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Surprise, surprise, it's a baby


Irish Times, Tue, Nov 29, 2011

While most undetected pregnancies are discovered by 25-30 weeks, there are at least five or six cases a year in Ireland where the mother does not know she is pregnant until she goes into labour. But how can a pregnancy go undetected for so long?

MARGARET DOYLE has a three-month-old daughter. Like many parents, she found the transition from her carefree life to motherhood something of a shock to the system. But unlike most women, she didn’t have nine months to prepare because she didn’t realise she was pregnant until she gave birth.

For anyone who has ever had a baby, this is mind boggling. Most of us cannot fathom how a pregnancy could go undetected right through to labour stage, but it does happen and, as this Dublin woman explains, nothing could have prepared her for the biggest surprise of her life.

“I had been taking the Pill for a few years, so my periods were quite irregular, but I had been on antibiotics so when I was late, I decided to take a pregnancy test,” recalls the 36 year old. “It showed up negative, so I didn’t think much more about it.

“I continued to have periods and had a slightly swollen stomach, but thought I was retaining water because of the oral contraceptive. All my clothes fitted me perfectly, but I thought I might have a hormonal imbalance, so I made an appointment for a check-up.”

But Margaret’s life changed dramatically before she had the opportunity to visit her doctor.

“I know it sounds unbelievable but there was nothing at all to suggest that I was pregnant – my dress size remained the same, I continued to have light periods, I didn’t experience morning sickness and had no cravings for special foods,” she explains.

“So when I went into labour, it was a total and utter shock. I was in my bedroom when I was suddenly gripped by pain,” she recalls.

“I thought I was getting cramps or the beginning of severe period pain, so I called in sick to work and spent the day in agony; just taking painkillers for what I now know were contractions.”

Margaret, who was working as a secretary, was completely alone as her housemate was at work, so when her waters broke at 2pm, she had no idea what to do.

“When my waters broke, I still couldn’t comprehend that I was in labour. A little part of my brain went into action when I had an instinctive urge to push, but it was all so surreal, I felt like I was in the middle of a really strange dream.

“The pain became intense and then I felt an even stronger urge to push – it was as if my body was more in control than my conscious self. And at 4pm I looked into the beautiful blue eyes of my daughter – it was the most incredible experience.”

Despite the extraordinary nature of her delivery, Margaret was not traumatised by the labour itself.

“The birth was not too traumatic: the baby was totally perfect – warm, breathing and looking up at me with wonder,” she recalls. “I wasn’t concerned for her safety but the umbilical cord was still attached, so I had to wait there for an hour until my room-mate [Helen] returned home.”

Having to explain the presence of her baby was very stressful as unsurprisingly no one could understand how she was totally unaware of her pregnancy.

“Helen was so shocked. I called her upstairs and asked her to ring an ambulance – at first she thought I was playing a prank and wondered where I had got the baby, but when she saw the cord, she realised I was serious and rang for help.”

Margaret and her daughter (Aoife) were rushed to hospital where doctors checked the baby and cut the cord. The incredulity of the staff made the new mother anxious to leave.

“I’m sure the doctors thought I was half-witted or had some mental disorder,” she says. “Nobody said anything, but I knew they thought it was ridiculous. They kept my baby in an incubator for 12 hours under observation but, as she was born full term without complications, we were discharged in two days.”

Bringing a new baby home is a life-changing experience, but Margaret was so utterly unprepared that she literally couldn’t cope with the reality and her baby was put into care.

“My initial reaction to the birth was bewilderment, but I felt quite positive,” she recalls. “But having spent a few days in hospital, I realised that I knew nothing about babies – I was utterly terrified.

“I hadn’t planned on having a baby and was used to my easy-going life. I was in a casual relationship and the baby’s father was very negative about the news.

“I didn’t know what to do – so decided the best option was to send the baby to a foster family.”

The first weeks of her daughter’s life passed in a daze as Margaret grappled with her feelings.

“Everything was so surreal,” she admits. “I went back to my old life and pretended nothing had happened – but I couldn’t sleep at night and began having panic attacks.

“Putting my baby up for adoption seemed as terrifying as having her with me and my old life didn’t seem as attractive, so I decided to start having Aoife with me at weekends.”

Margaret’s parents were initially shocked by the news, but as soon as they met their granddaughter they were smitten. While her boyfriend is still coming to terms with the news, the couple hasn’t ruled out getting together as a family.

“Once I began caring for Aoife, I knew I wanted to be with her 24/7,” says the new mum. “My boyfriend knows the situation and is getting used to the idea – it’s early days but we will see how it goes.

“All I know now is that I need to be with my baby and I have decided to take her back full-time. I have been given three months’ maternity leave from work and will be getting lone-parent’s allowance, so will work something out for our future together.”

Although Margaret made her own decision to keep her baby, she credits social workers and friends with helping her to come to terms with her new status.

“Social workers from the Rotunda and Pact [a charitable adoption agency], Aoife’s foster mum and my room-mate helped me through the past few months and I genuinely wouldn’t have been able to do anything without them,” she says. “I wasn’t pushed in any direction by anyone but deep down, I knew that despite the shock, nothing mattered more than my baby.”

Berit Anderson of Here 2 Help (formerly known as Pact) is one of the social workers who helped Margaret deal with her unexpected delivery.

She says that while most undetected pregnancies are discovered by 25-30 weeks, there are at least five or six cases a year in Ireland where the mother does not know until she goes into labour.

“In all of these cases, there have been no visible signs of pregnancy. Some have gone into hospital with back pains wearing size eight jeans and one woman spent 10 hours in AE before anyone thought to do a pregnancy test,” she says.

“But in my experience [as a crisis pregnancy counsellor and adoption social worker], all of the women I have dealt with in a situation like this have been emotionally stable. Most have been professional women aged between mid-20s to mid-30s who have led normal lives.

“Even the singer from Ham Sandwich, Niamh Farrell, gave birth to her son Oscar in 2008 [just before they were about to play Glastonbury], without realising she was expecting.”

The counsellor says that although it is a rare occurrence, the phenomenon is a reality which society finds difficult to accept.

“Undetected pregnancies are more rare than so-called ‘phantom pregnancies’ and are usually met with complete disbelief, not least within the medical arena,” says Berit.

“In Margaret’s case, a doctor involved in the care of her child, wrote in a medical report, that ‘the woman claims she did not know she was pregnant’.

“Therefore, there are lots of reasons to draw more attention to the subject. Some women feel a strong sense of shame and this has contributed to them eventually making the decision to place the child for adoption.

“But as undetected pregnancies are a very rare occurrence, it is important to stress that not every woman needs to go around wondering if she is pregnant. If you are in doubt, do a pregnancy test.

“Remember that it is possible to have light bleeding when your period is expected, even though you are pregnant, so repeat the test two weeks later if you still feel something is askew.”

2011 The Irish Times

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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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