Earlier this month, Katie Horneshaw wrote a piece about the unspoken trauma of infertility.
She described on news.com.au her desperation and how tightly she clung to hope. Having a baby had been her only non-negotiable. For Horneshaw, a child of her own would be the thing – perhaps the only thing – that could “grant me my happiness’.
But as I read, there was a particular passage that gripped me. She wrote:
“Every month, I would beg myself not to let my hopes soar too high. Yet every month, the phantom symptoms would come. The niggling in my breasts, the nausea after eating. The images of telling mum; of her crying softly on the other end of the phone; would creep across my mind until finally I would let down my guard and surrender to excitement.”
But of course, every month she was greeted with a dreaded stain in her underwear, which she says “…struck with pain like lightening”.
The term "phantom symptoms" piqued my interest. I had heard of phantom limb and even phantom eye syndrome, which are relatively common conditions where people feel sensations in parts of their body that they no longer have. But phantom pregnancy? Now that sounded interesting.
To be clear, what Horneshaw experienced was very normal for a woman struggling with infertility. But for some women, the sensation of pregnancy can last for nine months. In fact, for some it can last even longer.
Phantom pregnancy or false pregnancy, officially referred to as pseudocyesis, refers to the appearance of "clinical signs and symptoms associated with pregnancy" when the individual is not actually pregnant.
The condition presents itself in women as well as men, and has even been observed in animals. It is well documented throughout history, with Elizabethan's believing that phantom pregnancies "were the work of demons".