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Confession of a Tokophobiac

I’m at the drugstore buying some vitamins and aspirin. Next to me at the window, a middle-aged woman is quizzing the pharmacist on the best size of catgut “for tears at childbirth.” I feel a panic attack creeping in on me, so to distract myself I start humming “Good Vibrations.” Still, I feel light-headed, my hands are getting ice-cold, eyes dim and a familiar sickening sensation that I am about to faint overcomes me. I dash out desperate for some air. No aspirin today.

I have tokophobia, a morbid fear of childbirth, and it interferes with my life on every step.

You would be surprised at words and seemingly innocent imagery that can trigger a panic attack. This is almost everything remotely to do with the female reproductive system. Even a snap of a pregnant bump or some female product commercial is enough on a bad day. When I see a movie where a character is in labor, it may give me a panic attack. Even if it is not very graphic, there is a high chance I will burst into tears, freak out and faint.


I do not remember anything in particular from my childhood that could traumatize me in one blow. Instead, I remember these little pieces of information, obtained from my mother, friends and sex education lessons. They were piling up and in the end formed a message: there is this thing inside of you, and there are a gazillion ways something may be wrong with it. If you will take good care of yourself, everything will be OK. “OK” meaning guaranteed worst pain imaginable and a great deal of blood, and there is a chance you will die, but, hey, it’s 100 percent natural. Oh, and it’s a miracle, and of course, you cannot wait to experience it, can you?

Side note: In fact, I nearly fainted just now, as I was typing this. I do not know how much time it will take me to finish this piece.

Maybe, it was my mother’s experience of her labors. She had my eldest sister when she was still a very young woman. She had many complications and she seriously feared for her life. This must have left a deep imprint on her as she used to talk about it quite often. I must say, it was mostly in a positive context. She would often tell me and my sisters that we were even more precious to her because she earned us the “hard way” and that she would go this nightmare all over again. However, she also used to tell us that “our breed” were not cut out for motherhood, that women in our family were too fragile. The examples of my grandmother and great-grandmother seemed to confirm this assumption: they both had a horrific childbirth experience as well.

For most women, it’s normal to feel anxious at some stage of pregnancy. That is understandable because childbirth is connected with certain risks. Maybe that is why tokophobia is not recognized as a disorder, although to some extent the problem is thought to affect up to 10 percent of women .

However, for women like me, the problem is immense: they feel anxious, uneasy, faint and nauseated at the mere sight of a pregnant woman or the word “delivery.” The worst part is that they also feel ashamed. “What kind of a woman are you? How do you expect to have one of your own?” — is a spiteful response they quite often hear.

The lack of official recognition is a big problem. Tokophobia is not yet listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, meaning it is not really a medical condition, despite the fact that women, who are, like me, tokophobiac, cannot control their reactions – panic attacks, anxiety, increased heart rate, trembling, nausea and many more. This is neither a fantasy nor a life choice.

Moreover, the lack of simple human sympathy is depressing and isolating. There is an idea out there that a having a baby is such a rewarding experience, that you just have to stop whining and face it all willingly. It is deemed to be the most joyous and happy things that can happen to a woman. Anyone who claims to be repulsed by this is branded as a cold-hearted and unfeeling child-hater.

If you opt for a C-section 00 you are “too posh to push.” If you try to explain yourself — you are a self-diagnosed hysteric, melodramatic, over-reacting, etc., etc. Sometimes you feel marginalized, rejected and despised by the community of other women, who proudly tell horror stories about their childbirth on social media.

Not one of my friends knows the full extent of my fear. I could not share with them everything without feeling ashamed and guilty. The things I did tell were enough for them to look at me askance. Once when I tentatively tried to explain why I do not feel ready to become a mother, my pregnant friend implied that I was in a relationship with a wrong partner, who was not encouraging enough and allegedly was “the real problem.”

Cognitive behavior therapy and psychotherapeutic counseling have helped me to some extent, so I did give a birth to my daughter some eight years ago. Alas, facing my fears did not really cure me. I have only nebulous recollections of it all. I remember automatically following the instructions of my charming doctor, who did a great job delivering her. Actually, it felt as if she did all the job, while I merely observed, paralyzed and out of my mind with terror. At some point, I was positive I was not going to make it, so I started deliriously making provisions concerning my daughter’s guardianship. Later, I remember only two words pounding in my head: “Never again, never again, never again” – over and over again.

Maybe that is partly the reason why I am so madly obsessed with the safety of my only child. I am unwilling to let go of her hand in an environment any more dangerous than a playground. I watch her from the window as she plays outside and I forbid her to go out of my sight. I secured her phone with a Pumpic mobile monitoring app, so I would always know where she is and what she does. I’ve memorized symptoms of all possible allergies, poisonings and child diseases together with first aid, antidotes and emergency measures. I am “that” mom.

I know parents are supposed to be preoccupied with their child’s safety. Losing one’s beloved baby is the worst nightmare for any mom. I feel, however, that my fear is amplified tenfold by my phobia. So when my little one looks me into the eyes and asks “Will I have a brother?” it breaks my heart. What can I tell her? That I could not? That I would not? I do not want to pass my phobia onto her, so I cannot explain in any terms, however mild. I feel guilty. Maybe if I had “a real” diagnosis, it would give me some sense of absolution and peace with myself.

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Thinkstock photo via Pimonova