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  • Some women's pregnancies can't be accurately described as "intended" or "unintended." Tweet This
  • Emotional reactions to a pregnancy don't necessarily correspond to whether it was planned. Tweet This

Alex was 19 when she got pregnant with her daughter. She had been in a relationship with the father for about three weeks when they got drunk at a friend’s house and had an “oopsie!” moment. Alex says she ideally would have been engaged or married before having a baby, but that she tends to “do everything backwards.”

She and her boyfriend had already talked about how they both wanted a baby. He knew Alex wasn’t on birth control. “We didn’t say we were going to do it right away, it just kind of happened right away,” Alex says.

Alex’s pregnancy was not “intended”—deliberately planned—but neither was it exactly “unintended.” As her best friend put it when talking about her own first pregnancy, it was “planned but not planned.” When it came to pregnancy, Alex was ambivalent.

In light of situations like these, scholars acknowledge that pregnancy intention is not so much binary as it is a continuum and that measuring where couples fall on the continuum can be complicated, in part because “women and couples have a complex mix of traits, desires and intentions resulting in a spectrum of behaviors aimed at preventing or achieving pregnancy that go beyond simply practicing or not practicing contraception.”

In my own interviews with poor and working-class young adults in Ohio I found this to be true. Among the 22 unmarried, high-school-educated women I interviewed, who had a combined total of 36 pregnancies, 55 percent of pregnancies were unintended. (For the sake of comparison, 49 percent of all pregnancies nationwide were unintended as of 2006.) Twenty-eight percent of pregnancies to the unmarried high-school educated women in my sample were intended. But for 11 percent of respondents, like Alex, “intended” and “unintended” were simply not meaningful categories.1

Pregnancy intention is not so much binary as it is a continuum.

Rob, the boyfriend of one young woman I interviewed, seemed somewhat puzzled when my husband (who interviewed him separately) asked him if his girlfriend’s pregnancy had been “expected”: “Well, uh, kinda yeah. I mean, I wasn’t tryin’ to protect myself if that’s what you’re askin? But, you know, then again it wasn’t really like we were plannin’ it either. I guess it was expected in a way, but it wasn’t really expected—you know what I mean? A little bit of both sides.”

Erica, an unemployed single mother of three, felt similarly about her first pregnancy with her high school sweetheart, which “was kind of planned, but not. We weren’t doing anything to prevent it.”

Even respondents who described their pregnancies as completely unplanned arguably exhibited some degree of ambivalence. Over half of the unintended pregnancies among my interviewees occurred while the woman was not using any form of contraception. Those who had been using contraception usually reported inconsistent use or user error, like using it “on and off.” Two women mentioned that antibiotics had interfered with the effectiveness of their birth control. Two women talked about how drugs and alcohol abuse (“partying”) had affected their birth control use.

Of those who got pregnant while not using any form of contraception, some said they simply “didn’t think it would ever happen to me” or that they were “just stupid” and not thinking about the consequences. Several had been told by doctors that they were most likely infertile. Another woman was raped. One single mother of two said that she had difficulty finding birth control that didn’t cause side effects. She described bleeding for almost nine months straight while being on a birth control implant. “My doctor wouldn’t take it out. He said I’d get pregnant again right after I got it out.”

Problems of access came up just once in my interviews. “I begged my doctors [at the hospital after giving birth to twins] to tie my tubes, they wouldn’t do it,” reported one single mother. “I begged my doctors to put me on the IUD, there was fifteen hundred stipulations, they wanted to wait so many weeks, this and that, and I’m like, dude, just give it to me.”

It’s possible that the nonuse and inconsistent use of contraception among women who are not actively trying to get pregnant reflect the conflicting feelings and intentions that many poor and working-class women have about pregnancy. Beliefs about fate may also play a role in how women use (or neglect to use) contraception: Many women who had experienced unintended pregnancies recited some variation of “If it happens, it happens.” As one woman who rarely used contraception and had had four unintended pregnancies put it: “All of ‘em were surprises. None of my kids were planned. But, wouldn’t change it for the world. Ya know, I did what I did and got what I got, and I jus’ gotta make the best of it.”

Some respondents who called their pregnancies unplanned arguably exhibited ambivalence.

Not just intentions toward but also emotions related to pregnancy varied among my interviewees, and the two did not necessarily correlate. Some women with unintended pregnancies felt happy at the news or talked about how much they had always wanted kids. Megan, a twenty-something waitress, was “really excited” when she took a pregnancy test that turned out to be positive. “It was shocking, but I was really excited. I’ve always wanted kids, and I’ve always loved kids.” She was on birth control, but she and her boyfriend hadn’t “been as careful as we should have been,” possibly because, as Megan told me, they knew that they wanted to have children together eventually. Another woman, who unintentionally became pregnant at age 19, told me that when she found out, she was happy, scared, sad. Pretty much everything at once.”

On the other end of the planning spectrum, a woman who had “tried and tried and tried” to get pregnant with her fiancé described how she “freaked out” when she finally did get pregnant, even though it had been intended. That the same woman can feel seemingly contradictory emotions at the same time is an indicator of how unreliable it is to use a woman’s emotional reaction as a measure of pregnancy intention. Ask any pregnant woman and I’m guessing she’ll understand this—I know I was simultaneously thrilled and worried when I found out that I was pregnant with my second son. Conflicting emotions about pregnancy might be the norm, not the exception.

In research that explores pregnancy ambivalence—like this qualitative study that found “three categories of pleasure related to pregnancy ambivalence: active eroticization of risk, in which pregnancy fantasies heightened the charge of the sexual encounter; passive romanticization of pregnancy, in which people neither actively sought nor prevented conception; and an escapist pleasure in imagining that a pregnancy would sweep one away from hardship”—I think that one of the most common-sense explanations for pregnancy ambivalence is sometimes overlooked: maybe some women (even and maybe especially less socially advantaged women) just really want children. That’s certainly the way that Alex interpreted her decision to not use birth control: “I guess since I knew I wasn’t using protection or birth control, in the back of my mind I knew what I was doing: I was trying to get pregnant, because I wanted the baby. I wasn’t taking the precautions to prevent it.”

Alex and the other young adults I interviewed live in a blue-collar culture that highly values family, over and above educational or career success, as a primary source of identity, and it is in this culture that their attitudes about pregnancy are formed. I’ll talk more about how class attitudes may give rise to pregnancy ambivalence in my next post.

1. Percentages do not add up to 100 because two pregnancies are uncategorized due to lack of information.