Marriage is the on going adventure of getting to know someone. No matter how much you think you know, there's always something new to learn. And although job changes, financial issues, or family dynamics provide great lessons, a couple's greatest growing opportunity often comes delivered by the stork.
Anticipation and preparation usually help provide a smooth adjustment into parenthood. But for some couples, becoming Mom and Dad is unexpected, and even traumatic. How can spouses reinforce their "oneness" when surprised by a situation that redefines who they are?
MP interviewed three couples in three different stages of married life: newlywed, married with young children, and married with teenagers. We asked them to share the secrets of how they dealt with unexpected pregnancy.
Jamie and Eric met as freshman in college and were married after their sophomore year. Working full-time and planning to complete their degrees, their lives were full, and they enjoyed their togetherness. The only thing they hadn't planned for was a baby.
How did you feel when you learned you were pregnant?
Jamie: We had been married only four months when I found out I was pregnant. I was really excited, but anxious at the same time. I wasn't sure if I wanted to tell Eric right away, but I couldn't keep it from him. When I told him, his first words to me were, "You're not joking, are you?" He sounded very serious, but then he said, "That's great!" Then we went to celebrate over fries and shakes. It meant so much to me that Eric responded positively.
Eric: Although I was surprised, I knew that Jamie would remember whatever I said. Before we got married, we had talked about the importance of being supportive at a time like this, since it would be an emotional time for both of us. I promised myself that when it came, no matter what mood I was in, I was going to say something nice.
You mentioned that you were excited, but anxious too. What were some of the anxieties that you had?
Jamie: There were many lifestyle changes that we knew were coming. I had just started going to a gym and running five miles each day. The changes that would come from growing bigger weren't very appealing. I was also about to go back to school and finish up my degree. I knew that there were many things I'd be giving up now that I was pregnant.
Eric: Since we hadn't thought about this kind of situation beforehand, there was a lot of financial anxiety. As newlyweds, it was just the two of us, working full-time jobs. We had plenty of money. Suddenly, all our fixed costs went up, and the extra money was spent on necessities. It was tough enough to figure out our finances after we got married, and we knew it would only be harder with a child.
So, how did you deal with all these new issues that suddenly came up?
Jamie: We had to work out a new way to make our schooling and job plans work in our new situation. Before, we had decided that I would start school while Eric worked. Then we'd switch. But with the baby on the way, that had to be rearranged. There were sacrifices that we both made.
Eric: Looking back, I think we should have left more room in our lives for something unexpected like this to happen. Things might have gone smoother if we had another plan as back-up.
You both seemed to take the news pretty well, and you started to make adjustments to it. But how did your family members react to your situation?
Eric: There was some congratulations and support offered, but there was a lot of criticism too. We received criticism for getting married too early, for becoming parents, and for making a decision to move.
Jamie: Since my mother had just had a baby five years earlier, she offered a lot of help and support. She would tell me about procedures, and the information she had was current. It was great to be able to talk to her. But when I tried to talk to other members who weren't as supportive, I got some harsh remarks.
How did these reactions from family members affect you?
Eric: The responses generated a lot of stress. The criticism was very irritating to me. But we had learned from past experiences not to let those reactions sway our perceptions. Instead, we stuck together in making plans and decisions.
Jamie: Since the pregnancy didn't affect family members' lives in the same way it did ours, I expected congratulations from them. The unexpected criticisms brought me to tears. In retrospect, though, Eric's words of support stand out as the most important ones. When others said negative things, he was right there to say, "We're doing the right thing, and our baby's a blessing." Because we supported each other, the tensions we faced actually brought us closer.
Newlyweds face a difficult period of adjustment. How was your marriage impacted by becoming parents at the same time?
Jamie: We were faced with the challenge of becoming what we wanted our child to learn, since we knew that our actions would speak louder than our words. When we started working through these issues, the pregnancy pushed us, as a couple, to become more mature.
Eric: Preparing for a baby steadied our marriage a lot. We made a commitment to work through issues that came up, because we wanted to get our act together. We never looked at the situation as though it was the end of the world. Instead, we've always considered it a blessing.
So, what did you do to start getting ready for parenthood?
Jamie: We worked very hard during our first year to be honest with each other. We tried to make sure that everything in our lives was completely open to each other. It was hard work, but it laid a foundation of trust in our relationship and helped remove a lot of tensions. Also, we trusted that even if it wasn't ours, the timing was perfect because it was God's timing.
Eric: We spent a lot of time together during our first year, and that made a big difference. Since we didn't have a lot of money for entertainment, we'd buy books and read aloud to each other. Spending time to connect gave us the strong sense of togetherness that we needed. There are no regrets when it comes to our baby. He got us going to where we are now.
Dave and Jana are not newcomers to parenthood. With a two- and a four-year old, crying and cooing are common enough. But in light of Dave's recent decision to leave his job and launch a new business, expecting a baby would be a totally new experience.
You're familiar with the dynamics of being married and being parents. But how did this unplanned pregnancy impact you?
Jana: We went through infertility treatments for our first two children, and we decided that we wouldn't go through that again. Although we left the possibility of having a third child open, as time passed, we came to the conclusion that we probably wouldn't have any more. So mentally, we had shut that door. When I confirmed that I was pregnant, there were mixed emotions of excitement and anxiety. But overall, it was shocking.
Dave: It was just so different from the first two, since we had tried so hard for each of them. Also, just before we found out, I had made a decision to leave my job and launch a new business. We were looking at a year with no salary, and we have so many other responsibilities. It wasn't that we were devastated by the pregnancy, but because of the challenging circumstances, there was just a lack of enthusiasm about it.
In adjusting to a third child, what are some of your concerns for your family?
Jana: When I was pregnant with our second child, I was overwhelmed with concern about how our first would make the adjustment. He was two and a half, and he quickly realized he was no longer the baby. Now I worry about that with our daughter. Although the oldest was very excited about the news, our second keeps reminding us that she's the baby. Also, since I grew up in a family of two, the dynamics of three will be a new challenge for me.
Dave: We don't know what our lives will be like after the baby comes. We'll have to make the adjustments as we go. Right now, Jana works part-time as a family practice nurse, and she enjoys her relationships with patients and peers. After the baby comes, we may find that she's unable to work outside of the house as much as she does now.
You're already juggling so many things right now. What concerns do you have for your marriage in light of these?
Jana: Some of the hard part of being pregnant at this time is knowing that we're headed for an intense time with two young children and a newborn, and that means little sleep. It scares me to think of how that lack of energy may affect my interactions with my husband and children.
Dave: We've learned that when things get tough, we have to first deal with ourselves, and not project our issues onto each other. We're quick to own up to our failures to each other and quick to forgive. Our verbal discipline is critical since the patterns we established before these intense moments are the ones we will default to as times get tougher.
As you anticipate the struggles that may come, how will you keep your marriage healthy?
Jana: We'd like to be faithful to having a date night. When we had one child, we had plenty of time to spend alone together each night. With a second, things got more complicated. The past two years have not been ideal as far as the time we've been able to spend together. We realize now that to help us deal with having three children, we'll have to be intentional about setting time aside for ourselves.
Dave: There are also some basics that we've learned that we'll continue to draw on as our family grows. Dealing with anger and stress together is one of those basics we've worked on. We also remind each other of a valuable message we learned at a conference: "My spouse is not my enemy." When things grow more intense, we'll need to remind each other more often, but it's a message that has to be forefront in our dealings with each other.
How does your faith impact your view on this situation?
Jana: We left the possibility of having a third child in the Lord's hands. And when I remind myself of that in times of stress, I feel relieved. When you consider starting a new business, having no income, and having a baby all at the same time, it seems like an impossible situation to deal with. But the timing is all right because it's God's timing. Although I'm not sure how it will affect our marriage, I have peace that God is in control over it.
Dave: Together, we're learning the great spiritual lesson that we are not in control of our own lives. Instead, we are learning to walk side by side in each moment.
It had been 12 years since they last changed a diaper. Enjoying a care-free life with two teenaged girls, Brenda and Chuck were surprised by their late re-entry into parenthood.
How did you react when you learned that a baby was on its way?
Brenda: With denial. I had the symptoms of being pregnant that I recognized from having had children. But I didn't even want to consider the possibility that I could be pregnant. Instead, I tried to find other reasons for the symptoms.
Chuck: When we got the news, it was really hard to believe. It's not that we were opposed to having a third, but when twelve years passed after our last child, we put it out of our minds that it was ever going to happen. We just weren't planing on having any more.
So, what steps did you take to help you adjust to being pregnant?
Brenda: Before we rushed into dealing with outside pressures, such as how our parents and family would react, we decided to prepare ourselves first. We agreed that we weren't going to tell anyone else until we were okay with the situation. We knew that we had to deal individually with the changes that were soon to come, and we trusted that God would make it okay for us.
Chuck: It didn't take very long for us to feel at peace about being pregnant again. We sat and talked for about an hour and a half together. We also decided to make sure everything was all right with the pregnancy before we shared the news. After a couple days, we were ready to face the challenges together.
What were some of those challenges and pressures that you were anticipating?
Brenda: There were certainly financial concerns. Since I had gotten rid of a lot of things in a yard sale, we had to start over with getting the baby necessities. Also, with our daughters in their early teens, we did a lot of things together. I knew that a baby would drastically change that. But we were blessed to have the support of our daughters throughout. It was a positive thing that they were so excited about it.
Chuck: The transition we would have to make from our established lifestyle to a new one was a major concern. Our daughters were 14 and 12, and we camped, vacationed, and had very relaxed schedules. We knew that would have to come to a halt, at least for some time. It took me a little while to adjust to the idea that we'd need to get into some tight schedules again.
How did your marriage of 17 years influence the way you dealt with parenthood this time?
Chuck: Since we were older and had already experienced the dynamics of becoming parents, we felt more prepared for a baby. We didn't have to wonder about what would come next in the whole process. Also, God knew we needed to be more mature in order to raise a son, because it's a different process than raising girls. In this situation, we witnessed again that God really knew what was best for us.
Brenda: We were at a point where we could realize all the things that God had seen us through, and we were ready to trust him again. We had also learned that, in almost anything in life, how you perceive a situation often has a lot to do with how it turns out. We decided that this was a positive situation, and we dealt with it that way.
You've weathered the many issues that come up when parenting children. But how did this pregnancy affect your relationship?
Brenda: We learned that after you have children, you can't be as spontaneous as you once were, so you've got to be more intentional about it. Since we had an unexpected baby, it was even more important for us to plan time for each other because there was the added disruption in our lifestyle. But because of the many changes that were taking place, we didn't date as intentionally as we should have. One of our weaknesses was in living our lives reactively rather than with planning at the time.
Chuck: But even with all the pressures and adjustments of having a baby, the blessings far outweighed the hard issues. Having a baby made us feel younger. Together, we had to focus on the task at hand. Instead of just thinking of our immediate, personal plans, we had to refocus on what we needed to do for the next twenty years. Our marriage became more youthful than it would have been otherwise.
What couples can do to prepare
Randy Christian, a Licensed Professional Counselor with a Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Seminary in Family Ministry, has been serving for 12 years as Pastor of Adult Education and Family Ministry in Beaverton, Oregon. Dr. Christian offers these words of counsel to the couple facing unplanned pregnancy.
How can an unexpected pregnancy affect a marriage?
Any pregnancy will seriously impact a marriage. A surprise pregnancy, which is very common even in our days of birth control, has the same potential impact, but has the added element of shock or crisis. Since it's not planned for or anticipated, there may be little to no preparation made, financially, relationally, or otherwise.
Couples respond to this situation in a variety of ways. Among the more common reactions are euphoria, depression, intensification of relationship patterns (positive or negative), and increased awareness of responsibility.
What issues will a couple face when surprised by pregnancy?
There are innumerable pressures that arise, such as finances, time, physical changes in the wife, safety issues, and practical issues like preparing a nursery. Relational issues can also create tensions. With increased attention on the pregnancy, there may be a decrease in time spent together, as well as a decrease in sexual relations. These issues can progress into jealousy problems that, although common, are very hard to deal with.
For those who already have children, time and energy pressures can increase exponentially. The couple not only faces the challenge of preparing for a newborn, but they also have to take into account the needs of children that are already there.
On the positive side, pregnancy can be a very positive time of bonding and growth.
What are some effective ways to respond to a spouse when you're in this situation?
Since this is a highly individualized situation, this is best answered by the spouse. Ask each other about feelings, dreams, thoughts, and fears. Even if a couple hasn't been communicative before, if they are willing, their pregnancy could provide the motivation for them to begin.
Beware of generalizations about men and women during this time. They are frequently wrong. Remember, you didn't marry "women," you married this woman. The question is "what is she experiencing?" If she is experiencing it, it doesn't matter if no other woman does.
Again, your attitude toward each other is important: this is about us. Avoid becoming engrossed in your own feelings. Your spouse has feelings too, and they're probably different from yours. Before deciding what's best for your spouse, listen to him, talk to him, and make adjustments together.
What steps can a couple take to strengthen their marriage?
Communicate, communicate, communicate, love, communicate, love, communicate. Couples that practice effective communication and conflict resolution are more likely to keep their marriages healthy during this time of adjustment. If a couple is not able to handle their specific issues, they should seek help from friends, ministers, or counselors.
Adjust your attitude: "we are having a baby." While a wife experiences physical pressures, both will experience emotional, spiritual, and relational pressures. Although the couple may be able to handle some of these issues alone, one of the biggest mistakes they can make is to assume they can meet all of each other's needs. At times, a couples' shared tension may be relieved by looking to someone who isn't going through it.
Build relationships. Joining together with other couples who are expecting, as well as with those who have had children, will enable a couple to learn more, receive encouragement, and help alleviate fears. Also, prepare by reading, attending classes, and visiting the doctor together.
Pray for and with each other, and the baby, immediately. Take very seriously Paul's admonitions to pray continually and to cast all concerns on God (Ephesians 6:18). Establishing and strengthening patterns of worship can help prevent a couple from becoming victims of the extra pressures they face.
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