Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Secret Baby

Bottom line: Do you like the secret baby trope?

Erin: I usually get mad or wonder why these protagonists are even getting back together. It works better for me if the mom was unable to contact the dad (the concealment wasn’t intentional).

Holly: Secret baby romances are really just second chance romances with extra special sauce, right? Erin and I have already argued extensively about second chance romances, so I’m not surprised that she doesn’t like secret babies either. Even though I like second chance romances, I don’t love secret baby stories, mainly because I frequently struggle with the portrayal of the children. They are either tiny grownups or extremely twee, and the babies ALWAYS sleep through the night. Plus there’s usually some overwrought stuff about parenthood that the main characters are going through. (I have trouble with Single Parent romances for similar reasons.)

Ingrid: I really don’t, if I’m honest. I think—and it’s not always the case, of course—they tend to feature some of my least favorite relationship issues as plot devices and I just don’t dig it.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a secret baby trope?

Erin: I do not lump secret baby and accidental/surprise pregnancy together, so I am a bit of a purist with the expectation that the secret baby has already been born and (bare minimum) the pregnancy and birth has been kept from the father. More than that, I’d expect that the baby wouldn’t even be a baby anymore. More like a toddler or even older. I think the concealment of the child is essential to the trope. That said, I recently read Up In Smoke by Annabeth Albert which I would categorize as secret baby (I guess?) but the relationship occurs between the baby’s uncle (upon whom the baby has been dumped by his sister) and the baby’s father who is surprised by the arrival of both the uncle and the existence of the baby. So I’m not totally inflexible. Bottom line: I do not count surprise pregnancy as secret baby.

Holly: The name is in the trope: the baby has to be a secret. A secret baby story hinges on the concealment of the child from the biological father. (I guess it’s possible to have a secret baby story where the father steals the newborn and tells the mom it dies and then they get back together years later, but I have yet to read it.) There is frequent overlap with the accidental pregnancy trope, because if you’re in a committed relationship and trying for children something really drastic must have happened for there to also be a secret baby. 

Ingrid: Secret baby is where a baby is hidden from the father. I’m sure there are a smattering of books with fresh takes or twists on this trope, but I think that’s the basic summary.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: It has a pretty solid built in conflict. “Hi, you’re a parent and you didn’t know it” is a pretty epic jumping off point for the start of a relationship that somehow already was over.

Ingrid: I think it forces the characters into a permanent and immediately serious relationship—by and large, the people in question are forever changed by the child existing, and they have to slog through a lot of really serious vulnerabilities and difficult decisions and conversations in order to do the right thing by the child. So I think they can be really deliciously messy and deep when done right.

Holly: I think Erin and Ingrid have pretty much covered it. 

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: As a uterus-having person, I am not going to be the one blindsided by a surprise child, but I always think about how angry/confused/otherwise emotional I would be if I had a child sprung on me. I’m not sure I’d go from that emotional stew to forgiveness to love in the length of a romance novel. On the other hand, if I am a uterus-having person who has withheld the existence of my child from the child’s other bio parent, then what on earth is a good enough reason for me to get over that and allow this other parent person in my life again? 

Holly: Look at Erin, using logic and reason against this trope! 

Ingrid: Sounds about right.

Holly: I will push back a little and say that what Erin is saying—that the problems she points out are issues people with secret-baby relationships would have that I think we all have problems with on a personal level, but are not inherently *problematic*.

Erin: All of this is making me realize that this is a very cis M/F romance dominated trope. It is relying entirely on someone who is able to be pregnant being impregnated by someone who is able to impregnate. So it’s not impossible that a queer romance could include a secret baby trope, but I bet interested readers would have to do some serious digging to find one.

Oh, and also, in historical romance the secret baby is overwhelmingly a girl, and this seems to be primarily the case so nobody has to feel bad about a little boy not being entitled to his inheritance because his parents weren’t married when he was born. Which is a whole thing.

Holly: Building on Erin’s point about the cis-hetero aspects of this trope, I would add that parenthood is frequently portrayed as an innately biological function. In other words, the logic of secret baby romances often states that the bio-dad is inherently the correct and natural father-figure for the child, that love for the child comes naturally due to genetic ties, and that alternate parenting structures are inferior to the Mother-Father-Child trifecta. 

If this is a trope that we’d struggle with in a real life context, what do you think makes it a pleasurable reading choice?

Ingrid: Well, it’s a real emotional collision. Most of the time, historically, romance novels tended to be a sweeping love story followed by marriage and babies. Turning that on its head is interesting and weaves a really tangled web for these characters to land in. Just because I’d hate it in real life doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating on the page.

Erin: I never thought about it as turning the romance timeline on its head, but I like it. 

I wonder if it’s a little bit of wishful idealism combined with some relatively predictable (not necessarily in a bad way) inborn angst? If I accept Holly’s Second Chance Romance argument that people can come back together after years and be in a better place to be in a relationship with each other, then the idea that two people who once saw something in each other can come back together and not only repair their own relationship but also create a stable and happy family relationship is really hopeful. They have the tension of working through the prior misunderstanding or one night stand that separated them, and they also have the discomfort of trying to figure out how their new family situation is going to work, but the reader knows that it’s a romance, so it’s safer to be a fly on the wall during those tense periods because, unlike with other storytelling or real life where the HEA is not guaranteed, you know that it’ll be okay in the end and everyone will go home happy.

Holly: I have nothing to add to Erin and Ingrid’s very thoughtful responses.

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Erin: You know what? I’m going to say The Best Thing by Mariana Zapata. Lenny did try to contact Jonah, he was unreachable because he was having some personal problems, BUT he came back to find Lenny after he got himself sorted and before he knew they had a kid together. When he did find out, they worked at being great co-parents because he wanted to be a present dad, not because they needed to make themselves into a family in order to, like, do the right thing or whatever.

Holly: As the person who always recommends a bonkers historical romance when we talk tropes, Eloisa James’ Desperate Duchesses series includes a series-long subplot regarding an illegitimate child being raised by his father. It’s kind of a twist on the secret baby trope because the child’s parentage is a secret to the readers, not the parents, but its revelation to other characters drives the plot, especially in A Duke of Her Own.

Not Quite Over You by Susan Mallery also does interesting things with the trope. In this case, Drew knew that Silver got pregnant; they had broken up by this point, so Silver said she’d “take care of it,” and that was the end of the conversation. Silver did give their daughter up for adoption, but what Drew doesn’t know is that Silver remained in contact with the adoptive family and therefore has a relationship with their daughter. Is this child a secret? Not exactly, but Drew is still blindsided by her continued existence in Silver’s life. 

Ingrid: So, I really didn’t think it at the time, but A Cowboy for Keeps by Laura Drake just stuck in my mind. It’s a secret baby—but the baby was kept a secret from their families. So the father’s brother and the sister’s sister end up having to figure out custody and parenting, there’s a HUGE wealth power dynamic going on…it’s a really interesting take on this trope.

Books we mentioned in this discussion:

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