Surprise baby

Coming to terms with an unplanned pregnancy

We hadn’t expected to be expecting. When I found out our third child was on her way my husband was out of work. Not a prospect in sight. A hydro bill had just arrived — in a colour I’d never seen before. There didn’t seem to be a graceful way to break the news. So on a piece of paper — a tiny piece — I wrote Baby: August 4. I was scared, worried…and a little bit ecstatic.

Babies sometimes arrive when we aren’t expecting them, and despite our dreams, intentions and careful plans. No matter how deeply we come to love that baby, the first reaction to a surprise pregnancy may be something close to anguish. Krista Larson* of Stouffville, Ont., mom of Anna*, four, and Kevin*, two, recalls, “Initially it was, ‘This is terrible, really.’” Larson’s life seemed settled. She and husband Jim had decided they were satisfied with the family they had. “We were ready to move on to the next stage,” she says.

A surprise baby, whether your first or fourth, changes everything. There may be regrets, big and small: In another year, you’d be out of debt or ready to return to work, and the baby gear has all been passed on. Then there are logistics to figure out: How will everyone fit in the house or the car? There may be stress, guilt, worry. Myrna Fisk, nurse practitioner at Merrymount Children’s Centre in London, Ont. explains, “That disoriented, up-in-the-air feeling is very normal. It’s part of the adjustment process.” There is an emotional journey from that initial “oh-oh” to acceptance, attachment and love.

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When Stacey Shannon* of Salmon Arm, BC, found out she was pregnant with Adam, now four months, she says, “I was two days away from graduating college and moving into our first house. Needless to say, plans changed quickly!” Shannon was worried on several fronts. “My biggest concern was my mom. She had given me thousands of dollars for school and I thought she’d be incredibly disappointed that I was wasting my education — I’d made it clear that when I had kids I was going to be a stay-at-home mom if possible. We delayed announcing our pregnancy for four months.”

*Name changed by request.

She was worried, too, about her baby. “Another concern was fetal alcohol syndrome. We’re not drinkers, but we’d celebrated our house purchase with a few drinks when I was about six weeks along — we didn’t find out I was pregnant until around nine or ten weeks. That really stuck with me.” Fisk explains that in an unexpected pregnancy, it’s common to worry about these issues. “Probably more for the woman than the man, there is a feeling of responsibility that kicks in immediately. She may have thoughts like ‘Oh no, have I had anything to drink? Have I taken medicine? Did I have an X-ray?’”

Of course, it’s ideal to plan and prepare for a pregnancy — to take vitamins, eat well and be extra careful about drinking. We want to provide the best start we can for our babies. But that’s not always how it works out and this can be another source of stress. Fisk explains, “People have storybook ideas about being prepared and planning a pregnancy. But for 90 percent of people it doesn’t happen this way at all, and they just do the best they can once they find out.”

Difficult Feelings

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There are other emotions to work through. Shannon thought about the dreams she had. “I was angry for a long time that I was going to miss out on the fun life we’d planned. Two incomes with no kids — we were going to travel, drive nice cars and do whatever we wanted.” Along with the realization that plans aren’t going to work out, a woman may feel guilty that she wasn’t being cautious enough. Maybe she’s concerned about the effect the pregnancy will have on her family or other children. She may regret that she’s harbouring a bit of anger or resentment at the twist her life has taken. She may worry, too, that her response to the pregnancy isn’t overwhelmingly positive — and that the baby will sense that. Halifax and Kings County midwife Louise McDonald says, “These women need reassurance. It’s good for women to hear that they’re not going to scar these babies because of their feelings.”

Add to the emotional ride the regular symptoms that are part of most pregnancies. Midwife McDonald explains, “The unexpected element adds to those pressures — it can make the physical symptoms that plague women in the first trimester difficult to cope with. You can sort of tolerate things like nausea and vomiting if you’re wanting the baby in the first place, but if you’re not sure, they can really feel intrusive.” Krista Larson understands this: “I had severe morning sickness which I never had before. I think that really clouds your judgment because I wasn’t happy, and then I was so sick I didn’t know how I was going to continue and look after the other kids. I was hardly able to function.”

It was, in a roundabout way, morning sickness (and a kind word from a stranger) that helped Larson begin to see the situation in a different light. “Jim went to pick up my prescription for an anti-nauseant at the drugstore and, knowing what it was for, the pharmacist said, ‘Congratulations!’ Jim came home and told me. And I thought, ‘You know what? It is congratulations! We should be happy about this!’ That really turned it around for both of us. It just took somebody else being happy about it for us to say, ‘This is a good thing.’” From there, Larson began to move on, figuring out the logistics of a family of three kids, rather than two. “We’ve come to terms with it. This is where we are and it will be fine — we’ll manage. All the other stuff will take care of itself. We’ve started to get excited about it and it’s going to be OK.”

Knowing it’s going to be OK makes a huge difference to how a woman feels. She begins to gain confidence that she can find inner resources she wasn’t sure she had. She starts to connect with her baby. Getting to that point is a journey. Along the way she may need extra support from health care providers, her partner, family and friends. Ideally, suggests midwife McDonald, there’s someone in the woman’s life “who is fairly motherly, who can be non-judgmental and listen, and then remind the woman that life goes on.”

Shannon, who’d been concerned about what to expect, found that her mom was a pillar of support. “We sent out a pregnancy announcement email and, to my surprise, my mother was ecstatic — this was her first grandchild and she fell in love with him the second she heard about him. It made such a difference! We talked about pregnancy and motherhood, and I felt like we became equals for the first time.” Fisk suggests that women of the previous generation may be empathetic; “planned” pregnancy is after all a fairly new concept.

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Older children will probably be happy and excited — you may be buoyed by their enthusiasm. A partner who’s onside is a huge plus — like Shannon’s fiancé, Chris. “His excitement really helped me — he was over the moon.” Sometimes, though, a partner may need more time to get used to the situation. He’s not experiencing the symptoms that are driving home the reality of the pregnancy for the woman. He may be preoccupied with the practicalities (or impracticalities) of a baby that wasn’t anticipated.

Lisa Nicholls of South Surrey, BC, mom of Kaylee, almost 13, Emily, six, and Samantha, eight months, relied on her sister and friends during her pregnancy. Nicholls had been hoping for a third child. “My first thought, when I found out, was how happy I was — I couldn’t believe that I was finally going to have the baby I’d been wanting for almost three years.” Husband Rich was not so sure. Nicholls recalls, “I didn’t talk to him much about the baby — I had close family and friends that I confided in. He just came around very slowly…and then about a month before she was due, he started getting excited. When I was in labour, he was very supportive — he was beside me the whole time. When she was delivered, he was instantly in love. Now he constantly marvels at how perfect she is.”

For Katie Hudgins, of Cranbrook, BC, there was no support from a partner. She was 19, single and very worried. It turned out, though, that Hudgins did have emotional and material support. A close friend went to prenatal classes with her and was at the hospital when Alexander, now six months, was born. Her family rallied: “When I told them I was pregnant, my dad went out and bought baby clothes, and my brother picked out paint and furniture for the baby’s room. When I told my mom, the first thing she said was, ‘No matter what, I love you.’” And Hudgins’ community had many places for her to turn. “There was a program called Better Babies — they got a midwife for me, they have drop-ins for pregnant moms. There’s a lending area where I got baby things like a stroller and car seat. And they have all the information you could ever want! It helped me so much!” Despite the unexpected start, Hudgins says she wouldn’t change a lot about the experience. And she has, she adds, “the best baby in the world.”

Time provides some perspective. McDonald explains that many women start to feel better in the second trimester. “When the baby kicks, it reminds them — if they’ve had babies before — of the wonder of that.” Still, there are ups and downs in the third trimester, she adds, “when the mother starts thinking about labour and birth.”

Shannon recalls the turning point in her pregnancy. She went in for an ultrasound at 19 weeks, feeling decidedly ambivalent, and “left completely in love with my little boy — we found out the sex! Before we went home, we stopped at a baby store and bought a pair of little blue socks for him. Something about seeing him on the screen completely changed my perspective. There was a little person in there! That night I felt him kick for the first time, little twitches near my tummy.”

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Over time, the way a pregnancy began — planned down to the day or not — comes to matter less and less. What matters more is how your baby feels in your arms — how perfectly he fits there, how he completes another stage of your life. And how he fills those blue socks. Exactly on time.

If you continue to feel overwhelmed by your unexpected pregnancy, nurse practitioner Myrna Fisk suggests looking for help in your community:

• Talk to your health care provider or ask to speak with a social worker or crisis worker in the health care centre where you’re being cared for. If you have access, speak with a counsellor or therapist.

• Call the public health department and ask about pregnancy support programs.

• Get in touch with agencies that offer pregnancy and birth options to find out what support is available.

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• Connect with any social networks you have, such as faith-based organizations.

• Look for a parenting education program that will help you connect with your baby, such as a prenatal attachment class where you can learn about your baby’s development.