Warning: this piece has spoilers about three contemporary romances: Sabrina Darby’s Entry Level Mistress, Joan Kilby’s Maybe this Time, and Sarah Mayberry’s Suddenly You
Last month, I read a contemporary romance by Sabrina Darby that, despite its slightly sexist title–Entry Level Mistress–I was enjoying. Then, in the last few chapters of the novel, a plot twist ruined the book for me. The heroine, a smart, independent 21 year old with a successful career as an artist ahead of her, gets pregnant by her billionaire 31 year old boyfriend and, with very little thought, decides to have the baby.
Now, before you scroll down to the comment section and share your passionately held views on abortion, please, for my sake, read a bit further.
Let me tell you a bit about the context of this particular surprise baby. In Entry Level Mistress, the protagonists, Emily and Daniel, are very careful–except for this one time–not to get pregnant. They talk about birth control, use condoms, and share with each other how important it is to both of them to succeed in their professional worlds. One tempestuous night, they make love without using protection, fight the next morning, and break up. Emily, when she finds out she is pregnant decides not only to have the baby but to do so without any support from Daniel. Once Daniel finds out she’s carrying his child, he woos her back to his side, and she realizes that being with him, becoming Mrs. Hartman, will make her the happiest woman alive.
Why did this so bother me?
For starters, I didn’t believe that Emily wouldn’t have given abortion some serious thought. There’s nothing in the novel that suggests she’s religious or has dreamed of having children. In Entry Level Mistress, Emily is about her goals, her profession as an artist, and her empowered sexual self. I found it almost impossible to believe that she would decide, at 21, to have a child without seriously considering other options, especially that of abortion.
Why do I mention abortion rather than adoption? Less than 20,000 American children are given up for adoption each year. Although no one can agree on a single number, it’s safe to say over a million abortions occur in the United States each year, a third of which are had by women 20-24. Emily lives in Massachusetts, a state with comparatively liberal abortion laws. It seems unlikely she wouldn’t have given serious reflection to the choices available to her.
Furthermore, the surprise baby did not seem intrinsic to the plot. Emily and Daniel had other believable barriers to their happy ending. The pregnancy felt awkwardly shoved in the story. And, once a part of the narrative, the unplanned baby became the focus of the story. As the book ends, there’s no sense that the rest of Emily’s life outside of Daniel and their child matters to her in a significant way. A book that began with the heroine as a (very) young, independent, self-determined woman ends with her as a wife and a mother above all else.
Now, I’m a wife and mother. I have four children and I didn’t work for several years when my children were young. And while I am pro-choice, I’d prefer abortion be safe and rare. Two of my children are Emily’s age and I confess it would depress me if either of them defined themselves solely, so early in their lives, as spouses and parents. I want choices for my children. I want them to have options, consider those options carefully, and choose the option most likely to bring them long term happiness.
Let me be clear, it’s not just Ms. Darby’s prose that irks me here. It’s contemporary romance in general. In the past year, I’ve read too many books where a young (or not so young) woman gets pregnant and never considers any choice but to have a child. Worse, the pregnancies are often unintended–the condom broke, the couple was carried away by passion, etc..–and yet the arrival of a baby is usually portrayed as a boon to the relationship. That too makes me crazy. Babies are hugely stressful for marriages. 90% of couples say the quality of their relationship declined when the first baby arrived. Many women suffer from post-partum depression. Here again, don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for having babies if you want them. I had four, despite having a terrible post-partum depression after I gave birth to my first child. Having children does make parents, in the long run, happier. What I’m irked about is that contemporary romance rarely shows having a baby as the challenge it is for many many couples.
So, you may ask, what do I want? No pregnancies in contemporary romance? No. I want pregnancies that, rather than portraying a baby as something akin to a human lottery ticket, are organic to the story in which they occur.
I want more novels like Joan Kilby’s Maybe This Time. In this contemp, a divorced couple has a fling when they discover they’re both on the same singles cruise. They wait a little too long for the ex-husband to don a condom and the ex-wife gets pregnant. She wants the baby; initially, he does not. Her pregnancy is hard on her–she’s working full-time as a nurse–and rather than binding her to her baby’s father, the stress she feels pushes them farther apart. It’s not until the heroine has the baby and then gets a severe case of the baby blues, that the hero, worried something dire might happen, begins to insert himself into the lives of ex-wife and his child. Everything about this book felt real to me including its joyful ending.
I want more books like Sarah Mayberry’s Suddenly You. In that book, one of my favorite romance from 2012, the heroine Pippa gets pregnant and the father of the child wants nothing to do with her or the baby. Pippa adores her daughter Alice but being a financially strapped single mother is hard. Between working, trying to study, and caring for Alice, there’s little room in Pippa’s life for fun and romance. When she does begin seeing a man she fancies, Harry, he is at first completely uninterested in Alice, and, in fact, sees her as a reason not to get emotionally involved with Pippa. When Harry and Pippa do become lovers, Alice is often an anti-aphrodisiac. In Suddenly You, when Harry and Pippa think about their future together, both give a great deal of thought to what it would mean to raise a child together.
I want more books like Jennifer Lohmann’s The First Move where adoption is portrayed as a reasonable alternative for a young mother and where the issues around not having and not keeping a baby are explored with sensitivity.
I want books where the protagonists explore all the options–pregnancy, adoption, the morning after pill, and abortion–carefully and openly. Many say that to do so would doom a romance novel. I don’t believe that.
In 2009, Dear Author ran a poll asking if abortion was an acceptable choice for a romance heroine. 70% of the respondents said yes. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll found that 59% of American women described themselves as pro-choice. I believe if an author wrote a contemporary romance where a pregnant heroine decided against having a child and that decision was part of her happy ever after many romance readers would welcome such a story. After all, there are thousands of romances that show heroines having babies. There are none, that I’m aware of, that show a heroine making a different choice, one that women all over are familiar with. Those readers, the ones that want to see the choice they or others they know have made not to have a child, are ready for a romance that reflects their reality.
In 2002, country music superstar Tim McGraw released a song called “Red Rag Top.” The song went to #5 on the country charts and #40 on the Billboard Top 100. In it, Mr. McGraw tells of a pair of young lovers (he was 20, she was 18) who got pregnant. Mr. McGraw sings: “I was out of a job and she was in school/And life was fast and the world was cruel/We were young and wild/We decided not to have a child.” If country music, often considered the province of the conservative side of America, can depict ending a pregnancy, why can’t a romance?