In December last year, Brooklyn couple Jonathan Mann and Ivory King broadcast on YouTube a song that quickly went viral: “We’ve Got to Break Up.” While, true, the song smacks of self-promotion and features a truly puzzling musical interlude/freakish dance number, at its core it speaks to an issue many couples increasingly face: one wants kids, the other one doesn’t. The lyrics make it clear that their five-year relationship is ending amicably, but on this one issue they are both resolute, and therefore the musician and the artist must part ways, he to presumably find a vessel for his eager seed, she to continue pairing Mr. Wickham’s castoffs with eye makeup from a '70s Bowie cover.
Now, I won’t hazard a guess as to the percentage of people reading this who initially thought I meant that it was the male half of the couple who didn’t want the kids rather than the female, but if you were one of them, ask yourself… why? Why is it always assumed that a woman must want to have children? And especially, why is it always assumed in romance novels that without them a woman, a family, cannot possibly be complete?
I have to admit, this was not a subject to which I had given much thought before recently reading Emily Giffin’s 2007 novel Baby Proof, but as I became immersed in the travails of our heroine, Claudia, and her seemingly endless quest to justify her decision not to procreate to disbelieving friends and relations, it occurred to me just how insidious, how endemic to romantic fiction is the idea that the only good woman is a good mother. Or, at least, potential mother.
Children abound in Romance, both category and single title, with popular themes like Secret Baby (ugh!) and Single Father appearing month after month after month. Inherit the Kid is another one, a trope of which not only romance novels but also movies are fond: Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, Kate Hudson in Raising Helen, and to a lesser extent Katherine Heigl in Life as We Know It, in all of which the carefree career woman finds herself trying to have it all, failing, and then choosing kid(s) over job every time.
Hell, even the infamous Fifty Shades books gave the long-suffering Anastasia two tiny tots—and wow, are they going to grow up well-adjusted or what? (Sequel suggestion: Fifty Shades of Child Psychotherapy.) As Carey Purcell points out in her Huffington Post, er, post on the subject: “When Anastasia finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and shares the news with Christian, he rages at her, asking if she did it on purpose and storming out of the house, disappearing for hours. Even though Anastasia thinks to herself that the pregnancy happened too soon in their marriage, she never considers terminating it.” Because being a doormat plaything in Grey’s Red Room of Pain is acceptable; pondering whether she should even have a kid, considering her own deficiencies and the volatility of her (to be charitable) “relationship,” would put her entirely beyond the pale.
How many epilogues have you read where the longevity of our couple’s happiness is illustrated by either the joyous news of a pregnancy or the tender reflection on the fruits of their union, already prepared earlier? In fact, I can’t think of a single romance novel epilogue that did not, in some way, relate to either imminent or extant spawn, as though life beyond love and marriage is somehow not worthy of note without the baby carriage.
Certainly, in historical novels the prevalence of this can be forgiven. Back then, a woman’s major role in life
But surely now, when we women are more than property, more than dynastic currency, and much more than the means to an heir, surely our fiction can more fully reflect our changing roles, and changing desires. Don’t just have a heroine who is a truck driver and think that’s equality. Have a heroine who’s a truck driver and insists on our hero having a vasectomy as a wedding present (if indeed they must get married—but that’s a whole other post). Or give us an epilogue that talks of, I don’t know, their recent Kenyan safari or the fact that her long-awaited book got published, and then don’t have them also discussing what to name Hero, Jr.
Urban Fantasy is one refuge from all of this, Julie Kenner’s entertaining Demon Hunting Soccer Mom series aside. Usually our UF heroines are single (or, at most, “It’s Complicated”), and willfully childless—indeed, many of them are vampires, and could not have children even if they wanted to. But in almost every other subgenre of the wider arena known as Women’s Fiction (including much of Paranormal Romance; looking at you, sundry hellren), “motherly” is up there with “sense of decency” and “unique specialness” as a not only desirable but utterly expected trait in a leading lady.
In her post on all the children in contemporary romance lately, H&H blogger Kwana Minatee-Jackson makes mention of “kids the ultimate wingmen,” and suggests that their presence in a book is often merely as catalyst to romance—they are the means by which our two parties meet, or at least continue to meet. This is definitely the case, and has been for a long time. One of my favorite category Regencies is Judith A. Lansdowne’s The Bedeviled Duke, which features a hero owning four sets of twins, and a heroine who comes to love them. Certainly my favorite Medieval is Theresa Madeiros’s very amusing Charming the Prince, in which our hero, Lord Bannor the Bold, finds himself in possession of a bunch of sprightly little tykes and soon finds in his hastily acquired bride, the spirited Lady Willow, rather more than he had bargained for. And I love, love, love Michele Bardsley’s Broken Heart Vampires series, every one of which has a cute kid or several up to some sort of matchmaking mischief, often all unwittingly.
Elsewhere, I have previously mentioned my abject devotion to Lee Damon’s Again the Magic, in which the hero has an adorable son, Gus. He is not the reason for our couple’s meeting, nor for their continuing acquaintance, but even there, the non-maternal soul is demonized: Gus’s biological mother was a party girl who had wanted to terminate her unplanned pregnancy, but our hero, O’Mara, insists on her carrying the child to term. Later, of course, she becomes the villain of the piece, basically selling her kid to her one-time fling, because if you’re the kind of woman who doesn’t want a child, then obviously you’re the kind of woman who would kidnap him for ransom. In contrast, our heroine, Kitt, loves Gus on sight, becomes his substitute Mama in record time, and thereby proves herself a fitting mate to this rich and handsome man. Think about it. Motherless kids in Romance novels are, in many ways, there to make our leading lady look like a paragon of all the virtues—either they’re the selfless foster mother, like in a favorite Loveswept of mine, Marcia Evanick’s Perfect Morning, or the plucky single mother, like in a favorite Nora Roberts of mine, The Best Mistake, or they’re the Nurturing Angel there to replace the Cold-hearted Career Woman, like in another favorite of mine, True Confessions by Rachel Gibson.
You’ll notice a number of “favorite” novels mentioned above, so obviously the omnipresence of the Good Woman = Good Mother trope in romantic fiction isn’t a deal breaker for me—personally, I love other people’s kids, and love to see them in Romance, as long as they’re at least vaguely well-written. (And are preferably not named silly things like Renesmee.) All I’m saying is, not every woman wants to be a mother, so can we please get a little more acknowledgment of this reality, and consequent validation of this life choice, in our reading material?
Which brings me back to Baby Proof. As we commence our story, Claudia is happily married to the dashing Ben, a successful architect with whom she reached a mutual understanding on their very first date: neither wanted children. Their families talk babies, their friends have babies, and then Ben has a change of heart, leading to a very swift divorce when he chooses his longing to replicate his DNA over his wife. Throughout, and following, the breakdown of their marriage, Claudia faces incessant charges on her uterus, until finally she decides she wants Ben more than she wants to avoid TGI Fridays and moving to the suburbs, and is willing to get pregnant after all.
I have never gone from loving a heroine to despising her so quickly and thoroughly as when this happened—no, not even when some pleasingly feisty tomboy in a bodice ripper falls in love with her rapist… sorry, “forcible seducer.” I found the last quarter of the book difficult to read, as Claudia becomes increasingly pitiful, yearning for her stupid, deal-breaking ex-husband and indulging in constant, irrational jealousy over some girl she has no real evidence he’s even dating. Still, for all that I would have loved Claudia to remain true to herself, to not compromise her beliefs so utterly on the mere chance of winning back such a douche, there can be no denying that her actions, and reactions, were entirely too human, and certainly very female.
Forget that the need to breed has been hardwired into our blood and bone and every bodily system, we have also been raised to be mothers, our earliest playthings dolls, our earliest idols the likes of Mrs. Brady, Mrs. March and Maria from Sesame Street. Our childhood stories showed us that women who didn’t like or want kids were Bad: from Snow White to Hansel and Gretel and from The Witches to Ghormenghast, we were everywhere confronted by these relentlessly selfish and/or downright wicked monsters who were to be feared and, occasionally, defeated. Even Anne of Green Gables’ beloved Marilla was given to us as a harridan until she finally fell under the young Miss Shirley’s excitable spell; it was not the King of Vulgaria but the Queen who outlawed children in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; poor, eponymous Eloise’s mother abandoned her in a New York hotel, only occasionally recalling her existence; and in The Juniper Tree, dear old stepmom cooks up the kid and serves him to her husband as a light snack. Which may explain why Regina (Lana Parilla) of Once Upon a Time was given the “redeeming feature” (as so many commentators have it) of her deep love for the precocious Henry (Jared S. Gilmore), because without it she would, of necessity, have to be our ultimate villain instead of some new breed of anti-I-almost-think-I-like-her-now-quasi-hero. Apparently, if she had wrought so much misery in the Fairy Tale world and didn’t like kids, we could have no sympathy for her at all.
And here we thought the times had a’changed.
In some ways, of course they have. Anyone questioning this need only check out sites such as The Childfree Life, which bears the legend “A safe haven in a baby-crazed world,” and the mission statement to be: “… a gathering place for people who share the common bond of choosing to be non-parents, and for those in the process of making that decision.” The site reviews books with such titles as Complete Without Kids and Kidfree & Lovin’ It!, while a busy forum features such topics as “Keeping the Babies Away” (Birth Control and Sterilization) and “Our Non-Children” (Pets & Animals). This is just one example of what can only be considered a growing movement of deliberate suppressed reproduction, and as Baby Proof’s Claudia struggled to come up with valid “reasons” for her decision, I couldn’t help wondering why, especially in this day and age, she needed one at all. Whether financial, emotional, logistical, environmental, or any one of a dozen other possibilities, can we not all agree that a woman is good and whole and fulfilled and perfect, even without having obeyed all of her biological imperatives?
In fact, maybe they are no longer imperatives at all. There is a somewhat fringe theory among anthropologists that war breaks out in a society when the population becomes too large, in an attempt to thin out the herd—especially of extraneous men, and the future generations they might produce. There is another, even more controversial, theory that suggests that we, as a species, are producing a larger proportion of gay people now than ever before because procreation is no longer so vitally important to each member of our global tribe. (More likely, it’s just more open closets, but academics/random bloggers on the internet love to theorize.) Is it not then at least remotely possible that the women—and men—who are now more and more choosing not to have children are simply another lane along the evolutionary highway, one that leads to an off-ramp because the rest of the species have already caused a traffic jam?
There are over seven billion people on this planet; just once, I’d like to see a romance novel in which our happy couple decides they don’t wish to add to that number, and then they stick to it, and they don't even adopt, and then they do other fun stuff instead, like buy Jet Skis.
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.