What Does Happily Ever After Look Like in Infertility Romance?

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What Does Happily Ever After Look Like in Infertility Romance?

I’ll never forget the experience of reading a contemporary romance in which the female lead went into a friends-with-benefits arrangement thinking that all she could offer her love interest was a fun time, since she knew that her diagnosis of endometriosis made her unable to have children. Of course, they fall for one another, and she’s forced to reveal that she can’t give him the big family he wants, but he says let’s make it work anyway… and then, lo and behold, in the epilogue she discovers she is miraculously pregnant.

I’m pretty sure I yelled something akin to “are you fucking KIDDING me” and did the ebook equivalent of throwing the book across the room, which was furiously swiping away while fighting back tears. (The book, for those needing a similar content warning, was Abbi Jimenez’s The Friend Zone.) At that point, I was at least a year into my own infertility journey, in which my husband and I were doing our best to hit the target (so to speak) while I also exhaustively took my temperature at the exact same time every morning, cut out alcohol and other indulgences, and otherwise pretended like I was pregnant even though no matter how hard we tried, every month we faced another blank pregnancy test. 

We were seriously considering bringing in the reproductive endocrinologist experts to embark on the very expensive, in-no-way-guaranteed path of in vitro fertilization (IVF). In that moment, reading about a fictional character having an “oopsie” pregnancy as if she were blessed with the kind of fecundity they scared us about in high school sex ed was so destabilizing. It made me feel as if I were the only person with my particular problem; it seemed to drive a wedge between romance characters who got to have a happily ever after (HEA) that was blocked off to us normal readers who had to slog through the cold, harsh reality of potentially never conceiving nor carrying to term a very wanted pregnancy. The thing is, I can completely understand how the author arrived at this conclusion in her book. It’s the impulse to deliver on the ultimate fantasy, obstacles be damned.

When I initially pitched this piece, I was convinced that this book was the rule rather than the exception, that this was a case of the usually progressive romance genre stuck in a formulaic narrative arc. That’s the issue in infertility stories across media, unfortunately; despite establishing at the start that there is a biological issue with sperm meeting egg, or with carrying a pregnancy to term, the resolution almost always tends more toward a magical “fix”: the medical issue or injury mysteriously reversed; the reveal that it wasn’t the wife who was infertile all this time, but the ex-husband; the body doing what we’ve been told it’s “supposed” to do, even if it takes years longer than predicted. Someone on Reddit described this type of ending as “baby ever after,” and wow, talk about a heart punch. 

There is the feeling that these stories must be neatly tied up with a bow; they cannot end on uncertainty, but must instead resolve into a pregnancy, no matter how scientifically inconceivable such a solution may be based on the evidence presented thus far. There are a handful of infertility-centered movies, TV plotlines, and plays, but the greatest concentration of them seems to exist in romance books. And while plenty of these well-meaning stories fumble the HEA, all it takes is a little digging and a lot of recommendations from people to figure out which triggers to avoid.

As I discovered, my answer lay not in the ever-evolving present, but in the past—that is, in historical infertility romance. Unsurprisingly, the issue of children is front-and-center here, via the dual perspectives of time-period-accurate (and only so effective) birth control and the pressing need of many lordly heroes to secure an heir. For many of these historicals, the heroine’s core conflict hinges on worrying that she has to remove herself from her noble lover’s life because she can’t give him a child, and/or having suffered multiple miscarriages trying to have a child, that another pregnancy would surely risk her life.

Perhaps because of how seriously these characters take maternal fatality rates, or because these books predate modern assistive reproductive technology, it prompts a refreshingly decisive response to this wrenching dilemma: The hero chooses the heroine over a hypothetical heir. There is no hedging on what might happen in the future; instead, the couple focuses on the now, and the love that has grown between them, and decide that it’s enough. Now, that said, there are still plenty of epilogues that tag on a surprise pregnancy once they’ve decided that they don’t need it. But a handful of historicals don’t go that route, including Courtney Milan’s The Countess Conspiracy, Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone, and Nicola Davidson’s A Rake, His Patron, & Their Muse (from the delightfully-named Rake I’d Like to F… anthology). The latter is especially appreciated as it’s a throuple romance in which Davidson resists the urge to give either of the men “magical sperm”; when the woman tells them that she can’t have children, it doesn’t change the promises that the three of them intend to make to one another. (Be forewarned that these books do explore the fallout of repeat miscarriages.)

These days, it’s a lot less of a pressing issue to secure one’s bloodline, even though the idea of not carrying on your genes is heartbreaking. But where does that leave us with contemporary infertility romance? It’s still a tricky needle to thread, but wonderful romance Redditors have crowd-sourced and drawn from their own triggering reading experiences to assemble wonderful lists like this extensive childfree one, which breaks down the romances into subcategories: books where children aren’t mentioned at all, childfree by circumstance or choice, and even those romances where the couple goes through fertility treatments or losses yet decides that there is no easy fix. A couple of standouts include Rosalind James’ Just Not Mine (which, though it does include adoption down the line, is refreshingly frank in depicting the trauma of infertility) and Ruby James’ House Rules.

Because the books that most resonate with infertile readers are the ones in which the hero, instead of trying to fix things, “walks through the pain” with his love interest—sharing the burden, grieving one potential future together, but deciding that the two of them are enough. That’s the real HEA.

Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, NPR Books, Den of Geek, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter

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