According to a recent survey, more than six in ten 18- to 44-year-old mothers in the U.S. report that one or more of their births was unplanned. It may seem strange to mention this fact so soon after a national holiday honoring moms, as unintended pregnancies are seldom cause for celebration. Yet American women who have experienced an unintended birth are more likely to report that having a child unexpectedly had mostly neutral or no effects on important areas of their lives than to report mostly negative impacts.
These findings come from a recent Urban Institute report, “Prevalence and Perceptions of Unplanned Births,” which drew on a nationally representative survey of nearly 2,000 women ages 18 to 44 and on more detailed interviews with 26 survey respondents. When participants were asked how an unplanned birth would affect various areas of a woman’s life, their responses were generally negative.
About two-thirds of women thought an unplanned birth1 negatively affects a woman’s education and income, and almost six in 10 said the same for a woman’s job and mental health. However, more than half of women thought that an unintended birth would have either no effect or a positive effect on a woman’s physical health. And women were more likely to say an unintended birth would boost a woman’s relationship with her partner and her motivation to achieve goals than to predict negative effects in those areas. Overall, just over half of women (52 percent) anticipated that an unplanned birth would negatively impact at least four of these seven areas of life. (The other 48 percent of women fell into three groups of roughly equal size, anticipating mostly positive effects, mostly neutral effects, or mixed effects.)
Certain demographic traits predicted different views of the consequences of an unintended birth. Women who were white, had at least some college education, and had a family income about 138 percent of the federal poverty line were more likely to say an unintended birth would have mostly negative consequences than respondents who were black or Hispanic, had a high school diploma at most, and had low household income. In short, women who statistically faced a greater risk of unintended pregnancy had less negative expectations about how it would affect a woman. (Marital status and age, however, generally were not linked to respondents’ views.)
Finally, women who had actually experienced an unplanned birth held more positive perceptions about how such an event impacts a woman’s life. When asked specifically about how their unintended birth changed their lives, their views were surprisingly varied, as the below figure indicates.
*This figure is adapted from Figure 4 in Emily M. Johnston, Brigette Courtot, Jacob Fass, Sarah Benatar, Adele Shartzer, and Genevieve M. Kenney, “Prevalence and Perceptions of Unplanned Births,” Urban Institute, March 2017. Source: Survey of Family Planning and Women’s Lives 2016. Note: n=764 women with an unplanned birth.
These women were more likely to report that their unplanned birth had no effects on most major aspects of their lives (36 percent) than to report primarily negative (29.6 percent), primarily positive (20.4 percent), or mixed effects (14 percent).
If you pause to consider the financial, logistical, and personal demands of caring for a new baby, these claims might seem overly rosy. Perhaps women are loath to admit—to researchers and even to themselves—that the child they love has made them worse off in any way. Without discounting this possibility, I believe unintended pregnancies may offer both challenges and opportunities to many women.
In their 2005 book, Promises I Can Keep, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas record what some young, disadvantaged single mothers told them about how their children changed their lives:
In these decaying, inner-city neighborhoods [of Philadelphia], motherhood is the primary vocation for young women, and those who strive to do it well are often transformed by the process. Nineteen-year-old Shonta, an African American with one child who became a mother at only fourteen, says she knows motherhood “has its ups and downs, [but] I never felt my daughter held me back from anything. If anything she taught me how to be responsible and mature.” Nineteen-year-old Adlyn declares that if she were childless, “I would be on the street…because I used to be out on the streets getting high. And look at me now! I’m going to school, doing what I got to do. I’m telling everyone, watch me when I’m done!”…
Over and over again, mothers tell us their children tamed or calmed their wild behavior, got them off the street, and helped put their lives back together. Children can banish depression, calm a violent temper, or serve as do-it-yourself rehab from alcohol or drugs. Children—and the minute-by-minute demands they make on their mothers’ time, energy, and emotions—bring order out of chaos.
Joy Pullmann’s experience of becoming a mother was much different from Shonta and Adlyn’s. Married, college-educated, and launching a career that she loved, Pullmann was devastated when she became pregnant years before she had planned to. Becoming a mother, she wrote for The Federalist, “ruined my world to remake it.” Motherhood made her life harder—but she likes the person it is turning her into.
What about a woman’s career? Heather Havrilesky at The Cut has argued that having kids actually improved her career (without specifying whether her pregnancies were planned). Once you’re a parent, she says, “the time you spend at work—which is probably a little shorter now—feels less meaningless somehow”:
Work constitutes a break from wiping someone else’s butt, doesn’t it? So work starts to feel worth savoring, too. But since you probably have far less time to spend at work now, guess what? You become more efficient... You are more productive and you enjoy your work more—which, in turn, makes you even more productive.
Maybe that’s why so many women in the Urban Institute study who had experienced an unintended birth said that it had had no effect (or a positive effect) on their education and job, and why over half of these women said their unplanned birth increased their motivation to achieve their goals. Whether planned or not, the birth of a(nother) child often causes women and men alike to re-evaluate their priorities and focus on what matters most to them.
None of this is meant to downplay the long-term difficulties many couples face when a pregnancy test is unexpectedly positive, nor to imply that the government and private sector are doing enough to accommodate and support parents. My point is simple: If we trust the women who speak from experience, an unexpected birth is not always the catastrophe we might imagine.
1. Unlike some of the literature on unplanned pregnancies and births, the Urban Institute report did not distinguish between mistimed pregnancies (to women who wanted to have a baby at some point in the future, but not at the time they became pregnant) and unwanted pregnancies (to women who did not want to become pregnant at that point or any time in the future).