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How to Tell Your Kid They Were an Accident

There’s a big difference between being unplanned and unwanted

When I got prego, I had $90 total to my name, and I spent five nights a week drinking and smoking at rock shows for a living. It’s safe to say the kid wasn’t exactly planned. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t wanted.

Nearly half of all pregnancies are “unintended.” This means lots of people you know get loaded with child on accident because they had some unprotected sex and it stuck. Lots of people have stories of “oops babies,” too. They are often second or third children who show up unexpectedly after a woman thought she could no longer get pregnant, or after she and her husband decided they were done having kids. Others are the product of condom mishaps or, perhaps, too much wine.

But unintended can mean different things: often “mistimed” or “unwanted,” according to Guttmacher Institute data. Mistimed means you don’t want to be pregnant now, but you do someday. Unwanted means you don’t want to be pregnant now or ever.

These are important distinctions, but even they ignore the shades of gray in between. Some women just don’t know if they want kids. It’s not indifference, per se. It’s not poor timing. It’s confusion. This feeling changes, too, depending on age, partner, life event or even only during the pregnancy itself.

I Didn’t Want Kids. Until I Had One.

I was both indifferent, uncertain and unwanting all at once. I did not want kids, and was sure I was not cut out to have them. I did not want to become pregnant. Motherhood seemed antithetical to my career, and my career seemed antithetical to motherhood. I didn’t even think of myself as an adult, actual person.

Much of that was because of my lifestyle. What’s more, my husband had been told he was infertile, so we played it fast and loose. (Surprise: He wasn’t.)

But then something weird happened when I suddenly got knocked up with my oops baby: I wanted it. Don’t mistake this for some kind of fairy-tale moment. It’s not that I instantly fell in love with the thing I was growing — I didn’t. It was far too abstract. I did not immediately become chipper and enthusiastic about the pregnancy, full of serene self-containment and inner peace. The pregnancy felt like some weird invasion of the body snatchers. I had to quit smoking and drinking, I got rapidly huge, I sobbed a lot and for some fucking reason I always smelled like soup.

But then I had my daughter, and it was as if I broke apart and reconstituted myself as, well, an honest-to-God human person, full stop. I leveled up. I was flooded with love; I felt unimaginable joy. It was all the clichés: My heart expanded to a size easily as big as my vaginal canal.

Don’t Let Being Unplanned Shape Your Adult Life

So I’m calling bullshit on a new study that suggests the difference between unplanned and unwanted doesn’t actually matter to your kid — they’re going to feel shitty about it no matter what.

The study, “Our perceived birth status can affect our adult relationships,” tells us that people who are told they were unwanted or unplanned develop a more insecure attachment style. That means they’re generally more anxious and needy than other people. It also means they may have bad relationships the rest of their lives.

But here’s what the researchers did to draw this conclusion: “We asked people to imagine they found out they were unwanted or unplanned, then we measured state attachment, or how they felt at that moment,” lead researcher Omri Gillath told Science Daily. “Even though they were only imagining something that may have happened 20, 30 or 40 years ago, doing that was strong enough to make people feel more insecure.”

But that should be obvious. If you tell a group to imagine no one wanted them, I’m fairly certain 100 out of 100 people will check the “feels bad, man” box on the survey.

I take further issue with the language used. This is not how you tell a kid they weren’t planned. Don’t say, “Hey, guess what, buddy? You’re a mistake!” Try something honest and age-appropriate, instead.

What I Told My Daughter About Being Unplanned

If you’re wondering, I didn’t tell my daughter about the drinking, smoking, unprotected sex (hi honey!), the sobbing, the vag. My story has evolved in complexity now that she’s 8, but still, I tell her dead straight that I wasn’t sure I wanted kids because I didn’t know if I would be good at it. I tell her I just wasn’t sure about the whole kid business. And I say her father and I were always out late at rock shows and doing non-baby things.

Then I tell her that when I had her, I knew I was wrong. That’s because I got such a great baby. I got the top baby of all the types of babies you can get. All I wanted was a smart, funny, healthy, adorable, delightful child, and I got one.

Aside from the story about the time my sisters and I stole this neighbor kid’s Pound Puppies, it’s one of her favorite stories I tell her, because in this story, it’s her greatness that solves my uncertainty. Her existence unequivocally brings joy. She is not a burden, and has never been made to feel like one. I don’t pretend it wasn’t hard to rise to the occasion. I just make it clear it was worth it.

Children who’ve grown up knowing they were an “oops child” make clear that it’s not the fact of it, it’s the how of it. One woman said her mother always referred to her as her “happy little surprise,” which felt good to her. But one man wrote that his brothers took every opportunity to remind him he was an accident, which felt awful.

In other words, it’s an execution-dependent story, and it all depends on how you frame it. It helps enormously if you really do view the child as a blessing to you, because if you convey that and you mean it, your child is never going to feel unwanted.

The Stigma Around Unplanned Pregnancy Isn’t Going Away

Of course, there is no getting around the fact that making lemonade out of your lemon baby takes resources. Unplanned pregnancies happen at five times the rate among poor, impoverished women who experience great hardship to raise their children. And for those women, the stigma is much greater, which means it’s not always possible to reframe the story as a positive.

Low-income women also get more side-eye about their unplanned pregnancies because of the perception that they should’ve “known better.” A 2016 study looking at the stigma around women who typically experience unplanned pregnancy (ages 18 to 24 and Southern) found that’s precisely what people often still think: “The conversations turned to common stereotypes of the ‘kind of woman’ in that situation,” the researchers wrote. “Participants expected that unintended pregnancy happened because of poor upbringing, promiscuity, irresponsibility and lack of contraceptive use. Various young women shared attitudes that those who become pregnant unintentionally should have ‘known better.’”

But this also doesn’t mean that those women don’t rise to the occasion and delight in their children, either.

It’s complicated. We should still try to eradicate unplanned pregnancy, especially in groups such as teenage girls who are unprepared to raise children and who desperately need access to sex education, birth control and sound family-planning tools. Planning is always the better way to go.

But slip-ups are unavoidable. There will always be broken condoms, false infertility diagnoses, missed birth control pills. Women who choose to continue those pregnancies can still make the best of it and still set their children up for the best, most loving environment. There is no shame in slipping up; there’s even less shame in rising to the occasion.

Sure, maybe we all should have known better. I should have known better, too. But I’m still so glad I didn’t.