I re-read Nobody’s Baby But Mine again last night. I’m not sure how many times that makes, but probably more than 3, at least.
I’m reluctant to re-read romances. I often feel like reading romance is a gross binge that I don’t want to look at too closely on the other side, like the cheap chocolate I might gorge in a funk, only to realize that it’s objectively disgusting when I’m not a complete mess.
And there are objective issues with NBBM. The heroine tricks a man into getting her pregnant and doesn’t tell him. The hero is a domineering ass. And I know that the romance genre has a whole shtick about these men, and it’s often made romantic or tied to their virile masculinity, but I don’t buy it. Then there are the threats. The two of them fight constantly (because she tricked him and they [understandably] despise each other), with liberal threats of violence thrown in, each more inventive than the last.
Not so long ago, I would have reveled in this. However, in a few years of marriage, I’ve learned that my own husband finds threats of violence (even relatively empty ones) disturbing and unacceptable communication. So I’m working on that, and contemplating the possibility that even teasing verbal violence might be bad.
Ok, so those are the issues. They’re real.
But I re-read this book last night, and a few things clicked about why I come back to certain books and why my romance tastes aren’t actually just gross binges.
The best romances offer, in addition to entertainment, very real insight into humanity and relationships.
This shouldn’t be news—I know that genre authors and discerning readers already know this. But it was a vital realization for me, and likely the key to unlocking my shame about reading romance.
NBBM is full of complex relational dynamics, but I’m going to focus on Jim and Lynn, the hero’s parents. Their relationship is a large sub-plot in the book. They’ve been married for many years and raised three sons. Lynn got pregnant at 16 and didn’t graduate high school. Jim married her immediately after high school and went through med school in complete poverty. Class issues have always been prominent in their relationship. And now Jim is unhappy, constantly picking at his wife and expressing his desire for her to return to her carefree younger self.
There are many reasons I like how this relationship plays out, but I’m going to highlight just two very specific exchanges.
She later explains that feeling: “I started having sex when I was too young. I didn’t want to, but I loved him so much that I didn’t know how to say no.”
Sex is a complicated topic, especially for teenagers. In light of the loaded conversations around #metoo, I’ve also seen many, many stories of experiences that aren’t abuse, but hurt nonetheless. In carelessness and ignorance, a lot of pain happens. It’s not always boy to girl/man to woman, but that’s my personal experience and the one that clicks.
For months now, I’ve been rolling those issues around in my mind, wondering how (or if) to address them. How do you put language around that unintended pain?
As it turns out, other people already had. Susan Elizabeth Phillips is one of them, and coming upon these passages again felt like a breath of fresh air.
Even more complicated than sex though, is a tense conversation they have after Lynn has moved out of the house.
This, to me, is a textbook example of the crazy-making power of a love imbalance. It’s relationship gaslighting—Jim is disengaged and has been horrible to his wife, but when she puts her foot down and insists on a change, she’s the bad guy. And the tell-tale statement: “Just tell me what you want, and I’ll give it to you.” That’s a deceptively horrible request. Love can’t just be asked for.
Brené Brown explained it perfectly:
“When the people we love or with whom we have a deep connection stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing, and stop fighting for the relationship, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in. … What can make this covert betrayal so much more dangerous than something like a lie or an affair is that we can’t point to the source of our pain—there’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness. It feels crazy-making.
We may tell a disengaged partner, ‘You don’t seem to care anymore,’ but without ‘evidence’ of this, the response is ‘I’m home from work every night by six P.M. I tuck in the kids. I’m taking the boys to Little League. What do you want from me?’”
“It feels crazy-making.”
Both women captured this very real relational experience, one in research, one in fiction. Both are vital.
This is why I read romance. And very specifically, today, this is why I recommend Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Nobody’s Baby But Mine and Dream A Little Dream are frequent re-reads for me.