MOTHERING HEIGHTS BY RACHEL HYLAND

On the (over?) importance of motherhood in romance novels

In December 2011, 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 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 to not 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 pointed 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 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 think of barely 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.

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