The Pregnancy Plot: How TV Shows Use Motherhood to Force Characters to Grow Up

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L-R: Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.

Spoilers ahead for season six, episode four of Girls.

Last night’s episode of Girls introduced a major development for the endgame of the series: After a one-off, freewheeling weekend with her surf-camp instructor, Hannah learns she’s pregnant. It is a complete surprise to her, even though the episode introduces us to the potential crisis of such an event in the opening scene. Hannah interviews a famous, well-established older female writer who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that “childlessness is the natural state of the female author.” The question of how hard it is to be “a writer and a woman at the same time” is also unequivocal — it’s not as hard as it seems, the older author tells Hannah. It’s harder. But although she provides few details on that front, the dictum against parenthood for women who want to write is presented as an obvious statement. Maternity and writing are fundamentally incompatible. Dutifully, Hannah scribbles the rule in her notebook.

It’s too early to say how this plot will play out for Hannah Horvath. She responds with understandable affront when her ER doctor instantly offers to help arrange an abortion, but that is the obvious path forward for her. Her pregnancy arrives at a moment when her career is finally headed toward a stronger footing, but long before she has any kind of financial stability. The father is nowhere to be found. And yet, as the episode’s closing moments suggest (and promos for the next episode make even more clear), Hannah’s not entirely sure what to do.

As a move for the series, though, Hannah’s decision matters less than you might initially think. The event itself — the mere presence of this choice in her life — has already set in motion a train of rhetorical and narrative tension that will chug along irrespective of what Hannah chooses to do. The choice and its implications are already in front of us, and whatever Hannah decides, the mere existence of this story has already served its purpose. Hannah’s growth, her commitment to her career, her status as an “adult” and what kind of adult she wants to be will now be measured by the yardstick of this question. Will she pick serious creative writing, and have an abortion? Will she pick motherhood, and get a job as a soulless copy-producing machine? Will she try to forge some path that makes space for both fulfilling authorship and responsible parenting? In any of these outcomes, her pregnancy becomes the way the series and its viewers evaluate her growth and status as a woman and a writer. It’s the fictional woman writer’s equivalent of a final exam. “In a three- to five-page essay, please explain whether it’s possible to be a serious writer and also be a mother. Use examples from real life to support your claim. Please know that there’s no good answer, but that this will be used to measure your worth as a person and author anyhow.”

Girls is hardly the only show to use pregnancy as a way to force female characters to face a trial of “real adulthood.” It’s been a beloved device for working women on television going back at least to Murphy Brown, whose pregnancy and motherhood were less a referendum on her adulthood and more about the newfangled question of whether a single, working woman could or should choose to have children. Miranda faced this crucible on Sex in the City; Mindy has grappled with the question on The Mindy Project. Motherhood became an endgame-manufacturing device for Rachel on Friends, although that narrative was less about her ability to be a professionally fulfilled adult and more about the kind of fulfillment Friends was always more invested in — romantic conclusion.

It is a standard narrative wringer for professional women in fiction, as it is for professional women in real life. But the question Hannah faces has an even more particular dimension. It’s not just, “Can you be a mother and have a fulfilling career,” but “Can you be a mother and be a writer?” As put forward by the slightly unhinged sage Tracey Ullman plays in this Girls episode, serious writerdom and motherhood are irreconcilable life paths. Girls is not alone in posing this question, either. Just this fall, as Rory Gilmore finally wrangled her millennial ennui into a semblance of motivation and self-direction by writing a memoir about her family, the season ends with the sudden, unexpected reveal that she’s pregnant. Her own mother had to forgo her own young dreams when given the same choice. Can Rory move forward as a full-time writer if she chooses to become a mother?

It’s easy to see the appeal of pregnancy plots, especially in a visual medium like television. The heavily pregnant character moves through our visual field, rounded and portentous as a cartoon bomb, ready explode into a time-pressured crisis at any especially inconvenient moment (broken elevators, hostage situations, blackouts, blizzards). Pregnancy is pure narrative; it’s a bottled, immediately recognizable event as instantly familiar as Chekov’s gun. And even before a character reaches the stage of “unavoidable visual omen,” her pregnancy gives storytelling an unusually straightforward set of choices to negotiate. It is one of the few major events in life that comes down to a black and white, yes or no question. Once the pregnancy is underway, all of life’s quandaries are reduced to a very simple debate: To be a mother, or not?

It’s frustrating that this particular plotline has become such a dominate way of measuring maturity and growth in female characters, as though no other life choices can compare as a meaningful way to determine adulthood. But it’s especially telling that the choice is so stark for female characters trying to be writers. Hannah’s cohort is even clearer when she’s placed among the thoughtful and often divisive nonfiction work about the conundrum of combining authorship and motherhood. There’s Rufi Thorpe’s essay “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid,” which deconstructs the deeply entrenched patriarchal ideologies that undergird assumptions about writing while mothering (“It is lovely; it is intolerable; it is both”). Lauren Sandler writes about the phenomenon of female authorship and having exactly one child; for the Cut, Kim Brooks’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom” is potently conflicted. (“The point of art is to unsettle,” she writes. “People make art … for exactly the opposite reason they make families.”) And then there’s Zadie Smith, who serenely blows up the whole premise of the debate by questioning how broadly someone can experience life without children.

Given the work that these and other writers have done to try to dismantle, or at least rearrange, the apparent irreconcilability between motherhood and writing, it’s exasperating that Girls and other fictional narratives continue to rely on pregnancy as such a powerful, end-all, be-all measurement of “How do we know this writer is serious” and “How do we know this woman is a grown-up.” It’s exasperating, but it’s not wrong, either. The difficulty of making space in your mind for both writing and preschool pickup schedules, the painful aggravation of leaving some idea half-written, of cramming tricky rhetorical arguments into the preciously parceled out 24 minutes of a Dora the Explorer episode, the worry that you’re not giving your child your full attention — of course those things are real. I know them too well; I’m writing this essay as quickly as possible while pretending not to notice that my 3-year-old has not fallen asleep for her nap. My computer sits a little awkwardly on my lap to accommodate my seven-months pregnant torso. I am all too aware of how vital and unendingly fraught this question is for fictional women and real women alike.

The problem with this story is not that Hannah’s pregnant, although it’s nice whenever TV finds some other life-altering bar against which to determine whether a female life is fulfilled. The problem is that her pregnancy arrives now, as the show is ending. There are six short episodes left in this series, six episodes which will presumably take us up through Hannah’s decision and some brief aftermath, but which will have nowhere near enough time to actually consider the ramifications of her choice with any depth. Fiction’s quite practiced at showing us the shock of a positive pregnancy test and the hysteria of a dramatic birth scene; it’s much less practiced at telling stories about what it would actually be like to write while also mothering. (It’s even less practiced at showing us what it’d be like to write while also being a primary caregiver father.)

We have Jane the Virgin for that, and frankly, not much else. Jane is the rarest of fictional creatures — a woman, a mother, and a writer, who manages to do all of those things imperfectly but sufficiently. In most other examples, as I fear may be the case with Hannah Horvath, the question of pregnancy and motherhood rises like a specter of unending complication and fraught futures, but it perversely ends up flattening the character into a simple binary of yes or no. If yes, I worry the show will gesture gauzily into a hard but triumphant future for Hannah, omitting any of the crushing and all-consuming detail. If no, she’s making an important choice for herself, but the show might also come off as tacitly endorsing the position of Hannah’s older interviewee, that childlessness is the natural state of female authorship.

It’s a TV show called Girls. I suppose it’s unsurprising that it would include this most easy delineator between girlhood and womanhood. But it’s still frustrating, especially as it connects with Hannah’s writing career, and as it’s being used as a definitive gauge of her evolution. Surely there are other ways to create finality and closure out of an arc toward adulthood? And more important, surely a narrative can find a way to treat pregnancy as more of what it is — not as an end, or as a beginning, but as a rather notable middle. Anything else gives it too much defining power. Whatever happens in these last several episodes, Girls will live on as landmark TV. I just wish Hannah’s decision about the complexity of parenthood, motherhood, and authorship had more space to live on as well, whatever that decision may be.

How TV Shows Use Motherhood to Force Characters to Grow Up