Sixteen-year-old Benjamin Morrison is in his junior year of high school and is on the way to a bright future. He is smart, motivated, and enthusiastic about science and robotics, and a top college seems to be on the horizon. Then Ben learns that an “experiment” at science camp to prove to himself that he is, in fact, gay has gone horribly wrong. Ben slept with his best friend, Maxie, and now she is pregnant.
Maxie’s parents have decided that she will have the baby and give it up for adoption, and they want Ben to sign away his paternal rights. But Ben’s father died before Ben was born, and the men his mother has dated and married have all left (Ben’s current stepfather, Roger, is number 3) and he is determined his child will know they have a father who wanted them. Ben wants to fight for custody and, while his mother is wary, she agrees to do all she can to help support him.
Things are much more complicated than Ben ever expected, however. His job to make money for the baby is taking up much of his after school time, leaving him exhausted and stretched thin. Ben never seems to be able to catch up on everything he needs to do, and his previously carefully controlled life now feels chaotic. Where once Ben excelled at school, now he is barely hanging on. Not to mention he is letting down his robotics team, his good friend is mad at him, and Maxie barely wants to talk to him. The only thing that seems to be going right is reconnecting with Gio, his crush (and former stepbrother). Now, as Maxie’s due date draws closer, Ben has to decide what he truly wants, and what might be best for the baby.
Unexpecting by Jen Bailey gives us the story of teen pregnancy through the eyes of the expectant father, as the story is told from Ben’s sole POV. I think the approach works well in some ways and is less successful in others. We meet Ben as a super smart, albeit socially awkward, high school junior. He excels at school and is on track for a top-tier university in a couple of years. Ben is a science kid with a science brain and he approaches most things with logic and order, but this may be the exception, as it is clear his feelings about fatherhood are based on emotion. Ben wants to raise the baby because he missed out on that father figure in his life and he wants to give that to a child. So while Maxie’s family wants him to sign away his parental rights so they can put the baby up for adoption, Ben is clear he wants to raise the baby. Ben (quite mistakenly) is sure he understands what is involved in raising a child and throughout the book we see him coming to terms with what fatherhood will really entail.
I will admit I found Ben frustrating as a character because he really is so clueless here. He says he understands the sacrifices he will have to make and, at his mother’s insistence, he gets a job and goes to parenting classes. But he is still shocked that he can’t go to science camp two months after the baby is born and it never occurs to him that having a child may affect his college plans. Also, while he is supposedly making plans for both the finances and logistics for caring for the baby, we never see him consider or decide who is going to take care of the baby all day while he is in school, where he and the baby will live, how he will afford to raise a child on a part-time salary while in high school, etc. Basically, the baby feels like an idea to him, not a person for much of the book and, while he thinks he knows it all, he very clearly does not. Ben is also frustratingly focused on himself and his needs without thinking much about his future child and without thinking at all about Maxie. She is one of his two best friends and he basically ignores her and barely pauses for a moment to consider her needs or feelings in this whole situation. What I think made this ultimately work for me is that we see growth from Ben over the course of the book in this regard. He is still a teen boy and it is not all perfect, but it’s positive change. I don’t need to always love a character if I can see them grow and develop in the story, and I felt satisfied in that regard here. That said, I think there may be some readers who are going to find Ben’s attitude too off-putting to fully embrace this story.
As I said, I think the sole focus on Ben’s POV is good and bad, and the positive side here is we get to see this experience from the viewpoint of the expecting father, which is an interesting twist. As a male (particularly a gay male who never expected to find himself part of an accidental pregnancy), Ben obviously has some unique perspectives. The problem is that the story relegates Maxie almost completely to the sidelines in a way I found problematic. It’s not just that 16-year-old Ben doesn’t consider her feelings in all this… it’s that no one does. It is pretty clear early on that Maxie’s parents are punishing her “transgression” by forcing her to carry the baby and give it up for adoption, which is frankly horrible. No one asks Maxie what she wants, no one seems to care about her feelings. Eventually Ben does realize Maxie is a real person and has real feelings, and her parents soften a bit late in the story when some serious stuff goes down. However, Maxie is left as a fairly undeveloped character who seems like she is there to carry the baby and not much more.
The other issue with the pregnancy storyline is that the ending felt very telegraphed by a scene early on and so I knew how it would end for a large part of the book (and I think most readers are going to figure it out immediately as well). Given that the major storyline is how Ben’s quest to raise the baby will play out, knowing the resolution took away any of that tension. Things also feel a bit rushed at the end as it all comes together. That said, I think the book ends exactly how it should and I was satisfied with how everything comes together. It was sweet and emotional and feels like a fitting ending.
The story’s main focus is on the pregnancy, but there is a light romantic subplot between Ben and a former stepbrother, Gio. Stepfather #2 owns a restaurant and he hires Ben to work as a busser to earn some baby money. Gio works for his father as well and, since the boys go to the same school and Ben doesn’t drive, Gio takes him to work. What I liked here is that Gio is a voice of calm in Ben’s often frantic brain. He is steady and supportive and is there for Ben when he needs someone to talk to. I appreciated that Gio is also the voice of reason, reminding Ben he needs to talk to his mom, or to consider Maxie’s views, etc. So Gio is a grounded character who nicely helps keep things steady. The relationship gets very little time in the story, however. While we know Ben is crushing on Gio and we get a kiss between them, the romantic subplot is just a very small part of the book and is backburnered for much of the story. We get a nice character growth moment for Gio, but mostly he is a background character and their relationship is definitely not the most important one in the story. As for the stepbrother angle, the boys lived together part time while their parents were married and Ben has crushed on Gio for a while (though he is clear it started after their parents were no longer married). Ben doesn’t seem to see Gio as “family” in any way, but it does seem like Gio views Ben’s mom with much affection and fondness from their time as stepmother and child. So I didn’t find it bothersome, but some readers may find their connection too familial.
The relationship I loved the most here is actually the one that develops between Ben and his current stepfather, Roger. When the book starts, Ben just sees Roger as the latest in a line of men his mother has dated/married who will eventually leave. He doesn’t have much of a relationship with Roger, by his own design, as Ben doesn’t want to get attached to anyone who isn’t going to stick around. Ben seems surprised that Roger sees him as family and seems to care about him and want a connection. Over the course of the book, we see their relationship grow and Ben slowly realizes he can count on Roger to be there for him. It is just a really sweet, lovely relationship and it aligns nicely with the way the story explores themes of what makes a family.
Last note… the blurb compares this story to both Juno and Heartstopper. I guess Juno works, as they are both stories with teen pregnancy, though the tone and POV is different in that movie than this story. But don’t go into this looking for Heartstopper. That story is much more romance focused, with the relationship at the heart of the story. Heartstopper also is unique in that it manages to be tooth-achingly sweet in a way that is incredibly endearing rather than off-putting. That is just not the tone or vibe here at all. Aside from the fact that the story is about teenagers and the romance (such as it is here) features two boys, there are really no similarities. That is no shade to this story, just want to be clear about what you are getting.
Overall, I found this an interesting story that offers a nice look at teen pregnancy from the father’s POV. The added piece of Ben being gay and how that affects his own feelings, as well as how people respond to the situation, adds a nice element as well. I enjoyed following along with Ben’s journey, even as I found myself frustrated and even angry at him for much of the book. I did feel like Maxie is relegated to baby carrier in a way that bothered me and I feel like her story needed to be told in a way that made her feel more like a real person with feelings and needs. But in the end, I enjoyed this one and I think fans of young adult romance may find this one particularly appealing.