Every Sperm is Sacred? Reproduction in Romance

This post discusses the following Harlequin titles: 

Alison Roberts, Her Baby Out of the Blue (Medical, January 2010)

Sarah Mayberry, The Best Laid Plans (Superromance, November 2010)

Janice Kay Johnson, Finding Her Dad (Superromance, June 2011) 

There will be spoilers (below the fold), so be ye warned.

Much has been written about the baby-centrism of romance: there’s the loved/hated baby epilogue, the miracle baby, the accidental baby (nothing like forgetting the condom to bond a couple), and the secret baby (which has its own tag at Dear Author).

Some authors, finding these familiar baby tropes stale, have upped the ante. Maybe the heroine inherits (and implants) her BFF’s frozen embryos (AnimeJune’s pre-reading rant about and relatively positive review of this one are not to be missed). Or the fertility clinic screws up, leaving the heroine accidentally pregnant with the hero’s baby (good thing he’s widowed or single!). Since this is romance fiction we’re talking about, these scenarios, which would probably lead to some nasty litigation in real life, lead instead to the creation of a happy family.

It’s no surprise that many of these examples pop up in Harlequin’s category lines, because they create a high-conflict situation that nevertheless pulls the hero and heroine together, convenient for the shorter length or these books. On the other hand, the brevity of categories, and the extent to which they’re bound by genre conventions, tends to mean that they don’t deal with issues surrounding conception and parenthood in very nuanced ways. 

I recently read two books featuring sperm donation, Sarah Mayberry’s The Best Laid Plans and Janice Kay Johnson’s Finding Her Dad.  I liked them both (Mayberry and Johnson are some of my favorite Harlequin authors), but both bothered me too. 

In Mayberry’s book, single lawyer Alex Knight is warned by her doctor that at 38 she shouldn’t wait long to conceive if she wants a child. She and her work buddy, Ethan Stone, agree that he’ll donate sperm and work out the details of a co-parenting plan. But ultimately, Alex can’t go through with it: “It’s so clinical . . . . So . . . cold,” she says. Ethan admits he was having second thoughts as well. Despite the fact that the child they plan would have two loving, well-off parents, they don’t want to conceive outside of the traditional nuclear family unit. It’s perfectly plausible that some people would choose not to conceive and parent a child in this way, and there’s nothing wrong with that choice, nor does the book insist that it’s the only right choice for everyone. Still, the implication of the plot (by the end of the book, they’re married and Alex is pregnant). is that alternative families are second-best.

In Johnson’s book, teenaged Sierra is left an orphan when her single mother, who conceived her through sperm donation, dies. Sierra sets out to find her biological father; that father, Jon Brenner, is a conservative law-and-order type who’s running for county sherriff.  Though Jon is concerned about how revelations of Sierra’s existence might impact his campaign, he quickly takes on a parental role. I found it both plausible and admirable that someone like Jon would do this, but a number of other things about the book really annoyed me.

Let’s start with Johnson’s letter to the reader (a typical Harlequin feature): in it, Johnson mentions that Sierra’s foster mother, Lucy (yes, of course she ends up with Jon), has “good reason to be suspicious of men who aren’t around to raise their own children.” Huh? Anonymous sperm donors aren’t exactly deadbeat dads! At some points in the novel, both Lucy and Jon think of his sperm donation–which he did to help pay his way through college–as “irresponsible.”  In contrast, the novel fails to address what I thought was the biggest responsibility fail in the whole set-up:  a single mother with no close family who makes no legal provision for her child’s guardianship in the event of her death.   

Finally, Jon, angry that Lucy didn’t tell him her recently-paroled mom (dude, there’re a lot of issues in this book) is moving to town, takes Sierra to live at his house. Neither Sierra nor Lucy is happy about this, but though Lucy points out that Jon has no legal custody rights, they don’t contest it.  Biology seems to trump any other relationship for these characters.

That’s even more obvious in the opening of Roberts’ book [note: I’ve just read the first few pages of Her Baby Out of the Blue on Google books; they did not tempt me to read more. I’ve read and really liked another Roberts book, One Night With Her Boss.]  As the blurb for the book explains, surgeon Jane Walters is stunned when a gorgeous man shows up in her ER with a baby–her baby. How can a baby be a secret from its own mother, you ask? Well, Jane donated eggs for a friend’s IVF attempts, which she thought had all failed. Now it turns out one worked, the friend and her husband were killed in a crash while bringing the baby home from the hospital, and the family has put Jane on the birth certificate as the baby’s mother because little Sophie needs her.  Biology is parental destiny.

In a Twitter discussion of this issue someone pointed out that genetic relationships are increasingly central in social attitudes towards legal parenthood and reproductive technologies. Many adopted children, and those conceived through sperm donation, are interested in discovering their biological parents, and vice versa; courts and practices around adoption have responded to these desires (this recent New York Times story shows that social media plays a role too). Just after I finished reading Johnson’s book, a BC Supreme Court ruled that children of sperm and egg donors, like those who are adopted, have a right to know the identity of their biological parents.

The Harlequin novels I’ve cited, then, are in part simply reflecting cultural attitudes to the importance of biological parenthood. At the same time, I think such narratives help to reinforce those attitudes. (It’s true that in Johnson’s story, and presumably in Roberts’s, we end with a family unit that also has a non-biological parent: Lucy, the foster mother, and Dylan, baby Sophie’s uncle. Many other Harlequin novels end in similar ways). 

What bothers me is not any single example but the cumulative impact of the many, many baby-trope stories: the implication that the ideal–perhaps the inevitable–result of every conception, however accidental it may be, is a traditional family unit, and that genetic parenthood always entails responsibility and leads to love.

What about you? Have you read a book that deals especially well or badly with a baby trope? Have a strong opinion on any of these issues?




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