“Surprise” baby on the way? Here’s how to prepare yourself and your family for an unplanned pregnancy
Maybe you thought you were done having kids, or maybe you got pregnant with your first child sooner than you originally planned. Regardless of the scenario, that positive pregnancy test result can feel shocking.
For women who already have one or more children, finding out they are pregnant again can trigger a mix of joy, shock and worry as they think about how their current family dynamics may shift. How will a partner or children handle the news? What other factors, such as finances, career and living space, might have to change?
Just because you didn’t plan to have a baby doesn’t necessarily mean your pregnancy is unwanted — it’s just a surprise. And the news of this unplanned pregnancy may bring a wider range of emotions, including panic, anger, disappointment, joy or sadness. You may even feel more complicated emotions, such as embarrassment or isolation. Just remember that you aren’t alone. Approximately 45% of pregnancies in the United States are unintended among women and girls ages 15 to 44.1 Solidarity with others may help you get grounded, but how can you cope with everything you’re feeling? And how can you help your family — including your partner and kids — navigate this surprise, too?
How to adjust to an unplanned pregnancy
Talk to your doctor
As with all pregnancies, after you get a positive pregnancy test result at home, you should contact your doctor, who will confirm the result, discuss options and help you make a plan to move forward.
Depending on how old you are, that initial check-in with your doctor is especially important. In some cases, a pregnancy may be a surprise simply because of a woman’s age. Women who get pregnant later in life — into their mid-30s and 40s — have a higher risk of complications, for both the mother and the fetus.2 Your doctor will consider any existing health conditions when they provide guidance and may also recommend prenatal screenings and diagnostic tests for potential genetic disorders.2
Finding emotional, mental and physical support is key in navigating this time of uncertainty. Speaking with a trusted doctor, therapist, friend or mentor can rally your support group to help meet your needs.
Process your emotions
During the swirl of health check-ups, try to pause and give yourself time to adjust to your new reality. There’s a common belief that mothers-to-be should be joyful in their pregnancy, but that’s not always the case. Allow yourself to process the shock and all the feelings that come after it. Find helpful and healthy ways to channel your emotions. That could look like writing in a journal, taking a day for self-care or venting to a friend. It could also look like screaming into a pillow or just letting yourself cry. If you don’t bottle up your feelings, odds are you’ll be in a better mindset to put a plan in place.
Whatever way you process, make a list of your strengths as a caregiver and parent-to-be. During any moments of panic or doubt, this list will serve as a reassuring reminder of all the ways in which you are confident and capable.
Make a pregnancy plan
If going into problem-solving mode is your default response to the unexpected, you might’ve already started making a to-do list as soon as you got your result. If not, making a plan can help you feel more prepared for what’s to come. Here are some things to consider sooner rather than later:
- Health: Your doctor can help you create a schedule for any check-ups or tests needed during your pregnancy. Taking care of yourself and your baby is your top priority.
- Finances: Have the money talk, either with your partner or with yourself. Assess your current finances and get specific on what you may need to change to accommodate a new baby in your household
- Logistics: Will you need a bigger place right away? Or could you stay in your current space until the baby gets older? Will you need a different car to fit a new car seat? Do you have support or childcare assistance nearby? Will you be able to take time off work? Questions like these are some of the biggest sources of worry when a baby is on the way. Strategize early, if possible.
It’s easy to get distracted by cute baby clothes or painting nursery walls, but try to minimize your tasks to the essentials to avoid getting overwhelmed. The same advice applies for both new parents and those who have kids. Keeping your to-do list (and shopping list) minimal will help preserve your sanity.
If changes need to happen, know that they likely aren’t needed right now. Take the time to crunch the numbers, come up with a backup plan and consult friends or family for guidance as needed. And even though it’s easier said than done, try to stay flexible!
Give your family time to adjust
While it’s crucial to give yourself time to adjust, your family will need the same thing. Your partner’s reaction might be complex, just like yours. If their immediate reaction to your positive pregnancy test isn’t what you expected, extend empathy toward what they might be going through. Make quality alone time a priority so you can connect and really listen to each other.
Unlike adults, children don’t often have developed processing skills, so your kids might not have the words to express how they’re feeling. They might have been ecstatic when you shared the news, only to become sullen or sulky in the time since. If your kids are older, they might feel uncomfortable or unsure of what emotions they should be feeling in the first place.
Like the adults in the household, give kids grace for any unforeseen emotions. They might be even more resistant to change. Make time for doing your favorite activities with your kids so they are reassured of your love, especially during this new chapter. Be honest with your kids about what’s happening, and prepare them for what’s to come in language they understand. Get them involved in the fun parts of planning for the baby’s arrival. Have them write notes to their new sibling, ask them to weigh in on nursery décor or invite them to help with baby-related tasks (like designing a big-sibling T-shirt or a poster to hang over the crib).
Preparing for an unplanned pregnancy can be daunting and turbulent, but there are still moments of joy, excitement and anticipation to be found. It’s easy to get lost in the rush, but taking the time to meet the needs of yourself and your family is worth it.
- Finer, L. B., & Zolna, M. R. (2016). Declines in Unintended Pregnancy in the United States, 2008-2011. The New England journal of medicine, 374(9), 843–852. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMsa1506575
- “Having a Baby After Age 35: How Aging Affects Fertility and Pregnancy,” (December 2021), The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/having-a-baby-after-age-35-how-aging-affects-fertility-and-pregnancy