This article contains minor spoilers for “The Baby.”
If you’ve ever been the decidedly single, childless one in your group of friends, you probably already know the thing you’re never supposed to think, much less utter out loud, to your pregnant pal: “Are you going to turn into a massive asshole when you have a baby?”
But that’s a line from the provocative new HBO horror series “The Baby,” by creators Siân Robins-Grace and Lucy Gaymer. It also stems from the real-life fears of so many women whose female friends voluntarily or inadvertently turn their backs on them as they join mommydom.
We rarely ever talk about this feeling, which might be why it barely shows up on screen in a satisfying way (“The Worst Person in the World” is an example). But “The Baby” goes there, unapologetically and unflinchingly, through the story of Natasha (Michelle de Swarte). She is a 30-ish single woman who, like many people, enjoys the leisure of a cigarette, not being stressed out about day care and spending late nights doing whatever the hell she wants.
“The Baby” brings us right into her world, capturing her socially unacceptable fears and anguish early in the pilot episode when she and her friends Mags (Shvorne Marks) and Rita (Isy Suttie) are enjoying one of their usual poker games. But there’s something off about this particular night. It starts out fun enough, with the trio exchanging playful jabs. Natasha puffs on a cigarette and hands it to Mags to take a drag. You know, things are fine.
But a noticeable shift happens when a baby cries in the next room. Mags drops the cigarette and scurries to grab her wailing baby girl. Never mind that Mags’ partner was supposed to watch their child tonight before work beckoned. The point, for Natasha, is that she can’t even have one night where it’s just her and her friends, like before.
If you’ve been in the situation of desperately trying to preserve your friend circle as it begins to splinter for any reason at all, you know it is profoundly uncomfortable when the reason is a tiny, helpless human. Still, Natasha can no longer hold in her frustration when Mags returns to the main room cradling her child.
That’s because Mags is back in mommy mode and can’t even pay attention to the funny story Natasha decides to share, probably to keep herself from completely raging. “Should we go back to pretending we’re hanging out?” she finally asks, angrily.
It doesn’t help that Rita takes this already-tense moment to reveal that she is three months pregnant, to which Natasha responds with the “massive asshole” question.
Natasha does say she’s sincerely happy for her friends. But at the same time, she feels she’s losing them — and is obviously not dealing with that very well. She can’t articulate that, likely because that very legitimate feeling is taboo in and of itself. Instead, she jokingly tells Rita that it’s not too late to get an abortion.
It’s a cringe-y few minutes, to say the least. Natasha’s behavior is selfish and insensitive. But when it comes to how we discuss the relationship turmoil that new mothers — and their childless friends — deal with, it’s the former narrative that tends to carry more weight, because we live in a society that, no matter how progressive it claims to be, still covets the tradition of motherhood for women above all else.
That’s a shame, especially because there’s a lot to unpack about a woman like Natasha who doesn’t have the capacity, or perhaps the willingness, to understand what is behind these feelings she has. “The Baby” takes that on as it compels its protagonist and its audience to consider the root of her aversion to motherhood through bizarre and meaningful maternal encounters.
As a horror story, “The Baby” maniacally puts its protagonist in front of her most profound fear: a baby. But not just any baby; a precious little boy who literally drops into her arms and threatens to destroy her life and relationships. Because, to Natasha and many other real women, that’s what babies do. And, try as she might, she is unable to get rid of this bundle of insanity.
If this was a series more along the lines of, say, the 1987 comedy “Baby Boom,” you might expect Natasha to gradually fall for this child and her feelings about motherhood to evolve, as was the case for Diane Keaton’s businesswoman J.C. Wiatt.
But Natasha is far from J.C., and we are no longer in the ’80s. “The Baby” zeroes in on the legitimate horror of having one’s life interrupted by what is considered a natural rite of passage for women, and ultimately uncovers the truth resonating behind that horror.
“The Baby,” even at its weirdest, unpacks the cause and effect of Natasha’s fears without sacrificing who the character is. As off-putting as it can be, it’s refreshing to hear a female character say some of the things she does. For example, she takes the baby to a “mommy and me” playroom where Mags is a member and has no qualms about telling her that she is better than everyone there after they try to shame her for her parenting style. Because this motherhood thing isn’t her reality; it’s theirs.
Women are socialized to keep these thoughts in their heads. But it is far more significant when they — and even more important that narratives like “The Baby” encourage others, mothers or not, to sit with this type of protagonist rather than isolate her as a boorish sideline character.
That makes space for compassion that might not have been there before. And then we can have a real discussion about varying views of motherhood, fears of abandonment, and how to manage any friendship that is irrevocably changing.