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Stigmatic Pregnancy Euphemism
There used to be such a stigma on young women becoming pregnant out of wedlock that the woman in question was often smuggled away from the family to have the bastard child. It was considered shameful, so to avoid gossip and embarrassment, the family would make excuses, such as:

  1. She's studying abroad.
  2. She's joined a convent.
  3. She's visiting her aunt/sister/old family friend.
  4. Rheumatic fever or some other illness that requires isolation and a long convalescence.

Tropes resulting after the baby is born:

  1. The most common one involves the baby being shipped off to an orphanage, which results in Missing Mom for the kid, if the kid ends up mentioned again.
  2. Family Relationship Switcheroo: Another member of the family raises the child as their own. The most common one involves the baby's grandmother taking on the role of mother and raising the newborn in the false belief that his/her real mother is an older sister. Depending on your interpretation, this may result in Mind Screw for the child when the deception is discovered.
  3. The mother never returns to her home town. She lives among people who don't know her past (commonly staying with distant relatives) and passes herself off as a widow.
  4. In particularly gruesome scenarios, the mother or one of her relatives kills the newborn, either directly or by abandoning it somewhere where it is unlikely to be found.

Largely a Discredited Trope in works set in the modern world, it still appears from time to time thanks to its former Truth in Television status, particularly in period pieces and medieval-style fantasy settings.

Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Comedy 

  • In one of his standup specials, Chris Rock summed up the consequences for a child raised in the your mom is your sister solution.
    If a kid calls his Grandmama Mommy and his Momma Pam, he's going to jail.

     Comic Books  

  • Shortly before being thrown off a bridge by the Green Goblin, Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacey spent some time in Europe. Recently this was revealed to be because she had slept with Norman Osborn and become pregnant. The twins she gave birth to were artificially aged rapidly, gained super powers and eventually returned to New York to attempt to kick Spider-man's ass. It made about as much sense as that sounds.
    • Though Gwen's (canonically nigh-impossible) disappearance was due less to propriety and more to ducking the psychotic Norman Osborn.

    Film 

  • In the musical version of Hairspray, Tracy auditions for The Corny Collins Show because one of the regular dancers is taking a nine-month leave of absence.
  • An unusual version takes place in The Great Lie; an unlikeable diva of a classical pianist, who doesn't want a kid to slow down her high-flying lifestyle, goes away for months accompanied by a more sympathetic rival, under the cover story that it's the rival who is pregnant (by her recently departed husband, respectably enough) and in need of a break. After the birth, the rival is the official "mother".
  • This is the whole plot of Susan Slade, where the child is passed off as his grandparents' son.

    Literature 

  • Older Than Print: A really weird example appears in The Arabian Nights. A Jackass Genie brings a man from Damascus to Cairo, where he falls in love with a woman (the daughter of the Vizier of Egypt), marries her and sleeps with her. Then the Jackass Genie brings the man back to Damascus, which leaves the woman in a bit of a predicament when it turns out she's pregnant. She tells her son that his grandfather is his father, but the lie is revealed when the boy becomes very cocky and goes around telling everyone that his father is the Vizier of Egypt. Wanting to put a stop to this, his schoolmaster tells him that the Vizier is his grandfather and that nobody knows who his father is. Of course, his mother is reunited with his real father eventually.
  • The Edith Wharton short story Roman Fever involves a version of this trope.
  • My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding and My Big Fat Supernatural Honeymoon each have stories like this.
    • In the former title, a story told by a snooty rich man described one of the young women in his acquaintance as "studying abroad" (including the quotes) until they determined that it was a false alarm.
    • In the latter, a woman had been sent away "to study" due to an unmarried pregnancy.
  • This is a plot point in I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein.
  • In One Hundred Years of Solitude Fernanda Del Carpio sends her daughter Meme to a convent after the latter had an affair with a poor worker, and some months later the nuns send back a baby boy to the distraught grandmother.
  • In Vivian Vande Velde's Never Trust a Dead Man, the protagonist ends up magically disguising himself as Kendra, a girl from his village who recently left to join a convent (supposedly). To his great surprise, as soon as Kendra's friends and family see the disguised protagonist, they start asking what happened to her baby.
  • In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,the favorite terms are "to get (or get a girl) in trouble" and "shame". An Italian "gets in trouble", and her father locks her up so the neighbors won't "see her shame increase". He also sees that she only gets starvation rations of bread and water in hopes that she and the baby will die in childbirth. Childless Aunt Sissy feeds the girl and eventually takes the baby without the father knowing. She also fakes a pregnancy since her husband refuses to adopt.
    • Something similar happens in The Shadow of the Wind, to Penelope Aldaya, but her father's isolation and deprivation works, and Penelope and the baby both die.
  • In Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, Teri, a neighbor and classmate of the narrator, is more or less responsible for raising her two-year-old brother Mikey. After he dies suddenly, we find out that she's actually his mother — but most likely his sister too.
  • In The Bad Mother's Handbook by Kate Long, elderly Nan has flashbacks to when she adopted Karen, with the real mother (a young teenage girl abused by her stepfather) leaving town with the excuse that she was going to London to become an actress.
  • In the historical series Daimyo, the heroine (a Dutch noblewoman) finds herself pregnant by her Japanese lover. Her best friend (sister to the baby's father) has just gotten married to a Scottish knight, so they use a lengthy business voyage to conceal the pregnancy and pass the child off as the married couple's child (conveniently explaining its clearly multi-racial appearance as well).
  • Averted in An Irish Country Doctor. A young unmarried woman arrives at the local GP's clinic with a missed period, and when the pregnancy test comes back positive, she refuses to reveal who the father is (though it's greatly suspected that she's been molested by her employer, a town councilman with a reputation for debauchery). As she'll be shunned in the community for having a bastard child, the senior physician makes plans for her to go to Liverpool, to a convalescence home for "Piffies" (short for "Pregnant From Ireland") where she can give the child up for adoption and no one will know. Happily, the plan is averted by another scheme of the doctor's, which results in the councilman getting his comeuppance, the real father stepping forward and everyone living Happily Ever After.
  • Played with in Reserved for the Cat. The Big Bad cannot become pregnant since it's not human, but intends to let people think she was off giving birth during the time she was trying to kill Ninette.
    • Also alluded to in The Gates of Sleep: Doctor Pike's sanitarium does not deal with "nervous disorders" that result in childbirth.
  • A book called The Girls Who Went Away tells real-life stories of teenage girls sent to "unwed mothers' homes" (where they would then give their children up for adoption) in the years before abortion was legalized.
  • In The Outsiders, Ponyboy is surprised to learn that Sandy, his older brother Sodapop's girlfriend, "went to live with her grandmother in Florida." When he asks why, Sodapop's friend Steve gets annoyed that he doesn't get it, and mentions that the only other choice was getting married (which Sandy's parents objected to).
  • A few examples in the works of V. C. Andrews:
    • In the Cutler series, Dawn's sent away to have her baby at the home of Grandmother Cutler's sister Emily, on the pretext of recovering from a serious car accident (she was hit by a car, but had minor injuries and the baby wasn't harmed.)
    • Alicia in Garden of Shadows, Belinda in Olivia, and Gabriel in Tarnished Gold are all kept in seclusion during their pregnancies in order for the planned adoptive mother to have a Pillow Pregnancy and pass off the child as hers. It's likely that some polite explanation for their absences would have been given in order to keep up the charade, although the reader never hears what that excuse was.
    • In Pearl in the Mist, when Daphne finds out Ruby is pregnant, she instantly pulls Ruby out of school claiming that Ruby is suffering from grief after the recent death of her father. The trope's ultimately subverted when Daphne tries to demand that Ruby have an abortion rather than go through with the pregnancy She doesn't.)
  • One of Jack Vance's murder mysteries is driven by this: a daughter of a respectable family turns up pregnant, the town gossip sees her mother buying pregnancy-related supplies, and the mother resorts to faking her own pregnancy (as well as murder) to cover it up.

     Live Action TV  

  • In Reaper, Sock attempts to cheer Sam up by telling him a story about a girl he knew in 11th grade who got shipped off to convent school for getting pregnant in high school.
  • Cold Case had this in one of their episodes. Both the killer and the victim were these.
    • The episode was called "The Goodbye Room" and the nuns were selling the babies in an illegal adoption scheme. when the victim found out, she tried to run away with her baby girl, but was caught by the killer whose son was sold earlier that week and didn't think it was fair that the victim was planning to keep her child when she couldn't.
  • In the third season of Degrassi The Next Generation, Manny is terrified of telling her parents about her pregnancy because her cousin (back in the Philippines) was shipped to a convent for getting pregnant.
  • In Hispanic Soap Operas written before The Eighties (and those set before that age) this plot happened fairly often, and was the most common origin of the Heroic Bastard heroine. The most famous example was El Derecho de Nacer, born in The Fifties: a High Class girl becomes pregnant, and her father tries to force her to abort. When she refuses, her father hides her in one of his mansions, and after the baby is born he sends her to a convent; meanwhile he orders the baby to be killed . The girl's nanny, horrified, flees with the baby boy and raises him as her own son. The boy then grows up to be a medical doctor, and unknowingly falls in love with a (non-blood-related) cousin.
  • An example of the second version was seen on an episode of The Love Boat, where the "big sister" ends up telling her daughter the truth.
  • An episode of Law & Order has a politically motivated Rich Bitch force her daughter to do this when she became pregnant as a teenager, and then murdered her troubled granddaughter when said granddaughter learned the truth. Because this is Law & Order and she's rich, she got away with it.
    • An episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit shows the aftermath of this, though not the actual pregnancy itself. The Perp of the episode is a deeply disturbed young man who was sexually and emotionally abused by the woman he thought was his mother; the twist is that his sister is actually his mother, who was thrown out of the house when she got pregnant at fourteen.
  • Lily was packed off to a convent in Pushing Daisies when she fell pregnant with Chuck. Naturally, when Lily turns up at the same convent umpteen years later with Olive in tow, the nuns immediately assume that she's pregnant too...
    • Lily's cover story was that she was in Paris, apprenticing at a world-class fromagerie.
  • Doctor Who's "The Unicorn And The Wasp", where Lady Eddison is laid up for six months with "a bout of malaria".
    • And a key to saving the day in "The Doctor Dances".
  • While the specific trope isn't quite invoked in Mad Men, there's a flashback in which Peggy's mother is telling callers that her daughter, who's just given birth, is being quarantined for TB.
  • One episode of Murder, She Wrote included one of the suspects, an actress, abandoning her career and disappearing "abroad" for "almost a year", thirty years earlier. As Jessica quickly realises, "nine months is almost a year".
  • When Lois gets pregnant on Pobol y Cwm, her mother, the local headmistress, tells her to stay home "sick" from school until she can arrange for an abortion. When Lois refuses the abortion, Gaynor wants her "transfer" to another school until it's born.
  • Inverted in That '70s Show; when Donna goes on an extended road trip, Jackie does her a "favor" and explains her absence - by telling everyone Donna went away to have a baby. By Donna's reaction, this is a far worse explanation.
  • In The Nanny, Fran asks what finally convinced her father to propose to her mother Sylvia. Sylvia tries to dodge the question, but when Fran persists, she finally blurts out "Your sister, all right!" Fran merely looks at the camera and says, "I always wondered how she could have been a thirteen-pound preemie," referencing the preemie-as-code-for-shotgun-wedding mentioned below.
  • In the pilot of Gossip Girl, this is rumored, wrongly, to be the reason for Serena's sudden departure for boarding school.
  • Inverted in Rome due to Values Dissonance: Niobe uses her unwed thirteen-year-old daughter as a cover story for the baby she had while her husband was away at war.
  • Played for laughs on 30 Rock. Liz has a disastrous Valentine's Day with Drew where they keep being forced into situations that are too emotionally intense for a first date. She accompanies him to the hospital where his mother is on her deathbed, and when he leaves the room for a second, the mother grabs Liz and tells her she's really Drew's grandmother and his "sister" is his mother, adding, "You have to tell him, or I won't get into heaven!" and immediately dies.
  • In Desperate Housewives, Bree sends her pregnant daughter away while pretending to be pregnant herself. It ends up being for nothing, as Danielle decides to take the child back later.
  • In Downton Abbey, Edith's illegitimate pregnancy is excused as her going on a long trip to Switzerland with Rosamund to learn French. Even her parents and sister don't know the truth.
  • In Season 9 of The Office (US), Angela tells her coworkers that her baby is premature, however, when Oscar, Erin and Kevin visit the baby they find out that the baby is 9 pounds and definitely not premature by any means. Angela (who is puritanically Christian) claims that it's because she and her husband had sex out of wedlock, however Dwight suspects it is his baby and later in the season it is revealed that it is.

    Music 

  • "Mandy Goes To Med School", by the Dresden Dolls, is a song from the speculative perspective of a doctor specializing in abortions... sort of. One lyric goes "How about a nine-month long vacation and a two-foot coffin?".
    • Hilariously described on the band's website as:
      "The Dolls have not lost their sense of the absurd, however, and the blacker-than-black-humor on Mandy Goes To Med School finds Palmer imagining a scenario in which she and drummer/cohort Viglione play a lighthearted and childish game of let's-pretend-we're-back-alley-abortionists."
  • Bruce Hornsby And The Range's, "Valley Road", about a hired farmhand who gets the daughter of the plantation owner pregnant. "Somebody said she's gone to her sister's / Everybody knew what they were talking about."

     Tabletop Games  

  • In Pathfinder; the Iconic Cavalier, Alain, was the cause of a number of young women of the court going on nine-month "vacations" to a nunnery.

     Western Animation  

  • Parodied in American Dad! when Stan took Steve to Mexico to "remove the inside zit" after getting pregnant by Roger.
  • An episode of King of the Hill had the high school principal ask where a certain cheerleader was. One of the male students says "She went to Oklahoma!" while suggestively stuffing a basketball under his shirt.
  • Dermott Fictel of The Venture Bros. was raised by his grandmother as his mother's little brother.

     Real Life  

  • This happened to Jack Nicholson - his "older sister" was really his mother, and his "mother" was really his grandmother. He didn't learn about the switcheroo until a Time magazine reporter told him.
  • And Ted Bundy.
  • Not long after she was announced as the Republican Vice Presidential Candidate in the 2008 U.S. Presidential elections, rumours began to circulate that Gov. Sarah Palin's youngest child was actually her grandchild, by one of her teenage daughters. Although the rumors were unsubstantiated, it did eventually lead to Palin's family announcing that one of her teenage daughters was pregnant out of wedlock, although the family was quick to stress that she intended to marry the father. Bristol, her oldest daughter, could not have physically conceived both her own son and Trignote . Palin's next oldest daughter, Willow, would have had to have been about 13 when Trig was conceived, and Piper, her next daughter, is still far too young to physically be capable of conceiving.
  • Somewhat related to this trope: Nowadays, if a baby is labeled premature, they probably are actually early. However, in the olden days, a premature baby often meant that Mummy and Daddy's wedding was late. And possibly that there was a shotgun involved.
    • Leading to the joke: An eager new bride can do in 6 months what takes everyone else 9.
    • And the other: The first baby can come any time after the wedding, but the second always takes 9 months.
  • Singer and actor Bobby Darin learned when he was 33 that his mother was in fact his grandmother, and that his big sister was, you guessed it...


Someone to Remember Him ByPregnancy TropesSurprise Pregnancy

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