I am fairly sure that you read this article thinking “what on earth is tokophobia and why is an English teacher writing about it?” Well, today, I decided to write about something close to home, something extremely personal, related to my new life as a mom.
Tokophobia, to explain quite simply, is the primal fear of pregnancy and to give birth. It’s way more common than we think and nobody talks about it, like we are supposed to be ashamed of it. In my case, I wasn’t scared of pregnancy, not even worried, despite the fact that my first trimester was actual hell. But I was (I still am) TERRIFIED to give birth. I could feel it in my entire body. I couldn’t wait to meet my child, but the idea of giving birth was making me sick. Physically sick.
It’s not something that happened overnight: I have always been afraid of giving birth. As a kid (around 4 or 5), I was already worried and I asked my mom if it was painful. She said ‘yes, but you forget once you have your baby’. Cut the crap, I knew I wouldn’t forget at all. I am extremely sensitive, I suffer from endometriosis, I had a trauma as a toddler (you don’t want the details, I swear, but it involves me falling and getting stitches where you don’t want to have stitches). Giving birth the natural way was a big fat NO.
When I got pregnant with my daughter at the end of 2020, I openly said to my OB-GYN that having a natural birth was out of question, and that having a C-section was the only option. He shrugged, and probably thought I was being eccentric. I met my midwife, I had the exact same discourse (I even included gruesome details), she asked me a couple of questions and then continued to explain to me all the steps of a natural birth. In France, you can’t simply ask for a C-section, you need a medical reason: my trauma, which I was able to talk about, was as real as a scar, but was not taking into consideration.
I never envisioned myself giving birth naturally: I told every professional that it was physically impossible for me. I didn’t want to tell them how to do their jobs, no, I wanted them to understand that psychologically, I couldn’t give birth naturally. I wanted to be heard and helped.
Up till my 8th month of pregnancy, Baby was badly positioned, and at the beginning of June, my OB-GYN told me that if she wasn’t moving soon, I would have my C-section. I felt so relieved, I felt the weight off my shoulders. I could breathe again. But at the following ultrasound, mid-June, Baby was positioned perfectly, and I was back to square one. I explained, once again, how scared I was, how the concept of episiotomy was terrifying (just thinking about it gives me goosebumps). Do you know what I have heard when I said that I was scared of episiotomy, to the point of having a phobia? ‘You shouldn’t.” Would you say ‘you shouldn’t’ to someone who is arachnophobic? No. ‘Giving birth is natural.’ Every time I heard this sentence, a part of me was screaming. I know it is. I didn’t ask for this crippling fear, I am trying to fight it and these platitudes are not helping.
Despite my plea, my request for a convenient C-section (that’s how it’s called in France) was denied and I started to look elsewhere for help: acupuncture, meditation, sophrology, I was even looking to get hypnotized (my appointment was scheduled but I gave birth in the meantime). I was fighting my phobia, I was trying to overcome it the best I could. Then, following a stressful OB-GYN appointment, out of the blue, I was induced.
I won’t go into details here, because it’s irrelevant. What is relevant to my story here is that my body shut down. My baby wasn’t growing anymore, my placenta was calcifying, I had to give birth, and my body shut down. Three times I was induced within 24 hours. My body didn’t respond. I had fake contractions at first (looks like real contractions, feels like real ones, but nothing moves), but soon enough, it stopped; my baby, on the other hand, was doing great. Strong heartbeat, strong moves. Nothing to worry about for now, but I had to deliver.
With my consent, my midwife broke my waters manually. My husband was holding my right hand, my OB-GYN my left. The second it happened, I wished to die. I couldn’t give birth naturally. I would be scarred for life, I wouldn’t be able to be intimate with my husband anymore, I couldn’t have more babies (it’s not the plan anyway, but you have the idea) if I was having a natural birth, even with an epidural. I cried so hard after, I thought I wouldn’t be able to stop.
I finally calmed down, the anesthesiologist came, but I just couldn’t stop thinking. Would adrenaline be enough? When my OB-GYN came back to check on me, I saw his face becoming pale. Nothing had moved. The baby had to be delivered today, the whole calcified placenta thing was getting dangerous but my body refused to move an inch despite everything. I went through all this for NOTHING. This time, I looked at him and I asked him, begged him, to get a C-section. He agreed that it was the best decision, and a mere thirty minutes later, my daughter was born.
Tokophobia is not known. Giving birth is natural, why would someone be afraid of such a natural act? Once again, would you tell someone who is afraid of snakes or spiders that they are natural creatures that you shouldn’t be afraid of? I heard about women who were afraid, who refused to push and had to deliver with vacuum help. I heard about women who cried the whole time. Until it happened to me, I never heard about a woman whose body literally shut down by fear.
I warned every professional I had met that I was afraid. I wish I had been heard earlier, instead of feeling alone and afraid during most of my medical appointments and my birthing classes. I suggested early on that I see a therapist who would ensure that I was not faking it: I wouldn’t have heard that all I wanted was a ‘convenient’ birth.
But here’s the thing: having a C-section is not convenient. My belly was cut open, it’s not convenient, that’s even the opposite. I wish I wasn’t afraid, but it’s not something I have control over. I preserved myself, and my mental health, by requesting a C-section, and I am glad it happened: it is what matters after all. I didn’t give birth naturally, but I kept my sanity, and for that, I am eternally grateful.