Did you know that one-third of all childbirths in the USA are as a result of unexpected pregnancies[i]? Now: that is not necessarily unexpected with regards to married couples — that’s just unexpected across the entire population so that’s in any relational context. Still, it’s a huge percentage.
Unexpected Pregnancy Woes and Blessings
There is quite a variety of ways unexpected pregnancy can affect a couple: both positive and negative[ii]:
- Reduced mental health (especially for the mother)
- Lower quality relationship with the child
- Lower quality relationship with spouse
- Negative impact on the mother’s career trajectory (having to quit a job or take reduced hours)
However, many couples also experience positive outcomes from the pregnancy such as:
- Increased happiness
- Increased relationship quality
- Increased self-worth and sense of meaning in life
You can see that these outcomes are the opposite of each other. So there are lots of personal and marital factors which can determine whether an unexpected pregnancy becomes a positive or negative. I don’t doubt that in some cases there are also a mixture of positives and negatives. The question becomes: how can we make this a positive?
Transition to Parenthood
If it’s your first, becoming a parent is the start of a major new life role, which will drastically alter your life and your sense of who you are[iii]. This can be difficult even for planned pregnancies, but when the baby is unplanned then this shift in role may be something the couple doesn’t want or feel ready for. Women may, for example, feel like becoming a mother will impact their chances at a career or get in the way of other life goals.
You May Feel “Role Overload”
The unexpected new role of being a parent can also lead to a feeling of “role overload” where the couple feel like they have too many roles to cope with, leading to stress and unhappiness. It’s like you’re juggling all these responsibilities- parent, spouse, bread-winner and so on- and it becomes nearly impossible to balance them all.
A research study from 2009[iv] found that this feeling of role overload mediated the link between unplanned pregnancy and satisfaction with being a parent. So preventing role overload by sharing out the different tasks, or by dropping some of your less important roles for a time, can improve couple’s satisfaction with their new role.
Preparing for Your New Role
If it is the “role overload” that you are particularly feeling, our bonus guide will help step you through all that so that you can begin to break it down into manageable chunks and figure out what will or will not work. It just helps you take the overwhelm and tackle it as a couple. You can get this guide and worksheet by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Preparing yourself mentally and practically for the new parenting role is also essential. A study from 2017[v] found that taking women with unplanned pregnancies through a maternal role training program helped them to accept and find satisfaction in their new role. The program involves practical training on caring for the baby, breastfeeding, and looking after your own health during and after pregnancy.
So learning the skills helps, but there’s an emotional component to readiness too. This training program from the study also included asking the mothers to imagine and role play interacting with their new baby, to help them see themselves in the maternal role. Being able to envision themselves as mothers, as well as learning the practical skills to be good at it enabled these women to take satisfaction and find joy in their roles as mothers[vi].
Pay Attention to Finances
Work and Finances
Unplanned pregnancy can put a strain on finances, due to the mother often needing to quit her job or work less hours. Additional costs around caring for the baby and possibly even needing to move house to accommodate the newborn are also potential problems[vii]. So what does a couple do?
Many couples dealing with an unexpected pregnancy were able to turn to family for support, both in terms of financial help and childcare to allow the mother to return to work. A study from 2017[viii] found that for as many as one-third of women, the unexpected pregnancy did not impact their work life as much as they expected. This was due to being able to use childcare services offered by their workplace, or having family/friends who were able to provide childcare.
This is an example of resourcefulness: yes, there’s maybe an initial period of shock or panic but as you find your way again you can be resourceful and look for ways to effectively face the new challenge.
Part of this comes down your own personal motivation. The same study found that mothers who were strongly motivated to manage both parenthood and their job usually found a way to do so.
Relationship Factors and Pregnancy
Several factors to do with marital quality had an impact on how the couple adjusted to an unexpected pregnancy. These are:[ix]
Prior Relationship Quality
Couples who had a healthy and stable marriage prior to the pregnancy are more likely to cope with the transition to parenthood and remain happy and functional. Couples who were already struggling with conflict or were already in an unstable marriage are likely to find that unexpected pregnancy makes things worse due to the added stress and responsibility of parenthood.
Couples who expect a pregnancy to “fix” a dysfunctional relationship are therefore often disappointing. The lesson here is to address those marriage challenges right away, even if you have just learned you are pregnant.
Lack of Perceived Support
Wives who found that their husbands were unwilling or uninterested in helping raise the baby often suffered the most negative consequences from an unexpected pregnancy. These women often felt trapped and isolated by their circumstances and their mental health and marital quality suffered as a result. As was mentioned in episode 210 on being ready for parenthood, both parents need to fully commit to being involved.
“All about the kids”. Couples who found that their lives suddenly revolved entirely around their newborn child were often unhappy and low in marital satisfaction. Couples who still made some time for each other and prioritized their marriage were happier and better able to manage the demands of parenthood.
The couples who adjusted best to unexpected pregnancy were the ones who could see both the good and bad effects it had on their life trajectory. For example, many couples acknowledged a lack of freedom to pursue their own goals and desires, but many also found that having an unexpected child gave them a new sense of purpose and motivation in life.
Unexpected pregnancy often gave individuals the motivation to make positive life changes, such as cutting out unhealthy habits such as smoking or alcohol abuse. Some couples reported that the pregnancy gave them the motivation to go back to school or college in order to get a good job to support the family[x]. So while it can have negative consequences, unexpected pregnancy can also be the catalyst that creates positive change and growth.
[i] Megan L. Kavanaugh et al., “Parents’ Experience of Unintended Childbearing: A Qualitative Study of Factors That Mitigate or Exacerbate Effects,” Social Science & Medicine 174 (February 1, 2017): 133–41, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.12.024.
[ii] Kavanaugh et al.
[iii] Chris May and Richard Fletcher, “Preparing Fathers for the Transition to Parenthood: Recommendations for the Content of Antenatal Education,” Midwifery 29, no. 5 (May 1, 2013): 474–78, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.midw.2012.03.005.
[iv] Mylène Lachance-Grzela and Geneviève Bouchard, “Marital Status, Pregnancy Planning, and Role Overload: A Mediated-Moderation Model of Parenting Satisfaction,” Journal of Family Psychology: JFP: Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43) 23, no. 5 (October 2009): 739–48, https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016378.
[v] Masoumeh Kordi et al., “The Effect of Maternal Role Training Program on Role Attainment and Maternal Role Satisfaction in Nulliparous Women with Unplanned Pregnancy,” Journal of Education and Health Promotion 6 (August 9, 2017), https://doi.org/10.4103/jehp.jehp_113_15.
[vi] Kordi et al.
[vii] Kavanaugh et al., “Parents’ Experience of Unintended Childbearing.”
[viii] Kavanaugh et al.
[ix] Kavanaugh et al.
[x] Kavanaugh et al.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 18:51 — 17.7MB)
Subscribe: Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | RSS | More