“My mother was pregnant for 2 years”…she said
“I’m not joking, the baby was later stolen from the womb by my grandma”…she snapped
The above dialogue was between a friend and I. She claimed that her mother was pregnant for two years, and that the baby was never born because her paternal grandma stole him from the womb. Apparently, the grandma was a “witch” who hated her mother. She explained that a faith healer ‘revealed’ to her mum that grandma was to blame for her prolonged pregnancy, and the subsequent disappearance of her baby. The elderly woman was ostracised from her family and friends. I was surprised that my friend could believe that story, but I dared not trivialise her beliefs, because the conviction on her face was terrifying.
Besides, her story wasn’t a unique one. I have read and heard about women being pregnant, and their babies “stolen” or “disappearing” from their wombs. In Africa, witches and evil forces are quintessentially blamed for them. These mothers sometimes carry the pregnancies for longer periods than nature allows, and subsequently not have the babies. They usually seek help from faith and traditional healers. I’ve always been puzzled by these mysteries. I once saw a picture of a woman who claimed that she had been pregnant for one year, and her stomach was actually protruding. Her baby had been “stolen” by witches. She was an advert for a faith organisation who “healed” her, although I never followed up on what the final results were. I don’t know if she ever had her baby.
Recently, I decided to carry out an anecdotal survey of friends from different countries to ascertain their beliefs about babies ‘stolen’ or ‘disappearing’ from wombs. I found out that many people had heard of similar cases. Some claim they know someone whose sister or aunty went through the same ordeal. Well, I decided to consult my bestie Google. I found out that the mystery of disappearing babies is globally reported. There are known cases in Canada, Brazil and some African countries. Oh wow!!! However, being a cynic, I had to find out more. I love science, so I searched medical literature, and was amazed at the explanations…
What the scientists say…
There’s actually a medical term for such pregnancies…Pseudocyesis or Phantom Pregnancy. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) described pseudocyesis as “a false belief of being pregnant that is associated with objective signs and reported symptoms of pregnancy…” Interestingly, in western literature, pseudocyesis is reported to be rare, whereas it is more prevalent in countries where marriage and childbirth are of utmost significance. It is common amongst women between 20 – 44 years old, although it could also happen to older women. These pregnancies last from a few weeks to 9 months or longer.
If pseudocyesis is a false belief, how can science explain the swollen abdomen I saw in related pictures?
The condition has apparently baffled scientists, although some have posited some explanations for its occurrence. I found out that there is that a relationship between human psychology, the reproductive systems, and the secretion of hormones. Where there’s a strong desire to have a baby for whatever reason, be it culture, looming menopause, family pressure, domestic violence, miscarriages or infertility, the woman’s body may start showing signs of pregnancy. These include: swollen abdomen, enlargement of the breasts and sensational fetal movements. The brain misinterpreting these signs, then triggers pregnancy related hormones such as estrogen and prolactin. A further surge of pregnancy related symptoms would be felt by the woman as a result of these hormones. She may experience reduced or total stoppage of menstrual flow, nausea, secretions from the breasts, and even contractions at the expected date of delivery. Other causes are possible misinterpretation of a reaction in an organ or tissue, to be signs of pregnancy, especially when abdominal swelling or pressure on the pelvic structures occur. Physiological factors such as ageing, abdominal and pelvic tumours, and fluid retention (side effects of oral contraceptives) increase the occurrence of pseudocyesis in women who are susceptible to it. Depressive conditions and their resultant hormonal imbalances have also been linked to pseudocyesis.
Pseudocyesis is diagnosed when an ultrasound and other tests indicate that there’s no foetus present, irrespective of the woman showing signs and symptoms of pregnancy. It is different from falsified pregnancies as seen in some cases. Women with pseudocyesis sincerely believe that they are pregnant, and their symptoms shouldn’t be trivialised. Treatments vary from psychotherapies to physical therapies.
Yet again, I believe the scientific explanations. Any societal setting that imposes pressure on women to be married and have children, inadvertently inflicts adverse physiological, psychological and social consequences on them. Hence, I’m not surprised that an increased number of women in those countries develop the condition.
More disturbing is the exploitation of these women by the “healers” they consult. Some of them ignore medical care because of spiritual healing. The worst part is the accusations that ensue against innocent friends or family members (especially elderly women), who are blamed for being witches and stealing babies from wombs.
With the ubiquitous use of ultrasounds in hospitals, hopefully more diagnosis and treatment will be carried out by informed medical professionals. My heart reaches out to the women who can’t afford to assess contemporary treatments, who unfortunately, are left with the psychological scars that their babies were stolen.
Sources of post’s science bits can be found here.