“You’re finally a mom just like us!” a supportive friend exclaims in Luk Yee-sum’s pregnancy comedy Baby: The Secret Diary of a Mom to Be (Baby復仇記), “women are destined to be moms, that makes your life perfect”. A humorous take on maternal anxiety, Luk’s otherwise warm and empathetic screenplay cannot help but feel slightly out of touch in its wilfully mixed messages, as evidenced in the total lack of irony in the above statements. While the heroine is encouraged to have it all, her existence is still defined by the ability to bear children, all her other achievements apparently meaningless should she “fail” to become a mother while the choice not to is so invalid as not even to be considered.
In her early 30s, Carmen (Dada Chan Ching) is a high-flying career woman who has elected not to have children with her basketball player husband, Oscar (Kevin Chu Kam-yin). She’s just been (verbally) offered a big promotion managing a new office in Vietnam, while her circle of friends are all housewives and mothers. Carmen had in any case believed that she would not be able to have a child due to suffering with polycystic ovary syndrome, but the discovery that she may be expecting could not have come at a worse time especially as her overbearing mother-in-law Margaret (Candice Yu On-on) has hired a weird maternity coach (Tam Yuk-ying) to help Carmen fulfil her purpose in life by providing a grandchild. She considers taking an abortion pill without telling Oscar about the baby but when he finds out by accident they decide to go through with the pregnancy.
Of course, that means Vietnam is off. According to her boss they wanted someone “right away” and so sent a colleague instead. “Maybe you’ll think differently after your baby is born” the boss adds, not quite suggesting her career’s over but definitely implying her prospects have been significantly reduced. Meanwhile, the other women in the office no longer seem to take her seriously. Everyone is telling her to take things easy, leave the heavy work to the young ones, as if she’s just biding her time to motherhood and an early retirement from the employment scene.
Carmen’s anxieties are in many way in regards to the ways her life will change along with the impending loss of freedom and independence. She resents the baby for messing up her career plans, while fearing that she’s being asked to abandon her own hopes and desires in order to become someone’s mum rather than just someone. It doesn’t help that Margaret has already more or less taken over, wielding both her economic advantage and her position as grandma-in-waiting to exert control over Carmen’s living situation. She moves maternity coach Tam into the couple’s home, the pair of them boxing up her evening attire and designer shoes as things a mother no longer needs without bothering to ask her, literally ripping away the vestiges of her old life while refusing her any kind of autonomy.
Yet her reluctance is reframed as childhood trauma in dysfunctional relationships with her own mother who was apparently largely absent playing mahjong, and a nun at her school who was perhaps a surrogate maternal figure she was unfairly ripped away from when her mother ran out of money for the fees and she had to leave. Carmen’s lack of desire for motherhood is then framed as a kind of illness that must be cured so her life will “perfect”, the implication being that the free choice not to have children is not valid, only a corruption of the feminine ideal born of failed maternity. By paying a visit to Sister Cheung and then to her mother (who remains off screen) she can “repair” her problematic attitude, eventually submitting herself entirely to Margaret’s maternal authority in recognising that her overbearing caring also comes from a place of love and kindness even as it reinforces conservative social codes.
In a surprising role reversal, meanwhile, Oscar adopts the position of the trophy husband whose career ambitions are perhaps unfairly dismissed by Carmen who has the better prospects for offering financial security. With impending fatherhood on the horizon he tries to assert his masculinity in looking for a steady job but soon realises he has no real skills for the workplace and is later inducted into a strange dad’s club which provides odd jobs and a place for harried fathers to hang out playing video games in escape from their stressful family man lives. A kind and patient man Oscar is perhaps understandably irritated when Carmen ironically snaps at him that he should give up his career ambitions to facilitate hers but later signals his willingness to become a househusband which reinforces the broadly positive have it all message while problematically continuing the narrative that a woman’s fulfilment is found only in motherhood and without it her life is incomplete.
Nevertheless, Baby: Secret Diary of a Mom to Be has its charms in its empathetic examination of maternal anxiety while highlighting if not quite condemning the costs of living in a patriarchal society. Carmen’s “happily married” friends each have problems of their own they’re afraid to share lest it damage the image of familial bliss they’ve been keen to cultivate. Their secret unhappiness is strangely never a factor in Carmen’s decision making, nor is the quest for that ideal ever critiqued despite Carmen’s eventual success in finally having it all. Still despite its mixed messaging and subtly conservative overtones, Luk’s sophisticated dialogue and quirky sensibility lend a sense of fun and irony to a sometimes dark exploration of impending parenthood.
Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)