“My mother was pregnant for 2 years,” she said
“Really?” I asked
“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 “being 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 than we know Nature allows, but do 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 aunt went through a similar ordeal.
So, I decided to consult Google. I found out that the mystery of disappearing babies has been reported 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 …
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) describes 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 so-called 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 – including but not limited to 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 foetal movements. The brain misinterprets these signs, then triggers pregnancy-related hormones such as oestrogen and prolactin. A further surge of pregnancy-related symptoms will 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 of pseudocyesis 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 aging, 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 absence of a foetus, irrespective of the woman showing signs and symptoms of pregnancy. It is different from falsified pregnancies, which has also been known to occur. 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. So, I was honestly not surprised to learn that an increased number of women in certain countries develop the condition.
More disturbing is the exploitation of these women by the so-called healers they consult. Some of them ignore medical care because they believe they will obtain spiritual healing. I find the worst part to be the accusations that are levelled 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 diagnoses and treatment will be carried out by informed medical professionals. My heart aches for the women who have no access to contemporary treatments, and are unfortunately left with the psychological scars that their babies were stolen.
Nola Solomon is a registered nurse, who is based in the United Kingdom and blogs at anethnicnurse.com