When Yolanda Ng found out she was pregnant for the first time, she wasn’t living on the same continent as her boyfriend. Three weeks earlier, the Markham, Ont., native had moved to Hong Kong for work, leaving behind her boyfriend, friends and family. “I had just started a new job and having a child wasn’t in the plan,” says the fashion designer who was 29 at the time. An unappetizing sushi dinner tipped her off that something was amiss. “I looked at my best friend and said, ‘I think I might be pregnant.’” The following day, Ng’s work was cancelled due to an approaching category-9 typhoon. Residents were given a five-hour warning before it was expected to hit. With that in mind, Ng picked up a pregnancy test in the hopes of calming her mind before the storm. But when two blue lines revealed that she was expecting, she was anything but calm. “With my pants down, I literally ran out of the bathroom, holding myself up with the doorframe, crying my eyes out,” recalls Ng.
Eight years later, that storm has become family folklore. “My son has always known he was an accident because he has always heard the story like that,” says the mother of two. “It’s always been this funny story in the family. It’s never been a big deal.” For Ng, it’s more than just a good story though. “It’s important for him to know his origin.”
According to the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, 34 percent of Canadian births are unplanned. Many parents choose not to share that information with their little ones out of fear they may feel that they weren’t wanted. But it’s quite possible to share the news without hurting any feelings. As long as a child knows they’re loved, the news won’t damage their self-esteem, says Jen Theule, a child psychologist in Winnipeg and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba. “Showing them how much they are appreciated and loved despite being unplanned speaks to a sense of how much they are wanted now,” she says.
If you decide to tell your child that they weren’t planned, how you tell them is key. The conversation should take place in a warm and welcoming environment where the child feels valued, and “It should be in the context of, ‘You were an accident, but what a wonderful thing that turned out to be,’” says Dr. Joan Grusec, head of the University of Toronto Child Study Centre’s Social Development Lab.
It’s also important to remove any element of shame. “Children will only feel dismay if we tell them there is something wrong in this,” says Theule. It’s important to communicate that unplanned doesn’t mean unwanted. If a child feels unwanted, that is when their sense of security and self-esteem may feel threatened, says Grusec.
Ideally it’s best to have that conversation when children are older, around the time when they have a firm understanding of conception. “The idea of a planned or unplanned pregnancy doesn’t make sense to a young child who doesn’t know one could plan a pregnancy or how contraception works,” says Theule. Sexual education should be an ongoing conversation so it makes sense to bring up their origins during one of those talks.
In reality though, many children may approach their parents first. For example, if there is a large age gap between siblings, a kid may piece it together. “If the child discovers [they], ask them if it makes them feel different in any way,” says Grusec. “Reassure them it doesn’t make them different in your eyes.” It’s important to ensure that the child feels just as loved as their planned sibling.
Sometimes, older siblings may take it upon themselves to share the news. To avoid this, don’t keep secrets, says Theule. “If it's not a secret no one will bug anyone about it.” If, however, an older sibling spills the beans before you are ready to have that conversation, the best approach is to follow up with an open and honest conversation with the younger child. “It doesn't need to be presented as a big deal, but simply a fact—not a negative or positive fact, just a neutral one,” says Theule.
After the birth of Dante, Ng thought she was finished having children, until her son asked his parents for a baby sister for his sixth birthday. His wish came true the day before his birthday when Ng and her husband discovered that they were unexpectedly pregnant for the second time. She plans to tell her 16-month daughter, Dylane, that her older brother wished for her and that she, too, was unplanned. “I think it makes it more exciting that they both have such interesting stories.”
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