The Unintended Pregnancy

Weren't expecting to be pregnant? Our experts offer advice on how to cope.


Unexpectedly expecting? You’re not alone. About half of all pregnancies in the United States each year are unplanned and, by age 45, more than half of all American women will have experienced an unintended pregnancy.

Not all of these pregnancies are necessarily unwanted—they’re just a surprise. As a result, they are accompanied by a wide range of emotions, including disbelief, anger, fear, panic, excitement, embarrassment and resentment.

“When I found out I was pregnant, my emotions were a complete jumble. I felt totally lost and overwhelmed,” says Faith Marthe of Grand Forks, N.D. “I often told friends that I would never have children of my own and would rather spend my time doing things that I wanted to do. The moment the test was positive, I felt like everything I had dreamed of doing was impossible.”

The confusing array of emotions is normal.

“It doesn’t make you a bad mother to have conflicted feelings,” says Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., A.D.H.D., a psychologist in Walnut Creek, Calif., who specializes in pregnancy and motherhood. Low levels of stress are not dangerous, she maintains, so don’t worry that your emotions are harming your baby. It's not uncommon for moms in this situation to feel that they are not bonding with their babies in utero or to worry that they won't bond after giving birth.

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Lara Sortwell of Maribel, Wis., was upset and depressed when she discovered she was pregnant just two months after the birth of her second child. “I remember thinking, I don’t want this baby. I have a 1-year-old and a 2-month- old. I can’t handle another one,” she says. But after her 20-week ultrasound, Sortwell’s feelings shifted. “Once I could call my son by his name, it really helped me to bond with him,” she says.

If you find you’re unable to come to terms with the pregnancy, or if you start blaming the baby, you should ask your doctor for a referral to a mental-health professional, as this could signal a serious depression, says Honos-Webb.

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Seek Support

Coping with an unplanned pregnancy requires time, space and a network of support. “It isn’t something you wrap your head around overnight,” says Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Pregnancy Books (Wiley).

“You need to actively work through what you’re feeling. Talk to other couples who have experienced a surprise pregnancy to find out how they got through the tough times.”

Marthe found the support she needed in her partner. “The change in how I felt about having a child had a lot to do with the reaction of my significant other,” she says. “After the initial shock began to wear off, we had long conversations about how having a child made each of us feel and what we needed to do to prepare. It was reassuring to know that he didn’t feel like I ruined his life.”

Your partner’s reaction is likely to encompass as many emotions as yours, but he may have more trouble putting his into words, says Brad Imler, Ph.D., president of the American Pregnancy Association.

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Some men may get that “deer in the headlights” look, says Imler, who counsels women not to assume the reaction signals a lack of support. Men worry most about providing for their families and losing their partners to the commitments of motherhood.

To reassure him, advises Honos-Webb, remind him that after about three months, the intense connection between mother and baby eases a bit and you will be able to return more of your attention to him. When it comes to money, she recommends saying, “These are supposed to be the tough years, and we have our whole lives ahead of us.”

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Change Your Outlook

Honos-Webb suggests that the way to change your attitude about the pregnancy is to change the questions you ask yourself. “Stop asking yourself who is to blame, what you did to deserve this, and what’s wrong with you,” she says. “Instead, ask yourself, Am I OK, what do I need, and how can I comfort myself?” In other words, ask questions that help you find solutions and move forward, not questions that fixate on blame and fault.

This process worked for Marthe, who says, “I realized that I can still do the things I want to do, and it’s more fun knowing that I will have my family to share them with.”

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