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Unexpected Babies

I think of all of my children as surprise babies. Sam was a surprise because he arrived after a single, spontaneous, "oh, who cares about birth control" afternoon. Henry was a surprise because we thought he'd show up just as easily as his brother had, but instead it took more than two years of concerted effort and medical intervention to coax him here. And Joe was a surprise because I conceived him right away, when we'd been expecting a long, Henry-like wait.

Still, there's a difference between the routine surprise that's inherent in attempts to plan a family and the shock that comes when a pregnancy is truly unexpected. And it's a shock that happens to many couples. According to a report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies reproductive-health issues, at least 1 million married women in the U.S. become pregnant by accident every year.

But when you're in a happy and committed relationship, finding out you're pregnant by surprise doesn't have to be as difficult a situation as it can be under other circumstances. What veteran parents already know -- and new parents find out quickly -- is that each and every baby is a tiny miracle of individuality, and his unplanned conception is just the first of many surprises. Children spend their whole lives astonishing us with their talents, with their likes and dislikes, with their choices, with their very being. Which may be why so many parents refer to their surprise babies as "happy accidents."

"Oops" and "Uh-Oh"

Even so, the first reaction to an unplanned pregnancy is often disbelief. With my first pregnancy, I knew my husband and I had taken a chance when we skipped the condom on that lovely, sun-drenched spring afternoon when the air smelled like cut grass and the world seemed full of possibility. But when the home pregnancy test came back positive, I didn't believe it. I thought I must have misread the directions. Three tests later, I had to admit the truth: I was pregnant.

Like me, Linda of Hoboken, New Jersey, knew she'd taken some real chances with birth control when she went off the Pill at age 35 and played fast and loose with other methods. But she'd gone almost five years without getting pregnant, so a positive pregnancy test at age 40 took her completely by surprise. Her reaction, she says: "total disbelief and utter dismay. Those first few days, I was in such shock that if I'd miscarried, I might've thought it was a good thing."

"We just thought it was too soon to get pregnant again," says Matthew, whose second child, Julianna, was born a few days before their first, Jake, turned 1. "When Mary Kaye was pregnant with Julie and started feeling nauseated, we dismissed it as an illness," says the Roselle Park, New Jersey, dad. "I was literally walking out the door to refill her prescription for the Pill when she suggested I buy a pregnancy test instead."

Because her first two children were conceived after infertility treatments, Pia of Houston never considered that she might be pregnant again at 38. "I wasn't feeling well. I figured I had the flu and that I just couldn't kick it." It was her 10-year-old daughter who finally asked, "Are you sure you aren't pregnant?" Pia was. "How embarrassing," she says with a laugh. "At ten, she got it, but I was clueless."

Fear is also a common reaction. Lisa of San Antonio, Texas, was well aware that she and her husband, Michael, had taken a risk one evening. "We were practicing natural family planning, but one night we slipped." When she took the home pregnancy test on Michael's 24th birthday, Lisa says, "my heart was racing. We'd just gotten married four months before! There was no way we could be pregnant."

When Lisa gave Michael the news (by handing him the pregnancy test, saying, "Happy birthday, Daddy," and then bursting into tears), all she could think about was how they hadn't planned to have children for at least five years. "We sat on the bed, and all of a sudden I had a panic attack," Lisa remembers. "I started rattling off questions like 'How are we going to pay for this baby?' and 'Will we be good parents?' Everything just came spewing out."

Nashville mom Jess learned she was pregnant again when her first child was 6 months old. "I was afraid of everything," Jess remembers. "I was afraid we didn't have enough money, that people would think I was stupid for having another baby so soon. Mainly, though, I was afraid I couldn't handle it. I'd barely learned to be a mom at all. I was afraid I couldn't be a good one to two babies at once."

Moving to Acceptance

Sometimes it takes a while to work up enthusiasm for an unplanned baby. "We didn't have the kind of excitement we felt when we found out about Jake," says Matthew. "It wasn't until the first sonogram, and we saw the baby moving, that the excitement came back."

"It took me a long time to get over the shock," admits Pia about her unexpected third child, "probably up to the last month before delivery. I found myself actually apologizing to friends and family, as if it were taboo to have a third child past the age of thirty-eight."

Linda and her husband, Joel, took even longer to welcome the idea of becoming parents. In fact, true enthusiasm didn't arrive until the baby did. "Even after Anna was born, and I was very happy, for the first few days in the hospital, I was terrified," she says.

Fortunately, a wise doula she'd hired was reassuring and told the new parents they had good instincts. "She also said we had an angel baby," says Linda. "And that was all it took -- an experienced person telling me it was going to be okay, that I'd hit the jackpot. And, of course, by then I'd fallen so in love with my daughter that nothing much mattered after that!"

Counting Blessings

Falling in love with your baby, it turns out, is just one of the unexpected pleasures of an unplanned pregnancy. Among the others:

A larger role for Dad

The surprise of an unexpected baby can inspire a father or father-to-be to rise to the occasion in a way he never expected. Especially when this baby arrives on the heels of a firstborn or after a difficult pregnancy, a dad may have no choice but to roll up his sleeves and pitch in -- and find himself loving it. "Really, there's not as much stress as I expected," says Matthew of having two kids 12 months apart. "As we did with Jake, my wife and I have come to make a great team."

Linda, too, says Joel surprised himself by falling in love with Anna from the first minute. Today, he works nights and takes care of Anna while Linda works during the day.

A closer bond

Although an unexpected pregnancy can strain a struggling relationship, strong partnerships may thrive on the extra love a baby -- even an unplanned one -- brings. Lisa and Michael believe their unborn son has already brought them closer. "We've always been a strong couple, able to face many challenges," she says. "Our baby is our most amazing challenge yet, and we know we'll provide a loving home for him."

She now feels like a different person from the one who burst into tears at the sight of a positive pregnancy test. "Although a few fun trips have been postponed and money's tighter, we couldn't be happier. We have our health, a beautiful baby on the way, a great support network, and each other. How much better can life get?"

Bigger family, greater joy

"It's like my daughter wasn't intended to be, but she came anyway to make our lives richer," says Linda. "So I try that much harder not to take her for granted."

Anna of Homewood, Alabama, already had two young kids when she and her husband made plans to go away for their third anniversary. "In our rush to leave, we forgot the birth control," she says. The consequence -- having a third child before their fourth anniversary -- might have derailed others, but the couple came to realize they actually thrive in the chaos of closely spaced kids.

This sense that everything happens for a reason is a sentiment echoed by many parents of accidental babies. Ginna of Nashville was surprised by a fourth pregnancy. Now, with three grown kids and an 11-year-old, she looks back on her uncertainty about having another child and smiles: "My husband and I spent one night drinking too much wine, but we've spent the rest of our lives giving thanks for it."

Contributing editor Margaret Renkl was a surprise baby to her parents in 1961.