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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Stories of Tokophobia
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Spurred by Ashley Lauretta’s piece on tokophobia, readers discuss their own pathological dread of giving birth. To offer advice or share your personal story, send us a note at hello@theatlantic.com.

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A Hormone Rollercoaster

This reader doesn’t want to fly off the rails by getting pregnant:

Thank you for Ashley Lauretta’s article on tokophobia. I’d like to share my experience but prefer to remain anonymous, please.

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.

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.

Michaela Rehle / Reuters

My recent piece for The Atlantic on tokophobia received a lot of email from readers discussing their own personal fears of pregnancy and labor. Here’s Kelly in Los Angeles:

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.”

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.