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Finding the Upside of an Unplanned Pregnancy

unplanned pregnancy

After years of careful planning and saving, Andi Ruhl, of Arlington Heights, Illinois, was thrilled to open her own pottery studio. "You're positively glowing!" guests told her at the opening.

A week later, Ruhl found out why: She was pregnant. Although she and her husband were elated, "it stopped me in my tracks," Ruhl admits. "I had rent to pay, art classes to teach, and employees to manage -- not to mention a 7-year-old daughter to take care of!"

Ruhl's surprise is not unusual. Nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which means that many women meet a positive sign on a pee stick with shock, panic, even tears. There is no bigger bombshell than a baby on the way.

The upside is that "part of being a parent is rolling with the punches, so consider an unexpected pregnancy the universe's way of helping you learn to do that," says Heather Wittenberg, Psy.D., a psychologist in Maui, Hawaii. Whatever your situation, you really can transform a "whoops!" into something wonderful.

Hide a First-Trimester Bump

Anna Erickson, of Seattle, had just broken up with her boyfriend of five months when she learned she was pregnant. "I was so terrified of raising a baby on my own that I wanted to reunite with my ex even though we weren't right for each other," she says. "I kept insisting the baby would bring us closer."

Having a baby can be an amazing bonding experience, "but you can't count on it to 'fix' difficulties in your love life," says Karen Sherman, Ph.D., author of Marriage Magic! Find It, Keep It, and Make It Last. "A newborn requires an incredible amount of care and attention, and that's time that you take away from working on your relationship."

Erickson and her ex started seeing a therapist, who helped them learn how to become friends again. "Counseling reminded us that our daughter was our first priority, and we had to cooperate for her sake," Erickson says.

Smart move, Dr. Sherman says. After all, just because your guy failed as a partner doesn't mean he'll fail as a father. Give your ex every opportunity to flex his daddy muscles: Share parenting books, ask him to attend Lamaze classes with you, and plan visits for after the baby arrives. It won't be easy, but it's worth it. "Kids are usually happier with split-up parents who get along than they are with a married mom and dad who fight all the time," Dr. Sherman says.

And remember, it does take a village to raise a kid, especially when you're single. Erickson learned to depend on her sisters and roommate and even her former beau's family, who pitched in with diaper duty.

Today, Erickson and her ex talk and text every day, and he watches their child three nights a week. "We're showing our daughter that working at a relationship, no matter how nontraditional, is essential to living a happy life," Erickson says.

It took Amanda Griffith, of Norton, Massachusetts, seven months to get pregnant the first time, so she stopped taking her birth control pills when her daughter was 6 months old, figuring it would be a while before she conceived again. A few weeks later, Griffith learned she was expecting. Although overjoyed, she was also overwhelmed. "I had no idea how I'd handle two little ones," she says.

While close-in-age babies require many of the same things (bottles, naps, Mommy's kisses), they usually need them at different times, which can leave you feeling frazzled. Luckily, you can ease some of your anxiety before Baby arrives, says Wittenberg. "Find a moms' group, join an online parenting community board, or stop any mother you see who is handling her young children well, and ask for very specific advice, such as, 'Do you still take your oldest to toddler classes if the younger sibling needs a nap?'" Wittenberg says.

These veteran moms will likely have insight about issues you haven't even considered. For instance, a friend who also had babies back to back suggested that Griffith let her children nap on staggered schedules so she could connect one-on-one with the baby who was awake.

"Even bite-size amounts of special time can provide the connection your child needs," Wittenberg says. So take advantage of a few of the five- and ten-minute pockets you have throughout the day to play peekaboo rather than peek at your Facebook page.

And above all, go easy on yourself. "I'm far from perfect, but both my girls know they couldn't have a mother who loves them more," Griffith says.

It's frightening when your debt seems to be growing at the same rate as your belly. When Buffy Scott, of New Brunswick, Canada, learned she was pregnant with twins, she had more than $14,000 in credit card bills, owed $10,000 in student loans, and had recently financed a new car. Soon after, she broke up with her babies' father. "I thought, How am I ever going to feed these kids for the next 18 years, never mind afford their college tuition?" she recalls.

To find your footing, "you have to develop healthy financial habits, then make them as much a part of your everyday routine as taking prenatal vitamins," advises Amanda Clayman, a psychotherapist in New York City who specializes in financial wellness. First figure out how much money is coming into your household, and exactly where you're spending it. (Mint.com allows you to track income and expenditures for free.) Then take a look at where you can cut back. For instance, Scott found she was perfectly happy preparing meals at home rather than eating at restaurants -- not surprising to anyone who has dined out with a baby!

If your finances need a complete overhaul, find an accredited nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency in your area (go to NFCC.org) that can help you map out a reasonable budget or negotiate with creditors.

Sure, you'll probably have to make some sacrifices. (Scott moved home with her mom for two years and filed for bankruptcy.) But "instilling good financial habits in your child is every bit as important as putting money in her college savings account," Clayman says. You're teaching by example.

Today, Scott owns her home, is caught up with her bills, and happily possesses only one credit card, for emergency use only. Ka-ching!

Whitney Jordan, of Brooklyn, learned she was pregnant the day after starting work as a teacher, a career she had always wanted. "I was dumbfounded!" Jordan says.

If, like Jordan, you're worried that a pregnancy could trip up your professional trajectory, remember that you still have months to show your supervisor you've got the right stuff. In fact, "the best time to reassure your boss that you're serious about your career is before you go on maternity leave," says Susan Fletcher, Ph.D., author of Parenting in the Smart Zone.

Carry your usual workload as long as your pregnancy allows, and let colleagues know you want to stay in the loop, within limits, during your time away. "Keep reiterating what you hope to accomplish when you return," Dr. Fletcher advises.

During her maternity leave, Jordan asked for class updates from her substitute, and she stayed in touch with other teachers at her school.

Because your goal is to transition back to work as seamlessly as possible, make sure you've lined up child care you're comfortable with long before your return so you can keep your mind on the job when you're there. And when the responsibility begins piling on, ask for more help at home to offset it. "Don't expect your partner or family members to know what you need," Dr. Fletcher says. "Tell them how they can help with some of your new-mom tasks, even if it's only folding laundry."

When you are off the clock, make family time your priority. Jordan says she ignored distractions so she could focus on her son. "During our time together in the evening, I wouldn't even answer my phone," she says. And if you still experience pangs of mom guilt, know you're not alone. "Many working mothers worry about the number of hours they're away from their child," Dr. Fletcher says. "But it's how you spend the time you do have with him that matters most."

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.

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