I don’t ever remember not knowing where babies came from. I don’t just mean how they’re made, but the whole process of labour and childbirth. Being the youngest of a large family, and an auntie to six children while still a teenager, I was all too familiar with the gruesome details of childbirth. I remember holding my tiny nieces and nephews for the first time, distraught by the reality of their arrival, and what I would have to endure to have my own children one day.
I didn’t know then that I was suffering with tokophobia, a severe fear of childbirth and pregnancy. It took me almost 30 years to talk about it, but it was the best decision I ever made.
Unfortunately, the tension between desperately wanting to have a family of my own, but knowing I couldn’t face the pain of childbirth, continued for many years. Throughout my 20s, I wrestled with this conflict inside, and my mental and physical health deteriorated. I had disrupted sleep, numerous stomach and digestive problems, and struggled with anxiety attacks at the thought of someday giving birth. Seeing pregnant women, or knowing a friend was in labour, were both particularly challenging; I had to hide the panic and anxiety that I felt flooding through me, and try to carry on as normal.
At the age of 28 I got married, but I still kept this fear hidden from my husband. It wasn’t due to lack of communication or a reflection of our relationship, I just couldn’t physically bring myself to talk about it. I felt that people would be dismissive of my concerns, and respond with comments like, “All women worry about giving birth,” and “You’ll be fine.”
One evening, three years into our marriage, the weight of what I had been carrying for so long finally broke me. Every muscle tensed, and the tears flowed as I forced myself to open up to my husband about having tokophobia. He had no idea my fears were so crippling, and felt devastated at what I had been going through.
A week later, with his help, I reluctantly went to see my GP. I sat there sobbing and shaking as my husband explained the reason for our visit. The doctor was every bit as understanding as I could have wished for, and she referred me to a gynaecology consultant straight away, to talk through my options.
I explained to the consultant that I couldn’t allow myself to get pregnant, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to cope with going into labour and having a natural birth, but that I also couldn’t face the thought of having a caesarean section under local anaesthetic either.
She was incredibly supportive, and said the words that I had been longing to hear since I was a child: “If you need to have a caesarean under general anaesthetic so you can become a mother, then that’s what we’ll do.” I got out of the hospital and cried with relief.
However, more hardship was to follow. In January 2016, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome. I was given medication to take, and after seven cycles lasting a year, but only ovulating twice, I was emotionally and mentally exhausted, and so I stopped the treatment. We bought a house and started thinking about adoption. But God had other plans for us, and in June 2017 we found out I was pregnant!
Instead of feeling excited, the fear kicked in straight away. Thankfully, I was able to see my consultant early in the pregnancy, and get a date booked in for the caesarean. She even requested I was first on the list for surgery that day to help with my anxiety. Early in the pregnancy, I had a few panic attacks, worried that I would go into labour prematurely or lose my baby. But this calmed down as the pregnancy progressed, and in February 2018 I gave birth to my beautiful daughter, Aurelia, exactly as planned.
Speaking out loud the fear you’ve kept inside could be the start of the life you’ve been dreaming of
I recovered very quickly from the physical effects of the birth, and was absolutely in love with my precious girl. But I knew that I wasn’t dealing well with not being awake for her birth, and due to the effects of the anaesthetic, I had difficulty remembering meeting her for the first time. I couldn’t watch anything on TV about women seeing their babies for the first time; I felt distraught at what I had missed out on.
In January 2019, we had another surprise when I found out I was pregnant again! I was delighted, but knew that I needed to ask for help to come to terms with Aurelia’s birth, before going through it all again. I contacted the maternity counselling service at the hospital, and within a few days I had been referred to the Birth Afterthoughts service, which I had never heard of before. I had multiple home visits from an incredibly helpful woman who went through the detailed notes of Aurelia’s birth with me – when she took her first breath, how soon she cried, what time my husband first met her, and even where he fed her for the first time. It was such a relief to know all the tiny details about her coming into the world that I had missed out on.
In September 2019, we welcomed our baby boy, Levi, into the world, again via caesarean under general anaesthetic. This time, however, I was encouraged to ask for things to make the experience better for me and, incredibly, a midwife even filmed Levi being born for us! The staff were all amazing, and took lots of photos and videos so I didn’t miss out on any of his precious first moments. It was such a healing experience, and it meant I could put my fears behind me, and start our life together.
My advice to anyone struggling with tokophobia, whatever stage of life you’re at, would be to talk about how you feel with someone you trust. Making yourself vulnerable and speaking out loud the fear you’ve kept inside, although incredibly challenging, could be the start of the life you’ve been dreaming of.
I would also strongly encourage you to speak to your GP as soon as possible, and to take someone with you. You’ll be surprised just how much help and support is available to you.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need; having procedures in place every step of the way will help you to manage the anxiety and create better mental and physical health. You have nothing to lose, but everything to gain.
“The experience that Ali shares with us is brave and heart-warming. The impact of tokophobia and its debilitating nature is evident – a condition which I assume is relatively unknown for many people. Ali openly shares her truth, directly challenging her fears and overcoming them to give birth to her two children. Her strength throughout the process is present, and has the ability to provide hope to other people in similar circumstances.”
Rav Sekhon, BA MA MBACP (Accred), Counsellor and psychotherapist
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