How Pregnancy Changed One Reviewer’s Romance Reading

cutcaster-photo-100242914-Pregnant-woman-reading-a-bookI knew pregnancy was going to change my life, but it came as a surprise to me that pregnancy changed my romance reading. I haven’t read books, especially historicals, in the same way since.

It took me a significant amount of time to get pregnant. My husband and I were just about to start looking for a fertility specialist when I conceived. During this time, I was (obviously) very stressed, and my favorite stress relief bar none is a romance novel in the bathtub. As I read, I could not freaking believe how many romance novels were full of magical infertility cures, including the most patronizing one I’ve ever read, in which the heroine’s body was “just waiting for the right man.” Because apparently my husband was the wrong man? Nothing jolts you out of your relaxation bath by being poked in the eyeball by the exact problem you got in the tub to escape, that’s for sure.

Now, as somebody for whom it did eventually, suddenly “just happen,” I know it’s ironic for me to complain about the same thing happening to characters. But at the time, not knowing what was going to happen to me, it was deeply upsetting and strangely ignorant.

Then there was childbirth. Since having my child, I find myself getting very nervous for heroines in historicals, who will have to go through this without modern medicine. (This article on the history of epidurals is interesting).  I know that many contemporary women also have inadequate medical care, and they also have all my sympathy. Until I actually went into labor, I had no idea how severe that pain would be. I had so much more sympathy for the villainess “first wife” heroines, reviled for turning the heroes out of their beds to avoid second pregnancies. Before epidurals and with no reliable contraception, I might have wanted to do the same. I wouldn’t say it’s ruined sex scenes for me in historicals, but it certainly puts a damper on things.

That’s just a question of what’s less awful, not what is actually dangerous. This year alone, I’ve had two friends whose babies went straight to the NICU for lung problems, a friend whose fifty-plus hour labor required an unscheduled C-section, and a friend whose baby had to be induced. I needed Pitocin to stop excessive post-delivery bleeding. It’s very likely that I’d know at least one or two women or children who did not survive childbirth. It’s possible that I would have been one of them. The common elimination of inconvenient mother characters with a blithe “Oh, she died in childbirth. I don’t remember her, so I can hardly miss her” jumps out at me in a way it never did before, and frankly breaks my heart. I also read this recent fascinating BBC article on the history of alternative foods for babies who could not be breastfed. For those historical orphans to survive, they would very likely have needed wet nurses, who never turn up in the story.

If you’ve had children, did that event affect your romance reading? Even if you haven’t, do you ever worry about the heroines? Are you as tired of magical infertility cures as I am?


AAR Caroline

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24 Responses to How Pregnancy Changed One Reviewer’s Romance Reading

  1. Caz says:

    My experiences having kids hasn’t really affected my reading, but then I wasn’t a great reader of romances back when I had my kids (now aged 11 and 14).

    I was very fortunate in that becoming pregnant wasn’t problematic (and I’m an older mum) but I had complications both times that led to emergency C-sections – so 200 years ago, I almost certainly wouldn’t have made it the first time. (And I couldn’t breastfeed, either :( )

    But I admit that my experiences DO stick in the back of my mind when reading historicals, especially those where the H/h are then shown in the epilogue blissfully surrounded by their six/eight children. (Mind you, that number of kids would bother me, regardless of the era in which the book was set!). I’ve read a couple of books which have included what I feel are particularly accurate descriptions of childbirth (I say accurate – they’re probably as accurate as an author would dare to be in a romantic novel) in that they’re messy, noisy, bloody and painful!

    I can’t say as I’ve read one with a magical infertility cure, or rather, a book in which it’s been stated as such. I’ve read stories in which the h becomes pregnant with husband no.2 after having been blamed for being barren, but I can accept that (mostly) as the lack of fertility on either part is a 50/50 chance, after all.

  2. mari says:

    I really can’t read about infertility in romance books unless its taken VERY seriously indeed. Having been through it myself I know what a devastating psychological toll it can take on a marriage. After my first child I remember reading about a heroine who gets right back to ye old sexy times almost immediatly following childbirth…WALLBANGER! There’s no understanding / discussion or grown up realization of the impact childbirth, breastfeeding, and sleepless nights has on a marriage. Usually these things are not dealt with, or there is a fade to black moment after childbirth. INMHO, I have to believe the marriage is strong enough to survive the enforced periods of chastity that sometimes happen. Maybe that’s not romantic or sexy, but if romance is only about sex, then there really is no HEA possible, and for me, the book is a fail. While I don’t always want realism is romance, there is a point where “fantasy” just becomes stupidity and willful blindness..even laziness on the part of the writer.

  3. Patricia M. says:

    I never overcame my fertility issues but was able to adopt a child. So, yes, I all of the same issues when it comes to reading about magic fertility cures. No modern medicine was able to cure me so it is a sore point when I read about issues just disappearing in romance books.

  4. I’m one of those who had to have an emergency C Section after 50 hours of labour. I wouldn’t have survived without modern medicine. For me it’s easy to get pregnant, too, just the birth process would have killed me. So I’d have been in constant peril, if I survived that first birth.
    I did write a book about that, “Last Chance, My Love,” where the heroine suffered giving birth to her two children, and the doctor advised her not to have any more. Her husband loves her, so he keeps away from her in bed. The story’s about how they resolve the problem.
    So authors do use their personal experiences to inform their books, even if they are historicals.
    I also did extensive research into what the Georgians did for contraception, and found a few methods that were pretty effective. Not much is written about them, it seems to be knowledge that was passed down, for the most part. The sponge, the lemon and withdrawal being the main ones. Until the invention of rubber in the late nineteenth century, condoms were for the prevention of disease, not contraception, and respectable women wouldn’t use them. One word. Reusable.

  5. Karenmc says:

    During my genealogy research, I’ve come across male ancestors in the 18th & 19th centuries who were married four and five times. One married sisters (with a different wife in between) and the other lived to be over one hundred, while his wives would die young (he had as many as eighteen off-spring). I just can’t imagine.

  6. lor says:

    I’m someone else who had no difficulty getting pregnant but I doubt I would have survived childbirth without modern medicine – one forceps assisted delivery and two subsequent C-sections (I might have survived the first and second births but the babies probably would not, neither I nor the baby would have survived the third birth.)

    I really do have problems with authors who have the heroine eagerly jumping back into the sack shortly after giving birth or not writing about how very tired a new mother would be – even if there are servants doing all the work – not to mention babies inconveniently waking at inopportune moments!

    Regarding infertility in books, I tend to be a bit more accepting of some of the “miracle” conceptions as I have known two couples who conceived after many years of marriage with no contraception (one about 5-6 years, the other 10+ years) and then both had second children about a year later; in addition I also know of two different couples who conceived after adopting a child – one couple had two children more than ten years after adopting their second child.

    • CarolineAAR says:

      I think unexplained infertility cures are a bit like dukes. The problem may be that the market is saturated with them, rather than that they’re not real. I’ve reached the point where I know the second a heroine says she can’t conceive that she’ll be puking within one hundred pages.

  7. Cynthia Sax says:

    Not being able to have a child (either natural or adopted) has certainly changed my romance writing experience. I’ve never written a heroine who has been a mother in the beginning of the story. They might be awesome aunts, big sisters, etc. but they’re not moms. I don’t have the confidence that I’ll write mom heroines with the sensitivity they require (which is silly as my heroines have experienced a wide range of other things I’ve never experienced either).

    I tend not to read about these heroines either. It isn’t an escape to read about children. It is a painful reminder of an experience I’ll never have.

  8. clutterconqueror says:

    I had two Caesareans and know that my son and I would certainly have died if not for the miracle of modern medicine. In some way, reading historical romances really helped me appreciate how lucky I am to live now and not then. But this experience, itself, has not affected my romance reading; however, having children definitely has.

    Before children, I would often think pregnancy and babies in romance was, well, romantic. But the reality for me is children and pregnancy are the exact antithesis of romance. I love my husband and children desperately, but there is nothing romantic about the reality of pregnancy, childbirth and raising children. So, I generally avoid those topics in my reading. And I will say that when the possibility arises that a heroine might be pregnant, I find myself hoping that the author doesn’t go that route. That being said, though, I can’t recall a time when this theme negatively affected my enjoyment of a book.

  9. Blackjack1 says:

    I encountered the terrible statistic early in my literary historical studies that child birth was the number one cause of death for women in the early 19th century. I’ve not viewed it the same since, and this phenomena is usually glanced over in romance writing, most likely because it puts a damper on the notion of romance. For me it makes the interconnection between the birth control movement and women’s movement much more emotionally powerful.

  10. Marianne McA says:

    I don’t think pregnancy changed my feelings about heroines in historicals, but my experience of pregnancy and childbirth was happily straightforward. However I have – and this is a non-historical – a special warmth towards Judith Duncan’s book ‘Murphy’s Child’ because it resonated so much with my own experience of breast-feeding.

  11. Bona says:

    Having children have not affected my romance reading, except in a way not mentioned yet -they have increased my stress so I need to read more romance than ever to disconnect ; -)
    No, I don’t like that fantasy part of historicals, because it’s so different from reality. And I think it could be a good idea to introduce a little realism in these things, because, apart form romance novels, no other genre is interested in history of women or women as the main character in a historical novel.
    But historical romance many times shows pregnancy as something easy or giving birth as something painless. In those cases, I think the author is mocking us, mothers. And what about those babies who always eat well and sleep better? OMG!
    But I have to recognize that the little historical detail that surprises me most in historicals is the absence of wet nurses.

  12. AlexandraAAR says:

    Although I don’t have any children, I do have a midwife for a mother. For as long as I can remember, our dinnertime conversation has involved stories from her work at her clinic and her hospital. By the time I was 10 I was already thinking about epidurals, C-Sections, miscarriages, whether or not I should get an amniocentesis, etc. I grew up criticizing movies and TV shows for their unrealistic portrayals of childbirth, and I’ve been doing much the same since I started reading romance novels.

    One of the things that bothers me the most is how childbirth is portrayed in contemporary novels. I’m pretty well aware of how the process looks, in spite of the fact that I haven’t yet had a child myself. It seems that for every book that records it accurately I encounter at least two that are outrageously unrealistic. I recently read a novel where the heroine’s baby was delivered at home by a vet. And no one seemed freaked out or worried about complications.

    I’ve lived with a midwife for most of my life. There are a LOT of possible complications. Real doctors would have had been busy getting the child and mother to the hospital to make sure they were okay.

  13. Emily A. says:

    I’m not a mother myself, but I was a miraculous baby in way for my mom (her first non-miscarriage pregnancy.) In historicals, I can believe in miraculous fertility since there were no specific cures for infertility.

    Recently a friend of a friend (whom I have met, so it’s real) gave birth to a child that was dead. It was very sad. A cousin had severe complications but both she and the baby survived.

    I usually hate the vilification anyone infertile. I liked the Mitford series, where the heroine Cynthia is an older woman whose first husband left because she couldn’t have children (he was an abusive ass anyway). Since she’s too old to be pregnant, no miracle baby but she finds true love with Father Tim a gentle abuse survivor himself.

    I don’t mind the pregnancy with the second spouse as a plot point. I do have sympathy for dead spouses. I was upset with Eloisa James’s Duchess in Disguise where the first heroine randomly hated the hero’s first wife (whom died in childbirth?). Anyway she was jealous and I was disgusted. I particularly think that’s not healthy given the hero’s daughter.
    It ruined the book for me.

  14. Eliza says:

    I’ve noticed that quite a few readers here focus quite often on historical accuracy or comparisons to today’s world. I guess because I have always read a goodly amount of non-fiction history where it’s not uncommon at all to have historians differ among themselves on all kinds of things, that I let history be history, fiction be fiction, and let the rest go. So I guess my answer to the question above is no–real life and history rarely intrude on my fiction reading. BTW, I’m well aware of women and children mortality history, and I had a C-section myself, but it doesn’t change the past; and I read really few contemps.

  15. Feydruss says:

    Since undergoing years of infertility treatment I’ve not been able to read any romance (especially category) that incorporates it AT ALL. A romance where the plot involves a zany IVF mix-up (because that’s romantic, not litigious, right?) compels me to hide them behind other books in the store if I see them (sorry, authors!). The psychological and physical difficulties that one goes through to do IVF is not romantic or to be taken lightly.

    Luckily, despite a cycle where everything went wrong and the doctors told me this was my last chance, we conceived beautiful twin boys. But then that leads me to my other giant wall banger trope–twins in romance novels! Hero/heroine is twin parent and widowed, or OMG I was left these twin toddlers by my dead friend/sister/whatever. How adorable! How heartwarming!

    It’s clear that these authors have never had twins of their own. There is a reason that the divorce rate for parents of multiples is higher than the average–it’s freaking hard work! I was lucky enough to have family around me PLUS a nanny and there were still days where I never slept more than 2 hours cumulatively in a day! Even if we’re not talking newborns and the “romance” of 3lb babies in the NICU, then all hell breaks loose when they start actually MOVING. When you’ve got two curious toddlers going in opposite directions, your mind turns to damage control assessment, not how to woo the sexy carpenter next door (although you might consider hiring him to help babyproof your house).

    Romantic? Well, the fact that my husband started having an extramarital affair when the boys were 18 months old certainly wasn’t romantic in retrospect (I caught him about 15 months later and we’re still trying to rebuild our relationship of 20 years).

    • Ros says:

      I always wonder who on earth finds those multiple birth books romantic. I think I saw one Harlequin where they ended up with TEN babies between them. Who has time for sexy times with that many infants in the house?!!!

    • nu says:

      You said it, sister. There’s absolutely no room for romance with multiples running around. But there’s this ever present fantasy among people who don’t have them that they’re cute. Like kittens. lol.

  16. bavarian says:

    Neither my first borne son nor I would have survived his birth. So I tend to prefer epilogues in historicals where the baby (or babies) is already borne and mother and child are alive. When the end shows the couple beeing happy about a pregnancy I always have troubles. What if the heroine does not survive? So I think my own experiences do influence my reading experiences.

  17. Clover says:

    I am sooo glad to have stumbled across this. I spent two and a half years trying to conceive,unsuccessfully, as a single woman. So the multitude of accidental pregnancies, miracle infertility cures, etc. makes me insane. If I know that a book includes any sort of sperm mix up, I won’t even look at it.

    Also, all naturally occurring triplets. Gah!

    Thanks for this discussion.

  18. This is such a touching thread. Like some of you, I read (and write) historical romance for relaxation and a happy ever after. Pregnancy and childbirth are so personal, so intense, that I find any depiction jars and takes me out of the story. Real life can be hard and cruel, and bad things happen to lovely people. I read newspapers or contemporary literary fiction for that. Long live escapism, I say.

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