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The Unexpected Child

When I asked my friend how she felt when she discovered she was pregnant, she said, "I sat down on my stairs and cried." It certainly wasn't the answer I thought I would hear. But I suppose I really couldn't blame her: She was expecting for the third time, less than a year after giving birth to her second son. Who wouldn't feel completely overwhelmed in that situation? Still, it was a pretty shocking admission. Pregnant women are supposed to be thrilled 24/7. They're supposed to glow with happiness. They're not supposed to cry, unless they're crying tears of joy.

Cut to a couple of years later. I'm standing in the bathroom, knowing very well what the pregnancy test will reveal, yet I'm still stunned when the two pink lines appear. Granted, my third child wasn't truly unplanned; my husband and I had tried unsuccessfully to conceive not that long ago. But now I was pregnant: now, when I'd pretty much accepted that I'd only have two children, when I'd found my exercise groove and felt great about my body, when I could finally devote myself to my career. Now?

Like my friend, I felt anxious, happy, and scared at the same time -- and guilty, of course, for being anything but a blissful mom-to-be. Back then, I had no idea that many women deal with the same mixed emotions. "Our culture leads women to believe that pregnancy should be a time of complete joy," says Jennifer Louden, author of The Pregnant Woman's Comfort Book. "But the reality is that it's a very emotional experience, and the emotions aren't always pretty."

This is particularly true for women whose pregnancy wasn't exactly planned, a scenario that's much more common than anyone realizes -- or wants to admit. The mothers on the following pages talk candidly about the not-so-unusual reasons behind their surprise pregnancies and how they ultimately made peace with their conflicting feelings.

Maybe you and your husband discussed having more kids and settled on the timing, but you had some nagging doubts. You might feel that your family size is perfect (and manageable) as is. Or your career may be taking off, and you're worried that adding to your family will be too much responsibility. "For some women, there's a sense of not having enough time to do it all and do it well," says Yvonne Thomas, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychologist. Men may feel more prepared for another child because they usually aren't as involved in the daily grind of parenting. Research shows that even when both parents work, the woman handles the majority of childcare and household tasks, says Paulette Melina, PsyD, a consulting psychologist in Los Angeles. "Men tend to think in terms of how can they provide financially rather than what the responsibilities of caretaking entail."

Nikki Britain, who grew up in an abusive household, wasn't sure she'd ever want to be a mother. "I was afraid of turning out like my parents," says the mom from Parker, Colorado. Still, she and her husband were thrilled when their son, Spencer, was born. Britain figured they'd stop at one, but her husband had other ideas. "I was perfectly happy with our little family of three, but my husband didn't want Spencer to be an only child," she says.

Somewhat reluctantly, Britain agreed to try for another. Their attempt was successful -- very successful. When she had her ultrasound, two heartbeats appeared on the screen. "Part of me was thrilled that I was pregnant," she says. "But sometimes I would think, 'What on earth have I gotten myself into?'"

Britain ultimately handled the situation in the best way possible, say experts -- she asked for help. "You shouldn't be afraid to talk to other mothers, because most of them will be able to relate to feeling scared and overwhelmed," says Jennifer Ashton, MD, an ob-gyn in Englewood, New Jersey. Britain's smart solution? She joined the Mothers of Multiples Society and bonded with other expecting moms and those who were already raising twins.

Talking openly about your feelings with your husband is also key. "You don't want to harbor resentment toward him or, on the other hand, come down too hard on yourself for 'allowing' the pregnancy to happen," says Dr. Ashton. Accept your part in the situation so you remain a team.

Conceiving can take a long time. For women under the age of 35 who are ovulating regularly, the possibility of getting pregnant during each menstrual cycle can be as low as 15 percent. Armed with this knowledge, some moms decide to try for another child sooner rather than later. But this approach has its flaws. "There's no way to predict how likely a woman is to conceive in a certain period of time," says Dr. Ashton. "Each cycle and each pregnancy may be very different." When you get pregnant seemingly overnight, excitement can turn to anxiety (Can I handle this now?).

Cheri Lima, of Salt Lake City, was shocked when she learned she was pregnant only six months after giving birth to her daughter, Kaitlyn. "I actually took seven pregnancy tests because I couldn't believe it was real," she says. "It took me nearly six years to get pregnant with Kaitlyn, so we didn't think it would happen again so easily. I was worried because I wasn't even fully recovered, and I kept thinking, 'How am I going to give my attention to a new baby?'"

It's a question a lot of expectant moms ask themselves. "I don't know that there is any woman who, if she's being completely honest with herself, hasn't had mixed feelings about her pregnancy," says Louden. "Mothers understand that having a baby will change their life and that parenting is the hardest, most relentless thing you do. And you've signed on for the rest of your life. It's a wonderful, yet immense, responsibility."

Lima adjusted to the news with plenty of support from her family and friends. "Talk to the people close to you, and let them know how they can help," says Dr. Melina. Be specific: If you're exhausted, ask a friend to take your older child to the park for a while, or see whether a family member can stop by with dinner so you don't have to cook.

When you do get little breaks, take the time to focus on your emotions, even the negative ones. Starting a journal can help you work through the feelings you'd rather deny -- or aren't ready to admit to anyone.

Although more than 90 percent of sexually active women in the United States between ages 15 and 44 have used at least one form of contraception, about half of all pregnancies are unintended. Clearly, birth-control methods don't always work as planned.

The odds depend upon the type you use. Condoms, for example, have a 15 percent failure rate due to breakage, slippage, or incorrect usage. The pill, if used perfectly, has a one-in-1,000 chance of failure -- but the odds plummet to just eight in 100 if you accidentally miss a day or don't take it at the same time each day. And then there's the rhythm method, which involves tracking your menstrual cycle to determine when you're most likely to conceive: It has one of the highest failure rates of all types of contraception, says Dr. Ashton.

Another pitfall: relying on breastfeeding as a birth-control measure. While exclusive breastfeeding is a very good form of contraception, it's not perfect -- it's about 90 percent effective when women are nursing at least five times a day, says Dr. Ashton. Experts recommend that breastfeeding moms use backup contraception, like progesterone-only pills (they're safe for nursing women). This is crucial when you begin pumping or supplementing with formula since the chance you'll get pregnant increases.

Whichever method it was that failed, you may feel ashamed that you "slipped up" and got pregnant anyway. Melanie Bailey remembers a stinging remark her mother made after she and her husband discovered they were expecting their third child (despite using condoms and taking the pill). "She actually asked, 'How can two college educated people get pregnant by accident?'" says Bailey, of Bossier City, Louisiana.

The good news is that although women might be conflicted initially, the feelings always pass, says Dr. Ashton: "That's why pregnancy takes nine months -- it takes that long for your body and mind to catch up with each other and for those things to mesh with the logistics of your life."

It's not just a surprise pregnancy that makes women feel conflicted. "Almost every mom-to-be has mixed feelings about having a baby," says Lucy Puryear, MD, author of Understanding Your Moods When You're Expecting. She told us the negative emotions women normally experience when they're pregnant -- but are afraid to talk about.

"I hate being pregnant!" Morning sickness, fatigue, and other uncomfortable symptoms can make some women resent those nine months. But you shouldn't feel guilty. "Just because you don't like everything that goes along with your pregnancy, that doesn't mean you aren't really excited to be a mother," says Dr. Puryear.

"Will I be a good mom?" It's not just first-time moms who worry whether they're up to the job of raising a child. Even if you planned to have more kids, it's still normal to wonder whether you can handle a bigger family once you do get pregnant again.

"I don't look like myself." Freaking out about your expanding stomach doesn't mean you're vain, says Dr. Puryear: "We're used to having control over our body, and it can be hard for some women to give up a little of that control during pregnancy."

"What if my labor is a nightmare?" Most women are nervous enough about giving birth (How painful will it be? What if something goes wrong?), but friends, family, and even strangers can send your anxiety level into overdrive. "As you get closer to your due date, people feel the need to tell you the worst delivery-room tales!" says Dr. Puryear. It's mystifying and rude -- and irrelevant. You never know what giving birth will be like for you until it happens. Remember that most of the time, everything goes well.

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the February 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

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