Unplanned Pregnancies

11.05.10: A toast to the unexpected


Some of my recent blog posts have generated comments voicing some version of this statement: “She should have thought of that before she got pregnant.” Visions of Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady come to my mind. Or, Laura Schlesinger, the radio talk show host who blasts callers with rudeness and her super-strict code of ethics. Both of these characters embody prim, judgmental and narrow points of view that leave no room for human nature. They certainly don’t leave room for sex – the impetuous, unplanned and unprotected kind or even protected sex that winds up with contraceptive failure. Sometimes, people aren’t “thinking about that before they get pregnant.” The mood strikes and their brains shut off as the rest of the body turns on. Sometimes they’ve taken precautions and they still get pregnant.

Roughly half of all pregnancies are unintended or unplanned. They may or may not be welcome. Clearly some result in serious, devastating lifestyle implications. Others are lovely surprises. Some will be terminated and some tolerated. Still others will be unwelcome at the beginning, but eventually, will be the best thing that ever happened to the parents. Unplanned pregnancy happens not only to thoughtless, careless, clueless or reckless women. They happen to women who are careful, thoughtful, educated and employed; to women who can’t handle it and women who can, women in power and women who are powerless. Poor women, rich women, single women, married women, women who think they can never get pregnant and women who can’t look at their man without getting pregnant. It happens to insured women and uninsured women. It happens to millions of women around the world every year. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”

Last week I wrote about Teen Moms. Even though teen pregnancy is rarely planned and will make life far more difficult for these mothers than if they’d waited a decade, it doesn’t mean they won’t love their babies and be good mothers. Should they have “thought about that before they got pregnant?” Come on, they’re teenagers, new to sex, irresponsible by nature and many, without access to contraception. They’re not “thinking” about it. They’re just “doing it.” Not that long ago, teen moms were shipped off to distant aunts or homes for unwed mothers. They might have been forced to have an abortion or give their child up for adoption whether they wanted to or not. They were shunned, shamed and treated like bad women. Today, there’s less stigma attached to unplanned teen motherhood that I wish would extend to grown up mothers too.

I met a woman in Peru when I traveled with CARE (the global humanitarian organization) to check out global maternal health programs in developing countries. Her name was Juana. She was 51 and had just delivered her 13th child. When asked if she was happy about this baby, she replied, “I’ve had 13 children. Nine have lived and I’ll be an old woman while this one’s a child. Of course, I’m happy with this baby, but what do you think?” She knew life would be rough for this new little girl. Why did she get pregnant then? Because she loved her husband and they had a sex life. She didn’t use birth control because she lived too far from a clinic and had no money to pay for it. At 51, she didn’t think she could get pregnant anymore and yet... Should she have thought of that before she got pregnant? Get real.

There was an American woman who already had several kids, worked full-time and also took total care of her very old father who lived with her family. She knew she didn’t want any more babies. Her husband scheduled a vasectomy, but his insurance insisted he wait 30 days…just to be sure. A month after the procedure, she discovered she was pregnant. They had not had unprotected sex. They had seriously “thought about that before she got pregnant.” And still…. They named the baby Olivia but called her Liv right from the start.

When Liv was three months old, that woman was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Her doctor told her to get her affairs in order because the odds weren’t in her favor. She held Liv and her other children tightly during the next year of surgeries and treatment. Her goal was to live, at least long enough that Liv would remember her. It was a terrible time, but that surprise baby and those children made her focus on life, hope and the happiness of children instead of illness, pain and the serious possibility of death. Ten years later, despite the odds, she’s still alive and healthy. That unplanned baby is my daughter and I fully expect to live long enough to meet her children.

To those of you with unplanned pregnancies, I send my best wishes that your baby will be a wonderful gift. If it seems like there’s no way it can lead to a happy ending, ask for support from your family, friends and doctor. To those who say all babies should be planned or that women having a hard time should have thought about that before they conceived, I say this: Leave room in your heart for the unexpected. Life is full of experiences you never thought of before.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to labornurse@fitpregnancy.com and it may be answered in a future blog post.

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