Monday, April 4, 2011

Find a Better Trope: Secret Babies

When I was in high school, I adored Secret Baby books. In fact, I adored "baby" books of all kinds. If harlequin slapped a baby or seven on the cover, it was under my bed happily nestled with the rest of my stash. But yesterday, as I was cogitating more on why secret babies drive me to hurl books against walls, my three year-old came to me and thrust her doll in my lap. "It's your turn! Lisa Jones Olivia is your baby for a little while!" I looked down at poor Lisa Jones Olivia who was in dire need of a hair brushing and a visit from What Not to Wear. "What should I do with her?" But she was already stalking off and tossed off, "It's up to you! She's your baby now!"

She's modeling what she sees on a daily basis between my husband and I as we navigate having two kids, two careers, and two burnt-out parents. But what she's really seeing is that we trust each other to deal with the kids when it's our "turn" with a cranky toddler or teething baby. She gets that parenthood is a two person (or more!) job. My 8 month old boy is also obsessed with Lisa Jones Olivia and just holding her or one of her many, equally wackily named, friends calms him down. Several people have suggested that I put the dolls out of his reach or "get him some boy toys!" But, I'm delighted to see him love babies because I really think that preparing my kids for eventual parenthood is one of the core objectives of mothering.

And I want my kids to understand that each parent has to do his or her share and meet his or her obligations to their children. And I don't say this from a conservative viewpoint--whether my kids end up in same-sex partnerships, blended families, communal living, or creative multi-partner arrangements: each person creating or parenting a child needs to put that child first.

But secret baby books hinge on the idea that Strong and Proud Heroine fears Indifferent Hero's rejection so she goes off and has a baby on her own, only to return months/year/decades later wherein she is reunited with Hero, who it turns out isn't so indifferent after all. HEA for the whole family forthcoming. A variation on this trope features heroine who had a secret baby meeting hero who gallantly adopts her AND her baby, without much thought to the secret baby daddy. Interestingly, if the heroine ends up with someone other than the father of her child, the father is painted as the worst sort of cad for not stepping up (despite the fact that he doesn't know). And in both variations, it is the hero's willingness to step up that makes him so heroic, almost as if fatherhood is optional--a merit badge hero assumes to add more pieces of flair to his white knight suit.

And this is certainly true of the only secret baby book I've liked even a little since becoming a parent--Everday, Average Jones by Suzanne Brockmann. Jones is a Navy SEAL and his book is part of Brockmann's wildly success Tall, Dark and Dangerous series for Harlequin. Jones rescues the heroine from terrorists and gives her his shoes. His shoes. He doesn't need to do anything more to be worthy of his HEA, but then when he discovers heroine's secret pregnancy, he steps up and steamrolls over her plan to go it alone. And the only reason why I like this book is that heroine's secret baby plan is foiled when she's still pregnant. But the fact remains that she was perfectly happy to never inform Jones of his little rescue mission souvenir. Jones discover the pregnancy on his own, and she never really apologizes for cutting him out of the loop, but she does fall in love with Jones and all is forgiven.

And I tolerate this book because a)it's Brockmann and b)it wasn't a secret very long. One of my other favorite authors, wrote HER secret baby book with an 18 year old secret baby (every author with a sizable backlist has a secret baby book lurking somewhere!), and I just could not read beyond the first four chapters. I tried skimming, but it was useless. I wanted to light heroine's hair on fire and then refuse to call the fire department. I wanted to scream at hero "GET MAD! MADDER! and RUN! RUN AWAY FROM THIS HOT MESS!" Because how on earth do you forgive someone for keeping a child from you for the child's ENTIRE childhood?

And that's the crux of the problem with secret baby plots: Heroine embarks on a course of action based on her assumptions about hero and how he will react to the news or how he will behave as a parent. Short of "Ooops, I slept with a serial killer and saw him on the news last night," you don't get to make those kind of assumptions because IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU. . Secret baby books treat the decision to not inform the father as a breakup with extra oomph. But it's not about waving the middle finger at a bad boyfriend. It's about the child and what he or she will need over the course of his or her childhood and what he or she deserves.

And 18 years? Keeping that secret beyond the statute of limitations for pissed off pique is just unconscionable. Even if hero was a bad boyfriend to assume that at no point over the next 18 years that he was able to be a good father, only to end up in a HEA with him because HEY! he actually IS a great dad is a tragedy. And it insults all the single mothers out there who have spent YEARS dealing with unsatisfactory baby daddies and decades putting their kids ahead of their own anger and trying to make those men take responsibility. It also insults all the single dads who pull their lives together, man up, and go to great efforts to be involved in their child's life.

I'd love to read more stories about heroines dealing with less than perfect baby daddies for the sake of their kids and heroes taking responsibility for an oops baby--the presence of a 3rd party shouldn't preclude a HEA for the new couple. Kids deserve to know their parents, even if those parents are far less than ideal. So what if your baby daddy is a Navy SEAL who's rarely stateside and who could die at any time? So what if he's a rodeo cowboy who sleeps in his horse trailer or a high school senior with a full-ride scholarship waiting for him? You don't get to decide what kind of father he *might* be--you only get to deal with what kind of father he IS. And if you don't want the hassle? TOUGH.

Modern secret baby books also fly in the face of child support laws that advocates spent DECADES fighting for--I have particular issue with secret baby books where heroine and her child spent years in poverty relying on the kindness of strangers and minimum wage jobs to scrape by. This is why we have laws mandating child support--because even if heroine would prefer to live on her pride and dine on her assumptions her child deserves better. And if hero (or relatives speaking on his behalf) flat out refuse support? That's why states have divisions of child support enforcement. And books that perpetuate the myth that support automatically equals joint custody or that obtaining support always requires the expensive services of a private attorney do a disservice to the REAL single mothers.

I care about this because I'm not the only high schooler who read adult romances as a teenager. I'm not the only young woman who made "baby" books a staple of my pre-child reading. And when books, movies, and TV shows keep blasting the notion that not telling a man about baby, not seeking his support, and not demanding that he take responsibility is somehow the bravest choice possible? Kid lose out. And we have legions of young women who accept crumbs from irresponsible baby daddies or who don't bother giving them the chance to do even that. Through my teaching I know many young single mothers impregnated by men with good paying jobs with health care. And they don't demand solutions that would provide them and their kids with health care, and they don't ask for child support because these myths are so pervasive. So yes, it matters. I'm not going so far as to advocate the return of the shotgun wedding (although it does have certain appeal), but I do think it's time to retire the secret baby trope.

1 comment:

  1. The only way I like it is if the heroine can't find the dad