Friday, August 05, 2005

Where Did That Baby Come From?

As a generality, I don’t like Secret Baby plots. Mostly I don’t like them because there are only a handful of situations in which I can believe the reason for keeping the baby a secret.

For example, I can believe keeping a baby a secret if the father is an abusive jerk who would do harm to either the mother or child. In which case, the father is no kind of hero and nothing else matters, so it all falls apart right there.

Or I can believe a heroine not telling the hero about their mutual child if she doesn’t know who, exactly, the father is. Which leads to a second situation that is hard to sell, in that why wouldn’t a woman know who the father of her child is in the fist place? It would require multiple sex partners during those fertile days. Which then involves things like adultery or possible ‘ho behaviour. Something that explains why the heroine is sleeping with more than one man at what amounts to the same time. Okay, not the exact same time, but you know what I mean. This is a sticky wicket because if it’s not treated perfectly, the heroine is hardly sympathetic when she winds up with a mystery bun in the oven.

Her uncertainty about paternity could involve rape. Perhaps the heroine had sex with more than one man, but one instance was against her will. Totally different kind of story that supersedes the Secret Baby on so many levels, but at least this is a situation that I could believe. The next hurdle, though, is why she would keep such a baby a Secret from the man in her life who hopefully loves her enough to stand by her during such a heart-wrenching circumstance.

It could be the case that the heroine doesn’t know the hero is the father because she doesn’t know herself even though he was the only one making the two headed monster with her at the time. Big confession time here: I wrote exactly this very situation in my first manuscript, long before I ever knew I was writing not only a Secret Baby story but an Amnesiac story as well. The heroine could, for some very good reason (which of course, mine was), lose her memory. The hero disappears before he can find out she’s pregnant and thus step up to claim his offspring even if she has no recollection of his part in it. I’ll maintain that this scenario is plausible simply because I wrote it and have big hopes of somehow, with some major rewriting, making it work. We’ll see.

So, if the heroine has doubts about who the father might be, I can certainly understand why she’s kept a baby a Secret. It wasn’t so much she didn’t want to tell, but more so that she didn’t know who to tell. Except, eventually you reach the point when the truth must be discovered, and the ways this can come about are so limited as to become clichés.

There’s the old baby/child needs a blood transfusion and only the hero has the rare blood type.

There’s the hero does the math in his head and BANG! he figures it out.

There’s the third party who knows the whole story (this is the particular method I employed in my disaster) and confesses everything or clears up any misunderstandings.

And of course, the favorite method is to have the baby look exactly like his/her father, with perhaps the identical moon shaped birthmark placed in the same spot on his/her left butt cheek or the same cerulean/emerald/sterling eyes particular to the father and his ancestors for centuries back to the beginning of the familial line. This works especially well when those eyes are seen in a portrait of someone of Great Familial Importance so parentage can’t be denied by those who don’t want a bastard in the family.

Thing is, beyond paternal uncertainty, I can’t honestly think of a good reason to keep a baby a secret from the hero/father. And my problem with so many Secret Baby story lines is when the reason is so transparent as to cause me to want to hurl the book into the fireplace.

Like when the heroine is afraid she’ll never know if the hero really loves her for her or would only be marrying her because she’s pregnant, so she chooses to just run off and have the baby all alone. If she doubts the hero’s intentions, she doesn’t have to marry the guy. But her insecurities don’t justify keeping the baby a secret. Usually what results of this setup is one of those A Five Minute Conversation Would Solve All Conflict scenarios, and when that five minute conversation doesn't happen over the course of 253 pages, I get a wee bit frustrated.

Or when the heroine is so feisty and independent she doesn’t want any help from the hero because this baby is hers, goddamnit, and she’s going to raise it alone. Uh, girlfriend, do you have any idea how expensive Baby Gap is or how much it costs to hire a babysitter so you can have an hour of peace and quiet? Take that cash and the help of a good man and save your hyper-feminism for fighting against La Leche League when you decide not to breast feed. Stupid and Stubborn does not equal Spunky.

Or when the hero’s family butts in and sends the pregnant heroine packing because, they tell her, she and her child would destroy the hero’s future prospects by causing some horrendous scandal. Can anyone say Martyr Much? Especially because the hero would always choose the heroine and his baby over political/financial/peerage success if he'd known and the heroine had simply told those meddlesome relatives to sod off.

Maybe the worst reason of all, because I find it incredibly cowardly, is when the heroine isn’t quite sure she really loves the hero so she doesn’t want to marry him even though she’s going to have his baby. So she denies him the chance to know he has a child, denies the child from having a father, all because she is too selfish to deal with the consequences of her actions. This might work if it didn’t happen that in X number of years, the hero and heroine meet once again and she realizes he is indeed the love of her life, and now we have all sorts of issues because he’s pretty pissed about the kid thing. *sigh*

I guess it all boils down to assuming that consenting adults engaging in sex should be pretty aware that despite using protection, unwanted pregnancies do occur. And any hero who would receive the news of an impending baby in such a negative way (beyond the natural “Holy shit! How did that happen?!” reaction plus a reasonable amount of time to get used to the idea) that the heroine thinks it’s wiser to keep things a secret isn’t such a great catch, in my opinion. In which case, I would just as soon have the heroine tell the hero that he’s fathered a child and when he reacts like a baby himself, tell him to take a flying leap but to send her child support checks before doing so.

Or, in other words, it seems most of the reasons for Secret Babies can be boiled down to the heroine making extreme sacrifices on her part, usually so the hero doesn’t have to suffer for either real or perceived reasons. Babies are just too much work for me to get behind this. There are too many real-life scenarios in which mothers have to raise children alone for me to believe the manufactured ones given in Secret Baby stories where the father would be a willing participant. I just can’t feel enough sympathy for women who play the martyr, not to mention the disservice I think they are doing to both their child and its father.

Yeah, I know. It’s only fiction. I need to lighten up.


Jody W. said...

HERE HERE! It makes a heroine look dumb. The only instance I could see is if she, for some reason, didn't have the hero's contact information / real name and couldn't track him down.

Caro said...

If it's a historical, I can understand the secret baby much better. In a contemporary, though, not so much -- and it's not a hook that attracts me.

The best use of a secret baby, in my opinion, was in the movie Soapdish, where it was all played for laughs and the actors were in as much of a soap opera as their characters.