Beth Ryan's twins were 4 months old when she began to think that maybe her irregular menstrual cycle and nausea could be from more than exhaustion.
But when a pregnancy test instantly popped up positive, she refused to believe it. After taking a second test that rapidly displayed positive as well, Ryan yelled down to her husband that she was pregnant. His response: "No way."
Two weeks later, the Mokena mom went for an ultrasound. As soon as the technician put the Doppler on her belly, she saw two hearts beating. "I saw it right away and I sat up and screamed," Ryan remembers.
More than 49 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, and while many people think of this as a teen problem, it's just as prevalent for women who are married or in a committed relationship, according to the Guttmacher Institute in New York. And in spite of being married, women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, especially when their first child is still an infant, can feel dismay, resentment and guilt.
"One of the most common reactions is, this is not coming on time or it's interrupting their life plans or their long-term fantasy of what their family would look like," says Dr. Nehama Dresner, a psychiatrist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and an expert in the area of women's mental health. Many moms may fear that this unplanned pregnancy is going to rob them of their life.
Moms also feel guilty about robbing the baby they already have of their attention, she says. "It brings feelings of guilt and sadness about not being able to move into the next stage of motherhood with the current baby as they would like," Dresner says.
Victoria Stein-Ziemba of Chicago found out she was pregnant with her third when her first child was not quite 3 years and the baby was 9 months old. "I could not believe it. I was actually kind of upset, but I had to deal with it and accept it," she says. "I came to terms with it pretty quick. … There was nothing I could do. I wasn't going to abort him."
For some moms, this can be a challenging time, Dresner says. "A couple has to work hard to make a decision about the pregnancy and then focus, not so much on the pregnancy, but on what you need to accomplish between now and the delivery."
Some moms also worry that somehow their unborn child will pick up on their feelings of ambivalence and resentment. They may worry that they won't love this new baby as much as the one they already have, says Dresner. But ambivalence is normal in any pregnancy, even those that are planned, as women begin to wonder if they're really ready for a life filled with pacifiers on the floor and car seats in minivans.
"I had myself in the mind frame that the boys were old enough now, I could go to the pool in the summer, I can handle taking them wherever and not have to worry about them," says Shannon Johnson of Des Plaines, whose children are 3 1/2 and 18 months, with a third due in November. "When I found out I was pregnant, it was like, well there goes that idea. Good thing we have our own little pool and sprinkler in the backyard."
Acknowledging your feelings, no matter what they may be, and addressing those feelings is the first step in dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, Dresner says. The next step is figuring out how to preserve those things that are important in terms of a mom's personal identity, whether it's a job or a once-a-week date with their spouse.
"Think about something that you want to keep doing; it exerts a sense of control over your circumstances," Dresner advises.
Stein-Ziemba was training for a three-day breast cancer walk when she realized she was pregnant. After years of up and down weight, she had gotten into a routine of training and feeling good about herself. Now that was all about to change.
In spite of her feelings of guilt, Stein-Ziemba decided she wanted to continue working out even after baby number three came along. She reasoned that the one hour her children spend in day care at the Y while she works out is well worth the benefits she gets from carving out some time for herself.
The more women can hang on to what's important to them, even if it means calling in reinforcements or hiring a sitter so they can spend some one-on-one time with the older child-or alone-the easier things will be.
"If we can inject some predictability into a woman's life and some control over the situation, that's going to help," Dresner says.
It also helps to look at the long-term picture, which is rarely as bleak as things seem at first. "For instance, in three years from now, I'll have a 3-year-old and 4-year-old, which will be great," Dresner says. "Siblings who are close in age are often closer than those far apart. They can play together and stimulate each other."
And ultimately most women realize they can survive this surprise visitor, who promises to turn their lives upside down again.
Johnson reminds herself it's all about taking life one day at a time. "I know it can be stressful, but just breathe. I honestly have to remind myself to do that numerous times during the day."
Liz DeCarlo is the senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.