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Why Societal Pressure Is Behind The Rise In Phantom Pregnancies

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When Ayòbámi Adébáyò. found phantom pregnancies are more common in Nigeria, she realised that motherhood and self-worth are interlinked

Our bus shuddered along as the row about how much change the woman in front of me was supposed to get escalated into a loud, vicious argument. The other passengers, including my teenage self, watched silently as the woman tried to prove that the bus driver had shortchanged her. At first, he responded by trying to drown her voice with his, insisting that he’d given her the change that was due, but it wasn’t long before he threatened to slap her so hard no one in her family would be able to recognise her. At this point, a few people intervened, mostly to interject variations of a refrain I would hear again in nearly every context imaginable, ‘Don’t threaten her, she is someone’s mother’. Although I heard many versions of this as time went by, I was an adult before I began feeling uncomfortable about the expression.

As a child I spent many holidays with my grandparents. They had a store next to their house and rented the space to a hairdresser who let me hang out in her salon. It was a great place to people-watch and listen to all kinds of discussions. One of the salon regulars was a woman we called Aunty D. Everyone knew she had been married for several years with no children. Behind her back, customers wondered how much longer her marriage would last if she didn’t conceive soon. And then she did conceive, or everyone thought she had until months passed with no birth. During the first few months, Aunty D spoke freely about what she expected her life to be like when she became a mother. When a year passed and it became clear that she probably wasn’t pregnant, the salon quietened when she came to get her hair done. After a while, she stopped showing up. Speculation swirled about deceptive women who pretended to be pregnant, the assumption being that Aunty D had resorted to this. Even then I was vaguely aware of the pressure put on women in Nigeria to procreate and it seemed plausible that some would fabricate pregnancies to have some peace.

By the time I looked up what might have been happening to Aunty D, I was learning first-hand just how relentless the push to conceive could be. For many middle-class Nigerians, the convention is for a daughter to get married within a few years of leaving university and have her first child in the first year of marriage. When I looked up pseudocyesis (the medical term for false pregnancy), I’d recently earned my first degree and I was working on a novel.

Although my immediate family did not expect me to live out the usual script, at my graduation, ‘well-meaning’ friends and distant family members told me I needed to give my mother grandchildren soon. At a friend’s wedding, one of the groomsmen encouraged me to marry soon because I was at my ‘ripest’ age. When I discussed my postgraduate study plans with an elderly man I respected, he told me to make sure I got married soon so I could conceive my first child before I turned 25.

To promote female education, the mantra, ‘Educate a girl, educate a nation,’ had become a popular and celebrate argument in national discourse. On the radio, pundits stressed that educated mothers could help children with their homework. Though I looked forward to helping them one day, I resented the suggestion that my education was valuable only in relation to raising children.

When I started reading about cases of pseudocyesis in Nigeria, I wasn’t surprised to learn that societal pressure was a major precipitating factor. I wasn’t married or trying to get pregnant, but I’d already learnt to avoid certain relatives to preserve my sanity because our encounters inevitably ended with discussions about how I should have children soon. I felt as though my capacity to conceive had somehow made my body communal property. I started wondering what a woman like Aunty D who was actually trying to conceive must have endured.

Doctors distinguish pseudocyesis from delusions of pregnancy found in psychotic disorders. The woman doesn’t just think she’s pregnant, her body thinks a baby is on the way. Her breasts become tender, she’s nauseous, her stomach protrudes, even her womb enlarges. If all your life you’ve internalised messages that you weren’t whole until you had children, what happens if you can’t have them?

I began to find fault with statements like ‘Don’t talk to her like that, she’s someone’s mother’. What if she wasn’t someone’s mother? And even if she was, surely her right to be treated with dignity shouldn’t be contingent on this role. The woman on that bus deserved to be treated with dignity because she was human. Motherhood, as wonderful as it is, should not be a prerequisite for that.

‘Stay With Me’ by Ayò.bámi Adébáyò. was shortlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize (£8.99, Canongate Books