Tokophobia. So There’s a Name for It.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I always thought I was missing some important maternal chip in my system, some crucial feminine widget in my consciousness that was supposed to look at childbirth as simply beautiful—as the most natural thing in the world. Instead, long into adulthood, my overwhelming feeling toward the act of giving birth was something along the lines of: You want me to push what out of where?!

Ashley Lauretta’s wonderful piece for us this week, “Too Afraid to Have a Baby,” mentions that Helen Mirren was scarred by a childhood viewing of an educational film on the topic. I feared childbirth from the moment I heard how it was done; I don’t remember ever not thinking it sounded ghastly. But I too had my own filmstrip moment that pushed me further over the edge.

In my mid-20s, I saw an episode of Susan “Stop the Insanity” Powter’s short-lived talk show (please do not feel obliged to remember Susan Powter) about nightmare-childbirth scenarios. One guest on the show suffered something so completely horrific, I dare not write it. Suffice it to say, she had to go through several corrective surgeries and receive hundreds of stitches—down there.

Do I sound immature? I felt immature. I also felt rational. That maternal chip I was missing was really a blind spot. Other women could not see the obvious flaws of natural childbirth, but I was cursed with perfect vision.

When I became pregnant at 37, I could feel my due date hurtling toward me like a runaway train. Maybe I could have an elective C-section. I read up on the procedure—too many people have it, hospitals and doctors are too quick to turn to it, it’s driving up health-care costs, it’s selfish, the baby will be bathed in drugs …

As I read, I was not chastened. Instead, I thought, So it’s do-able.

The other women in my mommy pace group would smile at me serenely, beatified by their holy cargo. I’d be fine, they’d assure me. It wouldn’t be bad at all, they promised. I didn’t have the heart to tell them about their childbearing blind spots.

I screwed up my courage and confessed my fears to my doctor. “I’m not sure I can do it,” I cried. “OK, let’s schedule a C-section,” she replied without missing a beat. Yes! She was one of those doctors I’d read about who handed out surgery like candy. She told me that at my age, the chance of ending up with a C-section was already increased because more things go wrong the older the mother is. Given that, she said, she always prefers to schedule procedures than to end up with emergency C-sections—which, obviously, no one plans for. She also said that being in a fevered panic about childbirth was no way to, well, experience childbirth—not to mention it was a pretty poor way to be pregnant; after all, my stress was probably being transmitted to the child inside me.

So as far as my doctor was concerned, it was a no-brainer. Science!

But I still dared not tell a soul. I knew what the world saw: I wasn’t doing it the right way, the best way. I was a selfish, scared, immature crazy person.

Then, as I neared the end of my pregnancy, my baby didn’t turn around; he was breech—a common reason to need a C-section. My doctor and I laughed. “So I’m legit?” I said. Since then, if my C-section ever comes up in conversation (which is far less often the more distance from the event I get), I say, “He was breech”—as though I had no choice in the matter. But I did have a choice. And I actively chose.

Now I don’t look back on the day I gave birth as one in which I was tearful and totally terrified, thinking only of the cruel physics of what was about to happen. Now I remember every detail of that happy spectacular day with joy. Because it was all about my son.