As anyone who’s ever had to traipse across the post-penis-ejaculating-inside-vagina minefield will tell you, not all pregnancy news is worthy of a high five. In fact, according to a Live Science report, at least 25 percent of women will decide they don’t want to have said child for any number of reasons, while another 25 percent aren’t certain one way or the other.
When it comes to being a man and receiving the news that your partner is pregnant, it’s — for obvious reasons — not nearly as complicated as if you’re the one carrying that bundle of chromosomes. But it can still be a head-screw. As Parents.com notes, men simply can’t experience pregnancy the way a woman will, which means they might appear less excited than, say, a woman’s friends:
“Sure, the man contributes half of the conception equation, but after supplying the sperm, the man’s body is no longer part of the pregnancy. Both physically and emotionally you will feel more, from morning sickness and labor pains to first kicks and hiccups. Because of this, your partner may feel less attached to the pregnancy than you do, especially before you start to show. He may also feel left out because everyone is paying attention to you.”
So let’s break down all the ways you might receive pregnancy news and how to react to it, through the varying romantic and not-so-romantic climates in which said news is likely to be delivered. Then, when the time comes, you’re at least prepared to pretend to behave the right way.
Actively Trying to Get Pregnant
We begin this guide atop the shimmering rainbow of pregnancy news scenarios, i.e., the idealized movie scene that goes something like this:
“Honey, I’m pregnant.”
Cue Enya. Activate husband’s slow motion toothy smile as he opens his arms and physically embraces his wife, followed by tears of joy and perhaps some celebratory pregancy-news sex.
Or as one redditor suggests calling it, this is “the crisp high five” scenario. Because let’s face it, if you’re the couple who dreamed of the day when you find out you’re going to become parents, this is as crispy as it gets. Olan Suddeth, a father of nine, tells me that during the times in which they were actively trying to have kids and his wife told him she was pregnant, he was overwhelmed with excitement. “I remember my wife surprised me with the news of our sixth kid, and one of the cute ways she did it, is she had a card and it had six pack of beer and picture of kids and she said something like, ‘This is our new six pack.’ It was great, I gave her a hug and said, ‘That’s fantastic!’”
Not Actively Trying to Get Pregnant but Not, Like, Actively Against It
If the above mentioned pregnancy news scenario is the crisp high five, this is the high five where you connect enthusiastically, but maybe only with half your hand. Which is why in this particular case — considering you’re hopefully aware that a pregnancy was well within the realm of possibilities you just need to be supportive. “You want to be positive, even-keeled and considerate of your words,” says Suddeth. “Because that can stay with someone for a long time.”
Surprise Pregnancy in a Committed Relationship
So you’re in a committed relationship with someone you’ve at least considered as the potential mother of your children. Maybe you’ve even gone so far as to talk about a name together, but you’re still not at the point that you’ve discussed the very real possibility that she could become pregnant with your child, and therefore, even though you’re in love, you may be caught like a deer in the headlights when she drops the news over your head like a sack of bricks.
Even Suddeth — who, after four kids, you’d expect would have the baby news reaction game down to a science — tells me that when his wife told him she was pregnant with their fifth child he was speechless. “She wasn’t super crazy about my reaction,” he says. “It wasn’t a negative one per se, but I was a little shell-shocked. We had talked about waiting a little while between our fourth and fifth child, and so, I was a little more dumbfounded. I just needed time to wrap my head around it.”
What to do, then, when you’re visibly surprised by the pregnancy news? “You’re going to feel how you feel, but you’ve got to remember she’s in an emotionally fragile state,” says Suddeth. “Even if she’s happy, she has concerns about what the pregnancy is going to do to her, us, her body and where we’re gonna put this baby.” Basically, his advice is to at least be aware of how your reaction is going to be perceived and try your best to make sure that you don’t ruin it. “You don’t want to make a negative of what should be a positive event,” he adds.
According to midwife Blyss Young, you need to put down any distractions and really be present with her. That could mean physically connecting in a way that’s sensitive to how she’s feeling — “as simple as holding her hand, to an embrace, to a tender kiss. (This is all assuming this is a loving, committed relationship.)” Additionally, she suggests making eye contact and asking her how she feels. “She may discuss physical symptoms or heart feelings,” says Young.
Surprise Pregnancy in a Not-So-Committed Relationship
It’s very understandable if your inner personal reaction here is: Whoa. Ugh. $%#@&^!!!!!! But first, it may help to know that there a lot of people in your exact same shoes. As per BSideYouForLife.org:
“Nearly half (or 45 percent) of the 6.1 million pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended pregnancies. That’s over 2.8 million pregnancies that weren’t planned. Of those unintended pregnancies, some are ‘mistimed,’ meaning a woman wants to be pregnant eventually, just not right now. And some are unwanted pregnancies, meaning a woman never wanted or intended to be pregnant. You’re definitely not alone. You’re not ‘stupid,’ you’re not an ‘idiot’ and you’re not at fault. Things just happen.”
Still, none of that really helps you know how to behave in this scenario. So what should you do if the unintended pregnancy monster rears its head and makes your weiner shrivel up to its most raisin-y self? Do the opposite of this guy, per Siobhan Rosen’s article in GQ: “One female friend of mine who had The Talk with a guy she’d been seeing for only two months remembers, ‘He immediately put his head in his hands and started moaning, ‘Oh sh*t, oh sh*t, oh sh*t’ for maybe five minutes,’” she writes. “‘Of course, I panicked and started crying.’”
So yeah, don’t do that. Instead, she advises that you comfort her. “Put your hand somewhere comforting — hold her hand, her shoulder; no, not her boob, sorry,” writes Rosen. “Don’t pressure her with a cross-examination: ‘What are YOU going to do?’ Most important: Just let her talk. A lot of dudes try to solve the mistake. Don’t rehash the night of conception like a carnal Encyclopedia Brown. Make a plan to talk again tomorrow or maybe the next day. Use the time to weigh what both of you are thinking, and come up with a plan.”
She Doesn’t Want to Keep the Baby, but You Do
In the same GQ article, Rosen has some very simple (“like one-word simple”) rules to follow in this case. Listen, pay, go (if she wants you to) and call. “A day or two later. As my friend described her abortion, ‘It’s like eight minutes of the worst cramps of your life.’ It’s only polite to check in,” Rosen writes.
Rosen’s advice is honest and practical — said fetus is growing in her body, not yours, and therefore, its fate is ultimately her choice. But her decision to not have the baby is still going to have a profound effect on you, especially if you genuinely wished to keep it. To deal with all the conflicting emotions you’ll feel, licensed marriage and family therapist Rose Hickman-Smith suggests being open and honest, but without putting any pressure as to what the woman should do with her body.
Remember, too, that it’s highly unlikely that this is a decision she’ll be making lightly — not to mention the fact that she’s the one who’s ultimately going to have to have the abortion. “I had pain and anguish, but hers was on a deeper level,” David Eigenberg told MEL last year. “Some men would say, ‘My grief is the same,’ but in my opinion, there’s a primal difference for the woman who carries the baby. She was the one who was going to lose this life in the procedure, not me.”
Quartz writer Noah Berlatsky also notes that just talking about it — whether it be with your significant other or a friend — is another way to cope with the circumstances. “The stakes for men and for partners of women who have abortions are much lower,” writes Berlatsky. “But enforced silence about abortion affects them nonetheless, making it more difficult to express, or understand, both their and their partner’s feelings of grief, guilt and confusion.”
She Wants to Keep the Baby, but You Don’t
In the reverse scenario, where you’re not ready/will never be ready, but she’s determined to see it through, there’s a lot to consider, including practical and legal consequences such as potential child support issues. Although, per the New York Times Ethicist, “It’s worth noting, however, that your boyfriend’s reasons for not wanting a child are probably more than financial,” writes Kwame Anthony Appiah. “Therefore, promising not to ask for child support won’t really meet his objections.”
Appiah notes as well that your partner doesn’t need to entertain the idea that just because it’s your sperm, it means you get half-rights to the baby:
“Children aren’t property, and we should think about their futures in terms of their interests, our relationships with them and the responsibilities those connections entail. So both his feelings and the prospective interests of the child may provide some grounds for ending the pregnancy. (It may seem odd to say that consideration of someone’s interests may count against continuing his or her existence, yet that’s sometimes the case.) Ideally, in weighing all these considerations, you would be discussing them calmly with him — sharing your concerns and hearing the full range of his considerations — although, in the current state of your relationship, that may be difficult. You might consider going together to crisis counseling of some sort.”
Young’s advice in this scenario is to take a deep breath and take some time to further consider the circumstances, before you engage in a conversation with your significant other. “Open your heart and just let her have her feelings without trying to change or fix hers,” she says. “Continue to be loving. Focus on your love for each other. Take space if you can after the initial news to connect to male friends who you look up to and respect, to talk out your true feelings before bringing them to her.”
The Decades-Later “Whoops!” Pregnancy
You think you’re done: Your kid, or kids, are about to go to college, you’re years out of baby jail and you’re maybe even starting to think about retirement. Then… ruh-roh. Suddeth tells me that his ninth and final child was definitely of the “whoops” variety. “This last time, it was a real shock,” he says. “I was back on testosterone for close to a year. I had no sperm count. The odds were something like 1 in 300,000. You’re more likely to get pregnant on birth control. Basically, we were both dumbfounded.”
Additionally, Suddeth notes that their final two pregnancies were filled with complications, which is pretty common amongst older parents, according to the Mayo Clinic: “Advanced paternal age might be associated with a slightly higher risk of pregnancy loss before week 20 of pregnancy (miscarriage) or stillbirth. Older paternal age might slightly increase the risk of certain rare birth defects, including defects in the development of the skull, limbs and heart.”
Plenty of research also shows a link between older paternal age and an increased likelihood of autism in the child. But again, Suddeth says that whatever possible complications lie ahead, you just need to be reassuring. “I was a bit concerned, because we were going to have a little break before the last one. But she was looking for reassurance. She was worried I was gonna be upset and I immediately took her and held her in my arms and told her, ‘Hey, we’ll figure it out. We’ll walk this together.’ And that’s what we did.”
She’s Having Someone Else’s Baby
Yes, this happens. “Wife and I have been separated since June but have tried multiple times to get back together, this time,” writes one redditor. “She informed me that she is pregnant with someone else’s kid. But she is prepared for either outcome and said if I want a divorce she understands.” Another man wrote in to Slate’s Dear Prudence advice column asking about how to handle a similar scenario.
According to Hickman-Smith, you’re going to feel how you feel, but if you push those feelings down and be a parent to someone else’s child, you’re going to find yourself in a bind later, as those feelings will be thrown onto the child. “Be open about the complexities, anger and betrayal,” she says. “Be honest about the feelings, even if you feel angry. Anger gets a bad rap, but only because of the ways it’s expressed.”
In other words, it’s never a good idea to yell at a pregnant woman, but it should probably be expected that you’ll need a while to figure out how you feel about it.
She Gets Pregnant Right as You’re Splitting Up
You may be inclined to believe that this is some sort of last ditch effort to keep you around, or it might just be a total, unfortunate fluke, but either way, Hickman-Smith suggests seeking help and talking to a counselor, rather than venting to a friend. “Sometimes it’s tricky because a friend or family member has a stake in it, so you may want professional help,” she says. “Couples counseling isn’t just for wanting to keep a relationship going. It’s also a great way to understand why it’s not working and split up in the best possible way. Especially if there’s a pregnancy in the mix.”
So what have we learned? Mostly that, whatever the situation, you need to take a deep breath and try to remember that this is a moment that won’t be forgotten: How you behave now may very well color how the mother of your child sees you forever. So be a gentleman — even if, at first, you feel like anything but.