Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Essentials In Women's Fiction - Let's Have a Baby! Or Not

Each Wednesday this month I'm going to discuss an essential I've noticed in my women's fic reading. No, not every women's fic novel includes each of these, but if a novel focuses on one of these essentials, there is no doubt in my mind that it is women's fiction. Make sense?

Good. Let's get started.

Babies are a quintessentially female topic. Why? Because men cannot get pregnant, give birth, or breastfeed. At least right now they can't... unless you're Arnold Schwarzenegger; that man can do anything. I heard or read an article somewhere (I know, I shouldn't be saying something unless I can direct-quote it, but I am) that the uterus is one of the few organs that has yet to be duplicated in modern medicine. You can get yourself a brand new heart if you need it--seriously?--but if your uterus is damaged or not functioning properly, you're SOL.

And because of this organ and all the wonderful female hormones that keep it maintained, women have a natural desire to bear children. But sometimes it's not always the best time. So in women's fiction I've noticed there are three basic routes the story centers around if babies are the main focus of the viewpoint characters:

1. Woman who wants a baby more than anything in the world cannot have a baby, for whatever reason.

2. Woman who doesn't want a baby at this point in her life, for whatever reason, gets pregnant by accident.

3. Woman is forced into the role of mother for someone else's baby and this creates havoc, for whatever reason.

I call this the baby clause. As far as having a baby is concerned, those are really the only three basic situations. Does that mean if your story centers around baby-making, pregnancy, birth, baby care, etc. that your story is old hat? Not necessarily. There are SO MANY different side roads you can take off these three main highways, and each of them will be uniquely YOU once you write the story.

(Quick aside: If you write female-focused YA, throwing in a baby clause will push it into adult fiction, in my opinion. That is not to say that you cannot have pregnancies in YA--far from it in today's world--but the baby clause is an adult focus, an adult decision. The "woman who doesn't want a baby at this point in her life" usually has made this decision in favor of furthering her career, or caring for an aging parent, or something else "adult." Few teen girls actually want to get pregnant (yes, I know there are exceptions), so in general, teens will fall under number two above, but not by any real choice. It's an age default, in my opinion. A teen girl who gets pregnant by accident will always have someone in her life, if not multiple people, saying "you're so young, you've ruined your life!" as part of the conflict, so to me, it doesn't count. A 25 or 35 year-old adult who simply wasn't mentally or financially ready for children yet? Not so much, because it's a choice they made in which age, in general, isn't as much a factor as their current situation in life.)

For baby clause number one, the female MC is usually nearing middle age. She thought she did things in the right order--went to college, established her career, got married, got a house, etc--and now that it's time for that next step--the baby!--her body wants nothing to do with it. You've worked hard all your life, it tells her. This is your time to relax. Why add more stress?

So what does she do? The desire to have a baby is strong, even for men, but especially for women. Once that seed is planted in a woman's brain, it is extremely difficult--if not impossible--to uproot.

Regarding age, thirty-five is actually the new thirty. If you hit age 35 and you still haven't had kids, you'd better put a rush on it. (That's medically-speaking, by the way. Social expectations are a whole other ball game.) Any woman over age 35 is automatically considered a higher risk for problematic pregnancy and/or birth. Plus, you're nearing menopause when your hormones really take you for a ride.

In this type of story, the possibilities are endless. The woman may be single and want a baby. How will she go about that? In addition to the physical, there are also ethical dilemmas involved in that choice. More conflict = good. Or, the woman may be infertile. I can't even list how many different reasons there are for infertility. In fact, it may end up being the man's issue, not the woman's. Again, more conflict = good.

For baby clause number two, the female MC is generally younger. Still an adult, but maybe in her twenties or early thirties. She is in the active planning stage of life, not the settling down stage. This doesn't mean she's celibate, though, and WHAM! suddenly she's skipped a period and excusing herself from a board meeting to go puke in the nearest trash can.

This type of storyline is a little more predictable, but still full of enough choices that it can be fresh. After the realization of her pregnancy, there are buckets-full of questions to face. How did this happen, I'm on birth control? And/or, who is the father? Will he step up to his role? And/or, should I even keep the baby? (that doesn't always mean abortion; some women carry and birth the baby and then allow it to be adopted) And/or, how do I tell my mother?! Etc, etc, etc.

Seriously. Moms are scary, even when we're adults. That's not just a teen fear.

You can always change up this type of story by having an unexpected "change of life" baby, but remember there has to be more to it than "OMG I THOUGHT IT WAS JUST MENOPAUSE" for readers to even pick it up.

In baby clause number three, a variety of fun things can happen. The baby is forced on the MC, so she can be in just about any life situation when this monkey wrench is thrown at her. She can already have kids of her own. Maybe they are young children, maybe they're nearing adulthood. She can be single. Divorced. Widowed. Married but childless. On the brink of a new career. Contemplating retirement. Live in a studio apartment. About to move across the country. She could even be in a foreign country doing who-knows-what when she gets the news.

Basically anything. Even the circumstances that bring the baby to her care in the first place are innumerable. Death of the parents, abandonment, illness, imprisonment, "I just need you to watch my kid for a month while I...", etc.

You can even have a male MC in this one and it will still be considered women's fic (more specifics on "men in women's fiction" will be discussed in a future post) because anything that focuses on a baby will be of interest to women. You need look no further than Three Men and a Baby for proof of this. It was a hit for both the male and female audience.

In all of these scenarios, you have the opportunity for either comedy, drama, or (preferably) both.

On my to-read list is a 2010 debut novel, The Atlas of Love by Laurie Frankel. Very obviously a baby-focused story, just by looking at the cover. Based on the blurb, which baby clause do you think it falls under?

When Jill becomes both pregnant and single at the end of one spring semester, she and her two closest friends plunge into an experiment in tri-parenting, tri-schooling, and trihabitating as grad students in Seattle. Naturally, everything goes wrong, but in ways no one sees coming. Janey Duncan narrates the adventure of this modern family with hilarity and wisdom and shows how three lives are forever changed by (un)cooperative parenting, literature, and a tiny baby named Atlas who upends and uplifts their entire world.

It's easy to pinpoint now, isn't it? (number two!) I doubt you'll look at baby stories the same way ever again. Can you think of some classic examples for the baby clause?

~Lydia

5 comments:

  1. Over at Smart Bitches they ran a post a while back about the HEA being a pregnancy. There is a decent sized faction of romance readers who hate it for a couple of reasons. Some are struggling with infertility and really don't want another "all your dreams come true when you settle down and have a baby" book and some just plain old want an MC who actively chooses not to procreate.

    That would also make for interesting women's fic, I think. A married couple with the man pressing for children the woman does not want. It does happen and sets the trope on its ear. I'd be interested in a character who does not want children just because she doesn't, not because she is a cold hearted career driven harpy.

    Choosing to be a dink (double income no kids) is not a popular or valid choice in women's fic, it seems. More often, it is code for the woman is selfish and horrible.

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  2. Good point, Laurel. Some women just don't have a strong enough desire to feel it's worth it, even if their significant other is really pushing for it. This could realistically be a sub-category of baby clause number two. Just with a twist.

    And using pregnancy for the HEA element is just as silly as using marriage for the HEA element, in my opinion. Unless that was the main goal of the MC at the beginning, that type of ending would fall flat for me.

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  3. I don't read woman's fic, but boy is this true for movies. Holy freakazoid there's a load of these scenarios and that's just looking at Jenn A's movies!

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  4. I'd never really thought about it, but this sums up the baby clause so well. You're right--I can't think of a book/movie with a pregnancy in it that doesn't slot into one of these categories. Thanks, really interesting!

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  5. @Angela,
    Jenn A does baby movies? I must be out of the loop. Although, I must admit, I don't care for her acting too much so anything with her in the cast has to be pretty stellar otherwise for me to even consider it.

    @Amie,
    It's nice when things can be broken down to their basics, isn't it? Makes the daunting task of crafting a story a lot less overwhelming, in my opinion. Glad you liked this. :)

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