There's a unique terror that comes from realizing there's an uninvited human growing inside your body. I'd never experienced anything quite that scary, and I maybe never will again. My unplanned pregnancy forced me to question everything I thought I knew about myself, about the fairness of the universe, about life in general. It threw me head first into adulthood, ready or not. I was young and unprepared with no guidebook to follow.
How do you cope with having your entire life ripped from your hands? How do you manage the conflicting emotions and shameful thoughts that creep into your mind? What can you expect when you're expecting an unexpected baby?
An unplanned pregnancy can lead to many different routes—abortion, adoption, motherhood. But with my own hindsight perspective, over seven years since my own positive pregnancy test, here's a step-by-step guide to make it through those early weeks and months:
Step 1: Take a pregnancy test and see the exact result you didn't expect to see: positive. POSITIVE?
Step 2: Wake up the next morning and remind yourself it's not a dream. You're actually pregnant. It's true.
Step 3: Take another pregnancy test. Maybe even another. Then meet with your gyno for the undeniable blood test, where you hear the same haunting word: positive.
Step 4: Feel whatever you're feeling. Feel the fear, disappointment, excitement, sheer terror and the way they co-mingle and shift. Feel the anger, the numbness. Just feel the feelings without judging them as bad or wrong. Whatever you're feeling, someone else has felt it. I probably have, actually, because my initial feelings toward pregnancy were wide ranging.
Step 5: Think whatever you're thinking, even the stuff you'd never say out loud. I thought some dark thoughts, too. They weren't true; I don't feel them today. My son never felt them. Your feelings in this moment have no baring on the kind of person you are or the kind of mother you'll be. They're just feelings and thoughts. But they're happening, and so acknowledging and just feeling them is probably the best way to get through them. Change is scary, as is responsibility and body changes and flipping labor. You didn't sign up for labor. You didn't agree to that kind of life-rocking experience, but it's coming. The loss of control is scary, too. Be easy on yourself; this is a lot to digest.
Step 6: Find a moment away from the chaotic thoughts and conversations and reactions; just sit down and be quiet. Ask yourself what you want. Listen to the answers without jumping to conclusions. What do you want? Why do you want that?
Step 7: Try looking at it from an objective point of view: If this were happening to your sister or best friend, what would tell her to do? How would you console her? I knew from the get-go that I wanted to have this child, even though the timing was terrible. I can't tell you what decision to make.
Step 8: Develop a coping strategy for the dark stuff. Mine was denial. I couldn't face the loss and fear and sadness, so I ignored them. I remember thinking, "What kind of mother would have these thoughts?" I worried he could absorb my sadness. So I tidied those feelings away and shined up the unpleasant thoughts with a heavy dose of denial.
I went through the motions and did what I had to do, but along the way, a part of me thought I'd lose the baby.
Author Melody Beattie calls denial "the shock absorber for the soul," which is so on point. I didn't deny the pregnancy completely—I was extremely careful with prenatal care and exercising ; I even signed up for week-by-week email blasts that compared my fetus to the size of produce. But in hindsight, I was definitely in denial. Like how I refused to buy maternity clothes, opting to stretch out my pre-baby wardrobe. (Denial.) Or how I avoided registering for baby shower gifts until the very end. (Denial.) I went through the motions and did what I had to do, but along the way, a part of me thought I'd lose the baby. Or that I'd have some kind of medical condition that seemed like pregnancy but wasn't. In fact I remember sitting with the baby shower gifts piled in my living room, after the fanfare died down and it was just me and my boyfriend and this stuff. And I thought, "What am I going to do with these gifts when we don't have the baby?" It was a fleeting thought; I never said it out loud. But it was my denial showing.
Step 9: Try out some healthier coping strategies. It might help to write out those darker thoughts and feelings, just to get them out of your head. Relax; it doesn't need to be in a formal journal that you'll pass down to your children. No one needs to read it, ever. Just write.
Step 10: Burn the writing. Watch the thoughts turn to smoke and fade away.
Step 11: Find someone to talk to—a therapist, life coach, close relative, someone. Heck, you can even email me; I'll chat with you.
Step 12: Ask yourself: If my life were a book or movie, and I were watching it play out as an observer, what would my character do next? What's the next chapter?
Step 13: Ask yourself: Am I motivated by love or fear? (It's probably both, in different areas, but it's good to acknowledge where they are.) Are you motivated by love for yourself or fear of losing yourself? Are you making this decision out of love for your partner, or fear of what people will think of you? When you identify where the love and the fear actually exist, it's easier to analyze the motivations.
Step 14: Repeat Step 6 with a little less anger and fear. Explore your options. You already know what you want to do; trust your gut. I decided to keep my pregnancy because anything else was impossible, quite frankly. But I can't tell you what to decide; repeat steps as necessary. If you decide to keep your pregnancy, move ahead.
My love is real; not the fear.
Step 15: If you prefer the shiny allure of denial, you might do as I did: Barrel through the pregnancy and do the best you can with a tiny "This isn't really happening" voice nagging in the background. But be warned, you might find yourself watching your child come out of your body and think, after 21 grueling hours of labor, "Huh. There really was a baby in there. Look at that!" (It all worked out fine, and there hasn't been a minute of my boy's life when he hasn't felt my love, no matter my prenatal mental states. Because my love is real; not the fear.)
Step 16: Take some pregnant selfies or monthly stomach progression photos. Keep a pregnancy journal (again, just for you). Document the experience, even if you'd never want to post them to social media or publish them on a blog. One day you'll be grateful for the documentation. It's a huge experience, and the magnitude only increases as you get further away. You'll want to remember it, even if some days it still feels like a crazy dream.
Step 17: If your coping strategy is more self-destructive—like you're avoiding taking care of the baby or you—that doesn't mean you're a terrible person; it probably means you're really f*cking depressed. See Steps 4 - 8 and find help.
Step 18: Take time to grieve your former life. Mourn the inevitable losses. This isn't a step that ever ends—none of these steps are neat-and-tidy stepping stones. At many steps along the way, you'll realize loss is intertwined with change. It's OK to be excited about being a mother and having a baby, and also really angry that things aren't turning out the way you originally planned. Being scared of losing your identity—your sense of self—doesn't automatically mean you're going to resent your kid forever. Letting go of dreams and plans and friends is really difficult; mourn the losses. Keep chugging ahead.
Step 19: Start a gratitude practice. Come up with three life lessons from this unexpected pregnancy. Find small reasons to be thankful. This isn't always easy or fun—it's way easier to mope around and come up with worst-case scenarios—but it's an important step. Gratitude is healing.
Step 20: Continue to take care of yourself. Find the bright spots. Don't feel guilty for your happiness and excitement; you deserve it.
Step 21: Meet your baby and start your life. Congratulations. It's only beginning, and it will all be OK.
I'm not saying your life will be blissful and easy and better because you went ahead and had this child; that's not reality. I think we can make a lot of choices in life and still be happy, and choosing to have a child is huge and scary; it asks everything of us. But I do know—just from getting through my own shocking unplanned pregnancy—how this can change you. It will change you; that's what big monumental life experiences do. Change is scary, even when you think that change might be really great, and deep parts of yourself are coursing with a nervous kind of excitement. You'll never regret it; trust me.
After my unplanned pregnancy, I became a new person with a wider perspective. I matured, not just because I'm older now or because I birthed a child. It's because I went through the experience of being terrified and sure my life was about to end, only to see it turn into something I never could have perceived. Everything was always going to be fine, I just didn't know it. And now I have this boy—a beautiful beacon of light-filtered love—who reminds me every single day that I don't always know what's best for future me and that unplanned changes are often the most important.