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Emotional Responses to an Unplanned Pregnancy

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Emotional Responses to an Unplanned Pregnancy

Nov 30, 2022

About half of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. Not every pregnancy journey is the same, and with the spectrum of an unplanned pregnancy comes a spectrum of different reactions and emotions. Women's health expert Kirtly Jones, MD, talks with Jamie Hales, LCSW, clinical manager for Huntsman Mental Health Institute, about what it can mean to have an unplanned pregnancy, the emotional responses it can create, and the resources available.

If your pregnancy journey is not going the way you expected, it is encouraged to not hesitate to seek professional and medical help.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Jones: Your period is late and you got the test and you're pretty sure it says that it's positive, but this pregnancy wasn't planned. What are you thinking about and how do you feel?

Well, it turns out that in the United States and around the world, about half of pregnancies are unplanned. Unplanned meaning you weren't thinking about having a baby next month, it wasn't exactly on time, but unplanned usually means that you weren't planning on having a baby any time in the immediate future.

In the unplanned category, of these 50% of pregnancies that are unplanned, about half of them are mistimed. You might say that. A woman would say that she was planning on having a baby sometime, but just not right now.

And about half of those unplanned pregnancies are unwanted, meaning the woman when asked in interviews . . . And these interviews are done nationally about every five to six years through the National Survey of Family Growth and many other organizations who try to get a better understanding of this issue. In that spectrum of unplanned pregnancies comes a spectrum of different emotions.

In the virtual Scope studio today is Jamie Hales. And Jamie is a clinical manager at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. She's here as a social worker to help us kind of think about what are the emotional responses to an unplanned pregnancy. So thank you for being in the studio, the virtual studio with us, Jamie.

Jamie: Thank you. I appreciate you having me.

Dr. Jones: So I'll give you a little bit of my background. I'm a reproductive endocrinologist and an infertility specialist. So, clearly, the unplanned pregnancy among my infertility patients is one that's met with often surprise and joy. But I'm also a family planning specialist and I've been an abortion provider for pregnancy termination.

And the spectrum of emotions is huge in terms of people who come and are faced with a pregnancy that they either didn't want now or didn't want ever. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience and what you've seen?

Jamie: I would completely echo that experience. What I most often see in my practice is more when somebody has had an unexpected pregnancy, it's a happy thing. They're excited about it. But I 100% see people where that is the exact opposite experience.

Sometimes our society, the idea is that, as a woman, you're supposed to be extremely excited about this new journey and chapter in your life. It isn't always that way for everybody, and that's not a bad thing.

And I think something that's really important when you're working with people who are childbearing age is to be as open-minded as possible about this because not everybody's pregnancy journey is the same. There is variation all over the place, and I think it can be hard sometimes for people to admit that, "Yeah, this is something that I'm really struggling with."

Dr. Jones: We go down this pathway of healthy baby, healthy mommy, and we don't spend a little time and say, "Why don't you tell me how you're feeling about this?"

Quite frankly, I'm a mother and a grandmother, and I planned my pregnancy down to the minute, but I was ambivalent. Even though it was highly planned, I was ambivalent thinking, "My life will never be the same." And there was a little bit of worry and grieving about that, even in a very planned pregnancy.

I think it's a matter of recognizing that it's an emotional rollercoaster. First of all, your hormones are different. You are now in a potentially new social domain going forward. You will now be a new person, if you choose to continue the pregnancy, called a mother. And then there's your own emotional makeup and you don't want to do that.

Listen with an open heart. I don't know how to put that in any other way. It's rare to have someone who's so neutral that they've got nothing going on. I worry if I see that.

Jamie: That's a very good point. I think being completely neutral about your pregnancy probably is more of a red flag than having some strong feelings about it either direction.

And those feelings can change, right? One day you may be feeling absolutely fantastic about it, and then there may be other days where that is not the case. And ultimately, it isn't up to the people around you to decide what the normal range of emotion is. That's up to you.

It can be a very fraught topic, but it's also one that I think is very important for us to discuss because this is another one of those situations where you might be out there experiencing some of these thoughts and feelings and think, "Wow, I'm the only one that's dealing with this right now," or, "I don't want to say anything because nobody is going to understand." And it is much more common than I think people realize. 

Dr. Jones: So how do we begin to help women negotiate how they're feeling and what they're planning on doing, figure out what are the resources available to them?

Jamie: Resource-wise, there are a couple of groups that are done online through Postpartum Support International. They have a virtual group for medical termination and also one for post-termination support, even if it wasn't for medical reasons.

So there are really good resources out there, and I think it's important to speak up if it's something that you're struggling with.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, we're not the ones that have to make really tough choices around this. And what the person wants and how they're feeling about it absolutely comes ahead of what any of the rest of us may or may not think about that pregnancy.

If you're going to therapy, that's a really great safe space, I think, a lot of the time to bring up complicated feelings about stuff because it's confidential.

And not everybody in your life may agree one way or the other with your choice whether to continue, not continue, the fact that it happened in the first place.

There are a lot of factors that go into unplanned pregnancies. There's a change in identity. Everyone, I think, comes at it with a different background, a different degree of support and resources.

Dr. Jones: Right. And most women struggle in the sense that they are making a decision thoughtfully, and when they finally make their decision, they're usually pretty sure. But on the way, it's giving them the information that they need so that they can feel that the next 60 years of their life one way or the other is written in a way that they can feel comfortable and move ahead.

I want to thank you so much for joining us. And for everyone who's been listening, thank you for joining us on the "7 Domains."