Hidden pregnancy hasn’t gone away, it just has another face

While Ireland may no longer be such a harsh place for unmarried pregnant women, the stigma persists

‘For some people a pregnancy might not have been a crisis 10 years ago but it is now.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

‘For some people a pregnancy might not have been a crisis 10 years ago but it is now.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

Tue, Jul 22, 2014, 01:00

Agnes always assumed that her mother would be supportive if she got pregnant, but just as she was working up the courage to break the news, her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Now there is so much stress at home that she knows there will never be a good time to drop the bombshell and so she refuses even to think about it.

Eileen sometimes wishes that people would stop talking about the mother and babies scandal because she is in a black hole and the constant handwringing and recrimination on the radio is making her feel overwhelmed.

Her recently laid-off husband has stopped opening the bills, her teenage son has stopped asking if he can go to college, and she can’t face the prospect of another baby at 42.

Every so often, Ireland is transfixed by revelations and reminders of the mothers and babies so cruelly treated by a society with no place for women who got pregnant outside marriage.

But amid all the tut-tutting, hundreds of Irish women continue to hide pregnancies. “Concealed pregnancy has not gone away: it just has another face,” according to Sylvia Murphy Tighe, a former midwife and public health nurse who has been told stories similar to those of Agnes and Eileen.

Research project

A few months ago she and Prof Joan Lalor of the school of nursing and midwifery at Trinity College Dublin appealed for women who had, or who are, concealing pregnancies to participate in a research project where the focus is on hearing the women’s own voices.

Already 36 women, three of them pregnant, have made contact. Just over half of them gave birth a generation or more ago, but almost as many have recently concealed a pregnancy, even as the nation recoiled from yet more revelations about Magdalene laundries and unmarked graves in mother and baby homes.

Murphy Tighe says the stereotype of the terrified teenager with nowhere to turn still applies in some cases, but the issue of concealed pregnancy is much more complex and widespread than many people think.

“Yes, it could be a teenager, trying to protect her parents. It could be someone who is not in a conventional relationship and just can’t find a way of going home and saying, ‘I had a one-night stand and I am pregnant’,” says Murphy Tighe.

All ages

She has spoken to women of all ages: some in violent relationships; some not in a relationship; some worn down by financial worries; and others battling depression and feeling emotionally unprepared for a baby.

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