I am a childfree woman in her late 20s. I find the idea of pregnancy abhorrent and frightening in almost every way. Everything about it makes me cringe, most intensely if I imagine myself giving birth. I occasionally have nightmares about being pregnant and giving birth.
Ten years ago I used hormonal birth control for a short time and had several unpleasant side effects, including morning sickness, weight gain, and mood swings. Since pregnancy hormones are orders of magnitude stronger than birth control hormones, I am terrified of the changes my body would experience if I were pregnant. I’m afraid I would have hyperemesis gravidarum [severe nausea and vomiting] or some other horrible complication.
Going off the hormonal birth control was ten times worse.
I had depression, insomnia, amenorrhea [no menstruation], gained more weight, and I developed an eating disorder in effort to lose the weight. I believe these issues would repeat themselves—probably in fuller force—after a pregnancy, and that scares me more than anything.
It took a lot of time for me to regain my health, and I wouldn’t like to have to go through that process again. I always feel that my hormones are in a perpetual state of delicate balance. If anything, such as pregnancy, disrupts that balance, I will never regain it. I know it’s irrational.
I have always had extremely painful periods, and without strong painkillers I am unable even to get out of bed. I know that the pain of childbirth would be much worse, and that is not something I ever want to experience.
Several years ago I had exploratory surgery to see if endometriosis was causing my painful periods. It wasn’t the cause, but at that time, something deep inside me had been hoping that it was and that it would render me infertile, just so that I would have no risk of ever becoming pregnant. I still hope I’m infertile and have thought about getting tested, just so I can know for sure.
I’m glad that neither I nor my husband want children. I track my monthly cycle religiously so that I can make sure we have sex at the times that I am least likely to be fertile. I also record and pay close attention to the small changes my body undergoes throughout my cycle, such as PMS symptoms, mood changes, etc. This way, I’ll notice new or intensified symptoms that may indicate pregnancy, if it ever occurs.
I, like Ashley Lauretta, struggle with generalized anxiety, which probably has affected my experiences and predisposes me to tokophobia. Tracking my cycle helps me deal with it by giving me a sense of control and comfort.
From the article that started this whole discussion:
There are not many women who openly discuss having tokophobia, though some have spoken out in media or online in recent years to share their stories or seek help. One woman on Reddit, in a channel devoted to people who don’t want children, notes that her tokophobia was so severe she was afraid of having sex with her significant other for fear of becoming pregnant, even when protection was used. “I know it’s silly that I’m this afraid,” she writes, “but I can’t help it.”
That recent college grad, Eileen Jones, emailed hello@ to elaborate on her experience. In her long and compelling note below, she recalls several events in her life that triggered her tokophobia and how those deep-seated fears derailed her first career goal. Her phobia is so overwhelming that she’s “only had vaginal sex two times.” And her thoughts on self-sterilization raises some interesting questions. Here’s Eileen:
I turned to reddit for advice because for years I had felt like such a freak of nature because not only do I not want children, but I am also terrified of pregnancy. It was such a relief to find an online community that understood how I felt.
I can’t exactly pinpoint what caused my tokophobia. I have always thought that tokophobia/not wanting children might be some sort of evolutionary response to overpopulation. I knew when I was about 4 years old that I did not want children. I think I was maybe around 13 when I realized that I actually had a fear of pregnancy. I remember doing sex education stuff around that age and abstinence was really pushed at my school. I can remember the nurse explaining some of the symptoms of pregnancy and being pretty repulsed.
When I was in high school, I had my heart set on being a doctor.
I attended a National Youth Leadership forum on medicine. During this program, I shadowed a radiologist. She showed me an x-ray of a pregnant woman and you could see the fetus inside of her. Although I did not mean to show any sort of negative reaction, the doctor could tell that I was physically repulsed. She asked if something was wrong, and admitting to her that I didn’t really like “pregnancy stuff” was kind of embarrassing for me. I felt like I was being really rude.
Also, during this medicine program, I remember medical students talking to us about rotational programs where you would intern for a set amount of weeks as an ER doctor, then you would switch for a certain amount of weeks and intern as a pediatrician, etc. I remember thinking that there was no way I would ever become a doctor just because I knew I wouldn’t make it through interning as an OB/GYN. Gastroenterology? Fine. Proctology? Great! But something about working in the OB/GYN field was gross to me. Honestly, gynecology doesn’t bother me one bit, but there is no way I could handle obstetrics.
I really related to the part in Ms. Lauretta’s article when she describes how Helen Mirren felt when she watched a film about childbirth. When I was a senior in high school, my anatomy teacher showed us a film on childbirth. I remember staring down at my desk the entire time. My best friend, who sat in front of me, was turning around periodically to check on me. I remember her asking, “Are you okay? No, really … are you okay… ? Are you sure?”
I’ve recently stumbled upon the MTV series 16 and Pregnant. Although I do think it’s a great series, when they show the girls in labor, I can’t watch. I’m seriously like your average person watching a horror movie and shielding their eyes from the screen. I’ve even had to mute it.
Another thing I’ve had to deal with is the repulsion of seeing pregnant stomachs. A friend of mine who is currently pregnant recently posted a video of her stomach on Snapchat. In the video, you can see her baby moving around inside of her. I was so freaked out that I had to exit the video; I couldn’t even watch it.
As far as my sex life goes, I don’t really have much of one. I’ve only had vaginal sex two times. Both times, the guy used a condom, but I still panicked. The last time I engaged in vaginal sex, I sat in my car and cried for a few minutes after. I drove myself to the nearest Walmart and bought some Plan B. I was basically an anxious mess until I had my period. I even took a pregnancy test AFTER I got my period just to make sure I wasn’t pregnant.
I feel that the only way I will ever have a normal sex life is if I get sterilized. Unfortunately, most doctors are not keen on this because they are concerned you will change your mind. However, as I stated earlier, I’ve known since I was about 4 years old that I didn’t want kids and I have only become more sure with age.
I really wish there wasn’t such a negative stigma around women who do not want children. [CB: Readers discussed the contentious subject last year.] I don’t consider myself to be generally selfish. I’m not a child-hating monster. In fact, although I’m not too keen on babies and toddlers, I do enjoy interacting and working with older children, especially teenagers. In college, I volunteered with at the Science Olympiad where I worked with middle and high school kids and really enjoyed it!
One thing I wish people knew about tokophobia, or at least in my case, is that I don’t think less of someone for being pregnant. I don’t hate pregnant people. In fact, I am excited for my friends and family members who are pregnant because I know they’re happy and excited. I will definitely attend their baby showers and get them gifts.
I really wish that I wasn’t mortified by things related to pregnancy, but it’s something that has definitely improved a little in recent years. I can actually look at sonogram images now without being disturbed!
I was so happy when someone told me about Ms. Lauretta’s article. It’s always comforting to me to read about people who feel the same way I do. Thank you so much for taking time to read this. If you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them.
Incredible and timely piece, thank you so much. I actually am writing to ask a question. The article says over and over to get some help if you believe you have this phobia and want to have a baby. That's me, and I want to know how to get help. What are the concrete suggestions from Brian Salmon [a doula and lactation consultant] and his colleagues with regards to getting over this?
My story: I’m a 40-year-old woman, and I’ve only just come to decide that it’s time to be a mom. I don’t have the money to adopt, but I absolutely would if I could. I’m disgusted by being pregnant and terrified of giving birth. I’ve been pregnant before, more than once, and it felt like being invaded by a destructive alien force.
I would say that my phobia comes from the following experiences:
1. I’m a control freak. I’m a lawyer, alpha, eldest child, feminist, political activist, and conservator over my only sibling, who has DD. I fill with anxiety over mere annuals because I cannot STAND the idea of a stranger in my vagina unwantingly, without my guidance and oversight. I avoid them like the plague.
2. Those pregnancies and the subsequent abortions, ONLY with regards to the physical pain, and again, having all these people prod my privates.
3. My parents were open lefties who perhaps shared too much, including horrifying birthing stories that my mother identified (my birth especially) as “the most traumatic experience of her life.” She also showed me videos and books too early, like Our Bodies Ourselves, which depict women screaming in agony with their vaginas gaping in a room full of old white men.
To be fair, my mother’s OB/GYN was an Indian woman, and I have a dear friend who grew up on The Farm with the doulas and midwives who wrote the manuals. And I saw The Business of Being Born, so I know that, rationally, I have options outside the nasty hospitals and their profit-driven approach. And I know that there are oils and exercises to avoid tearing. But this fear isn’t rational, right?
So here I am, ready to do this, and paralyzed with fear. And your article just gave it a name, and the hope of fixing it. Please point me in some direction for fixing it.
When speaking with sources for my piece, I learned a lot about the options available to women who have tokophobia yet wish to have children someday (me being one of them). They recommend finding both a therapist and a midwife, both of whom specialize in tokophobia or have at least worked with it previously. They can not only help you discover the root cause of your phobia but also break it down into smaller related fears and work through each one specifically. They can educate you on the birthing process and your options for it—hospital vs. home, for example, or Cesarean vs. natural—and then advocate for you.
I followed up with Kirsten Brunner, MA, LPC to find out if there are any specific questions or concerns you should broach in therapy.
“Voicing your fears and reaching out for help is half the battle in overcoming tokophobia,” notes Brunner. “So many women sit in silence and shame with their fears, and that only causes the anxiety to grow.”
“Finding a professional who is familiar with tokophobia and/or reproductive mental health issues is essential.” Brunner suggests that you find a therapist comfortable working with couples, as it may be helpful for your partner to be in the sessions from time to time to better understand your tokophobia and help work through it with you.
When you start looking for a therapist, don’t feel like you need to choose the first one you visit. Brunner notes that having a connection with your therapist is shown by research to be the strongest predictor of a positive outcome. Should you encounter anyone in your search who responds to your fears with judgement or with shaming, they are not the therapist for you.
If you don’t know where to start in your search, Brunner suggests asking your ObGyn for referrals. “Make sure that your therapist, doula, or midwife feels confident that they can help you get to the root of your fears and overcome your phobia,” stresses Brunner. “You want to surround yourself with positive, optimistic energy, as Brian Salmon correctly stated in the original article. Pregnancy and childbirth can be a beautiful and relatively comfortable experience, and aligning yourself with professionals and friends who ascribe to these empowering beliefs is essential.”
Should you not be ready to reach out to a therapist, Herrera recommends having a lifeguard in place. “Have somebody who loves you pay attention to what is happening; if they see that you are having increased tokophobia or symptoms of postpartum depression or anxiety, then they get help,” stresses Herrera. “Have everything lined up, have a therapist lined up with your insurance whom your lifeguard can call.”
I hope this gives Kelly and other readers struggling with tokophobia a sense of where to start as you begin your journey to parenthood. Many of you, like Sacha Zimmerman, had the fear but didn’t know there was a name for it, and I want to remind you that you aren’t alone. You aren’t irrational or broken—you have a legitimate phobia—and asking for help is the best thing you can do to work through your fears.
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.
On Monday morning, my partner laid a carry-on suitcase down on the floor, preparing to pack for his first post-vaccination trip to visit his parents. The moment he unzipped the bag, our cat Calvin promptly clambered inside.
A piece of me would like to think that Calvin was attempting to covertly join my partner on his trip, or perhaps thwart his inevitable attempt to spirit away. But I’m pretty sure #OccupyLuggage was less a heart-wrenching bid to tag along on a flight, and more a textbook example of a central scientific tenet: Cats are absolute suckers for boxes. And sinks, and vases, and grocery bags, and shoes, and Pringles cans, and the nooks and crannies between furniture and walls, and just about any other space they deem cozy, confining, and swaddly. (Cats, in case you were wondering, are a non-Newtonian liquid.) It’s the one thing about which our pointy-eared companions are not terribly picky: If it fits, they sits. And when they do, we humans can’t help but obsess over them.
Scientists can live with uncertainty. Politics abhors it.
Two questions have dominated politics throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats and public-health experts have asked: What should we do?FormerPresident Donald Trump, for his part, minimized the need to act. He instead spoke incessantly about a very different question: Whom should we blame?
“In recent months, our nation and the world has been hit by the once-in-a-century pandemic that China allowed to spread around the globe. They could have stopped it, but they allowed it to come out,” Trump said as he accepted the Republican Party’s nomination in August 2020.
“It’s China’s fault. It should have never happened,” he said at a presidential debate with Joe Biden in September 2020.
Parking requirements attack the nature of the city itself, subordinating density to the needs of the car.
Lewis Mumford was suspicious of parking. “The right to access every building in a city by private motorcar,” he wrote in The City in History, “in an age when everyone owns such a vehicle, is actually the right to destroy the city.” Jane Jacobs, who disagreed with Mumford on many counts, agreed here. Parking lots, she said in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, were “border vacuums”: inactive spaces that deadened everything around them.
Mumford and Jacobs published those lines in 1961, when most United States cities were 15 years into an experiment called “minimum parking requirements”: mandates in zoning codes that forced developers to supply parking on-site to prevent curb congestion. In postwar America, development was booming, and neighbors were worried that new residents would make street-parking impossible. Decades later, parking requirements still exist nationwide. In Los Angeles, where I live, new apartment buildings must have at least one parking space per unit; retail buildings need one space per 300 square feet; and restaurants need one space for every 100 square feet of dining area.
His mind was made up about a 2020 presidential run—until it wasn’t.
Updated at 10:36 a.m. ET on May 18, 2021
Joe Biden was in his living room at the Naval Observatory on Election Night 2016. He hadn’t been watching the presidential results. Hillary Clinton was going to win, obviously, so the vice president was more focused on monitoring the fates of the House and Senate candidates for whom he’d campaigned. As the television networks and the Associated Press called each race, he’d pick up the phone. Winners and losers got the same line: “You ran a hell of a race.”
Only late into the night did Biden start paying attention to the presidential election. He’d always been concerned that people simply didn’t like Clinton, and the lack of enthusiasm he’d sensed during his last few appearances for her made him nervous. “The arc of history has always been forward, and what these guys”—Republicans—“want to do is literally move it backward,” he’d warned an audience in Madison, Wisconsin, the previous Friday. “It doesn’t feel right there,” he told aides when he returned to Washington. But Madison hadn’t felt off enough for Biden to really imagine that Donald Trump could win.
Today’s economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts.
A few weeks ago, I met my first Millennial grandparent. I was interviewing a woman in her late 30s about President Joe Biden’s new child-tax-credit proposal, and she mentioned that it would benefit not just her two young kids but her older son’s kid too.
The incidental meeting was a reminder both that Millennials are getting older and that they are doing so without growing up, at least not in the way that many of them might wish. The woman I interviewed does not own a home, nor is she anywhere close to affording one. She has nothing in the way of savings. Nevertheless, she is a grandmother, catapulting into middle age.
Millennials, as just about everyone knows at this point, are a generation delayed. The pandemic recession has led not-so-young adults to put off having kids, buying a house, getting married, or investing in a car—yet again. But today’s economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts.
As always in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, two narratives are vying for primacy. In one, Israel is simply defending itself against a fresh attack. In the other, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is the latest example of a desire to punish and humiliate Palestinians. These two narratives are not reconcilable, which makes reasoned discussion an exercise in futility. But any sophisticated argument must contend with the long, winding lead-up to the current crisis. Why is war in Gaza returning now, and why does it always seem to return, with stubborn, periodic insistence?
Despite inching toward the Democratic Party’s left flank on various domestic- and foreign-policy issues, the Biden administration has fallen back on the usual formulas, offering robotic recitations about “Israel’s right to defend itself.” On Thursday, President Joe Biden said that he hadn’t seen a “significant overreaction” from Israel, while failing to mention a word about Palestinian deaths. In so doing, he gave Israel what amounts to a green light to intensify its bombing campaign.
Three years after his polarizing confirmation hearings, the Supreme Court’s 114th justice remains a mystery.
This article was published online on May 13, 2021.
The suburban gentry of Chevy Chase, Maryland, had some difficulty making sense of Brett Kavanaugh’s descent into villainy that fall. He had always seemed so nice and nonthreatening to his neighbors, so normal—the khaki-clad carpool dad who coached the girls’ basketball team and yammered endlessly about the Nats. It was true that his politics were unusual for the neighborhood, the kind of place where No Justice / No Peace signs stand righteously in front of million-dollar homes. But Brett was not a scary Republican, of the kind who had recently invaded Washington. He was well educated and properly socialized, a friend of the Bushes, a stalwart of the country club. When his nomination to the Supreme Court was first announced, the neighborhood had largely welcomed the news. People gave interviews attesting to his niceness; the owner of the Chevy Chase Lounge said that he would add Brett’s photo to the wall of famous patrons.
The news tells us less about Israel than about the people writing the news, a former AP reporter says.
During the Gaza war this summer, it became clear that one of the most important aspects of the media-saturated conflict between Jews and Arabs is also the least covered: the press itself. The Western press has become less an observer of this conflict than an actor in it, a role with consequences for the millions of people trying to comprehend current events, including policymakers who depend on journalistic accounts to understand a region where they consistently seek, and fail, to productively intervene.
An essay I wrote for Tablet on this topic in the aftermath of the war sparked intense interest. In the article, based on my experiences between 2006 and 2011 as a reporter and editor in the Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press, one of the world’s largest news organizations, I pointed out the existence of a problem and discussed it in broad terms. Using staffing numbers, I illustrated the disproportionate media attention devoted to this conflict relative to other stories, and gave examples of editorial decisions that appeared to be driven by ideological considerations rather than journalistic ones. I suggested that the cumulative effect has been to create a grossly oversimplified story—a kind of modern morality play in which the Jews of Israel are displayed more than any other people on earth as examples of moral failure. This is a thought pattern with deep roots in Western civilization.
It’s time to prepare for a new and better normal than your pre-pandemic life.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Arthur C. Brooks will discuss the science of happiness live at 11 a.m. ET on May 20. Register for “In Pursuit of Happiness” here.
Many years ago, I met a woman who had had the kind of experience you ordinarily only find in fiction. As a young adult, she was in a serious car accident, resulting in a head injury. She suffered a period of total amnesia, followed by months of convalescence. When she recovered, she was never the same: Her family relationships weakened; she cut out former friends and found new ones; she moved halfway across the world; her interests and tastes changed; she became more outgoing and less self-conscious; she no longer cared much what other people thought about her.
Everyone expects Harris to run for president again one day, but her job requires her to avoid even the appearance of preparing for her political future.
Air Force Two is a smaller plane than Air Force One. The exterior is the same light-blue and white, but unlike the commander in chief’s plane, the vice president’s aircraft is open plan—from the back, you can see all the way to the front, where a small office doubles as a bedroom. Kamala Harris spends most of her Air Force Two flights in that office, with the door closed. She doesn’t work the plane, the way Joe Biden or even Mike Pence did.
The vice president flew on Air Force Two to Los Angeles for Easter weekend, then to Oakland, her hometown, for events the following Monday. As Harris strode down the stairs, the angle of her head and the pace of her step deliberate, California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis started a round of applause. Kounalakis was still gushing when I caught up with her by phone a week later. “She carries the mantle of this big job in a way that seems very natural,” she said. “To arrive with so much pomp and circumstance, but then to go to a water-treatment plant and then a small business—the juxtaposition underscores the work at the center of her start on the job.”