lose custody over this. Renee acknowledges that leaving their children alone is something that mothers do sometimes, but the difference here is that Frida got caught doing it. Renee tells her to be deferential to CPS (Child Protective Services).
The next morning, men from CPS arrive and let Frida know that they’ll be installing cameras around her house to analyze her. They’ll also be tracking her calls, text and internet usage. They ask her to sign a form to consent to the surveillance. They then install all their equipment, and back in their office they turn on the live feed.
Harriet stays at work late the next day, reluctant to go home to be surveilled. Renee tells her about how CPS has been revamping their methods lately and that they have limited information about what to expect. Renee also tells her to be careful what she searches for online, since trying to get information on what’s happening could be interpreted as defiance.
Back at home, Frida thinks about how last year in May she found the illicit, sexual photos of Gust and Susanna together on his phone. She knew they must’ve been taken that February when she had been 9 months pregnant and on bed rest. The next morning, Frida had asked Gust to cut things off with Susanna, but he’d eventually decided he was in love with her and that he wanted a divorce. Gust had then convinced Frida that a no-fault divorce was what was best for Harriet.
Last year in June, when Frida and Gust had been separated for a few weeks, Frida finally met Susanna. Frida remembered how Gust looked happy with her.
When it came to raising Harriet, Frida also thinks about how the playground mothers had “frightened” her, with their fervor and skill for parenting. Frida felt comparatively unprepared and didn’t like the endless talk about child-rearing.
In present day, Frida feels in need of some company and gets together will a friend. Will is Gust’s best friend, but he’s always had a crush on Frida. She meets Will at his place, and she tells him about what’s been going on. He listens thoughtfully. Then, she suggests some physical intimacy. He resists, but Frida insists, longing for someone’s touch, until she finally stops, realizing what she’s doing, apologizes and leaves.
A week after the incident, Frida meets with the child psychologist. He films the session, and he starts by asking about her family history. She explains that her parents are immigrants from China, both retired economics professors. They live in Evanston, Illinois, where Frida grew up.
As they talk about the incident in question, Frida acknowledges that she made a mistake and that she’s someone who is still “figuring out how to juggle everything”. The psychologist continues to ask her questions about things like her work schedule or how often she allows Harriet to play alone or her thoughts on child-rearing or her own upbringing. He also asks her about Gust and Susanna, and Frida indicates how she’s against Susanna doing a lot of the childcare on Gust’s behalf since she (Frida) had never agreed to that.
A short while later, Frida gets together with Will again. She tells him about having met up with the social worker the day before and the barrage of questions she’d answered about herself. Moreover, tomorrow morning she’d have her first supervised visit with Harriet where they would continue to analyze her behavior. Afterwards, Frida and Will have sex.
The next morning, Frida shows up for her one-hour supervised visit with Harriet at Gust’s house. The social worker, Ms. Torres, arrives 18 minutes late, so it means that her time with Harriet will be reduced accordingly. At the playdate, Frida is chastised when she whispers to Harriet or blocks the view of Harriet’s face. She’s instructed to hurry up and start actively playing with Harriet instead of just showing her affection.
However, when Frida tries to put Harriet down so that she can play, Harriet is upset and throws a temper tantrum. Harriet also seems to identify that Ms. Torres is the problem here, and Harriet ends up biting Ms. Torres.
As Harriet gets some ice for Ms. Torres and Gust tries to calm Harriet down, the visit is over. Frida tries to tell herself that the next two visits will go more smoothly so that she can prove that she’s a good mother.
Three weeks after the incident, Frida’s next visitation is planned, but get pushed back due to a scheduling conflict for the social worker. Meanwhile, Renee is concerned about how the first visitation went and how it will reflect poorly on Frida. She plans to argue that it was caused by the disruption to Harriet’s life and the strict circumstances under which she was ordered to play.
As the days pass, the second visitation continues to be rescheduled again and again by the social worker. Frida has lost weight and has no appetite. Will has been calling, but Frida is uninterested in getting together with him. At work, she often cries in the bathroom, which makes her boss uncomfortable. She hasn’t told any of her co-workers about what’s been going on with Harriet. Meanwhile, Harriet has finally told her parents, who wired her $10,000 for her legal fees.
At the end of October, the second visitation finally arrives, and Frida goes to Gus and Susanna’s. Frida notices how friendly the social worker is with Susanna and she resents the time wasted (that she won’t be able to spend with Harriet) as the two chit-chat.
By the time Frida can see Harriet, they only have 23 minutes left to spend together. When Harriet spots Susanna and Gus leaving the house, at the social worker’s request, Harriet gets upset and starts to scream. The screaming gives her a nosebleed, and by the time it’s resolved, there’s only 5 minutes left and Harriet is exhausted.
In the next few days, Frida waits to hear about another visit, but the social worker lets her know that there might not be time for a third visit.
A few weeks later, in November, Frida’s hearing before the judge arrives.
By now, it’s late November, and it’s been 12 weeks since the incident. Since the hearing, Frida has now quit her job, broken her lease and moved her things into storage — all as a result of the judge’s orders. Frida has been ordered to attend a year-long rehabilitation program in order have her custody of Harriet restored. The program is meant to teach Frida to be a better mother.
At the hearing, Frida’s behavior was analyzed and she was described as being resentful and angry and self-pitying. They described her as being “needy” as a mother due to her desire to be with Harriet. They used her history of being on anti-depressants against her. They also noted her weight loss and lack of sleep, and she was described as unstable.
In present day, Frida arrives at the program location, which is taking place at an old liberal arts college and they will be living in a building called the Kemp House. She spent the night before with Will. They were asked to show up with no possessions, including no books, photos or luggage. They’re also not allowed to receive letters or care packages. The mothers are lined up and asked to list their names and offenses, like “Abandonment” or “Neglect” or “Physical abuse”, etc. The process is overseen by the program’s assistant director, Ms. Gibson. When it’s Frida’s turn, she notes that Frida is here for “neglect and abandonment”.
The mothers have all been required to sign non-disclosure agreements, so they won’t be able to discuss the program with others, even after it’s over. They are told that failure to comply with the non-disclosure will result in them being put on the Negligent Parent Registry. A woman named April introduces herself to Frida. She explains that she was reported for spanking her child in a grocery store.
When they are all gathered in the main auditorium, the program’s executive director introduces herself as Ms. Knight. Frida notices that the women here are largely minorities. Ms. Knight explains that this center and the second center for fathers, located across the river, are the first two training programs of their kind to be operational. However, there are more training centers that are planned to be opened around the country. Ms. Knight also explains that they’ll be placed into cohorts and will be training with other mothers that have children of the same gender and who are similar ages. Ms. Knight also asks them to recite a phrase: “I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good”.
Afterwards, in the dining hall, the mothers introduce themselves to one another. When they get their room assignments, Frida sees that she is paired with Helen, a woman who was accused of emotional abusing her 17-year-old son by coddling him too much. Helen is a single mother and has admitted that she liked to do things like cut up her son’s meat for him or tie his shoes. She says that she’s still considering moving to wherever he ends up going to college.
The rooms are simple, with a desk, chair and cupboard for each of them. They’re each given, a set of towels, a blanket and two jumpsuits each. She’s also given boots, a parka, a scarf and a cap. There’s also some undergarments and some basic sanitary items.
As Frida trudges across campus, she thinks about how Gust and Susanna are headed on vacation to Santa Cruz with Harriet on Monday. She also thinks about how her parents were denied telephone privileges with Harriet since the judge didn’t want to confuse Harriet.
That night, the hot water runs out at Frida showers. There are four showers on her floor to be shared with the 26 women who live on that floor. That night, Helen strikes up a conversation about what she thinks the fathers are doing at their camp, but Frida is paranoid about saying anything in case they’re being listened to.
The next morning, a young Black mother named Lucretia (“Lu”) introduces herself to Frida. Lu tells her that she was working as a second grade teacher before this program. Lu ended up here because her daughter fell off a slide and broke her arm. Over breakfast, they gossip about who the worst mother there is. Lu points out Linda, a mother who put her six kids in a hole in the ground. She says that her kids got black mold and got bitten by rats. Lu knows Lucretia from before, but they don’t like each other. Later, Linda confronts Frida, knowing that they’d been gossiping about her. Linda says she only did what she did when her kids were fighting with each other and stealing food from the pantry.
Frida’s instructors for her first class are Ms. Russo and Ms. Khoury. The small group of women are situated in a circle and the women are told to introduce themselves and talk a little about the offenses that landed them there.
Soon, a group of toddlers are brought into their room. The toddlers match the women in terms of racial makeup. They are paired off with the corresponding women and given a chance to interact with them. Then, it’s revealed that the toddlers are actually life-like robots with highly advanced artificial intelligence. They have knobs on their backs. The instructors explain that the robot children were serve as stand-ins for the mothers, but they’re also equipped with cameras and will be collecting data as well. The robots run on a blue liquid and it needs to be changed monthly by the mothers. They are also told to name the robots, and Frida names hers Emmanuelle.
Through these classes, the instructors explain, the mothers will be taught things like how to care for and nurture children. Also, there will be units for things like “Play”, “Dangers Inside and Outside the Home”, and “the Moral Universe”.
Over lunch, the mothers complain to one another about the creepy dolls. Outside, when one of the mothers cries over missing her child’s 4th birthday, the other mothers link arms and surround her, helping to shield her from the prying eyes of the cameras.
That afternoon, the first unit (“Fundamentals of Care and Nurture”) begins. The mothers are told to answer the incessant questions of their dolls and to impart their wisdom on these dolls. Then, they move on to learning about physical affection. They are told to hug the dolls for three seconds at a time, but as Frida thinks about Harriet, she ends up hugging her doll for three whole minutes and being scolded by the instructor.
At the end of the day, word gets out that Helen is quitting the program. As the other mothers gossip about why, Frida knows it’s because Helen had been given a huge creepy doll who insulted her. Helen figures that her son will be turning 18 soon anyway, and then he can come find her. Shortly after, Helen leaves.
When Thanksgiving rolls around, a nice dinner is planned. As they think about their kids, Linda worries about her kids who have all been placed in different foster homes in her absence. Meanwhile, Frida wonders how her parents are handling Thanksgiving and having to explain her current situation to their family.
As the mothers go around to give thanks a fire interrupts the proceeding. Soon, they are interrogated, but they’re unable to ascertain who knocked over the candle that set off the small blaze or whether it was intentional or not. The next morning, more guards are brought in. Over breakfast, they joke about sleeping with the guards.
Later that day, Frida is brought in for a counseling session with a woman named Jacinda Thompson. Mrs. Thompson talks to her about her progress and how her hugs with her doll lack “maternal love”. Frida is given a set of goals involving hugging her doll an eye contact and whatnot.
Over dinner, they continue to talk about which guards they’d want to sleep with. The conversation soon turns to when they each first had sex. Two of the women — a young white woman named Beth (whose daughter was taken away when she checked herself in for psychiatric help) and young teen mom named Meryl (nicknamed “Teen Mom”)– each admit that their first times weren’t exactly voluntary.
On Sunday, the women have phone privileges, but only for 10 minutes. When Frida gets Gus on the line to video chat, Frida asks to speak to Harriet, but Gus and Susanna say that she’s having a nap. After some back-and-forth, they finally agree to wake her up and get Harriet. Harriet becomes distraught when she sees Frida, and before they can talk more the time is up and the screen goes black.
By December, Frida still hasn’t successfully performed a successful “hug sequence” with Emmanuelle. Frida has now been in the program for 11 days. She dislikes how they’re given two maxi pads at a time when they need sanitary items and are forced to continually request more in the same piecemeal fashion. She has a new roommate now, Roxanne. Roxanne’s 5-month-old was taken away after she asked her 12-year-old niece to babysit and she was seen wheeling him around outside.
In class, the instructors practice prompting the dolls to have temper tantrums so that the mothers have to calm them down. When Frida is finally able to calm Emmanuelle down, she’s surprised how good it feels.
When it snows, some of the mothers including Frida are put on snow-shoveling duty. As she shovels alongside Teen Mom, Teen Mom confides in her that she slept with one of the guards. Teen Mom also tells her about her daughter, Ocean, who was taken away due to Teen Mom being found with drugs and because there were some bruises on her daughter’s arms. When Teen Mom admits that she hit her daughter (but only “when she was really bad”), Frida privately thinks about how women who hit their children are worse than the ones who didn’t.
They soon have an evaluation day to see how long it takes them to calm down their doll when it’s upset. In their cohort, Linda does that best. Lucretia passes. Frida barely passes. Beth and Teen Mom don’t pass.
The next week they practice reading from children’s books. Frida thinks about how the last time she spoke to Harriet, she’d been in the car with Gust and Susanna on their way to visit Susanna’s family.
With Christmas coming up soon, Frida has now been at the rehabilitation center for four weeks, and Emmanuelle’s blue liquid needs to be changed. She has to hold Emmanuelle down while she does this, and the doll kicks and screams. The next day, the doll is upset.
Soon, they have a snow day where they take the dolls out to play. Lucretia’s doll complains of not wanting to wear her hat and mittens, so she lets her take them off. The day is cut short when Lucretia’s doll dies. She’s told that the doll malfunctioned from being too cold. In addition to needing to reimburse the school for the cost of the doll, Lucretia has to start over with a new doll.
Over dinner, Linda gives Lucretia a hard time over killing her doll, and she starts a fight with her. When Lucretia finally pushes her away, Linda falls and the guards rush over. Lucretia is expelled as a result, which means she’ll be losing her daughter, Brynn.
As a result of the incident, Lucretia is now gone, and Frida, Teen Mom and Beth no longer sit with Linda during meals. Meanwhile, on Christmas, their class works on changing and other childcare tasks. Frida thinks about the many arguments she and Susanna had over Harriet’s rash cream, since Susanna thought they should only use plant-based products.
When Frida next talks to Harriet, she learns that their household has gone gluten-free and that Harriet has lost weight. Frida spins out over this, imagining that Harriet is being denied food and is going to end up with an eating disorder. In her frustration, Frida starts to feel irritated with Emmanuelle. Finally, she ends up pinching her doll when Emmanuelle won’t leave her alone, and Frida gets sent to “talk circle” which is where mothers go when they’ve done something wrong.
At talk circle, Mrs. Gibson runs the session, and the mothers are told to talk about their wrongdoing and their transgressions from the past. Frida explains how she pinched her doll and how she’s been stressed about the situation with her actual daughter. Once again, Frida is told to verbalize what a bad mother she is.
Mrs. Gibson then asks Frida about her own childhood and considers whether her failings as a mother were the result of “intergenerational trauma”. Frida thinks about how her mother was cold towards her as a child and that she only learned later that her mother had miscarried another child when Frida was young. But Frida declines to tell Mrs. Gibson this story.
After the pinching incident, Emmanuelle is much less bonded with Frida and tells Frida that she hates her. Meanwhile, Frida next call with Harriet reveals that she refers to Susanna as “Mommy” sometimes. Frida ends up getting into an argument with Susanna and Gust about it.
The next evaluation arrives. Frida is given an hour to calm Emmanuelle down, to change her and to get her ready for bed.
In February, Frida is missing Harriet even more after her phone privileges were revoked following her failed evaluation. Meryl (who Frida no longer refers to as “Teen Mom”) and Beth failed theirs as well and lost their phone privileges, too. As Frida gets closer to the other two, Beth tells them about her attempts at suicide over the years.
Meanwhile, Linda’s oldest 16-year-old has run away from his foster home, and Linda is upset over being unable to go look for him. Despite what she did to Lu, the others try to be a little nicer to her.
When the flu goes around the center, many of the moms get sick. Beth asks about taking sick days, but Mrs. Gibson dismisses her request (and makes a note of it in Beth’s file), saying that “It’s not like you can request sick days at home”.
The next unit is about Food and Medicine, and the mothers are put on cooking rotations and trained on feeding their dolls. Frida thinks about her own challenges when it came to feeding Harriet and about how Susanna had criticized her for keeping Harriet on purees (as opposed to whole foods) for too long, which Susanna felt was “hindering Harriet’s development”.
Soon, there’s another doll death — this time of a 11-year-old boy doll who threw himself on the electrified fence. Meanwhile, Chinese New Year passes by, and it’s been weeks since Frida has spoken to Harriet. After the feeding unit, they proceed into illness where they try to nurse their sick dolls.
Meryl is turning 19 soon, in April. She dreads having to spend her birthday in this place. She has also continued to carry on with the guard. She says that he has taken photos of her and given her a cheap locket. Frida tells Meryl to get rid of the locket and to tell him to delete the photos in case she gets caught.
Meanwhile, by the end of February, Linda’s son has now been missing for a full month. Linda soon gets sent to talk circle for shaking her baby, which means she’ll miss the Evaluation for Unit 2, the Food and Medicine unit.
Beth ends up coming in first for their class in the evaluation. Meryl comes second and Frida ends up coming in third. Since Linda missed it, she gets a zero. Linda goes an a food strike and wants her Unit 2 evaluation and trip to the talk circle removed from her record. Three of the other white women have joined her in solidarity.
With many more women having lost phone privileges after the last evaluation, there’s more talk about escaping the center.
When they begin Unit 3, entitled “Reconditioning the Narcissist”, which is about parenting with distractions and stress, the women get their phones back and they’re permitted to call their real kids and go outside. They’re told to check in each hour. Frida tries calling Gust, but gets his voicemail. She leaves a message pleading to talk to Harriet. Unable to reach Gust, Frida calls her parents instead. They are concerned when they see her appearance. By now, Linda’s friends have abandoned the food strike, but Linda continues to refuse to eat. She’s threatened with expulsion, and finally Beth helps to convince her to start eating again.
The next day, Frida is able to reach Gust. He puts Harriet on, and Frida wishes her a happy birthday. During that day they talk for 15 minutes at a time, in between Frida’s check-ins for as long as Harriet is able to sit still. She feels guilty for ignoring Emmanuelle, but when she hangs up to deal with Emmanuelle, she also feels guilty for not making the most of the little time she has with Harriet.
On Wednesday, their phones are taken back. Their instructors chastise all of them for neglecting their dolls, saying that they’re reverting back to “into selfishness and narcissism”. They’re soon taken to a warehouse with model homes, meant to test their ability to parent with distractions. It’s nosy and chaotic as sirens and appliances go off.
March 11 is Harriet’s second birthday, and Frida and Roxanne celebrate it together.
Soon, it’s April. By now, some of the mothers have coupled up romantically. Though fraternizing is off-limits, they do it anyway. On Easter, they have an Easter Egg Hunt for the younger dolls. During the hunt, a 4-year-old boy doll tries to take Emanuelle’s basket, and he hits her when she tries to take it back. Frida yells at the boy doll.
That night, there is a large group, including Frida, in talk circle. Two of the mothers there, Alicia and Margaret, were caught kissing and planning on running away together. Tamara, the mother of the 4-year-old-boy doll, is there, too. Frida and Tamara exchange sharp words. While Mrs. Gibson tells Frida that yelling that the boy is inexcusable, Frida feels that it was the maternal thing to do for Emmanuelle.
The one of the next exercises, the mothers are instructed to stay focused as various images play on a headset. Frida is fine until a video of Harriet’s birthday party starts playing. Gust is recording the video, and Will is there with a young woman. Harriet has her ears pierced. When Gust brings up “Mommy”, Harriet gets upset saying “Not Mommy. Not home. Mommy not come back!” Meanwhile, Emmanuelle is upset, but Frida ignores her. Later, Emmanuelle learns that the other mothers also watched similar videos of their kids.
On Evaluation Day for Unit 3, as they wait for it to start, the mothers braid each others’ hair and give each other massages.
The day after, the instructors talk about the intense evaluation they had the day before. From their class, only Linda successfully completed it.
Now, they’re starting Unit 4, the “Fundamentals of Play”. When Frida tries to get Emmanuelle to play nicely by comparing her to other kids, the instructor scolds Frida. Ms. Khoury says that “Maybe that worked in the cultures you and I grew up in, but this is America” and an “American mother should inspire feelings of hope, not regret.”
By now, it’s been over six months at the center. The mothers soon have brain scans to evaluate them as they are shown clips of their dolls at different points in their development. The dolls are also given interviews with the counselors to assess the mothers’ progress. When Mothers Day arrives, all phone privileges are cancelled, and the mothers are instructed to reflect upon and write about their shortcomings as a mother instead.
When they get the results of the assessments, most of the women’s changes of getting their kids back are either fair to poor or just poor, with Frida being “fair to poor”.
Frida ends up getting the second-best evaluation for her class for Unit 4, and Unit 5 soon starts, which is “Intermediate and Advanced Play”. Things seem to be going well as Emmanuelle is cooperative and Frida starts to sleep better and is gaining some weight back.
They start practicing how to deal with the dolls fighting over a toy. She sees that Emmanuelle is docile and almost subservient when it comes to these conflicts. Frida attributes it to the “failure of imagination on the part of her makers” who have decided to conform to “racial stereotypes” about how the doll should act. Frida is upset seeing Emmanuelle being treated poorly by the other dolls, and it brings up memories of herself being bullied as a kid and wishing she had been born white.
The center decides that Frida needs to finish in the top 2 for her evaluation for Unit 5 if she wants to talk to Harriet again. The day before evaluation, Margaret (the mother that had been caught kissing another mother) kills herself.
For the Unit 5 evaluation, the mothers are paired off. They are instructed to have their dolls play peacefully at each of three stations for 10 minutes each. Frida is paired with Linda, whose 16-year-old son was finally found a few days ago after being arrested at a gas station for shoplifting.
On Fourth of July, there is a picnic and the Fathers will attend as well. The mothers outnumber the father 3-to-1. The day after, they’ll be bussed to the Father’s center to start the socialization unit, Unit 6. At the picnic, Frida meet Tucker, a 40-something man whose doll is a 3-year-old boy named Jeremy.
Tucker describes the men’s camp which is starkly different from the women’s center. Everyone has phone privileges for an hour on Sundays and they don’t do talk circles. There have been no dead dolls and it’s a largely supportive environment. Tucker also says that he ended up here because his son fell out of a tree and broke his leg while he was supposed to be watching him. Before coming here, Tucker was a scientist, designing drug trials for a pharmaceuticals company. He’s in the process of getting divorced, though he’d been flirting with a co-worker even before then.
Afterwards, the mothers compare notes. They talk about how the men have it easier and they don’t have to swap out the blue liquid of the dolls themselves.
Co-ed training is set to take place throughout July. The father’s campus is comparatively tiny, housed in a small, abandoned hospital. Frida gets paired off with Meryl and a young man named Colin. Meryl and Colin flirt and don’t pay attention, while Frida is attentive towards Emmanuelle, who behaves nicely. Emmanuelle wants to play with Jeremy, and Frida notes how attached to him she seems.
That week, around half the mothers end up in talk circle, largely for offenses involving fraternization with the fathers. Afterwards, Roxanne nicknames Tucker “beanstalk”, and she tells Frida that the other fathers consider him to be a know-it-all who pretends to be “woke”. Still, Frida finds herself daydreaming about him even though she knows she shouldn’t.
Because Frida did manage to end up in the top 2 for her Unit 5 evaluation, she thinks she’ll be getting a call with Harriet soon. However, they’ve changed the rules because they think withholding the calls create incentive. Instead, Frida is told that she needs to end up in the top 2 for Unit 6 as well if she wants her call privileges back. Frida is furious.
Frida starts spending more time with Tucker, and her counselor notes that Frida’s seems to be backtracking a little, with her attachment levels decreasing. Frida imagines what a life with him would be like. Around the center, gossip goes around about how to find places to be outside the view of the cameras.
In class the dolls learn about things like consent and race. However, the dolls are then programmed to have prejudices which the mothers and fathers must address. Frida comforts Emmanuelle as she gets harassed and called a “chink”.
When the Unit 6 evaluation arrives, it goes unevenly. Frida is paired up with Colin and he ends up upset with her when his doll behaves worse than Emmanuelle. Afterwards, Frida talks with Tucker. He tells her that “The one good thing about this place is meeting you”.
In August, Frida turns 40, but doesn’t tell anyone since they aren’t supposed to be focused on themselves.
They are now in Unit 7, Communication Skills. Frida practices a conversation about child support payments with Colin. Later, she practices with Tucker, though the conversation takes on a flirtatious air. Will continues to try to flirt and touch her. Frida tries to tell him it’s not a good idea, but the attention makes her happy.
Shortly after, Frida learns that her chances of getting Harriet back have been upgraded to “fair” and that her phone privileges are being restored. She excitedly gets ready for her call. However, as soon as she gets them on the line, she’s quickly confronted with the news that Susanna is 21 weeks pregnant and that Gust and Susanna are getting married in December, just before the baby arrives.
Frida struggles to tell them congratulations. When Harriet comes on, she looks older. At the pediatrician’s recommendation, she’s no longer on the low-card diet. Gust and Susanna talk about having potty trained her. The three of them sing Happy Birthday to Frida. As their time concludes, Harriet demands that Frida come back.
Later, at counseling, the counselor warns Frida about her friendship with Tucker, but Frida insists it’s all above-board. Still, she continues to toe the line with him, despite wanting to resist it. Meanwhile, Meryl and Colin continue to spend time together, and Meryl believes she’s in love. At the same time, Roxanne has a crush on Meryl.
When Frida talks to Harriet again, Harriet gets upset once again that Frida isn’t back. Gust has to urge Harriet to talk to Frida.
When she’s paired up with Tucker for drills, he continues trying to talk about the future instead of doing the drills. Frida pleads with him to concentrate on the assignment. As they do the drill, Frida gets emotional thinking about Harriet. Later, the counselor notes that Frida has been reported as being distracted and she recommends that Frida stay away from Tucker.
The counselor also cancels Frida’s phone privileges, since they seem to be disruptive to her progress and to Harriet.
Soon, the end-of-summer dance is approaching. Meryl tells Frida about how she and Colin hooked up in a closet in the men’s building. At the dance, Tucker finds Frida, but she tells him about how she lost her phone privileges because of him and walks away.
The dance is fully underway when the lights turn abruptly on and sirens start to sound. Guards march in to do a headcount, and it’s determined that Roxanne, Meryl and Colin are all missing.
Frida gets added to a watch list since the school thinks she knew they were planning an escape because she was close to both Roxanne and Meryl. Frida also has counseling three times a week now and they check in on her daily.
Frida winds up third in her group for Unit 7. They’re now on Unit 8, “Dangers Inside and Outside the Home”. In this unit, they’re practicing how to protect their dolls from various dangers like a burning building or crossing the road.
It’s now been three weeks since the trio went missing. When Frida is on cleaning duties, one of the mothers Charisse gets lost. When she finally calls out to them, she’s horrified at what she’s seen. Through the keyhole of a door, they see Meryl laying on a cot. When she sees them, she starts pleading for help. A guard notices the commotion and tells the mothers to leave.
Over dinner, Frida thinks about how she could lose Harriet if she tries to help Meryl. Charisse argues that they have to do something, but Frida wants nothing to do with that situation. Beth is upset thinking about what Meryl must be going through being locked in a basement.
On Monday, Meryl reappears, but she’s shaky and her hair’s been cut and dyed badly. Meryl tells them that she made it home, but went to see her mother after two weeks, and her mother reported her and refused to let her see her daughter, Ocean. Meryl is being allowed to finish the program (and Lina attributes it to her being white).
Meryl says she split up with Colin and Roxanne since she wanted to go see her daughter, so she doesn’t know what happened to the other two. Some of the other mothers give Meryl a hard time for convincing Colin to leave, ruining his chances of getting his kid back.
With eight weeks in the program left, the fathers are brought back when they teach the parents about stranger danger. As part of the training, the mothers end up bruised up as they fight off the fathers playing the role of attackers. The next lesson takes place outside at a playground setup. When Frida gets knock down particularly badly, Tucker helps her up. When others are distracted, she secretly tells Tucker she loves him.
For the Unit 8 Evaluation, there are “danger stations” for them to get through to prove their competency in rescuing their dolls from these situations. Frida doesn’t manage to complete it, emerging early instead with a cut and a possibly broken rib. Everyone else seems to be failing it as well.
Because of Tucker, Frida has now had her third trip to the talk circle, due to their flirting and behavior. Frida thinks about how after yesterday’s evaluation, Tucker had secretly given her his contact information and asked her to find him afterwards. It’s now November, and they are on Unit 9, “The Moral Universe”. The first lesson involves having the doll notice a (fake) injured bird and teaching the doll how to deal with it and their moral responsibility in the world.
Frida thinks about how she “betrayed” her mother by telling Mrs. Gibson about her miscarriage at talk circle when she kept pushing Frida to dig deeper. Frida dislikes the idea of “one small fact of her life being used to explain her character”. It also bothers her that this face will be kept on her file for anyone else to read about or judge her.
Emmanuelle notices that Frida seems sad and keeps asking her about it, but Frida tries to get her to focus on the bird. Emmanuelle also asks about Jeremy, but Frida knows they won’t be seeing him again. Instead, Frida explains to Emmanuelle that if the bird looks like it has red stuff, then it means it’s hurting and she should bring it to Frida to care for it. Emmanuelle is the first doll in her class to successfully bring her mother the fake injured bird.
With one week left in the program, all the mothers are hopeful that they’ll be getting their children back. They are told their final court dates will be in the week or two after they depart.
Frida soon hears that Susanna’s baby, a boy, came early. His name is Henry Joseph. Susanna lost a lot of blood and will be in the hospital for the next few weeks. Frida thinks about the help that Gust and Susanna will be needing when she returns.
In the next lesson, they have people pose as beggars so that the dolls might notice and ask their parents to give them a coin (“signaling altruistic intent”), but months of “stranger danger” training causes all the dolls to stay away from the beggars. Frida tries to explain the difference between some being “bad” and someone who has suffered misfortune.
The final evaluation arrives, which requires Emmanuelle needs to react to the bird scenario and beggar scenario correctly without her urgings. Emmanuelle does them both, while the other three dolls in the class struggle, which means Frida has come in first for her class.
As things come to a close Frida thinks about the things she did well and what she did poorly over the course of the year and what she will say to the judge.
On Wednesday, Frida has her final brain scan as they show images of her experiences there and gauge her reaction. She is feeling generally positive, but then she realizes that they are showing her many images of her and Tucker together, moreso than images of her as a parent.
At her last counseling session, Frida pleads her case with the counselor about what she’s achieved and how her family needs her. She makes the point that she never kissed Tucker, but the counselor says that she clearly desired it and let it distract her, which makes her a bad mother. The counselor also reminds her that she warned her to stay away from Tucker and that it’s now up to the judge to decide.
Afterwards, Frida hears the cries of the mothers outside as they mourn all that they’ve lost and might be losing soon, and she joins them.
That night, the alarms sound because Meryl is missing again. Frida knows Meryl’s prognosis was “poor” which means she is likely to lose Ocean. Moreover, Meryl’s social worker disapproved of both Meryl’s mother and the baby’s father as potential guardians, meaning that foster care is likely.
Frida thinks about how hard Meryl had screamed and cried earlier that day and worries that Meryl may have done something to herself. She also thinks about how Meryl had wanted Ocean to have a better life than she had.
That next day, it’s Goodbye Day where the mothers play with their dolls one last time before they’re turned off. They also get photographed with their dolls. She shows Emmanuelle the photos, and they delight her. Frida cries as she gives her one last hug, and she tells Emmanuelle that she loves her.
Back in the social worker’s office, it’s now the first Tuesday in December. Frida has been staying with Will. Harriet was taken away 15 months ago, and today is her final visit with Harriet. Yesterday, the judge terminated her parental rights, and there is no appeals process available. Frida is not permitted to reach out to Harriet afterwards, instead Harriet must seek her out instead.
At the hearing, the judge had reviewed the documentation from the program. Both Gust and Susanna spoke in favor of restoring Frida’s parental rights.
Today, Harriet has brought some family heirlooms to give to Harriet. When Gust finally arrives with Harriet, Harriet is initially cold towards her, but finally allows herself to be hugged. When Gust explains that Harriet won’t be seeing Frida for a long time, Harriet gets upset. Frida quickly tries to explain that she had to go through a program and pass some tests that she didn’t end up passing. As Frida cries, Harriet tells her she loves her. When it’s time to part, both Harriet and Frida are distraught.
A few days later, back at Will’s place, Frida has consumed all of Will’s alcohol and she contemplates suicide. She overhears him talking to Gust on the phone about having someone keep watch over her. She has photos from her final visit with Harriet and from her goodbye day with Emmanuelle but hasn’t been emotionally ready to look at either set yet.
Meanwhile, Tucker has been trying to contact her, and he has his son back now. Frida knows that if he’d lost his case, she would go be with him. However, she can’t bear to see him with his son.
After some coaxing from her parents, Frida agrees to go see them, though not immediately. She knows they want her to move home. Frida misses the mothers she met and wonders how Emmanuelle is doing.
Three weeks after the end of the program, Frida is doing slightly better. Renee has a video of the final visit, but Frida isn’t prepared to watch it yet.
Then, Will gets a call from Gust asking him to watch Harriet. Gust says that Henry needs surgery, and he needs to go to the hospital. Frida asks Will to take a picture of Harriet for her. Will agrees, though he doesn’t think it’s a good idea. Before he leaves, Frida asks him to let her in when Harriet falls asleep. She promises that she won’t wake her. However, Will definitely does not think it is a good idea. That afternoon, she goes to the bank and withdraws $8,000.
Will finally agrees to let her see Harriet, and Frida goes over there. She asks Will for one hour to watch her sleep, and she asks for some privacy. He reluctantly agrees and steps out.
Then, Frida fills a duffle bag with Harriet’s clothes and toiletries. She also grabs some toys. Then, she straps Harriet into the car. As Frida is driving, Harriet stirs from her sleep. She tells Harriet that they’re going on a vacation. Harriet tells her that she’s scared, but Frida soothes her and tells her to go back to sleep.
Frida also knows that in a few hours or days guards will show up to try to reclaim Harriet eventually. And she knows that she will be locked up again for this (“There will be more guards, more women, a different kind of uniform”).
Meanwhile, Frida puts the picture of herself and Emmanuelle into Harriet’s inside pocket. She knows that Gust and Susanna will find it, show it to Renee and that they will ask questions about what exactly happened in that facility.
Frida knows that someday (after Harriet comes looking for her when she’s older) she plans to tell Harriet about what really happened in the facility and about Emmanuelle. And she hopes that if someday Harriet decides to have her own kids, that she will allow Frida to help her to raise them.