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Hopeless Reimantic 2: That Thing That Comes After Love And Marriage

2012 September 26

For more about this series on Romance Novel Tropes, read Rei’s Hopeless Reimantic intro post and Part 1: Virginal Heroines.

(The author recognises that the phenomenon discussed below is not, in fact, limited to people who are married and in love. I’ll get to marriage in romance novels some other time.)

[TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of infertility and failed pregnancies below.]

[SPOILER WARNING: This piece discusses happenings from the first and third episodes of the new season of Doctor Who, as well as containing mild spoilers for Game Of Thrones.]

Last time on Hopeless Reimantic we talked about virginal heroines, and while I wasn’t totally positive on the topic, I will give the virginal heroine this: at least most of the time, she doesn’t stay virginal throughout the book. That trope has an expiration date, if you will. This next one is actually significantly more irritating to me – partly, admittedly, because it’s outside my experience in a way that I have no particular interest in remedying, but mainly because even if I didn’t feel that way I still think I’d find the topic clumsily handled and often just shoehorned in to make the romance more…legitimate.

Not everything has to be about babies, guys. Image by the illustrious Kate Beaton (http://www.harkavagrant.com), shirt by topatoco.

That’s right, folks: I’m talking about babies. Well, in brief. I suppose more accurately (and more vaguely) what I’m talking about is parenthood.

I suppose putting this column in second is kind of cheating, because it jumps to the end of the standard romance novel narrative – or, depending on how much edginess we’re going for, about three-quarters of the way through – and for that I apologise, but I promise you that the baby trope is all-pervasive enough that it’s not going¬† to matter. An Extremely Standard Romance Novel, you see, goes something like this:

  1. [Play]boy meets [virgin] girl
  2. They deny their attraction to one another for a while (usually this consists of Mr Man insisting that our heroine is Just Like All Other Women and although she makes his dick hard he could never actually love her, and our heroine protesting any kind of attraction to Mr Man at all)
  3. Inevitably, sex.
  4. A brief honeymoon period, usually compounded by more sex
  5. Some kind of big misunderstanding that breaks them apart [at this point the heroine may or may not discover that she is pregnant]
  6. Reunion. Marriage. BABIES.

The story outlined above is common to a lot of romance novels (including our old friend from last time, Bought: Destitute Yet Defiant) but it is by no means the only sprog-imbued narrative out there in Romancelandia. Nor is it even the most baby-heavy. A quick search on Dear Author for “babies” turned up eight pages of hits and reminded me that Dear Author actually has a tag for “secret baby” plotlines – yes, they exist, and they’re common enough that they get their own category on review sites. These stories might start out with two separated lovers meeting again after many years – but wait! She has a child! The fact that it’s his child is blindingly obvious throughout, but often only revealed at the very end! What could be more romantic?

A nicely infuriating example of this trope on my Kindle is a little tale called Emergency: Wife Lost and Found – a Mills&Boon Medical Romance by Carol Marinelli that, to be fair, I have to admit was less awful upon revisitation than I remember it being the first time around. It’s a reunion tale between two doctors who met in medical school and married young because – shockingly – they got pregnant, but whose marriage then fell apart upon the loss of the baby.

This is not, to be clear, in itself a storyline I take issue with. The loss of a child is a devastating one, and especially to a couple who married essentially because of the child (there are some token protests that it would have happened anyway because they were in Real True Love, but still) – I can only imagine the effects of that on their relationship. It’s no wonder they divorced, and believeable that their meeting again after so long would be fraught with emotional tension (and I don’t wanna go into the whole thing, but there’s a lot of emotional tension for their meeting to be fraught with). And it’s understandable that some of the tension between them also comes from Lorna, the heroine, having since discovered that due to endometriosis she’s unlikely to carry another pregnancy to term. I would actually have been extremely interested in a book that had dealt with those issues – that explored the characters coming to term with Lorna’s infertility, and how that might have changed or strengthened their relationship.

The thing is, the book doesn’t actually deal with any of those issues. It skates over them briefly, and then True Love Sex happens, and Lorna…gets pregnant. Magically. And by the book’s epilogue, she has another child on the way, and her happiness is complete. See, true love fixed her!

Secret babies and miracle pregnancies are not limited to contemporary romance fiction, either, although it’s only here that the total absence (or extremely brief, give-it-one-sentence-and-handwave-it-away mentions of) abortion, adoption (either way!) and foster care are so totally and thoroughly angering. Historicals often feature a heroine whose dark secret is that, for whatever reason, she thinks she can’t have children but then, inexplicably, has at least one child by the end of the book; the widow whose husband never gave her children, but who then meets the hero and gets pregnant so fast you’d think they had some sort of corresponding velcro arrangement, is a particularly common one. Because that is the miracle that true love can provide.

True love also, incidentally, provides the incentive for wanting the kids in the first place in roughly half of these cases – there are quite a lot of cases of heroines (and heroes, to be fair) for whom a family was always endgame, but also a depressing number of heroines who get pregnant, having never wanted or thought about children before, and are midway through a totally justified freakout when they realise that the baby must be Mr Man’s and melt into a puddle of warm, maternal goo and aren’t scared anymore. And don’t get me started on the reaction some heroes have to this. I distinctly remember a book I read a few months ago – it was called Momentary Marriage, one of those “we’ll just marry for a year or so to help us both out of a jam that could totally not be solved any other way!” storylines – and the hero of our tale not only makes plans to impregnate the heroine without her knowledge so that she’ll stay with him, but spends about half a page getting turned on at the idea. If art does imitate life, there are a lot more pregnancy fetishists out there than you’d expect. All I’m sayin’.

The thing is, while this trope may be extremely common in romance novels – overwhelmingly, nauseatingly common, even – it isn’t confined to them. Remember Asylum of the Daleks, the first episode of the new season of Doctor Who? That one that came out a few weeks ago? Remember Rory and Amy’s Fifty Seconds Of Conflict, when he shouts at her for leaving him and her response is WELL YOU WANTED CHILDREN AND I CAN’T HAVE THEM, SO I GAVE YOU UP RATHER THAN ACTUALLY TRY TO HAVE A CONVERSATION ABOUT THIS? Yeah. Because in the UK in 2012, apparently adoption doesn’t exist, and neither does speaking to your partner. Later on in the series we have Mad Scientist Alien, who looks at Amy and can immediately tell that she’s had children because she is sad and fierce and caring, as if motherhood is the only experience that could confer these characteristics. Genre-hopping a bit to Game of Thrones, we have Daenerys Targaryen, who becomes a mother to her people because she’s never going to have children who aren’t dragons. (Which I personally don’t see the problem with. I would much rather have dragon-babies than baby-babies, although I suppose feeding them would be something of a negotiation.) And these are just the examples I can think of off the top of my head.

I appreciate that a lot of people do want children. I appreciate that some would even go so far as to say that their children are the best things in their lives, and that is valid and legitimate and completely worthy of representation in fiction. In spite of all that, though,¬† as you may be able to tell, I have extremely little patience with this trope, and I’m going to try and explain why without sputtering too incoherently. Bear with me a moment.

Okay.

Okay.

First of all, I have a huge problem with motherhood being portrayed as the only really worthwhile thing a woman can aspire to. Motherhood is worthwhile, and it is important, and it deserves to be venerated and respected. But I object to the idea that it is the only thing that is worthwhile and important and worthy of veneration and respect. This elevation to the exclusion of all other things is not, as I’m not the first person to point out, extended to fatherhood, either – a man who never has children may well have been doing other, equally important, things, whereas a woman who’s never had children is often seen as an object of either pity or scorn.

So far, it seems that the only wish-fulfilment medium aimed specifically at women overwhelmingly portrays babies as the reward a good woman gets for being a good person and a good lover and without which no other goodness is really, truly good. Where does that leave women who have real-life style infertility – the kind that isn’t fixed by falling in lasting love – or those who just never had that wish in the first place?

And that brings me to my next point. I’d like everyone to bear in mind, by the way, that I say this next part as a person who doesn’t actually like children that much. I’ve definitely mellowed towards them as I’ve grown older – meeting some actually nice ones that I wasn’t forced to hang out with because I was presenting female at the time has helped – but I’m not a particular fan. They’re okay; I might want my own someday, but right now I’m leaning towards not. (That’s right, Friend Of My Friend’s Family Who Wrote Me That Poem About How Not Having Kids Is A Waste Of My Genes Five Years Ago1 – the answer’s still no.)

Let’s review, shall we? So far this segment we’ve talked about pregnancy, secret pregnancy, miracle pregnancy, infertility, abortion, adoption and the concept of motherhood.

What have we not – really – talked about?

Any actual babies.

I do understand that it can be difficult to write about the children in child-plotlines themselves, especially if the story in question is actually supposed to be focused on relationships between adults. But there’s a pretty big difference between “this character is important but doesn’t really do much beyond eat and cry and poop, so I can’t write too much about them” and “we need something important in this story! What’s important to women? BABIES! Let’s put some babies in here”.

I suppose my overwhelming thought is that if it’s so difficult to write about pregnancies or children in a well-rounded way that makes them more than plot devices (or Plot Moppets, as the good folk over at Smart Bitches refer to them) writers should maybe think more carefully about including a pregnancy storyline, and how to treat it if they do decide to put one in (as, er, it were). Babies are the tiny humans that shape the future of our world. They deserve more respect than that.

That’s it for today! Next time on Hopeless Reimantic…either marriage or playboy heroes, I haven’t decided yet.

See you then!

  1. True freaking story. []
2 Responses leave one →
  1. September 28, 2012

    ….
    This article has made me think….

    Freya and Nico… secret pregnancy?
    =p
    Very interesting article. :) [Don’t hate me for this comment].

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