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She's pregnant: what now?

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John K. asks:

My girlfriend and I are very careful when doing sex. Apparently, not careful enough. She got pregnant. I used a condom and she said she was on a pill, what happened? And what do I do now?

Heather Corinna replies:

There are a few possibilities.

• Maybe she is on the pill, but either doesn't know how to use it properly, or hasn't been using it properly, such as by missing pills, confusing active pills for placebos, or had an interaction with her pill and another medication, like an antibiotic.
• Maybe you're not using condoms correctly, such as by not wearing them for all genital contact, from start to finish, not removing them properly or not storing them properly before use.
• Maybe she wasn't actually using the birth control pill at all.

But even if you both were using both methods perfectly, there is always going to still be a risk of pregnancy, Statistically, it is a very, very small risk -- less than 1% -- but that means that some people, though they are few, are still becoming pregnant that way every year. And younger women are often exceptionally fertile, which obviously ups the risks of pregnancy with any method of birth control or combination of methods.

Since this has already happened, though, the thing to address now is what comes next. You can't unring a bell: a pregnancy has already happened.

Since you're not the one who is pregnant, it's up to her to decide if she wants to terminate her pregnancy, or to remain pregnant and either do an adoption or become a parent. You absolutely can weigh in on what you feel able to handle with these things -- particularly the option of parenting, which would be the one which really impacted you so far as co-parenting goes and financially supporting a child goes -- but her choice is the one that takes all since she's the one, no matter what choice she makes, who is pregnant and who bears the greatest burden of a pregnancy with any of her options.

You also can do your best to be supportive of whatever choice she makes, emotionally and financially. It does take two people to create a pregnancy, and both of those people bear responsibility. So, if she feels an abortion is what is best for her, you can offer both to help pay for her termination, and you can also offer her whatever emotional support she needs. If she decides that remaining pregnant is what feels most right, same deal goes: you can do your best to support her throughout her pregnancy, both in terms of any financial needs with the pregnancy (it certainly isn't fair or sensible to suggest you're obliged to support her other expenses that have nothing to do with the pregnancy), as well as emotional support. Being pregnant can be exceptionally difficult and trying, particularly when no plans were made for it and when a pregnant woman is young.

But you will also probably need some support for yourself. Even though it's not you who is pregnant, nor you who has to either terminate or remain pregnant and deliver, and then either give a child up or be the parent held most responsible, that doesn't mean this isn't a big deal for you, nor that this isn't impacting you and won't continue to. You can't be expected to be a full-time cheerleader for your girlfriend, or not to have issues or needs of your own.

So, reach out to your support circle in your life or friends, family and others who are there for you. Ask for whatever help you need, even if that's just an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on. Your partner or girlfriend can be some of that support, but it's not reasonable to expect her (or for her to expect you) to be your sole support: she's going to have more on her plate than you do. If she does decide to remain pregnant with the intent to parent, and you plan to co-parent, then you can start reaching out together to the people around you for extra help and support throughout and for the future. Healthy families are usually bigger than just two parents: kinds are hard work, and the help and support of extended family and friends can be a real life-saver, for the two of you and a kid.

There are also some online supports and information for men, with abortion or with pregnancy, which you might find helpful.

Some communities have in-person support groups for fathers-to-be or young fathers, should your girlfriend decide to parent. You can ask your school or healthcare provider to find out if you have any resources like that locally.

No doubt, this crisis is big and immediate enough that you probably are going to have a tough time thinking about things that come after it. But for the future, it's a good idea to have real, in-depth conversations with partners about birth control and preparedness for accidental pregnancy. When you're becoming sexually active with an opposite-sex partner, you'll always want to talk about what you both think you'd probably want to do should an unplanned pregnancy occur. Your feelings may not be the same is a pregnancy does actually occur, mind you. With women who have never been pregnant, particularly, once a woman really knows what a pregnancy feels like and it's real, not an idea, feelings on how to manage it can change. Plenty of women who were sure they'd want to keep a pregnancy or are against abortion have done a 360 once a pregnancy was real, and the actuality of being pregnant more clear, and plenty of women who were sure they'd terminate have had a similar change of heart. But even if feelings change should a pregnancy occur, having that conversation in advance just to open the dialogue is a good idea.

When it comes to birth control, if a partner says they are on the pill, find out what you can about their pill, how to take it properly, and be sure that you have a discussion about proper pill use. It benefits guys to know as much as you can about methods female partners are using. In terms of condoms, be sure you're using them correctly and consistently.

If, at any point in your life, you feel like a pregnancy just isn't something you want to deal with or can handle, then unless you want to be sterilized and take that possibility off the table for good, you might want to consider, during those times, not having the kinds of sex -- namely, vaginal and/or anal intercourse -- which pose risks of pregnancy. We'd suggest that to anyone in that spot, but since men's contraception choices are so limited per what you can use yourself -- to condoms, withdrawal or sterilization -- and because the ultimate choice with a pregnancy isn't yours to make, in some ways it's even more critical for men who just do not want to risk a pregnancy at all to be sure the sexual choices they are making are in alignment with that need or want. Since other kinds of sex are usually just as enjoyable, and some more so sometimes or for some people, opting out of kinds of sex which pose possible consequences you know you just don't want shouldn't be that big of a deal.

I hope at least some of that was of use to you, and I wish you all the best as you work your way through this undoubtedly overwhelming time.

written 11 Jun 2008 . updated 11 Jun 2008

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