The XX Factor

Women Who Don’t Know They’re Pregnant

For a lot of fans of the show Mad Men , one of the hardest plot twists to swallow for its sheer soapiness had to be Peggy Olson’s “surprise” baby. The show played it so artfully-allowing the audience to believe Peggy was gaining weight in order to scare men away from harassing her-so that when she actually goes to the hospital complaining of stomach pains and is admitted to the maternity ward, we’re as surprised as she is. “No way!” my friends I watch the show with yelled. “No way could you not know you were pregnant!” Well, turns out that “surprise” babies are more common than one would think, with studies in Germany and Ireland putting the rate at as high as one in 600 births.

If you’re calling your doctor up to have your tubes tied so this can never happen to you, there’s some comfort to be had in reading this article from the Times Online. The theory is that most women who don’t know they’re pregnant do in fact know they’re pregnant but are in deep denial about it.  Perhaps the writers on Mad Men really did their research, because outside of the nervous breakdown, Peggy would be the textbook example of this phenomenon. It’s not that there aren’t any women who simply had no symptoms and no idea, but those cases seem to be the minority.

One thing this phenomenon makes very clear is that our relationship to our bodies is not so straightforward. The context and meaning we bring to our bodies has more impact on our understanding than I think most of us are comfortable admitting. If you know/admit you’re pregnant, it’s easy to perceive the rumblings in your gut as the fetus moving around, but if you don’t think of yourself as pregnant, it seems like it’s pretty easy to imagine that those rumblings are gas. This goes a long way to explaining phenomena like the placebo effect and the fact that different cultures seem to have different diseases and complaints from each other.

Photograph of pregnant woman by Cindy Singleton/Photodisc/Getty Creative Images.