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.
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 and the many, many different ways to get it right or wrong as compared to other species, 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 behavior 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 (and prevents potential "absence of education" problems that this trope exemplifies).
Compare to Raised by Dudes, which is a rough male equivalent. Subtrope of Parents as People. Frequently paired with Career Versus Family. This trope is for women who are well-intentioned but simply clueless as parents; for mothers who are actively malevolent towards their offspring, see Abusive Parents, and for mothers who are just nasty in general, see Evil Matriarch or One Bad Mother.
- This advertisement for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz featured a woman complaining to her son that he's boring and never discusses interesting things like world affairs or culture. Her son is a toddler, so he pretty much ignores her.
- Despite her rough background, post-Eclipse Casca from Berserk actually (and surprisingly) averts this trope, as she is seen to take care of the mysterious moonchild (implied to be her own child) very well. Her lover, Guts, on the other hand...
- Sumiko Sumimura of Kekkaishi admits she has more talent as a Kekkeishi than a mother and generally leaves the child-raising to her House Husband Shuji. Her children, however, don't seem to mind and actively reject any claim of her being a bad mother.
- When Arika of Negima! Magister Negi Magi appears in her son Negi's Lotus-Eater Machine, she's completely awkward around her son, unaware of how to properly interact with him. It's unknown if the real Arika would've reacted this way, since she never appears in the present time of the series.
- 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. She would be a passable or even effective Older Sister Surrogate if it weren't for the implied sexual tension between her and Shinji.
- 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.
- SPY×FAMILY: Downplayed with Yor Forger. She definitely has the right attitude to be a mother, but her skillset doesn't match up. Her cooking is a health hazard, she shreds what she tries to sew, and she's known to hug too hard. Although her brother Yuri got the brunt of her lack of motherly finesse, Yor is steadily learning how to raise and care for Anya properly.
- In the Tenchi Muyo! episode "Hello, Baby", none of the girls in the Masaki household has a clue how to look after a baby — until Washu decides to take charge. Namely because she's done this before.
- Subverted in Vinland Saga when Thorfinn hands a screaming baby to the girl of the group and tells her to feed it. She can't, not because of this trope, but because she's not pregnant/recently pregnant and therefore isn't producing milk (which comes as news to the rest of the all-male group).
- Played for Drama in Persepolis: the narrator/lead character Marjane mentions how in a time of crisis, her neighbour handed her her baby and ran off, and since then she has always been very skeptical towards the concept of 'maternal instinct'.
- This is subverted with Cheshire from Teen Titans and Secret Six. There have been moments where she's seen as somewhat loving and nurturing towards her daughter Lian, but it's blatantly implied that Jade has no actual love for either of her children beyond simply using them to keep their dads under her control when the situation calls for it. So it's more that she knows when to pretend to not be maternally challenged. It's probably better to say that Cheshire's maternal feelings are Depending on the Writer — some making Lian her Morality Pet, others consider her too evil to have any sort of loving relationship.
- In Croft and Son, it's heavily implied that Lara is struggling with this, as she's stumbled more than once in how to raise Nero, and self-deprecating about how little she knows about him in comparison to Sam.
- In the Discworld fic Hyperemesis Gravidarum, Miss Alice Band freely states she has the maternal instincts of a concussed housefly. However, confronted with several pregnant colleagues...
"Babies." said Alice. "Who, without prejudicing my reputation as a flinty-hearted lethally murderous stone-cold bitch, I'd quite like to see. You know, out of interest. As long as other people have them. Did I tell you I've already had one offer to be a godsmother?"Vimes started. Alice Band as a godsparent? Well, she'd be one mean Mother, Gods help the child.
- Subverted in the My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! fanfic Lemon Cakes and Late Confessions: Katarina is an infamous scatterbrain, so her friends and family are worried when she gets pregnant. They think she likes the idea of a child but doesn't understand what would actually be required to take care of one. They're very surprised when she proves fully capable of handling the child on her own, even correcting the way her husband holds their newborn. In her past life, Katarina worked at a daycare, so she has far more experience than anyone expected.
- It's mentioned in The Love Club that Melena shouldn't have been a mother. She wasn't fit for it. She tried her best, but fell to drugs and likely herself when her three children were young.
- The New Retcons: Therese ultimately feels this way, as while she does love her daughter Francoise and will make sure she's taken care of, she just doesn't have a motherly bone in her body and will always pick career over family. It's why she ultimately lets Anthony have primary custody of her so Therese can emigrate to France (with a month-long visit every summer).
- Diane Keaton's character in the 1987 film Baby Boom.
- Christmas in Connecticut: A magazine publisher invites a war hero to join him for Christmas with his star writer Elizabeth Lane, a Housewife on an idyllic farm who shares recipes and anecdotes. Only problem is, Lane's a single City Mouse apartment-dweller who's making the entire thing up. Hijinks ensue when she tries to Maintain the Lie, set up shop in a friend's farmhouse, borrow a neighbour's baby, and pretend she has any clue how to handle the darn thing.
- The eponymous 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 M3GAN, roboticist Gemma has trouble bonding with her niece and is heard admitting she cannot even keep a plant alive. She eventually invents M3GAN to help lighten her load.
- In Maleficent all women except the queen show signs of this. Justified in the three fairy "aunts" in that they don't know much about human children (they may be competent at raising fairy children), and Maleficent just hates the "Beastie" with a passion ... or at least pretends to do. She is good at keeping Aurora alive, though. The only one who cares about Aurora and openly shows affection is Diaval, who is a shapeshifted raven.
- 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.
- In Three Men and a Baby, 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.
- Red in Vigilante Diaries. When faced with Jade's crying baby, her reaction is an angry "How the hell do you shut this thing up?!"
- In A Brother's Price, women are not expected to care for babies, so Captain Tern's attitude (she left home because her baby sisters annoyed her so much) is considered unremarkable. Balin Brindle's lack of competence around small children, however, is considered highly unusual, and a reason to not marry him.
- The title character of the A Memoir By Lady Trent series freely admits that she's not a very good mother, and largely leaves her son to his nursemaid until he's old enough to carry on a conversation. She regrets it and later takes a more active role in her son's life, even taking him with her on a few of her adventures.
- 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 wife 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. The latter actually happens in Super Dimension Fortress Macross/Robotech, where Miriya cheerfully lobs her newborn daughter to Misa/Lisa — while Max looks on, smiling.
- In one of the Sammy Keyes books, when Sammy 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.
- Happened to Alanna in the fourth Song of the Lioness book when she wound up protecting some clergy and orphans. It's her man-at-arms Coram who has to teach her how to hold a baby and deal with diapers since he cared for her and her brother as infants. Presumably the experience helped her when she had three kids of her own.
- Unsurprisingly, the title character of Bones is discovered to be Maternally Challenged in the episode "The Baby in the Bough". She got better at it by the end of the episode.
- One episode of Charmed had Piper upset that her husband and sisters seemed better at taking care of her son Wyatt than she was; for example, they could tell what he wanted by variations of his cries while she was always left confused. Surprisingly, she managed to fix this when the Villain of the Week inflicted her with Temporary Blindness.
- An earlier episode had Prue admit that she didn't want to ever have kids, only to be subsequently taken by criminals who are also holding a magically-powered teenager to help them with crimes. She manages to help him escape and ends the episode admitting she might want kids one day...though of course, she never does.
- Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Despite "So Maternal" being an "I Am Great!" Song, it's painfully clear from the lyrics and video that Rebecca is actually terrible at parenting (during the below lyrics, she's also seen awkwardly rolling an entire banana, with skin, in a tortilla):
Gonna keep them warm, gonna keep them safe
Gonna keep their homework free of mistakes
If a kid gets hungry I'll feed his face
"A real wholesome meal!" Piece of cake!
"Here, have a piece of cake!"
- Predictably, Action Girl Aeryn in Farscape expects she will fulfill this trope when her child is born. She later learns to love motherhood.
D'Argo: You never struck me as the type who would want children. (Aeryn shoots him a significant look.) You either, huh?
Aeryn: He wants it so badly. So I do.
D'Argo: You'll come around when you see the little guy in person.
Aeryn: I hope so.
- 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. She explains to her mother that she did plenty of research on pregnancy but neglected to read about what happens after the baby arrives. Luckily for her, her child's father already had experience parenting with his son and would be there to help take care of the baby and reminds her how much she has accomplished, persuading her that she can learn to be a good mother.
Ross: Just hold him like you'd hold a football.
Rachel: (holding baby Ben at arm's length by his armpits) This is how I'd hold a football!
- Grey's Anatomy plays with this one a lot.
- Mostly with Cristina. 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 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. He eventually becomes a pediatric surgeon, so this skill comes in handy.
- An episode of How I Met Your Mother focused on this with Robin and Marshall and Lily's son Marvin. She's managed to avoid holding Marvin for eight months, and when Lily has to leave to get his binkie, Robin panics, first letting an old woman pick up Marvin to calm him down, then accidentally letting Marvin's stroller roll into the street, then letting the old woman take her and Marvin to a nearby strip club for warmth, and finally leaving Marvin alone with the old woman (who was, by this time, revealed to be Mike Tyson - yes, that Mike Tyson) in the strip club. Lily is more angry at the fact that Robin hid the fact that Mike Tyson held Marvin as a baby from her than the fact that she left Marvin alone in a strip club with Mike Tyson.
- Law & Order: SVU:
- In one episode 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.
- 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 sent to live with his paternal grandparents. 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). However, the next season at least revealed Olivia and Calvin were still allowed to keep in touch.
- Amanda expresses concern that she will be this while in labor with Jesse, though it's fueled a lot by the stress of her complicated delivery. Carisi assures her everything will be okay and there isn't anything she can't handle. Amanda is only truly portrayed as being this trope when Jesse is a newborn, as she is understandably overwhelmed and exhausted; Carisi begins his transition into a Parental Substitute when he shows Amanda a few tricks to get the baby to stop crying. However, this trope weighs heavily on Amanda's mind, since she's trying not to repeat patterns from her own childhood, and is hyper-aware she's already repeated a few that are the root cause of her issues with intimacy and self-esteem. In "Must Be Held Accountable," she engages in some Epiphany Therapy with a fellow cop who has taken her hostage, expressing her fear that her daughters will grow up "feeling like they don't deserve to be happy," just as Amanda did watching her mother chase men who treated her poorly (an issue Amanda also struggles with, at least until season 22).
- A major source of humour in The Letdown is that motherhood has not come as naturally to Audrey as she hoped it would. Her parenting skills are so bad in the pilot episode that at one point a drug dealer is driven to give her advice on the proper way to hold the baby so it can feed.
- On Living Single, Regina dates a single father and spends a day with his daughter. At first, it goes well, with the two having a shopping spree, but Regina lets the little girl eat a whole cake and then is completely flustered when she's up all night sick. She admits this to her boyfriend, but he notes that at this early point in their relationship it's not a huge deal if she's a less-than-perfect mother figure, and they keep dating (not that we see that).
- The Mandalorian: At one point during the running shootout between the Mando and his allies against Moff Gideon's Stormtroopers in the Season 1 finale, Cara Dune is forced to carry the Child so IG-11 can tend to the grievously wounded Mando. Cara anxiously retorts that she "doesn't do the baby thing" when the droid places the infant in her arms. Ramping up the absurdity of the exchange is that IG-11, who had been caring for the Child throughout the episode up until then, is an assassin droid reprogrammed as a nurse.
- Murphy Brown, full stop. She eventually settles into the role, but not without embellishing it with her own unique twists first.
- Happens to Earl and Joy in My Name Is Earl with Dodge. Justified, though, as Dodge had colic. Later episodes occasionally show Joy still in this trope. Earl is a little more ambiguous, because Joy tricked him into signing away not only the trailer-home they once shared but custody of the kids when she divorced him.
- Nadira, the Big Bad's daughter in Power Rangers Time Force. The handle of a parting was handed 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.
- Miss Parker in The Pretender is initially shown to be this while babysitting Broots' daughter. She figures things out though.
- Christina on Prison Break lampshades this and seems quite resentful about it—much more so about Lincoln who was adopted than about Michael.
- A more serious version occurred in an episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, where the title 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.
- Rosa, from Umineko: When They Cry, will always be BEST MOM EVER, including making her own kid willing to kill her horribly in one arc, though that's implied to be All Just a Dream.
- Genshin Impact: Raiden Ei created Scaramouche as a puppet body and holder for the Electro Gnosis. However, when she saw him crying in his sleep, this made her believe that he was unfit to use the Gnosis. But rather than dispose of him or control him, she decided to let him go so that he could forge his own path. Unfortunately, while Ei’s intentions were good, Scaramouche saw this as abandonment and betrayal, which would serve as the first stepping stone for him to walk down a path of darkness, and eventually joining the Fatui to steal the Electro Gnosis.
- Persephone in Destroyer of Light considers herself to be this, and therefore opts for an abortion when she gets pregnant.
- Drowtales: This seems to run in the Sarghress family and is Played for Drama, having very real effects on the lives of the characters involved.
- 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.
- Syphile, who is completely unqualified, is forced to care for Ariel since the latter was an infant. Syphile ends up calling her out on this, telling Quain'tania just how poisonous of a mother she is, right before Quain' kills her.
- Mare Internum: Bex was terrified of becoming a mother, which her husband brushed off, and ultimately chose her scientific career over her family and left to become a permanent colonist on Mars.
"I hated every minute of being a mother. I felt like I was losing myself. And I love my kids. But they sensed that we weren't enough for one another."
- 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)?
Hatsuki: Let me guess, you're sad because you don't have and postpartum depression.
Summer: I was so looking forward to it! Then, bam! Nothing but happiness! Talk about a real downer!
- Danny in Other People's Business provides a rare instance in which this trope isn't played for laughs. Danny actually is a biological mother, but a great deal of her personal angst comes from the fact that she despised even the word "Mommy" and felt no connection at all to the role. She admits in a later comic that she's glad she lost custody of her son to his father and step-mom. She still maintains a strained relationship with her son (during her bouts of sobriety), but she doesn't seem to mind one bit that he calls his stepmother "Mommy."
- Aubrey in Something*Positive. Before they marry, Aubrey's husband Jason says "My mother's buying me a vasectomy for a wedding present." 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.
- Even more explicitly, PeeJee says at one point "I'm not carrying a parasite for nine months for any man," and Vanessa likewise mentions that she doesn't want kids. Both, however, are good caretakers for Davan's unofficially adopted son Rory. (Vanessa considered Davan having a kid as a plus since she's fine having a stepson.)
- In a meta example, the author has mentioned in the past that he doesn't want kids...until January 2018.
- Zoe of Venus Envy is press-ganged into babysitting 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.
- Cynthia Frady from the original Maddison Atkins.
- The Uxorite species from Ben 10 as a whole have this. Once the egg is hatched the newborn is left to fend entirely for itself. They are actually confused by a parents' attachment to their children in other species.
- DuckTales (2017) has an example of a mother who was separated from her children from before they hatched (as they are ducks) to when they are about ten and struggles to figure out how to parent from a combination of inexperience, her own personality being more 'one of the kids' than anything, and some sanity damage from being gone for so long. That being said, Della Duck is hard at work trying to figure it all out, and everyone around her is willing to help and give her some slack while she learns the ropes a decade in.
- In an episode of Johnny Test, the twin geniuses, Susan and Mary, turn themselves into babies so that their boy crush, Gil, can take care of them, much to their brother's annoyance (since it ruins his plans to have fun). It doesn't take long for Johnny to find out that Gil 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 surprisingly proves to be a far better caretaker for his sisters and being a good brother. He did have help from Dukey (the uplifted Dog) to help, though with the advantage in numbers.
- King of the Hill:
- Luann 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 it. While she was in labor, she expressed to Hank her worries. Hank reminded her that it was her baby and she needed to think for herself and although she would make mistakes, it would all be ok.
- 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. She had post-partum depression and wasn't all together in the head to begin with.
- Steven Universe: The series revolves around the Crystal Gems raising the teenage son of their former leader. Although they usually do a good job, "Steven's Birthday" has him revert to a baby, and his father Greg has to take over because they have no idea how to take care of him. This is pretty Justified, since they're asexual aliens who are all Born as an Adult. Their inability to understand babies (and especially Steven given he's a hybrid) is best shown in a flashback episode where they visited a baby Steven to bring him presents. Their gifts were a shaving razor (he'll need it in the future), adult diapers (expecting him to shape-shift into them), and a dictionary (so he can learn how to talk).
- Subverted as far as we can tell in her Young Justice with Cheshire. Unlike her comic counterpart, she does genuinely care for her daughter and goes to confront the father to help get him up to code about it. Played a bit more straight in Season 3, where it is revealed that at some point during the three-year time skip she left her family to return to the assassin life, having ultimately been unable to adapt to living in a normal family with Will and Lian and believing that her daughter would be better off without her. Perhaps the single biggest issue on her mind is that she fears she's too much like her father, who was demanding of both his daughters growing up, insisting they learn to fight and be criminals.