On pregnancy, children and narrative satisfaction

No, I’m not pregnant. I just want to rant!

Over the past few years, successive members of my friends and family have gotten pregnant, had children, posted on Facebook about the process…and finally, after a conversation with a friend last week and a long commute with time to think, I’ve put my finger on something that’s been bugging me for a while in the books I read (and write).

When I think about pregnancy and children in fantasy writing, it’s not got much realism.

Where are the miscarriages? One in five real-world pregnancies ends in miscarriage, often at a stage where the pregnancy is known about – so it’s not a surprise! Where are the failed pregnancies, the painful terminations? It’s either the drama of an abortion choice or the happy healthy pregnancy-and-birth; what about when it’s taken entirely out of the character’s hands, and the pregnancy ends without a choice either way?

And where are the plans? Where are the stable couples trying for children and failing? Where are the uncertainties, the failures, the hope against odds that your bundle of cells will have survived? Where are the struggles and questions and problems and communications? On which note, the happily-married couples seem lacking; off the top of my head, Zoe and Wash are my favourite. I know it gives some narrative fun to have will-they-won’t-they drama, but can’t you have drama in a relationship, too?

Thinking of high fantasy in particular, if we’re in a medieval setting…have you looked at the statistics for survival rates? (Go find a book on Shakespeare if you want a good example). Even if the child and mother survived childbirth, the odds of getting to age 4 are terrifying. Ok, add some decent sewage systems and you’ll improve those odds, but even then, without things like cancer treatments, vaccines and even rudimentary bacterial knowledge, your chances of dying – and that’s generally, not even as a child – are pretty high. Where are the burials? Where are the missing playmates? Where are the Heirs that didn’t make it, all too common in the real-world history (Henry VIII…)? Where are the struggles of the ordinary couples trying to have children and not knowing what’s causing them to fail in a world where medicine isn’t particularly advanced? How about the number of women that died in childbirth because doctors didn’t wash their hands? Your world might have elves, but if their doctors are as stubborn and arrogant as human ones were, you’ve still got some serious death rates on your hands.

I appreciate that a lot of the choices made in fiction are down to plot, but…seriously. There are tropes, there are clichés, and they’re getting annoying. If there’s a rape, then oh look, the victim’s pregnant and that feeds into the plot. Lover died? Despite the fact they only had (glorious, beautiful, wonderful) sex once, she has this child to remember him by! Need a son and heir? Sure! Although it might be a daughter just to ramp up the plot twists. And all sex leads to a frickin’ child? I know people that have been trying for a child for a year and some bloody teenager who barely knows what body parts to put where gets pregnant because it’s their Special First Time?

Basically: where’s the ****ing reality?

And I’m not talking graphically. I don’t want intricate depictions of miscarriages and pregnancy plans. I don’t need an in-depth soliloquy from a mourning parent, or a graphic gore scene. I don’t need a side plot with the details of the talking and doctors and whatever else that fantasy world has in it to support pregnancy and children.

I just want an acknowledgement of failed pregnancies. Of children who didn’t survive. Of the talking and decisions that go on in a partnership when you decide to have children. Of the lingering illnesses and sudden fevers that take children more often than they takes adults. Of abortion decisions when maybe abortions weren’t well-supported, and the local witch and a potion was the only way to go. Of the deaths of mother and baby in childbirth, in a world where death is common. Of the physical pain and mental loss when the character’s three-month pregnancy ends in a welter of blood or at seven months in a stillbirth, and it wasn’t caused by an abusive husband or sudden shock or whatever other wretched plot device the author puts in. Of the struggle to conceive and bring a child into a world, be it classic fantasy or more real-world, and the potential for the death and loss of that child before it reaches adulthood.

In classic fantasy, I can put a lot of the problems down to the male author. Women’s bodies and the whole child-making process is pretty strange even for women, so the male author’s lack of knowledge is understandable. The pregnancy-and-childbirth themes are more common in “women’s fiction” or “beach reading” – I really hate those labels – because they’re aimed at women. But in the fantasy world, despite the proliferation of women writers, despite the increasing spread of genre and theme, despite the increasing subtleties and general acceptance of weirdness and difference…I’m finding myself getting annoyed by the sheer lack of any reference.

Yes, there’s gender equality. Yes, there’s strong women. But it’s a physical process, it only happens to one gender, it happens pretty damn frequently, and it would be really nice if it was – even as a minor thing – acknowledged.

This entire line of thought also feeds into another rant that I want to have about disability, which Joanne Harris made a very good blog post about. I took that one very much to heart and felt rather smug that I had already got a disabled protagonist in one of my stories, until I realised that was sort of the point, and I needed to keep thinking about it; I don’t have a quota and putting one in doesn’t mean I can stop being aware of it! But anyway, that’s another post…as is the one on children in fiction – or at least children who aren’t orphans. There was a very good panel on that at BristolCon last year, and I can highly recommend Jasper Fforde’s books for anyone who likes a) Swindon, b) dodos, c) Libraries and book humour, and d) awesome stories with kick-ass mothers.

Anyway. I will stop ranting…but when you’re writing, be aware; what’s your character’s backstory? Do they have a miscarriage, a failed pregnancy, a child who didn’t survive? Are they infertile, unable to have children, longing for a second child? It doesn’t have to feed into the plot. It doesn’t have to be a drama point. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. But it might be something, however small, that just brings a little bit of reality to your fiction.

Author: kate

Kate Coe is an editor, book reviewer and writer of fiction & fantasy. She writes the sparkpunk GreenSky series and blogs at writingandcoe.co.uk. When she's not working, she fills her spare time in between writing with web design, gaming, geeky cross-stitch and DIY (which may or may not involve destroying things). She also reads far fewer books that she would like to, but possibly more than she really has time for.

One thought on “On pregnancy, children and narrative satisfaction”

  1. Great points- the only miscarriage I can remember clearly in any fantasy novel is in one of the Tales of the Otori books. I’d just had a second miscarriage myself at the time that I read it and I emailed Lian Hearn to thank her for including it as it was so sensitively written and it made a genuine impact on the characters rather than just being used as a plot device.

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