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How do I tell my Mom I might be pregnant?

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bxtinej asks:

My partner and I have been together for about 6 months now. He's 17 and I'm 16. We have unprotected sex sometimes, and I think I might have gotten pregnant. I won't be able to tell until next week, but I'm kind of crampy and bloated already. I don't know if those signs are too early to be pregnancy symptoms or not, but I have no clue how to tell my mom I am pregnant if I am. What are ways to tell her that will be easier on me and my boyfriend?

Heather Corinna replies:

If you feel crampy and bloated, and you didn't miss your last period, it's more likely in terms of those symptoms and the timing of things that you're experiencing PMS symptoms rather than pregnancy symptoms. However, if you've been having unprotected intercourse, pregnancy is a very real possibility, and one I think it's important to think about, recognize, and to prepare yourself for.

First things first: you'll want to decide if this is something you'd want to talk to your Mom about now, when you're not still sure, or later, if and when you know you have become pregnant and have verified that with a pregnancy test. Sometimes, too, people find it best to wait to disclose to others about a pregnancy until they know what choice they want to make with it. Others around us tend to have strong opinions about what choices we should make when pregnant, especially if and when our pregnancy will have a big impact on their own lives, so it can be helpful to figure out what you think you want for yourself first.

Years ago, the awesome people over at the Abortion Care Network put together some excellent information for young people and their parents about pregnancy. I couldn't possibly do any better than they did, and I'd advise all the things they have.

The whole of that project is here, but there are a few pieces of it we can start with right here:

Start the conversation with your hopes and fears about how they will receive the news. "I need to talk to you, but I am afraid that you will start screaming/ be upset." "I really need your support/help. Please don’t be angry."

Just say it. It’s best to get right to the point. There is no good time to tell big news, although you probably should wait for some privacy with them. If that is difficult, ask if you can speak with them in private. Just say it: "I just took a pregnancy test and I am pregnant. Or, I think I am pregnant (if you don’t really know)."

Give them a chance to freak out: Remember when you found out that you were pregnant? You freaked out. Give your parents some time to have a reaction. "I know you are upset. Don’t say anything now. We can talk later." Or, write a note and then talk. If they do go on and on, try hard to ignore words said in anger or fear. Come back to them the next day and, say, "I know you were freaked out. Or, I’m sorry I upset you, but I need your help/support."

There is no one way or best way to break this kind of news that is going to guarantee you whatever it is that you want in a response. I think it's also safe to say there's no way to make this be something that is magically easy, especially if and when pregnancy happens because people chose not to be as responsible as they could around it. I mean, if you and your boyfriend had access to condoms or other kinds of birth control, but both chose not to use them, then there's going to be a bunch of responsibility the two of you will need to take here, and you're likely to be asked to do that.

Pregnancy is a big, potentially major life-changer of a deal: it's not an easy thing to do, be part of or talk about. If and when pregnancy might also mean parenting, especially if it means not just you and your boyfriend parenting, but your parents needing to parent again, including all or some of the financial burdens of pregnancy and parenting, it's an even bigger deal. A pregnancy isn't easy for anyone, not physically, not emotionally, so it might be most sound to kind of let go of a wish for "easy" and aim for something like "mutually constructive and caring." This probably couldn't be easy, but what it can be, on everyone's part, is emotionally healthy and compassionate and constructive, rather than destructive. No one wins in making something hard even harder.

You might benefit from also reading the advice that they have for mothers, too. It might help prepare you for some of the reactions your mother might have and things she might be thinking or feeling. Sometimes tough conversations can go a lot better than they might otherwise when we have some sense of what could be going on in the other person's head right from the start. I think there's also some stuff in there that can help you figure out what is and isn't fair to ask your mother for in this situation: it's important to understand that she's going to have limits and boundaries that you'll need to respect, just like you (hopefully) would with anyone else.

I don't know about your relationship with your mother. But in the case that you're worried about interpersonally unhealthy responses, or being unsafe -- like being thrown out or being abused in some way -- then my best advice is to first talk to a healthcare provider, be that someone at an abortion clinic (whether or not you'd want to terminate a pregnancy, they often provide options counseling and can be great advocates and helpers), an OB/GYN, a school nurse or your family doctor, then have them be with you to disclose to your mother together. In the case that your Mom isn't someone you feel it's safe to talk to about any of this at all -- safe, not comfortable: these are often uncomfortable conversations, after all -- people like that can be someone you can talk to to get help and support, whether you're pregnant or not.

But really, all of that is a big if. Just because you have been taking big risks of becoming pregnant doesn't mean you've become so yet. However, I think that it's a good idea to think about talking with your Mom regardless, especially since -- to me -- being in the spot you're in right now tells me that you probably need help and support from her you haven't been asking for or getting.

I can't know the whys of your choice to have sex unprotected -- assuming this is about a choice you're making, not about a situation where your boyfriend is forcing you or coercing you into sex or unprotected sex -- because they're not the same for everyone. Maybe you don't understand that the risk of becoming pregnant or getting a sexually transmitted infection are as high as they are. Maybe your partner refuses to use condoms, or you don't know how to even ask him to do so. Maybe you want another method of birth control but don't know how to get it. Maybe you want to become pregnant now, whether or not it's something you feel ready for. Whatever the reason, it sounds like we can know that these outcomes aren't things you sound prepared for or excited about dealing with.

You might already know this, but having unprotected sex is a lot like walking back and forth across the street without doing things like paying attention to the stoplights and walk signals, or not looking around the corner for cars turning where you're about to walk. For sure, even if we do those things, we could still get hit by a car, but when we don't, it's nearly inevitable that we are going to get hit at some point, and probably pretty soon. In other words, if you keep having sex unprotected, the chances of you having an outcome you don't want or aren't ready for, like an STI or a pregnancy, are very high. With pregnancy, in just one year of having intercourse unprotected, anywhere from 80-90% of people will become pregnant, and as a younger person, you need to figure your risk is on the higher end. Your age group also has the highest rate of STIs every year, mostly because of unprotected sex, lack of sexual healthcare (like STI testing and treatment) and ideas that so long as people are in boyfriend/girlfriend-style relationships, even if they only last months or weeks at a time, as they most often do when we're younger, there aren't risks. So, both of these things are very real possibilities for you if you don't change some of your choices here.

For a whole lot of young people -- heck, for a whole lot of people, period -- managing a sexual life and sexual relationships are tough things to go on your own, or only with a sexual partner, especially if you're without the life experience, agency or resources to manage those things well or know what you need to do to manage them well. Having people to support you and help you out who you aren't having sex with tends to be a big factor in positive outcomes from sex and sexual or romantic relationships. Maybe that person won't be your mother or someone in your family, but unless you feel sure she won't be, I'd suggest giving her a try with this. Many parents can be that person and many parents also really want to be, even if and when they aren't in agreement with all of your choices.

So, in the case that it turns out you're not pregnant, and you don't have to have a conversation with your mother about being pregnant, how about having a conversation with her about all of this anyway?

I know any of these talks can be daunting, and are often things people try to avoid. But on top of possibly being able to get help and support you don't have right now, you'd probably much rather talk with her about help in preventing a pregnancy or STI than about having an unplanned pregnancy or an STI, right? Plus, if she doesn't know you're engaging in sex, talking with her about it honestly now is much more likely to go well than if she finds out on her own, when you then have to talk about having sex AND being dishonest with her.

If you do talk to her -- or someone who cares about you and has the resources and ability to help you manage all of this -- then those unwanted or tough outcomes happening will be less likely because you'll probably get some help and support when it comes to better preventing those outcomes. For instance, it's often a lot easier to be assertive about safety when we have someone else cheerleading us in that. It can be a lot easier to feel able to set limits and boundaries we need to -- even if we don't want to -- when someone who cares about us can help remind us of how important the whole of our lives are and all the things we want to do with them. And by all means, if we have barriers to getting things like birth control methods, condoms and sexual healthcare, having someone who can help us get those things will always make a world of difference. Heck, even if and when we have these talks and don't get what we'd ideally want out of them, sometimes just having them can help us get more clear in our own heads and hearts and get better at taking care of ourselves.

One of the things I often hear young people say about really wanting to avoid disclosing being sexual with a partner with parents is concern that that will mean they will be forcibly separated from a boyfriend or girlfriend, or have less freedom than they would if they didn't tell. I'm not going to dismiss those concerns, because I totally understand why those are unwanted outcomes. At the same time, there are two big things to know about that. Again, parents or guardians will usually eventually find out about what you're doing. (It's kind of a golden rule in life that we're all less mysterious than we think we are.) And like I said up there, that means addressing sex and dishonesty and breaking trust, which is the kind of thing where having your freedoms cut back is way more likely than being responsible and bringing some maturity to the table by being forthright and proactive. In other words, one way we can usually show people we can handle the responsibilities of having a sexual life is...well, by showing them we can handle the responsibilities involved in having a sexual life, which includes owning up to the fact that we have one.

The other thing to know is that sometimes parents butt into your choices because from all they can tell, that's the best thing they can do for you. For whatever reason or set of reasons, you've been taking big risks of tough things when you could be taking much smaller ones, and some of why might be because you're earnestly not ready to handle this stuff yet, or to do so totally on your own. In the case that what's been going on is about an abusive, controlling or manipulative partner, a situation many young people find themselves in in early romantic or sexual relationships, I think you can appreciate why a parent might want to separate their kid from someone who is abusing or maltreating them. Someone who cares about you is going to want to do what they can to change any of these situations for the better for you, or better still, with you.

Like I said, I know that some kinds of limits that might potentially be placed on you and your boyfriend could seriously suck. I know it can feel tenuous and scary to even think of some external limitations, especially since early love relationships are often tenuous and scary all by themselves in plenty of ways. But I bet you and I can both agree that the best thing for you when it comes to your sexual or romantic relationships are a) that they won't require you take big risks of making a mess of your life, and b) will be supported by the other people in your life who care for you. Often enough, both those things are about teamwork and more than just our own perspective, which can include trying out someone else's ideas around these choices, particularly if our own aren't so hot or safe. And I think in this case, I think if some limits happened, like maybe putting sex on the back burner until you can engage in it in less risky ways, or less sexy-time alone with your boyfriend until you were both better able to do that with more care? Well, I think temporary and constructive things like that would be a lot more likely to result in an awesome life and a more awesome relationship than where you could be heading with the ways you have been going about all this.

How do you start that kind of conversation? Ideally, your parent has already taken some of those steps in asking you about your relationships or sex life, and you can jump off their cues. If they haven't, then you can start it the same sort of way you'd start a conversation about pregnancy, but with the knowledge that it's probably going to be considerably less loaded.

Tell your Mom you have something important to tell her, how you're feeling about telling her, then just tell her. I'd suggest being honest in saying that you need some help and support around this because you're kind of flailing in terms of not being safe: it's hard for people to know how to help us and what we need if we bullshit them about what's really going on. Ask for what you want from her, whether that's help getting birth control, help negotiating condom use, help setting limits and boundaries with your boyfriend, help figuring out how to enjoy a sex life without (not) managing it in such a way that you might have to pay dearly in some way for those experiences. Ask her for understanding, too, since you probably want plenty of that. Make clear to her that for everything you're asking of her, you're prepared to do the same yourself or to help her do these things with you. Again: teamwork is the goal here.

One last thing to know is that a parent who cares about you, even if they feel freaked or conflicted or pissed, whether we're talking about disclosing sex or a worry you're pregnant, is going to be glad that you talked to them, no matter how they may feel about what's going on (or even about you having to be the one to initiate these talks: it might make them feel bad they didn't do that themselves, but you know, that's their own stuff for them to deal with).

Dedicated parents who love you want to be helpful and supportive. They want to be there for you and with you in the tough stuff. And they want to do whatever they can to keep your life from being any harder than it has to be. I think that's just important to know, but it's also something you can lead with in either of these conversations: a statement to them that you want their help and support and you want them to -- within limits, obviously -- be part of this part of your life because you need their help and support in it. That can set a good emotional stage, and can also remind them that they probably didn't muck up parenting utterly if that's something their kid knows they can ask for. That's a big deal, because while young people often worry that they will be failing or disappointing parents around these issues, it's way more common for parents to feel or worry that they failed you.

Okay? In the chance that it turns out you are pregnant, and you want a little more help with anything around that, feel free to come over to the message boards and ask for it: we're around every day to talk with you if you like. Same goes if you need some help or support in just disclosing sex to your mother, working out any conflict that may happen around that, or if you get her support, but neither of you knows where to go to get things like sexual healthcare or birth control: we can help with that, too.

I'm going to leave you with a couple extra links that I think might be of use to you, pregnant or not:

written 09 Sep 2011 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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