A Guide in Practical Application
Romances are supposed to end with a “happily ever after” (or “happily for now”), and it is astounding how many of the romances I’ve read either end with a pregnancy or a postscript with the couple and their new baby. Heck, I’ve even done the epilogue-with-their-kids thing myself. And I’ve said before that I’ve read countless reviews with readers insisting “THERE BETTER BE BABIES!!1!”
It seems babies are a quintessential hallmark signaling an emotionally satisfying HEA for a couple… if the actual plot doesn’t include a surprise pregnancy as a penultimate step to HEA.
Within the first three months of the couple’s relationship, I might add. Because that’s healthy and always works out well IRL.
Babies are one thing in those historical epics, where the winsome heroine fucks and marries her way through several husbands or paramours, bearing at least one child from each union as if it is a souvenir of the relationship. Ride the ride, collect your commemorative t-shirt? But in historical contexts, it can make sense. After all, in Tudor England or the Ottoman Empire, the only power a woman had, the only way she could secure a place for herself and a home or income, was by providing a man or men heirs. So, okay.
But that this “baby = living proof of our love and sign of our happiness together!” trope continues unscrutinized in popular romance narratives well into the twenty-first century is a problem.
The poster-couple for fucked-up relationships, Christian Grey and Ana Steele, are married and have an unplanned baby in less than a year. They meet, marry, and Ana is pregnant within FOUR MONTHS. Even worse, it’s stated outright that “having a family” is what is going to turn Christian into the best husband and father ever, despite every single thing in the text displaying that this simply won’t and can’t happen. This goes on all the time in romance… and that’s even before we get into all of the romance novels that involve the FMC having secretly had the MMC’s baby and hiding it, a sub-genre of its own.
Yeah, I know, you don’t need to remind me it’s escapist fantasy. What I’m saying is that “HEA = babies!” is a fantasy that needs severe scrutiny, especially the “Surprise Insta-Baby” version. In contemporary romances, it’s one of those many things that are not just unrealistic, but unhealthy and problematic. This is why it’s worth interrogating. How and why does it work in romantic fiction? Why do readers want and expect it? Why is it so prevalent?
Like many tropes, it’s become a sloppy shorthand for certain elements. It’s meant to make readers go, “Ooooh, look at how much the FMC loves the MMC, because she’s going to give him a baby, a family, a future! Look how sweet and loving he is, because he’s so cute with kids! Look at this scary obstacle they’ve overcome together!” It seems so positive, so life affirming. These two people, after struggles, found love, and then made something together. (It doesn’t just happen in romance, either. Even the freaking Stephen Hawking movie ended with this, instead of achievements or survival or reparations between Stephen and Jane, it emphasizes their baby-making as the most important thing.) But it’s still problematic.
And, oh yes, I’ve seen this “babies = love!” trope in real life, too, more times than I can count. The dewy-eye’d exclamations of “It’s a BABY! It’s gonna bring us closer together!” “It’s part of both of us, and we’re linked forever!” In fact, it got to be a bit of a family joke that, whenever yet another one of my cousins turned up with an unplanned pregnancy, my mother would still get all teary and joyful and sigh “It’s another beautiful new life!” Which… no. That’s not what a baby is. That’s not what a child does. THAT IS NOT WHAT BEING A PARENT IS ABOUT. If you have those thoughts, you are not ready to raise a child. The number of those “beautiful new lives” that ended up abused or taken into protective custody or in jail testifies to that.
And yet this ridiculous, unhealthy, harmful trope continues in romantic fiction. Ta da! Baby! Parents! Whee! Happily ever after!
*pours hot tea from a fresh pot*
Shall we dig in and interrogate?
The first problem is that these magical HEA babies are idealized. Obviously. And they’re often an adorable miniature of the MMC. Historicals tend to do this when there is confusion about the child’s paternity, but it sends a different message in contemporary romances about who/what is REALLY important in the relationship. Again, I get that the idealization is part of the “fantasy” element of fiction, having a perfect, healthy, beautiful baby that looks just like your beloved. Gosh, who wants to read about ugly, poopy, colicky babies, amirite?! But this trope is doing a disservice on a number of levels.
The Baby HEA conclusion also ends up reinforcing the idea that a couple can’t possibly be happy without a baby, and this is how you KNOW it’s true love! Yay, heteronormative worldview! And it ends up marginalizing people who can’t/don’t want kids, implying them as somehow being less in love. Even more, it also covertly suggests that there is something flawed or wrong with a couple if they have a less-than-perfect baby. What if the baby is ugly? Or has a disability or health issue? Or is just cranky? If the child is not beautiful, or is not perfect, or is disabled in some way, does that mean the MCs’ lurve was not good and pure and beautiful enough?
Another problem is that it reduces women to their biological functions. It changes their places in society. The FMC is not loved or valuable for who she is, but rather, what she produces for the MMC. It often becomes a “Get out of jail free” card for real character development too, because now all that needs to be said in the end is not that she achieved ___ or solved ___, but that “she’s a moooooom!” Furthermore, it often creates the implication that parents, mothers, are superior to other women and people. And that’s bullshit. Having kids will change you, but it does not make you better than people without kids. This is one attitude that needs to be deflated both in fiction and IRL.
This HEA Baby trope, especially when it’s the three-month-mark Surprise Insta-Baby variety, also sometimes seems to be a misguided attempt at showing a woman’s strength or power… but usually ends up reinforcing the opposite. She knows what he wants (a family!) even before he does, and can provide him with the key to happiness! She’s going after what she wants, love and children! But actually, unplanned Insta-Baby places the FMC in the position of having less autonomy as a person, having less autonomy over her body. She makes no real, active choices, and just moves into the most socially-rewarded heteronormative role of wife and mother, and although there may be a token mention of her job, it’s made clear that her man and their baby is the only element of her life that really matters.
Surprise Baby Plots also twig several problem areas regarding birth control. Usually, the fictional pregnancy happens because of irresponsible lack of birth control on the part of the MC. Yes, I know birth control fails. That’s how I got pregnant. But in romantic fiction, the way the pregnancy happens is usually because the couple is soooooo wrapped up in their passion that they forget, or that they’re soooooo wrapped up in the drama around them that she misses pills or appointments, or they have that one hot, impromptu, condom-less encounter, and BLAM! Baby. These can indeed all be real things that happen in real life to real people. But the way it’s overdone in fiction has different effects. It often seems to hint that there is something magical, like kismet, about an unplanned pregnancy. It even operates as “proof” that the relationship is good, or lasting, or passionate, or better than others’ boring relationships. It can even suggest that the MMC is so very manly that his sperm will impregnate the FMC even if they’ve taken precautions. Or that the FMC is better than all those slutty, selfish other women in his past, because she is going to give him his baby.
And heaven forbid the FMC considers abortion as a realistic option. The anti-abortion rhetoric in most mainstream romance is as repressive as a convention of sister-wives and Quiverfull members. I also fucking LOATHE the idea that if you are anything less than thrilled about an unplanned pregnancy, if you even THINK about abortion, you are a cold, horrible, unloving, uncaring demon-woman who deserves a lifetime of scorn because HOW CAN YOU NOT LOVE A BABY?! So we often see FMCs who will react to an unplanned pregnancy with an initial “No way, I can’t have a baby now!” but then tilts her head and goes “Hmm… a baby. What if…?” and everything is all right and just meant to be. She quickly starts to reflect on the magic of bearing her man’s child, or the joy of a baby’s innocence and how this little creature is dependent on her, and her heart swells and the music rises and ah, yes, she is all that is good and pure and beautiful and loving and generous in the world, so-
Note: IRL, those idyllic thoughts or feelings don’t actually mean that you should have a child, especially under the conditions that most romances present.
Babies, children, are are not magical little fairy-creatures sprinkling pixie-dust to consecrate your love. They are human beings who need constant care, who need to be your first priority for two decades of your life. BABIES CHANGE YOUR FUCKING LIFE. AND THEY ARE THE ONES AFFECTED MOST BY YOUR DECISIONS. It’s a total jerk move to look at another individual as a symbol, or as an extension of you and/or your partner, or an embodiment of the future. Yet that is the purpose they serve as fictional devices.
But it gets worse once the FMC decides that she wants to have this baby, no matter what.
Too often, Insta-Baby functions in the plot as the MMC’s impetus to change. The guy, no matter how irresponsible or dangerous or unhealthy his behavior up to this point, usually has a big revelation once a baby is on the way that this is the life he wants, and he’s in love, and he is committed, and tra la la. So after an initial tempestuous blow up (which is a huge red flag that this kind of man should not be around children, much less raising one), he will have an emotional exchange with the FMC, earnestly curving his hands over her stomach, and breathing, “I never knew what love was until now!” “… but now, my priorities have changed forever…” “Everything I want is here, now, you. And this.”
And I am not going to lie. THIS REFORMATION-BABY THING FUCKING PISSES ME OFF TO NO END.
Ask me how I ended up here in the world.
That’s right. My mom gave my dad a baby, sure that the wonders of having a family would show him how much she loved him and he would be blown away by the miracle of fatherhood, and now they would be linked forever unto eternity. Sure, he was thrilled to be a daddy when I came along. But it didn’t change who he was or how he behaved. And after the novelty wore off, he resented me and my brother and having a family in the first place, and bailed on all of us, to continue his cheating, lying, manwhoring ways until he died forty years later.
Tale as old as time.
It. Never. Ever. Works. Not only that, but horrible things happen as a result. So I’m sick of seeing this turd polished up and presented as a celebrated romantic plot element.
Another problem with Insta-Babies is that it usually results in terrible writing, both in content and structure. The second there is an unplanned pregnancy, right along with the cutesy blurges of tell-tale minor morning sickness come all the usual rhetoric spewing across the page. Things that if you think about for TWO SECONDS make no sense. Or are easily proven false. Platitudes like “You’ll be such a great daddy!” said to an Alpha MMC who has shown nothing but possessive behavior, anger, and a need for control throughout the text are ridiculous at best, dangerous at worst. (Alphas, by their very definition of “needing to be in charge,” will be TERRIBLE fathers.) There is something fundamentally wrong with presenting a FMC who, upon discovering she is pregnant soon after her turbulent relationship with the MMC commences, makes asinine assertions that she has no way of knowing, dreamily sighing things like “Our child will want for nothing!” “I know he’ll love it as soon as he sees it!” “Until you have a baby with someone, you don’t understand true love.” “We’re now going to be a real family!”
If you are that naive, FMC, then you are not ready for parenthood. Stop it.
There’s the skull-splitting awfulness of a FMC going through what is meant to be a process of realization about how special this unexpected pregnancy is. She’ll quickly go from “No, I don’t want to have a baby now” into full-blown “I feel a radiant sense of peace. This is so right. It’s like a gift made from love!” Just- ugh, no. The writing usually skews generic “magic!” with some soft-focus banalities, when, instead, an unplanned pregnancy and all the decisions it entails could be used to show real character development in relation to these specific people and their situations. I mean, let’s also consider that romances are often about a woman discovering her physical self in new ways, especially through sex. So… why not continue those revelations with the physical changes of pregnancy? Or why not really interrogate some element of a woman’s social role, or the FMC’s relationship with her own mother, or, God, anything but the beatific cult-of-babies bombast?!
It gets even more *headdesk* when the plot includes (usually) the FMC having a magical vision or dream where she sees the child as a cute, happy, darling little (miniature MMC) child, laughing with joy, splashing at the edge of the ocean, or gambolling in a flower-filled meadow. Bonus points if said dream-vision includes the couple in celebratory roles as parents to said tot, together and happy.
One of the worst versions of this trope, though, is when Insta-Baby is presented as making up for the (usually) MMC’s own lost childhood. He never got to play catch with his own father, but now, with a son, he’ll be the dad he never had. His childhood was sad and lonely, his parents were strict or unloving, so this means that he’s going to be the most attentive, loving, caring, open-hearted daddy in the world… and never mind actual human behavior patterns, or even how this fictional character has acted during the duration of the novel thus far. He’s gonna be a GREAT DAD! GOSH! WE JUST KNOW IT!
The awfulness of this trope is magnified a bajillion times with the ultra-Alpha MMCs that are so prevalent in Romance these days. This idea that giving a troubled, angry, possessive, hot-tempered and/or cold and distant man a baby (especially since the couple has usually only known each other or been together a short time) is going to make him a better man is not only wrong, it’s also one of those full-blown “normalizing unhealthy behavior” red flags. In real life, most battered women say that the abuse either started or escalated markedly with their pregnancies. Even if there isn’t overt abuse, babies are an added stress to a relationship, and to people’s lives. The best-tempered and healthiest baby in the world is still going to mean sleepless nights and anxiety and feedings and crying and hormonal mood-swings. Plus, how many studies have shown that couples’ happiness actually decreases after a couple kids?! (Go on, Google it.) Springing an Insta-Baby on your mercurial PTSD-suffering surgeon who returned from Afghanistan is not going to cure him of his problems. Surprising your Dom/boss/lover with pending fatherhood after a couple months of fucking that already involves power dynamics is only going to exacerbate the issues. These are clearly not men who are ready for fatherhood.
So rather than being some heartwarming plot point, if you look at what actually happens in a text, what is suggested just by the characters themselves and the dynamics of their relationship, it turns out that having a baby with a shitty potential father is really pretty selfish of the FMC, not some magnificent example of mother-goddess generosity and altruism. It looks like the FMC is setting a child up for heartbreak, even abuse, because it is being brought into an unhealthy situation, and, even more, is seen as a solution to a problem. That is close to inhumane.
Babies are not a fix-it for your personal or relationship-based problems, FFS. But that’s how they operate in fiction.
But, as always, there are readers and writers who will get defensive about anyone who questions HEA = babies, because “romance!” and “fantasy!” and “love!” They insist that these variations of the same thing that we’ve read over and over and OVER actually reflect their experiences, or what they like, so we shouldn’t criticise them. Nothing is more romantic than babies! Pregnancy/motherhood is amazing and fulfilling! They cried when they read the ending where the FMC has the first girl in six generations and the MMC is so overwhelmed with joy at being a daddy. They loved the scene with the MC in bed together, and the MMC caressing the FMC’s swollen belly and singing and talking to it. Babies, babies, babies!
No. It’s still sloppy, overused shorthand that is no longer useful. And if you are a writer, you should be pushing for new or more effective ways to say that thing.
So let’s play!
Think about what an author is trying to say, and what the words on the page actually do. What does it actually mean? Magic Insta-Baby is usually the most ineffective way of doing it. So what are more effective/new ways to show “happily ever after” or commitment or that a couple has moved into a new phase of life together? How can you still hit the romantic and/or escapist elements of the genre without the problems that Insta-Baby promotes? And how do you handle it as a writer? What are other ways of showing what you were attempting to show with the Surprise, Baby! trope? What might have the same effect with a new, fresh element, or without all of the problematic assumptions?
- Show the couple doing something other than baby-making that demonstrates togetherness and partnership, even “making something together.”
Show them having their first or fifth or tenth holiday together. Show them getting ready to leave on that dream vacation. Show them deciding to get an apartment together, or remodeling a house, show them getting the keys to the mountain cabin they’ve wanted or the sports car they bought together to take racing in the desert.
Show them laughing as they build a fire and roast marshmallows, or dance at someone else’s wedding, or wake up together on a rainy morning. Show them with their new puppy/kitten/pygmy goat. Show them getting ready to jump out of an airplane together. Show pretty much ANY slice-of-life happy moment, because if done right, your MC picking out a new washer/dryer for their house will demonstrate their happy togetherness even more than a cut-and-paste generic Baby! scene.
- Show them interacting with children in realistic non-idyllic ways that demonstrate they are thinking about a family as a responsible future choice
Have them baby-sitting a difficult niece or nephew. Or meeting with someone about becoming foster parents. Or just having some sort of exchange with a child that is not of the glurge-worthy rainbows-and-lollipops sort, but still allows them to acknowledge the possibility of having a child of their own.
- Show them struggling together with a realistic parent-and-child-related thing, and emphasize their togetherness, their partnership as parents.
Use a scene with a real emotional risk involved (and I don’t mean a Mary Sue kidnapping that implies that, much like the FMC, the baby is soooo magical that villains want to steal it, too). But a concluding scene with the couple dealing with their lost son at a grocery store, or picking up their daughter from school where she’s had a fight, or having a sit-down with a child who has been naughty can work wonderfully. Show them with a child who is NOT perfect and NOT beautiful and NOT ideal. Show them committing to the challenges of their child who has been born with a disability, or discussing adoption or having a child through a surrogate. Hell, they could even be coming to terms with infertility and realizing they will build a happy life without children.
HEA babies can give way to things that could make for thoughtful new angles, even revelations, and it’s one of our opportunities as writers to explore these options.
*Thanks to Ash Litton for her insights and contributions on this blog entry!