Wide Angle

The Fertility Plot Is the New Marriage Plot

Reproduction has never felt more high-stakes and more fraught.

The top of a tiered white wedding cake with a baby as the topper
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

This month, a new production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Company opens on Broadway. This particular version, aside from starring Patti LuPone and coming close on the heels of Sondheim’s death, is notable for a casting gender-flip. Instead of following a man named Bobby about to turn 35 as the only single person in his group of friends, the musical features a woman named Bobbie staring down the milestone.

The staging isn’t exactly subtle in pointing out the additional implications of what it means to be a single woman at 35. There is an audible ticking clock at one point. In another scene, an anxious Bobbie imagines through-the-looking-glass versions of her future self. One is pregnant, one is holding an infant. The message is clear: The dramatic tension in Bobbie’s life comes not from the question of whether she’ll find someone (or whether she really wants to), but from whether she’ll find someone in time. In time to forestall the potential regret from changing her mind about wanting kids, in time to avoid the difficulties of scientifically aided reproduction, in time to not have to settle for any old person who might give her a baby.

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For centuries, the engine of popular fiction was something called the “marriage plot.” You know the marriage plot! It’s what drives Jane Austen novels and Nora Ephron movies. Girl and boy meet, circle each other, parry various challenges in their march toward the happy ending to end all happy endings: matrimony.

The marriage plot has, of course, been updated to include all kinds of pairings beyond boy-and-girl in more recent years. But in fictional works aimed at the traditional consumers of marriage plots—the middle and upper-middle classes—a different narrative device has emerged all across pop culture, something like what you see in the gender-flipped Company. I’ve started to call it the “fertility plot.” The question is no longer “Will she marry?” but “Will she be able to have a child?”—and what will she go through to do it?

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A decade ago, Jeffrey Eugenides wrote a book called, archly, The Marriage Plot. He puts the case against it into the mouth of an English professor:

In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma [Bovary] married if she could file for separation later?

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Though that argument is overly flip—and plenty of writers have gotten material from the Difficult Divorce Plot—it’s true that marriage, as a middle-class convention, has ceased to be the existential endpoint of people’s lives. Meanwhile, having kids, whether inside or outside of a traditional marriage, has proved durable as an imagined happy ending. The average American woman has two children—a slight increase in recent years—and fewer highly educated women now end up childless than they did previously, according to Pew. And, of course, procreation is a lot more permanent than marriage.

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The narratively rich path toward a baby clearly isn’t a new notion. (If you really wanted to, you could make the case for the New Testament and all of Christianity as the fallout from the Virgin Mary’s fertility plot.) But the ability to more fully separate sex from reproduction is a relatively recent one, giving the illusion of control over nature. This means that there’s a way to inject new life into the ancient man-versus-nature conflict in fiction. Control is the key here, the imagined ability for a woman to shape her destiny, to seize the reins rather than wait for chance to shine on her.   

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And yet for many people who might entertain the idea of having kids, it’s started to seem more daunting, between the enormous and unsubsidized cost of child care, the difficulty of finding a partner, and the looming specter of climate change—all of which respondents cited in a 2021 poll as reasons they might not have children, numbers that were higher than the same poll conducted in 2018. Those challenges only make having kids feel more high-stakes and more fraught—both excellent terrain for fiction.

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Where the marriage plot is often pure pleasure, the fertility plot is by nature an exploration of anxiety: both individual anxiety and broader cultural anxieties about the limits of the choices and freedom women in particular have been promised. Rather than imagining a husband or a wife as a love object, it shifts that role—the idealized person who will offer up unlimited affection and stability, who will make your life whole and order the chaos of the world just by existing—onto an imagined child.

The fertility plot made scattered appearances throughout the ’80s and ’90s (think Murphy Brown, or Ally McBeal’s dancing baby), but the beginning of the aughts is when it really began to take root. At first, it functioned closer to the way the marriage plot had—as rom-com fuel, and a blunt-force structural tool for supplying motivation and action. In those early days, it was optimistic about the role of reproduction in women’s lives.

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This set of fertility plots explored, in a relatively straightforward way, what it would mean for marriage to take a back seat to a baby. Sex and the City, which ended in 2004, dispatched two of its characters’ paths via fertility plot. Cranky Miranda is nudged by an unexpected pregnancy into love; gooey Charlotte is pushed by her lack of one out of a bad love and into a better one. In 2007’s Knocked Up (the movie that kicked off the Judd Apatow era of bromantic lollygagging comedy), a woman makes the questionable—but ultimately happy—decision to have a baby with a one-night stand because (subtextually!) she worries this might be her only chance for a kid.

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The Tina Fey universe is filled with sunny fertility plots, large and small. 2008’s Baby Mama, also starring Amy Poehler, hinges on how badly a character wants a child. On 30 Rock, Liz Lemon wants a baby; when she finally gets married, it is in part to better her chances of adoption. On Parks and Recreation, Ann Perkins goes back to an ex-boyfriend to be her sperm donor, and winds up married to him. First comes baby, then comes love: This is also the order of operations in the Jennifer Aniston sperm donor rom-com The Switch from 2010.

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And Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s 2016 retelling of Pride and Prejudice, updates the most famous marriage plot of all time as a fertility plot. The Jane Bennet character is single and hovering around 40, but less concerned with obtaining a ring than she is with using her remaining eggs; she decides to go for it with a sperm donor. The love interest who emerges after her fertilization is mostly tension-creating insofar as he’ll react either positively or not to his beloved’s occupied womb. The baby is the happy ending. The man is the cherry on top.

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Even HBO’s Girls, which ended in 2017, turned out to be a long-con fertility plot of the happy ending variety: Hannah Horvath got accidentally pregnant, which somehow rocketed her into adulthood and resolved the problems created by the previous seasons of immaturity.

But as the fertility plot became more common, it also got more complicated and darker. Consider the curdled variety, in which it’s not the baby that drives the action but the lack of one. Thrillers have played with what the desire for a baby can do to a female psyche and taken it to an extreme; 2015’s The Girl on the Train features a character depressed and obsessed by her inability to conceive.

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And in other, more recent works, it feels like a new ambivalence has crept in. Consider ​​Motherhood, the 2018 work by the Canadian novelist Sheila Heti. It takes as its subject the narrator’s yearlong decision over whether to have a baby. She hems and haws and contemplates her eggs—and what such a decision would mean for her relationship, her ability to create art, what it says about her own family history, her mother and her grandmother. The book was discussed at the time as an example of a newly vital genre: the motherhood book. Heti’s novel, though, isn’t about life as a mother; it’s about the internal and external pressure to become one before the biological deadline, and about how that decision can shape the course of a person’s life.

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That fear—that a child will end or diminish a career—has cropped up in comedy too. In the Fey-produced 2021 TV show Girls5eva, one character, 40ish and well aware of her closing window, doesn’t want to have another child just when her pop stardom could take off again. (Please enjoy the song that this subplot inspired, “New York Lonely Boy,” if you haven’t yet already.) Such stories imagine the decision of whether or not to have a baby as one of self-actualization—a kind of feminine hero’s journey, a triumphant individual choice.

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It was surely inevitable that the fertility plot would get its own gender-flip. In the recent Scenes From a Marriage remake, Oscar Isaac’s character Jonathan wants another baby; Jessica Chastain’s Mira feels claustrophobic at the very prospect. It is in some ways both a dark, twisted, modern marriage plot (but the inverse: Will they or won’t they divorce?) and a dark, twisted, modern fertility plot with a man as the driving engine of reproductive urgency. Succession, too, is dabbling in this: Does Tom Wambsgans betray Shiv on Succession and assert control in their relationship in part because he wants babies, not frozen popsicles, and she doesn’t seem to want to give him that? Perhaps this version of the fertility plot is exploring a modern male anxiety about reproduction: that men are not exactly needed for babies in quite the same way as they once were.

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In large part, of course, that’s because of in vitro fertilization, which is increasingly common and increasingly successful. (A third of Americans now say they’ve either used assisted reproduction or know someone who has.) IVF has spawned its own fledgling subgenre of the fertility plot, much of which explores just how possible scientific control over biology actually is in practice. This topic has shown up on big-tent network TV: In 2018, This Is Us featured a married couple pursuing IVF because obesity lowered the chances of natural conception. More jokily, on The Mindy Project, Dr. Mindy Lahiri runs a fertility clinic and sells a spring break trip for college girls to freeze their eggs, called “Later, Baby!”

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But IVF is hard and not always effective, which is likely why it drives the action in so much of the recent wave of increasingly complex fertility plots; it makes clear that trying to exert control over biology can have serious emotional costs. Private Life, the 2018 Kathryn Hahn/Paul Giamatti Netflix movie about infertility, deals with the fallout in a fortysomething-year-old couple’s marriage from their quest for a baby. In that same year’s dystopian novel Red Clocks, something called the Personhood Amendment prevents women from getting not just abortions, but also in vitro fertilizations. (And the recent gutting of Roe v. Wade has helped make it clear that reproductive choice can be an illusion in more ways than one.) Red Clocks’ author, Leni Zumas, has said she began thinking about the novel when she was dealing with her own infertility. More allegorically, in Ilana Glazer’s 2021 movie False Positive, she updates Rosemary’s Baby for the IVF era. The fertility doctor—effectively, a stand-in for science—does something very much against the patient’s wishes. Science, maybe, doesn’t always let us subvert chance; not all of our parental desires can be perfectly calibrated.

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One knotty, nuanced riff on the theme of personal choice is Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby. Here, the plot revolves around a trans woman who desperately wants a child but can’t afford to adopt and the 39-year-old woman dating her (formerly trans) ex who has gotten pregnant despite the hormone therapy, in an unlikely turn of events. She doesn’t really want the baby. We can choose a lot about how we live now—our identities and much about our bodies—but still not everything.

Despite the modern trappings, there is a specific kind of social conservatism at the heart of the fertility plot, as there was with the marriage plot. Even now, the stakes nearly always rest on the notion that a life without a child might be at worst empty and at best filled with twinges of regret. The buy-in to a fertility plot requires a relatively narrow vision of what a fulfilled life might be.

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If marriage is a societal tool for governing and domesticating the feral in human nature, so is having children. No one is more feral than a baby! It’s hard to live outside the bounds of social prescription if you’re busy trying to teach someone the basic tools of living inside it. For better or for worse, to have a child is to become more entwined in community, to have obligations to people other than yourself, to set down roots that take away your ability to move nimbly and flexibly through the world. And this is where the fertility plot gets its force. It’s not just about exploring the illusion of our own control over reproduction. Hanging over the whole thing is the notion that, even if you manage to pinpoint the exact “right moment” to have a baby, the minute that child arrives, all control is gone.

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