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The Unexpected Child: Dealing with Shock, Fear, and Anxiety

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Most women experience an intense love for their child at some point during their pregnancy—but not always from the very start. When pregnancy comes as a shock or disappointment, rely on these spiritual helps.


by Susan Windley-Daoust

This article is adapted from chapter seventeen of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “The Unexpected Child: Dealing with Shock, Fear, and Anxiety.” Read other chapters as they become available by clicking on the chapter links in the sidebar. Get the whole book in print or ebook formats at the Gracewatch Media store.

Read a review of The Gift of Birth in Church Life magazine.

No one wants to admit they were surprised by a pregnancy— not unless it’s of the “Oh, what a pleasant surprise!” variety.

Sometimes we are just jarred: “Wow, I didn’t expect that! I had other plans for the upcoming year!” And other times, it is more than jarring: Perhaps your family is in a financial crisis. Or dealing with a medical issue. Or struggling in our marriage or family life in one way or another.

A Catholic blogger and mother of eleven was heartbreakingly honest a week after announcing her unexpected pregnancy:

. . . as kind and joyous as my readers seem to be, I am not. I’ve rewritten that sentence and deleted it three times because it seems like such an awful thing to say out loud, and yet it’s the truth. The night that I found out I was pregnant again, I sat on the floor of my kitchen and silently sobbed for hours. This wasn’t just bad news, it was devastating. Of all the things I’ve ever wanted in my life, I’ve never wanted anything more than I wanted to be not pregnant in that moment. The thought of it still brings tears to my eyes that well up and threaten to spill over.[1]

She went on to say that she had scheduled a hysterectomy for ongoing health issues (not life and death, but serious enough) just prior to receiving this news. It seemed to be time. But instead she ended with, “Sometimes God calls you on your beliefs and asks you to put your money where your mouth is, and that’s when you find out what it is that you really believe.”

If you are experiencing an unexpected pregnancy, you may remember the promise that you made at your wedding (assuming you were married in the Catholic Church) to “accept children lovingly from God.” And at some level you want to do just that . . . if only some of your emotions and circumstances didn’t seem to be standing in the way.


Dealing with circumstances

This brief reflection can’t begin to cover all of the circumstances you might be facing. But try to think creatively and proactively. If something is in the way, what can be changed? If money is an issue, be active about seeking help (in paying the hospital bill, seeing if you qualify for state assistance, perhaps taking on some extra work or different work for a while). Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. You are taking care of your family as best you can. On the other hand, if your finances are okay, just not perfect, you may be invited to adjust your perspective. The car may last a couple more years just fine. The kids may be sleeping three to a bedroom for a bit.

Discuss health issues with your doctor. I will warn you that doctors commonly advise abortion for complicated medical conditions across the board, even when the issue is fairly minor. But we do live in a world with the most sophisticated medical care known since the dawn of civilization, and your doctors might help you see possibilities you didn’t know about. Don’t lose hope, be honest with your doctors, and give it to God.

Struggles in your marriage or family life can be hard— but also an opportunity to improve the situation. Consider getting an outside perspective from a counselor or a pastoral minister. Check out the Teams of Our Lady apostolate and Marriage Encounter as ways of strengthening your marriage, or Retrouvaille, if your marriage is more troubled.

Whatever your circumstances may be, take heart, take it to your support community, and take it to God. You are not alone, and there are people who want to help.


Dealing with emotions

Your emotions may be harder to address than your concrete circumstances. But they are real and should not be dismissed as frivolous. Talking through your feelings with a spiritual director or a trusted friend is ideal, but at minimum, offer your emotions to God.

If you are shocked, be shocked. That will wear off with time; you have about nine months to get used to this new little person and reality. Being surprised is no sin and can help you remember that God has plans that you do not even know about.

If you are afraid, do you know why you are afraid? Is there anything you can do to address that fear? Can you ask God for peace? Can you try to pray in peace?

Anxiety is a close relative to fear: it is basically worry that has gone into overdrive. Try to discern what is making you anxious. Is your anxiety an ongoing issue that needs medical treatment, or attention through counseling? What does it mean to hand that anxiety over to God?

If you are sad, be honest about what you may be losing, which is probably the cause of the sadness. Maybe the physical difficulty of the pregnancy itself, if you’ve had rough pregnancies, is causing the sadness: who wants months of bed rest? No one. Maybe you had other hopes in your life that need to be put aside for a while. Maybe it is something deeper and more serious than either of those.

Whatever it is, be honest, and bring it to God. God knows about your troubles already, but until you tell him, you are not offering an opening for him to work in your life. Only God knows our futures. But we know God wants our happiness in this world and the next. Ask him to show you the goodness, and to apply balm to the sadness. If the sadness moves into something more serious, such as depression, continue praying but also consult a counselor or doctor.


What is love, anyway?

Part of accepting children lovingly from God means to love the child. Most women at one point or another are gifted with an emotionally intense love for their children. But often it isn’t the first day they find out they are pregnant! Regardless of emotions, love is practiced and honored when you take care of yourself (which includes the baby) by eating healthy, getting exercise as you can, and resting. Love is practiced when you put your hand gently on your expanding midsection. Love is practiced when you talk to the baby. Love is practiced when you pray for the baby, yourself, and the birth.

Any love you give the baby comes from God and is the work of God. He will help you love this child if you cooperate with his will. Breathe, pray, ask for peace, and look for ways to love this child.


For prayerful reflection

I suggested above to pray for peace, whatever the situation. Do more than ask for peace, though. Pray to be reminded that God is peace, and God holds you close. A well-known Scripture comes to mind:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
—Psalm 23

And St. Teresa of Avila penned a prayer, found tucked in her Bible after her death, that captures the eternal peace of God well— a peace that prevails over all circumstances:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.


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[1] Rebecca Frech, “Breaking the Façade,” Shoved to Them, March 16, 2014, available at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rebeccafrech/2014/03/breaking-the-facade.html.


Susan Windley-Daoust is a Catholic theologian, spiritual director, and award-winning author of Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying. She teaches theology at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and five children.

Follow Jerry Windley-Daoust:

Publisher, Gracewatch Media

Jerry Windley-Daoust is a writer, editor, and father of five. He writes essays and stories at Windhovering and is the show-runner for Gracewatch Media, a small Catholic publisher. You can follow his latest publishing projects at gracewatch.org.

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