“After the initial shock and dismay of a late unplanned pregnancy (we are in our mid-forties) we have decided to have the child and are now looking forward to its birth. Our 18-year-old daughter A was delighted but our 15 year old son B was shocked and disturbed. In the last two months his behaviour and attitude has deteriorated rapidly and he can hardly manage to speak to either of us (especially not to his father). He treats us as if we had committed a crime. Our daughter thinks his biggest shock was that we were sexually active and we think she is right. In the meantime, our aggravation with him is rising and we would welcome suggestions.”
Mr and Mrs G.L.
Technical unreliability of major contraceptives represents a very small percentage of pregnancies compared to human error and human error is often not error at all but unconscious accuracy. However, to be taken by surprise by another part of oneself, especially over such a major issue as bringing a child into the world, is indeed shocking and requires careful consideration.
Where a couple have consciously planned to have another child, the existing child or children can sense this long before pregnancy. There is a delicate but tangible change in the atmosphere. Sometimes it includes an extra protective component for those about to feel (temporarily at least) misplaced. Teachers and residential workers who are just beginning to entertain a thought about changing their jobs are often surprised by the immediate way their charges can pick this up. Where any change is a surprise to the adults it will also be a surprise to the children. When parents or professionals plan something it becomes processed so that the child is partially cushioned.
However, Mr and Mrs G.L.’s children are in their teens. Should that make a difference? A is 18, of voting age, and likely to be able to conceive. As a young female adult she can identify with her mother’s female ability to become pregnant and at a more sexually independent stage of life she is not threatened by her father’s potency. As the first of two children she has also already adjusted to seeing her place changing, from “only” child to “oldest” child. B, however, is clearly in a different position. Firstly, despite being in his teens, he is the current youngest in the family. At his age and in this culture he had every reason to consider himself the last of the G.L. children. Mr and Mrs G.L. thought he was too. Now he is to lose that position. Although larger age-gaps between siblings can often lessen the way in which rivalry shows itself, it still exists. Many older brothers and sisters who are old enough to be the parents of siblings can be seen behaving as if they were only two or three years older! Nevertheless, with resentment rising and the months passing, B’s response is indeed a matter for concern.
At 15, B is in a period of adolescence which involves far more physical change than later adolescence. It is a time when the adolescent is at a half-way stage between dependence and independence and more likely to be established in a peer-group friendship culture than in a personal sexual-emotional relationship. These two issues join together to make the impact of the pregnancy more disturbing. His perception of his parents as non-sexual and static, a slide-rule against which he could measure his growth, has taken a big knock.
A’s opinion is an important point. Many children retain a phantasy that their parents are non-sexual beings who deviated from a life of spotless celibacy just to give birth to them. Long-standing relationships do not give out the same sexual vibrations as new ones and adolescents therefore usually start experiencing their own sexual feelings at a time when they do not feel intruded upon by the signs or proof of their parents’ sexuality.
Although some professional couples are choosing only to begin their families in their late thirties or early forties they still form a minority as do couples who started their families in their twenties but complete them twenty years later. Many couples wisely plan to have their children earlier than their 40’s since the closer women get to the menopause the greater the biological risks (although these have been much modified). If it took Mr and Mrs G.L. over a month to come to terms with their own shock it is not surprising it took the youngest member of the family longer.
However, I wonder if Mr and Mrs G.L. are completely over their shock. Would B be able to so powerfully continue treating them as criminals if they did not feel guilty of a crime? Sometimes the child in the adult can identify with the real child so strongly that an adult voice gets lost. For example, Peter, aged 15, wanted to stay at an all-night party. His parents, considering the nature of the party, and where it was being held, decided this was not viable but said he could stay until 11pm. Peter was furious. His parents, identifying with his rage and remembering their own similar arguments with their parents, behaved apologetically to him, thereby exacerbating his mood. By apologising they were legitimising his complaint rather than being able to quietly uphold their adult decisions.
When a couple are going through pregnancy they can lose some aspects of their own adulthood. In some families where there is a large age-gap between the older and the younger children there can be a danger of older children being expected to take care of the parents or the new baby. If B is the only problem posed by the pregnancy is that placing too large a responsibility for its safe passage and outcome on his shoulders?
What can Mr and Mrs G.L. do to ensure their wellbeing at such a crucial time if B’s behaviour shows no sign of improvement? They could seek advice for themselves as to how to maintain their unity in the face of B’s behaviour. They could seek help as a family with A and B present or they could consider whether B would prefer the privacy of speaking to someone by himself.