Today on the blog, regular contributor Kathy Morelli shares information on an uncommon but very serious mental health disorder called pregnancy negation (pregnancy denial and pregnancy concealment) that can occur in women. This unusual phenomena may never have crossed your radar or you may have met women who have experienced this situation. Learn more here about this illness and what you can do as a childbirth professional, should you meet a woman or family dealing with this situation. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager for Science & Sensibility.
Original Painting © Johann Heinrich Füssli
The research studies about negation of pregnancy generally consist of small sample sizes, so there isn’t a lot of data available about negation of pregnancy. More study is needed in order to understand this topic more thoroughly. I do see this phenomena in my psychotherapy practice, so I believe it’s a topic that birth professionals might see it in their community as well.
Negation of pregnancy, a term that encompasses both pregnancy denial and pregnancy concealment, are rare, but not uncommon, disorders of pregnancy. One in 475 pregnancies result in negation of pregnancy. A very minute portion of this statistic results in neonaticide- the act of killing a baby in the first 24 hours of life (Beier et al, 2006).
As with other psychological conditions, the underlying etiology of negation of pregnancy exists on a spectrum. The person can suffer from a lifelong, persistent “splitting” of the self due to trauma, she can suffer from a persistent biological mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or she can be experiencing a type of severe adjustment disorder.
Current research indicates that not all women who experience negation of pregnancy have previous diagnoses of serious and persistent mental illness. Some women who experience negation of pregnancy have pre-existing diagnoses of biploar with psychotic features and schizophrenia, and psychosis is part of their life experiences. But others do not have a previous diagnosis and after integrating the episode of negation of pregnancy, they adjust to their life situation and cope realistically.
Pregnancy denial is defined as a woman’s unawareness, in varying degrees, of her pregnancy. Pregnancy concealment is defined as actively deciding and hiding the pregnancy from others. Pregnancy denial and pregnancy concealment often co-occur and occur intermittently. There is usually a great deal of shame, fear, guilt and dissociation, a strong psychological and emotional defense, accompanying this disorder. Due to the level of emotional conflict around the pregnancy, there are gradations of denial and complexity and subtlety of emotional response from both the pregnant woman and those around her.
The term negation of pregnancy is also used to encompass and describe these co-occuring disorders, whereas the internal process is called denial and the external process is called concealment. Therefore, it is considered the same process, but the woman’s defense mechanisms vary in intensity.
Neonaticide, the killing of an infant on the day of birth, is a form of infanticide that is often preceded by pregnancy denial. Neonaticide can be one of the complications of pregnancy denial.
Pregnancy denial is a real phenomena that has a long history of documentation, by doctors, mothers, their families and artists.
One famous literary exploration of pregnancy denial and neonaticide is illustrated in George Eliot’s novel, Adam Beade, published in 1859. It is the novel of a woman’s experience, examining the intersection between women’s unique emotions around reproduction and their disempowered social standing. Taking place in 1799, the story is about a love triangle involving Hetty, a 17 year old girl. She becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Hetty knows she is pregnant, but never openly acknowledges this. She knows she will face extreme shame and ostracization by the town, should anyone find out. She successfully hides her pregnancy and gives birth to her baby in a field. She commits neonaticide, abandoning her baby boy where she birthed him.
Characteristics of Women Who Negate Pregnancy
Early research indicated that pregnancy denial and neonaticide is more likely to occur in women who are young and unmarried, where the relationship with the father is dissolving or non-existent and the woman lives at home with relatives.
However, more recent research shows that pregnancy denial and neonaticide occurs in women of all age groups, cultures and marital status in response to a conflicted pregnancy. Many women already have several other children, so it is not always the first time mother who negates her pregnancy.
Research by Shelton and colleagues (2011) indicates that pregnancy at an early age, multiple young children, a history of childhood abuse and trauma, current fear of abandonment (even if in a stable relationship), and a deprived social situation are all risk factors and common characteristics for women who negate their pregnancy.
The pathway to pregnancy denial and concealment often begins with an unplanned pregnancy. The woman has accompanying feelings of extreme fear and shame. She begins with pregnancy concealment. She hides her pregnancy with baggy clothes and isolates herself in her room. To help facilitate concealment, she sees less and less of people. Thus, she becomes more and more emotionally isolated.
Eventually, she finds she has no one to confide in. This results in a vicious cycle, and her emotional defenses develop a sense of pregnancy denial. The pregnancy denial is described by researchers as intermittent, her lack of self-awareness comes and goes and she is able to compartmentalize her pregnancy. She successfully dissociates from her body sensations.
The denial and dissociation is so potent that women often describe beginning birth pains as flu symptoms, gas pain and menstrual cramps. Women often go to the bathroom and deliver the baby silently, with others nearby. Women often describe the feeling of giving birth like having to defecate and are shocked when a baby appears.
Women in this type of delivery report dissociative symptoms at the birth and afterward when coping with the newborn. Women also often report a fantasy that the infant was preterm or stillborn. Often, sadly, the outcome for infants born to women who are experiencing negation of pregnancy are death a short time after birth, either from drowning in a toilet bowl, or hitting their head on the floor in a precipitous, unassisted birth.
Another fascinating aspect of pregnancy concealment and denial is that the family and even doctors are drawn into “community denial” by the emotional intensity of the denial. Interestingly, in one study, only 5 out of 28 women studied who negated their pregnancy had any family members inquire about their pregnancy at all (Amon et al, 2012)! Another study indicates that even long term family doctors who know the woman well will sometimes fail to diagnose the pregnancy (Amon et al, 2012).
Treatment for negation of pregnancy is as nuanced and varied as each individual case. Whenever there is dissociation of parts of reality and parts of the self, the treatment path can include techniques used to treat post-traumatic stress. Such techniques would include EMDR, guided imagery, object relations techniques embedded in an overall therapeutic structure that balances leaving a woman’s psychological defenses intact, while at the same time helping her through her issues of denial (Anonymous, 2003).
Depending on the cause and severity of the negation of pregnancy, the processing of dissociated emotional material, the buried shame, the confusing physical symptoms, and the integration of the parts of her self could take place over an extended period of time in a safe, therapeutic atmosphere.
In general, directly asking or accusing a woman who is negating her pregnancy about her situation isn’t an effective treatment method. In order to survive, the person has most likely developed a method of dissociative “splitting” or “compartmentalizing” differing parts of the self. It is a normal psychological response to dissociate from trauma in order to survive. Dissociative coping exists along a continuum, from intermittent denial to having developed separate parts of the self to contain the trauma (Amon, 2012; Anonymous, 2003).
For example, in order to survive complex emotional trauma, such as childhood abuse, incest, rape, pregnancy from rape/incest, a woman would survive by dissociating. She may have unconsciously developed a way to “split” or “compartmentalize” parts of her self. Her unconscious coping mechanism assigns one part of the self to be covertly sexually active while another part of the self overtly maintains the social and familial facade that she is not sexually active. The psychological defenses can be so strong that she has intermittent dissociative awareness about her pregnancy and even amnesia around childbirth.
On the other hand, a woman may be experiencing a less mild form of dissociation and negation of pregnancy. She may need time to integrate her pregnancy into her life and shift towards healthy adjustment, coping and planning.
What birth professionals can do
If you suspect you have encountered a woman with this condition, be aware of your own reactions to her situation. Convey an accepting attitude about her situation. It’s best not to ask her overt questions about her circumstances. Ask open-ended questions, wait for her responses.
Importantly, convey an accepting attitude about sexuality, pregnancy and motherhood, without being overt.
Have a good set of referrals to health professionals, including mental health professionals, in your area. You may not be able to help her in the moment, but there may be another time you’ll see her and she might be open to accepting help. Your accepting attitude could be part of her healing and reaching out.
To sum up, negation of pregnancy has been documented in the popular literature and in medical literature for many years. It was once thought that negation of pregnancy only occurs in young and unmarried women, but current research shows that older women with multiple children experience this as well. It is a condition of many emotional and psychological nuances. In a very rare number of cases, can lead to neonaticide.
As a birth professional in your community, you can help by developing an awareness and understanding of negation of pregnancy as a real condition, with many emotional and psychological nuances. By being accepting and by having a solid set of referrals for her and her family if she reaches out to you. More study is needed in order to understand this topic more thoroughly.
Amon, S., Putkonon, H., Weizmann-Henelius, G., Almiron, M.P., Gormann, A.K., Voracke, M., Eronen, M., Yourstone, J., Friedrich, M. & Klier, C.M. (2012). Potential predictors in neonaticide: the impact of the circumstances of pregnancy. Archive of Women’s Mental Health, 15, 167-174.
Anonymous (2003). How Could Anyone Do That? A therapists struggle with countertransference. In M.G. Spinelli (Ed.), Infanticide: Psychosocial and Legal Perspectives on Mothers Who Kill (pp. 201 – 208). American Psychiatric Publishing, Washington, D.C.
Shelton, J.L, Corey, T., Donaldson, W.H. & Dennison, E.H. (2011). Neonaticide: A comprehensive review of investigative and pathologic aspects of 55 cases. Journal of Family Violence, 26, 263-276.
Miller, L. J. (2003). Denial of Pregnancy. In M.G. Spinelli (Ed.), Infanticide: Psychosocial and Legal Perspectives on Mothers Who Kill (pp. 81- 103). American Psychiatric Publishing, Washington, D.C.
Spinelli, M. G., (2003). Neonaticide: A systematic investigation of 17 cases. In M.G. Spinelli (Ed.), Infanticide: Psychosocial and Legal Perspectives on Mothers Who Kill (pp. 105 – 118). American Psychiatric Publishing, Washington, D.C.
About Kathy Morelli
Kathy Morelli is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Wayne, NJ and the Director of BirthTouch®, LLC. She provides Marriage and Family counseling in Wayne, New Jersey with a special interest in perinatal mood disorders, sexual abuse and its impact on parenting. EMDR is one of the mindbody therapies she uses to address trauma. She blogs about the emotions of pregnancy, birth, postpartum and couples. Kathy is the author of BirthTouch® for Parents-To-Be and BirthTouch® Healing for Parents in the NICU. Kathy has lectured on BirthTouch® at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s Semmelweis Conference for Midwifery and at birth conferences. She presents trainings to allied health/birth organizations about maternal mental health, family systems and good-enough parenting and is found on web media, such as PBS’ This Emotional Life, writing and speaking about this subject. She volunteers on Postpartum Support International’s warmline. Kathy co-moderates #MHON , a psycho-educational and supportive Twitter chat led by credentialed Mental Health professionals around mental health issues, working to reduce the stigma around mental illness.
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