How to Deal with a Surprise Pregnancy

An unplanned pregnancy can happen to any woman. Learn how to deal with the shock and joy of a "surprise" baby.

mad little girl pregnant mom
Photo: Oksana Kuzmina/

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.

"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."

Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., A.D.H.D., a psychologist in Walnut Creek, Calif., who specializes in pregnancy and motherhood, adds that it doesn’t make you a bad mother to have conflicted feelings. 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.

Here are some tips for dealing with a surprise pregnancy.

If Your Husband Wants Another Baby

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."

Talking openly about your feelings with your husband is 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.

If You Got Pregnant Quickly

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?

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."

"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.

If You Were Using Birth Control

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.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."

woman holding pregnancy test

Why Negative Thinking Is Normal

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.

Seeking 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.”

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. 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.”

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.

3 Things Not To Panic About

1. Housing You have your entire pregnancy and many months after the baby is born before he needs a room or even a separate space. A bassinet and a place to keep baby clothes and supplies are all that's required in the first few months.

2. Money Cut back on extras like daily lattes, and you can cover the cost of disposable diapers. Shop consignment stores and garage sales for lightly used (sometimes brand-new) baby clothes and furniture. If you're not insured, find out about medical payment plans, less expensive providers such as midwives, or state insurance programs.

3. Not having a life The future is still yours to plan. You need to commit to parenting, but also to your own life, says psychologist Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D. "Plan to do what you love and take the baby along," she suggests. "You aren't sacrificing your entire life, just making adjustments."

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