It was a month before Christmas when four-year-old Evan asked his mother, Tamara Molloy, “When are we having another baby?” She didn’t have to think about the answer. Since giving birth to her two children, Molloy had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and she knew that another pregnancy would be considered high risk. Moreover, she was anxious to get back to her career as an early childhood educator, and had been talking with the principal at her children’s school in Innisfil, Ont., about applying to work as an educational assistant or substitute teacher. “I said, ‘We’re not having another baby. Mommy and Daddy are quite happy with you and your sister,’” Molloy recalls. “And the first week of January, guess who was pregnant?”
Her response was about as far from the dewy-eyed bliss portrayed in home-pregnancy-test commercials as you can get. “I was livid,” she says with a frankness many women in the same situation hesitate to use. While she absolutely loves surprise baby Ean, now three, it was tough coming to terms with the abrupt change in plans brought about by his conception.
Leah Jesse* of Richmond Hill, Ont., can relate. The 42-year-old mother of two girls, aged six and four, had been told by two doctors she was in menopause. Then she discovered she was expecting number three. “My first reaction when the stick showed a plus sign was ‘Oh, f—. This wasn’t in the plan! How are we going to do it?’ So we scrambled to finish the basement, put off a much-needed back-deck renovation, and aren’t able to put that extra savings into our RRSP or mortgage. And that 10th anniversary cruise we’d been talking about? Gone.”
Shock and surprise are normal reactions to the news of an unplanned pregnancy, assures Ariel Dalfen, a psychiatrist with the perinatal mental health unit at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. She adds that women may also undergo “a period of sadness or feeling overwhelmed.”
Even after they’ve come to terms with the idea of another baby, Dalfen says it’s common for women to punish themselves for those initial doubts. “There’s probably a lingering sense of guilt that they had those negative feelings.”
*Name changed by request.
Guilt still looms large for Melissa Ackerland three years after the birth of her fifth child, Lorelai. Ackerland’s main concern was her aunt, who was in the early stages of a very much wanted but high-risk pregnancy. If Ackerland got pregnant, it would be construed as stealing the thunder from her beloved aunt. And if her aunt miscarried…
Although Ackerland was already taking birth control pills, her husband, Kyle, had scheduled a vasectomy, just to be sure. “One of my best friends jokes I don’t even have to be in the same room with my husband and I’ll get pregnant!” she says.
Just three days before Kyle’s procedure, however, “I was feeling extremely nauseous,” says Ackerland. “And he just looked at me: ‘Are you pregnant again? You can’t be pregnant.’” When a home pregnancy test turned up positive, “I lost it. I was crying hysterically. I threw things at him. I threw up. It was so not good.”
They kept the news a secret, and then her aunt miscarried. And for the first time ever, Ackerland contemplated abortion. “That bugs me now,” she says somberly.
When she couldn’t keep the truth under wraps any longer, at about 4 1/2 months along, Ackerland went to talk first to her aunt and then her parents. They didn’t take it well. “My parents had threatened to kill us if we had any more. We are low-income, so if any major bills pop up, we have to turn to them for help. And they just said, you know, enough is enough.”
The judgment of others—family members, friends, employers—is a common source of stress for women like Ackerland, who may already be emotionally stretched by their own inner struggle to accept and embrace a surprise baby.
For working mothers, a major worry is often about what the boss will think. As far as she and her employer were concerned, Sandra Parente was done having babies. At nine and seven, her boys were solidly school-aged, allowing the Toronto publishing sales manager to ramp up her work life. “I was on my career path,” she reflects, when she found out she was pregnant. Parente, then 37, had been using birth control, but blames a boozy New Year’s Eve for an uncharacteristic slip-up. However, it didn’t take her long to get excited about becoming a mom for the third time, she says.
Parente was promoted midway through her pregnancy. She believes “the company recognized, ‘This is the right person—and, yes, she’s going to be on mat leave, but we’ll just have to deal with it.’”
However, her two older sisters didn’t let her off so easy. They’d had their kids while in their early 20s and had long reclaimed their social lives. With a new baby at home, Parente would no longer be able to go out with them whenever she wanted. They quipped good-naturedly, “Couldn’t you tell Pat to keep it in his pants?”
Last one on the bandwagon
While Tamara Molloy wrestled with the big questions of how her unplanned pregnancy would affect her career plans, her health and the dynamics of her household, she recalls that her husband, who is 10 years her senior at 49, “was very pleased that his ‘boys’ still worked.” Yes, he was initially shocked, but that feeling very quickly gave way to pride and happy excitement that helped to lift Molloy’s own outlook. “I think if he had been more negative about the whole situation, it might have brought me down more,” she says.
Mount Pearl, NL, mom Crystal Butler, had a similar experience during her pregnancy with unplanned baby number three, Rachel, now two years old. “It really helped me that my partner took it so much better than I would ever have expected,” she says.
That’s not always the case. Sometimes, a partner’s response to the surprise pregnancy — positive or negative — can cause relationship tension, Dalfen says. The husband’s enthusiasm might make a woman less likely to speak out about her doubts and fears, or make her feel even more guilty that she doesn’t share her partner’s excitement.
Bringing up baby (again)
The basics of infant care can seem monumental even for veteran parents who find themselves expecting again after a gap of several years. At that point “their [older] kids are beyond the age where they’re tied to nap times or certain eating habits,” Dalfen observes. “It’s a lifestyle change.” And older moms may notice that they have less energy to play with their surprise baby, or lack the ability to get by on very little sleep or to tolerate crying (see When to get help).
“Given all their different age levels and interest levels, I found in the beginning it was very demanding,” Molloy, 39, recalls of her first months at home with baby Ean, balancing the needs of her newborn with those of his five-year-old brother and eight-year-old sister. It didn’t help that her husband was often away from home for his job as a construction site supervisor. And as if Molloy didn’t already have enough to deal with, her elder son, Evan, who’d always been a high-need child, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
And yet, now that Ean is three, Molloy believes wholeheartedly that his unplanned arrival has been a boon and a blessing to the entire family. Yes, her pregnancy derailed plans to return to work. But if she’d been committed to a job at the time of Ean’s birth, she would not have been free to pull Evan out of the school system, where he was having difficulty, to educate him at home, where she can satisfy his strong need for one-on-one attention. And he has flourished in his role as big brother. “Ean was given to us for a reason — not just because it ‘happened.’ I think it was God’s way of telling me that things needed to change in our dynamic.”
For Sandra Parente, time off with her unplanned bundle was a chance to really enjoy maternity leave, something she hadn’t been able to do at home with her older boys, who are only two years apart. The last time around, she struggled to manage a newborn and toddler simultaneously. This time, she was able to relax and focus on the baby while his brothers were at school. And the older boys were thrilled to have their usually busy working mom at home for a year.
“I don’t refer to him as an accident,” Parente says of Michael, now four. “I refer to him as my love child.”
When to get help
“It’s normal whenever you have a new baby to go through a period of adjustment, of ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself into?’” notes Ariel Dalfen, a psychiatrist with the perinatal mental health unit at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. However, if those feelings last for more than a couple of weeks, depression may be an issue. Sessions with a therapist can help you adjust to the potentially dramatic changes you’ll experience while you are getting to know your baby. At the very least, Dalfen advises, “talk to friends, talk to community support, talk to your doctor. Come forward with it before it becomes problematic.”