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This is a not-so-rare subversion of women-as-maternal which occurs when a female character, usually a successful career gal, is revealed to know little or nothing about taking care of a baby. This will almost always be revealed by a plot in which she is forced to take care of a baby, temporarily if it's in a Series. If it's not in a series, the Maternally Challenged will probably be adopting the baby permanently. Often, other characters will just assume she knows what to do since she's a woman. But she doesn't and Hilarity Ensues.
That said, this trope can be played for drama just as easily. A woman who struggles to take care of a baby may begin to doubt her worth as a person, especially in works taking place during time periods where women were judged primarily on their ability to be good mothers. This can also tie in with Hollywood Postpartum when the woman doesn't feel the magic of motherhood immediately upon giving birth, and can end up having a breakdown over it.
This is Truth in Television. Humans are one of the few mammal species who do not instinctively know how to care for their offspring. Partly because it's a lot more complicated for us, what with the time they take to grow, but mostly because we are social animals that learn child care from our elders instead of having instinctive reactions. The former has the advantage of more flexible behaviour that can quickly adapt to new situations while the latter does, of course, not require any parent or social group and no learning effort, which saves the animal time and resources. Compare to Raised by Dudes, which is a rough male equivalent.
- In the Tenchi Muyo! episode "Hello, Baby", none of the girls in the Masaki household has a clue how to look after Tenchi's infant cousin — until Washu decides to take charge. Namely because she's done this before, though her huband and kid (the latter being Mihoshi's ancestor) were taken away from her.
- Ojamajo Doremi Sharp — how the hell would a kid know how to take care of a newborn (thankfully, the parents did help out a bit with this starting out)? Momoko went through some of the same trouble in Motto, and moreso because the other girls were now pretty experienced at this.
- One of the many comedy tropes that ends up being completely not funny in Neon Genesis Evangelion is Misato's utter inability to serve as a maternal figure to Shinji and Asuka. She would be a passable or even effective Older Sister Surrogate if the series was less screwed up.
- Umineko no Naku Koro ni:
- The already emotionally-damaged Rosa will almost always be BEST MOM EVER to her daughter Maria, including making Maria so angry and resentful that she's willing to kill her mom horribly as a way to call her out in one arc. But when she's not BEST MOM EVER...
- The clearest example of this trope can actually be found in Natsuhi, who was forced to take care of a certain child by Kinzo... and seeing this as the ultimate insult since she was believed to be barren, the woman completely lost it and ended up pushing the child and a servant off a cliff. The servant died and the child survived, but with severe damages (especially to their genitalia) — and they later grew into the very troubled Yasu. While she seems to do a somewhat better work with her actual daughter Jessica, they still clash quite a bit due to Natsuhi's pressure on her..
- Given her background and her mental state post-Eclipse Casca from Berserk actually averts this trope, as she is seen to take care of the mysterious moonchild implied to be her and Guts' own child quite well... as it's possible in her terrible situation. Her lover, Guts, on the other hand...
- Natsue from Prétear loves her daughters Mawata and Mayune, but even in the flashbacks to their past before her marriage to Himeno's dad Kaoru she simply seems to NOT be cut to be a mom.
- Katie "Pidge" Holt is this in a series of Shiro/Pidge fics in Voltron: Legendary Defender fandom, where she's absolutely hopeless as a mother due to a bad case of Hollywood Postpartum and seemingly losing half her functioning brain cells so the fic can make her into a whiny basket case for Shiro to coddle...when he's not being an unrealistically perfect super-dad, that is.
- Many Pidge pregnancy and baby fics tend to think she's this, possibly due to the belief that a girl who loves STEM and took a while to properly bond with her teammates will automatically have problems being a good mother. (Never mind that her own mother Colleen was just as STEM-inclined and happened to be an excellent parent if a bit clingy...)
- Diane Keaton's character in the 1987 film Baby Boom, who has next to no idea of what to do with the baby niece that she's got to take care of from now on.
- In Three Men And A Baby (released the same year, oddly enough), one of the men asked a girlfriend for advice on taking care of the baby, expecting that she would know what to do. She didn't.
- The titular character in Enid, a biography on the life of Enid Blyton. When her baby starts crying she just stares at it, completely ignorant of what to do. In the end, she picks up the dog.
- In Riding in Cars With Boys the teenage protagonist has endless trouble taking care of her new baby. She keeps getting told her maternal instinct will kick in, but she struggles every step of the way.
- Happened to Alanna in Tamora Pierce's first quartet. She clearly figured it out at some point, because she now has several very healthy kids.
- Mentioned in the Robotech Expanded Universe novelizations. One of the chapter quotes mentions that Max Sterling had taken over the familial and maternal roles, since his Hot Amazon wife Miriya was from a race of Artificial Humans with no concept of childbirth or childcare. When a visitor asked if she could hold the baby, Miriya threw him at her.
- When Sammy Keyes is handed a shopping bag with a baby in it by a terrified teen, she has a horrible time trying to care for the baby until she can hand him over to the police the next morning.
Live Action TV
- The 1988-1989 TV series version of the aforementioned Baby Boom has the main character (Kate Jackson) be this as well.
- Unsurprisingly, the title character of Bones is discovered to be this in the episode "The Baby in the Bough". She got better at it by the end of the episode.
- One of the early episodes of Friends had Rachel not even knowing how to hold her boyfriend's baby son. A much later episode had her not knowing what a bassinet is, at her own baby shower.
- Nadira, the Big Bad's daughter in Power Rangers Time Force. The handle of a parting was handled to her by the Green Ranger, and seeing the baby was what started her Heel Face Turn. She later tries to protect a baby (maybe the same one, not sure) through the final battle between the Rangers and her dad, and seeing her almost getting hurt leads to the Big Bad's redemption.
- A more serious version occurred in an episode of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, where the titular character was told by a boy she'd had to protect that she kind of sucks at being a mom. She acknowledges it in a "Workin' on it" sort of way.
- Murphy Brown, full stop. She eventually settles into the role, but not without embellishing it with her own unique twists first.
- Grey's Anatomy plays with this one a lot mostly with Christina in particular, recently she was put in charge of a ten year-old daughter of a patient and despite her disinterest and missteps she does form a bond with the girl. Alex actually subverts this trope by being the best with kids out of the fab five despite earlier protests that he wasn't and his Jerkass personality.
- Predictably, Badass Action Girl Aeryn in Farscape expects she will fulfill this trope when her child is born.
D'Argo: You never struck me as the type who would want children. (Aeryn shoots him a significant look.) You either, huh?
- She does, fortunately, and later says that she loves motherhood.
- In the last episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit featuring Dani Beck, she develops a bond with a little girl who had been abused by her foster parents and takes her back to her apartment as a temporary living arrangement at the request of the girl. Unfortunately, this doesn't end as well as many of the other examples of this trope when the girl in question thanks Beck for her hospitality by attempting to torch Detective Beck's apartment so that they would be eternally together after they die in the resulting fire. Beck transfers out of the SVU the next morning, never to return.
- A couple seasons later, Olivia becomes the legal guardian of a young boy whose drug-addict mother abused him and was declared to be an unfit mother. This example goes much better than the Beck example as the boy Calvin is very appreciative of Olivia's efforts despite the fact she has admitted a few times throughout the series that she wouldn't make a good mother due to a number of reasons, the most frequently cited one being her job (hours, stress, etc.). The arc still ends in a bittersweet way, with Calvin being forcibly taken back to his birth mother. The final scene of the episode consists of Calvin repeatedly screaming Olivia's name as he's dragged away, with Olivia standing there, visibly upset and unable to do anything (the birth mother got an order against her).
- Tharja is heavily implied to be this in Fire Emblem Awakening, even before she snapped after losing her husband. She spent more time trying to gauge Noire's potential for dark magic than parenting, and she can't deal well with the energetic and emotional Female Morgan if she's her mother.
- Miriel also has a bit of this with Morgan, if she marries a Male Avatar. She and her eldest son Laurent get along well due to their similar personalities, but Morgan is a bundle of energy and cries easily in their A support, causing Miriel to become frustrated. (However, one of her event tiles with Laurent suggests that she was just as distant with him when he was a child, and their current relationship is due to him being an adult and on her own level.)
- PeeJee and Aubrey in Something Positive. Before they marry, Aubrey's husband says "My mother's buying me a vasectomy for a wedding present." Even more explicitly, PeeJee says at one point "I'm not carrying a parasite for nine months for any man." Oddly enough, they adopted a baby later, and lampshade that they have no idea what they're doing, and spend most of the time talking about their new daughter's freakishly large hands. Later on, this Flash Forward's pretty hard to beat... so far. Still, at least we know the kid's going to survive to 17.
- Zoe of Venus Envy is press-ganged into baby-sitting her neighbor's infant son. After the experience, she expresses some relief that the hormone treatments she takes to transition from male to female have probably made her sterile anyway.
- In Drowtales, this seems to run in the Sarghress family. The matriarch, Quain'tana, is a warlord who grew up on the streets and may not have ever known what proper parenting looks like, and as a result treats her children like tools at best and trash at worst. Her daughter Mel'arnach, who probably has the strongest maternal instinct of Quain's potential heirs, is in prison and has a horrible relationship with her mother to the point of actual death threats. And Syphile, who is completely unqualified, is forced to care for Ariel since the latter was an infant. Unfortunately is this Played for Drama rather than Played for Laughs and has very real effects the lives of the characters involved.
- Both of the leads from Moon Over June have an uphill battle to prove they are the reincarnation of June Cleaver; however self-described "single, perverted, promiscuous porn star" Hatsuki at least has admitted concern over her fitness to raise the child she just bore. Her OB/GYN roomie Summer (whose water broke just before she could sew up Hatsuki's c-section)?
- Not to mention Summer got pregnant not so much to have a kid, but to satisfy her pregnancy fetish. And she would have put the kid up for adoption if it had been a boy.
- Cynthia Frady from the original Maddison Atkins
- Luann from King of the Hill knew absolutely nothing about baby care in the episode where she gave birth, due to all her information being from Peggy and thus severely outdated and dangerous as a result. When Luanne and Lucky practice parenting on Bobby they make him so confused and exasperated (they literally give him mixed messages, one after another) he proclaims them to be completely useless at at it.
- Another example would be Cotton's wife Didi, who often appears to have difficulty taking care of G.H. to the point that she occasionally forgets where he is. Unlike Luann and Lucky though, it really isn't funny for two reasons. One, Didi is stuck between Cotton's sexist and rather psychotic demands and taking care of a screaming baby, which at times seems to be driving her mad. And second, since Cotton is a possibly-homicidal jackass, G.H. would have no hope for a good parent if Didi isn't up for it. Not to mention the fact that she had post-partum depression, and wasn't all together in the head to begin with.
- In an episode of Johnny Test, the twin geniuses, Susan and Mary, turn themselves into babies so that their boy crush, Gill, can take care of them, much to their brother's annoyance. It doesn't take long for Johnny to find out that Gill is, in fact, a horrible babysitter who, while good intentioned, knows absolutely nothing about caring for babies and often threatens Susan and Mary's lives. Johnny steps in and proves to be a far better caretaker of his sisters as a brother should be.
- Played for tragedy with Honerva in Voltron: Legendary Defender. Thanks to Trauma-Induced Amnesia she didn't even remember how much she wanted her son Lotor, and as a result neglected him his entire life. When she does finally remember, it's too late as Lotor has died from over-exposure to quintessence.
- Subverted with Krolia. One would think an Action Girl on a mission wouldn't be mother material, but flashbacks show her being nothing but a good, loving mother to baby Keith until circumstances forced her to leave him and his father behind. When Keith finally meets her and is able to spend time with her, she has no trouble forming a new bond with her adult son.
- Princess Allura is said to be this by her voice actress Kimberly Brooks, and it's displayed in the show itself during "Across the Universe" when Allura is outwardly frustrated at having to deal with a rapidly de-aging Coran's toddler and infant selves, at times approaching Badly-Battered Babysitter degrees of "challenged".