I am a fan of the Secret Baby trope; if the synopsis of a love story includes even a veiled reference to a secret baby, I feel compelled to read it. I love the forced intimacy caused by sharing a child. It's a tie that binds the hero and heroine together and forces them to overcome their personal difficulties for the sake of their offspring.
But I have to admit to occasionally being ashamed of my predilection because the idea of a woman keeping her baby a secret from her lover is, in my opinion, morally reprehensible under most circumstances. It's his child, too, and aside from situations in which he is abusive or dangerous, there are few excuses valid enough to prevent a woman from disclosing such life-changing information.
As a result, modern-day romance novelists have to be more creative with their secret baby plots to avoid offending readers and making them dislike the heroine. With so many potential pitfalls, how can an author make the well-loved trope work? It all depends on the reason for keeping the child a secret.
For example, if the daddy runs away and purposely falls off the grid before the woman even knows she's carrying his child, she can't very well ring him up and tell him. In Christmas Conspiracy by Robin Perini, Logan Carmichael is an ex-CIA operative. He knows how to disappear. So when Kat Nelson finds out she's pregnant and tries to find him, it's realistic that she doesn't succeed.
When it comes to tracking down the father, historical heroines would have had a much tougher time than contemporary heroines. She couldn't have simply typed his name into a search engine. A modern heroine's lame excuse of “I wrote him a letter and he didn't respond” might have been entirely valid for an eighteenth or nineteenth century heroine. For example, in The Warrior by Margaret Mallory, Moira, a Scottish chieftain's daughter, is abandoned by her lover Duncan MacDonald and forced to marry another man. Duncan returns seven years later to reclaim the now widowed Moira and his unknown son.
Aside from being reckless and potentially self-destructive, one night stands also provide a reasonable excuse for a woman not being able to track down her baby's daddy, particularly if she was inebriated and didn't bother to find out the man's name before she slept with him. For example, in Warrior's Bride by Nina Bruhns, Rini Herelius hooks up with a sexy dancer at a powwow but runs away from him after one steamy night together without learning his name. She's not able to care for her baby financially, so six months later, she goes to an adoption agency to explore her options where she runs into her lover again. The reunion is awkward, to say the least.
Our current era of advanced reproductive technology also provides fodder for secret baby plots. For example, in A Father's Secret by Yvonne Lindsay, recent widow Erin Connell was accidentally inseminated with a stranger named Sam Thornton's sperm, and now the billionaire wants to fight her for custody of his son. He ends up falling in love with her instead.
Some creative authors choose to avoid the whole “it's his baby and he doesn't know it” theme, and they focus on the mother instead. For example, in The Forest Lord by Susan Krinard, an older book that remains one of my favorites, the heroine Eden was told that her baby was stillborn and doesn't find out for six years that her son is still alive. In Where We Belong by Emily Giffin, successful television producer Marian Caldwell thought she'd put her past behind her until Kirby Rose, the daughter she gave up for adoption eighteen years earlier, comes knocking on her door. Finally, in Kade by Delores Fossen, Bree Winston is an FBI agent with amnesia who can't remember giving birth to her former partner Kade Ryland's baby—or getting pregnant in the first place. The fact that they both worked undercover at a disreputable fertility clinic nine months earlier is a big clue to the baby's origin.
All of the aforementioned novels prove that it's possible for an author to create a justifiable secret baby plot. Unfortunately, too many novels feature heroines with totally lame excuses for keeping their babies' daddies in the dark. Some selfish ladies even keep their pregnancies secret as a form of revenge, without taking into consideration the best interests of their children. For example, Montana Dreams by Jillian Hart is a charming, small-town inspirational romance, but the heroine's reason for keeping her son a secret is difficult to tolerate. Millie and Hunter were both young and stupid when she got pregnant, and Hunter confessed to her that he didn't want to get married and didn't want kids (without knowing she was pregnant). So she ran away and didn't tell him about his son for close to a decade—and spends most of the book continuing not to tell him the truth, even though he's being incredibly kind to her.
It's also frustrating when contemporary heroines don't try very hard to track their lovers down. A phone call or a letter isn't enough. They need to get in the car and go knock on the man's door. For example, in Sweet Laurel Falls by RaeAnn Thayne, Jackson left town after high school without knowing his girlfriend Maura was pregnant. She tried calling him, but gave up. Nineteen years later, Maura's nineteen-year-old daughter Sage finds out who her dad is and drags him back to town to confront her mother. In other words, Maura spent two decades lying not only to her ex-boyfriend but also to her daughter for no good reason other than “he left me and I couldn't find him.”
The worst heroines of all, however, are the ones who use the hero to get pregnant on purpose without his knowledge. In an age of sexually transmitted diseases and easily accessible sperm banks, the idea of a woman secretly seducing a man is not only morally reprehensible, it's dangerous. For example, in A Baby of Her Own by Brenda Novak, Delaney lets her friend convince her to go to a bar in Boise, pick up a strange man, and have unprotected sex for the first time (she's a 30-year-old virgin) in order to get pregnant. This decision is wrong on so many levels. First, she could have easily contracted a disease, even though Conner says he's “clean.” Second, what was she planning to tell her future child about his or her father? If she wanted a kid that bad, she should have saved her money and used a sperm bank—an idea that was briefly discussed and discarded because she couldn't afford it. If she can't afford insemination, how's she going to afford to raise a baby?
In the end, I will concede that fictional heroines, just like their real-life counterparts, aren't perfect. They're flawed human beings who occasionally make poor decisions. As a result, if a heroine ends up keeping her kid a secret for no good reason, then the best course of action for her to take is to try to make amends. She needs to be honest and ask for forgiveness and not blame to hero for being angry, or try to tell him that her choice was his fault in the first place. Everyone makes mistakes, but sympathetic heroines are willing to grow and change in order to embrace true love and create a new family—which is what makes the secret baby trope so addictive in the first place.
Brittany is a freelance writer, aspiring novelist and small business owner who hopes that heaven will be like a bookstore with an endless supply of free books, free coffee and super comfy chairs.