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Let’s talk about tokophobia

“I think my waters have broken.”

I felt a squirming feeling of intense unease in the pit of my stomach. Why did this have to be happening? Why did we have to choose a film with that in?

Soon the puffing, panting and screaming would start. “I hate you!” she would yell at her partner, her face contorted in pain.

Dread prickled across my clammy skin, as I began to think of an escape.

If I were at home, I’d simply change the channel. It seemed a bit rude to do that in someone else’s house though.

Should I say something? I’m sure my friends would understand. No, I didn’t want to cause a fuss or open myself up to a conversation I didn’t want to have.

No, the easiest thing to do would be to excuse myself to use the toilet.

In the safety of the bathroom, I began to calculate roughly how long the childbirth scene would last. Surely ten minutes or so would be more than long enough.

Settling in for my self-imposed intermission, I felt so frustrated. Why couldn’t I just be normal, and watch the scene without feeling like I was about to panic or cry?

“I’mnotpregnant”

Sadly, I’ve found myself in situations like this many times before.

I remember one year, my family wanted to watch the Call the Midwife Christmas special. I didn’t want to make a big deal (or get into such a difficult subject with my in-laws of all people), and I didn’t think there would be much of a break from the uncomfortable scenes, so I decided to sit the entire thing out. I took a shower, then just sat on the toilet and played on my phone. When I returned, I casually played it off as wanting to freshen up and losing track of the time.

When you get married, the constant questions about children are inevitable. I found this really difficult at first. Sentences like “I have some news” quickly ran into a hurried disclaimer – “I’mnotpregnant” – after a few too many overzealous people instantly (and very vocally) jumped to the conclusion that “news” had to mean I was with child.

As a way to preemptively deflect any speculation about the status of my uterus, I started to brazenly drink alcohol in front of people. Astonishingly, this didn’t always work.

[Winking in the general direction of my womb] “Have you got something to tell me?”
“Well, I’ve poured half a bottle of wine down my gullet this evening so, um…no?”

“I had this really weird feeling earlier today that you’re pregnant.”
“That’s funny, because your ‘psychic senses’ didn’t seem to pick up the two beers I had with dinner.”

And so it went on…

Reasonable fear or full-blown phobia?

Can we please get it out of our heads that as soon as a woman is married, being pregnant is the only good news they could possibly ever want to share?

Also, though it might seem like an innocent question, you have no idea what someone is going through. They might have been struggling to get pregnant for a while. They may be having a tough time going through fertility treatment. They could have recently suffered a miscarriage. Or, if they’re like me, they might just find the topic incredibly triggering. You never know what might be going on behind the scenes. Your questions, though well-meaning, could bring up a lot of painful emotions.

When One Born Every Minute hit our TV screens I just couldn’t understand the obsession with it. I would dread seeing clips shared on Facebook, or hearing colleagues chatting about what happened in the latest episode.

Weirdly though, I used to make myself watch it. It became my own sort of cruel exposure therapy. (Note: Please don’t do this. Talk to a counsellor and tackle your fears in a safe, controlled environment.)

I would lie in bed and stream it on my laptop, watching with sniper-like focus. If there was a particularly horrible bit, with lots of screaming or crying, I would rewind it and make myself take in every single detail. Afterwards, I would suffer graphic intrusive thoughts about childbirth that would bring me to tears. Even now, just thinking about the opening sound of a woman’s siren-like moan makes my anxiety spike.

I’d also visit mummy blogs and read their labour stories, flick through Pregnancy and Birth magazine, scroll through Mumsnet chats, and read everything I could find about pretty much every single aspect of birth.

I was equal parts terrified and fascinated. I never really questioned why I had this intense curiosity surrounding childbirth and, looking back, I still have no idea what I was hoping to achieve.

Was I hoping that I’d stumble across the perfect labour story and all my fears would go away? Perhaps. I seemed to think that knowledge was power in the fight against my phobia. But the more childbirth related content I consumed, the more I was reminded of two key things:

  1. Everyone is different, and no two births are the same. This reinforced what I think, deep down, was the very root cause of my fears: the uncertainty of childbirth. There is no real way to plan for birth, and no way to be guaranteed a smooth labour.
  2. I am never, ever going to go through childbirth.

It took a long time, but I eventually came to understand that I don’t have the normal (and perfectly reasonable!) level of apprehension that most people probably do about pushing a baby out of their vagina. I have a full-blown phobia.

The searing wave of revulsion and terror I feel at the mere mention of childbirth has a name.

Tokophobia

There are two types of this phobia. Primary tokophobia refers to when the sufferer has never given birth before, while secondary tokophobia comes about afterwardspossibly following a traumatic birth.

According to NCT, 13% of women report a fear that’s overwhelming enough to make them postpone or avoid getting pregnant altogether.

If you’re worried about how tokophobia is affecting you, please reach out to someone. Cognitive behavioural therapy is a suggested treatment for tokophobia, and you can find an accredited therapist here. Your GP may be able to refer you to a therapist or point you towards additional resources. There are other routes to parenthood you could explore, and you could also consider the possibility of having an elective c-section.  

You are not alone in this.

Please be kind to yourself and remember that your worth as a person is not determined by your willingness or ability to have children.

Mental health and lifestyle blogger. Originally from Sussex, now living in sunny Bournemouth. Always up for a good chat.

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