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.
The Nest is a brilliantly cast thriller and one of the year’s best films.
In The Nest,a family moves into an English mansion in the countryside filled with opulent rooms, creaky staircases, and secret passages. The setup is familiar for a horror film: A happy couple buys a mysterious property and discovers, upon arrival, that something is terribly wrong with the house. The movie, directed by Sean Durkin, opens with appropriate portentousness, a discordant piano score clanging over the title card. But in this case, it’s not the house that’s the problem—it’s the family, and the greedy quest for status that first led them to this gargantuan manor.
The Nest is a long-awaited and brilliant follow-up from Durkin, who emerged in 2011 with his filmmaking debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, but hadn’t directed a movie since. His first work also had the overtones of a horror film and the narrative meat of a serious family drama, exploring the fraught relationship between four sisters after one of them is freed from a Manson-family-like collective. Nothing in The Nest is quite as dramatic as a murderous cult, but the same sense of dread pervades the thriller, as Rory (played by Jude Law) and Allison O’Hara (Carrie Coon) see their relationship crumble under the financial burden of the colossal home they’ve bought.
Prenatal testing is changing who gets born and who doesn’t. This is just the beginning.
Photographs by Julia Sellmann
Every few weeks or so, Grete Fält-Hansen gets a call from a stranger asking a question for the first time: What is it like to raise a child with Down syndrome?
Sometimes the caller is a pregnant woman, deciding whether to have an abortion. Sometimes a husband and wife are on the line, the two of them in agonizing disagreement. Once, Fält-Hansen remembers, it was a couple who had waited for their prenatal screening to come back normal before announcing the pregnancy to friends and family. “We wanted to wait,” they’d told their loved ones, “because if it had Down syndrome, we would have had an abortion.” They called Fält-Hansen after their daughter was born—with slanted eyes, a flattened nose, and, most unmistakable, the extra copy of chromosome 21 that defines Down syndrome. They were afraid their friends and family would now think they didn’t love their daughter—so heavy are the moral judgments that accompany wanting or not wanting to bring a child with a disability into the world.
These films, each unforgettable in its own way, are essential viewing.
The word unique has to be one of the most overused descriptors in show business; if every movie that got touted as one-of-a-kind by its marketing team actually was, there’d be no further complaints about Hollywood creativity. But every once in a while, I’ll have a cinematic experience that feels genuinely unprecedented, when a work plays with the medium and its modes of storytelling in ways I didn’t think possible. The 30 movies I’ve gathered below—all of which are available to watch online—are singular, whether they’re experimental documentaries, visionary works of animation, or labyrinthine epics. Each is unforgettable, and a reminder of cinema’s potential to flout narrative convention, subvert visual traditions, and find new ways to express timeless themes.
This is why you can eat in a restaurant but can’t have Thanksgiving.
Two weeks ago, I staged a reluctant intervention via Instagram direct message. The subject was a longtime friend, Josh, who had been sharing photos of himself and his fiancé occasionally dining indoors at restaurants since New York City, where we both live, had reopened them in late September. At first, I hadn’t said anything. Preliminary research suggests that when people congregate indoors, an infected person is almost 20 times more likely to transmit the virus than if they were outside. But restaurants are open legally in New York, and I am not the COVID police. Josh and I had chatted several times in the early months of the pandemic about safety, and I felt sure that he was making an informed decision, even if it wasn’t the one I’d make.
The minute we make any decision—I think COVID-19 is serious; no, I’m sure it is a hoax—we begin to justify the wisdom of our choice and find reasons to dismiss the alternative.
Members of Heaven’s Gate, a religious cult, believed that as the Hale-Bopp comet passed by Earth in 1997, a spaceship would be traveling in its wake—ready to take true believers aboard. Several members of the group bought an expensive, high-powered telescope so that they might get a clearer view of the comet. They quickly brought it back and asked for a refund. When the manager asked why, they complained that the telescope was defective, that it didn’t show the spaceship following the comet. A short time later, believing that they would be rescued once they had shed their “earthly containers” (their bodies), all 39 members killed themselves.
Heaven’s Gate followers had a tragically misguided conviction, but it is an example, albeit extreme, of cognitive dissonance, the motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to admit mistakes or accept scientific findings—even when those findings can save our lives. This dynamic is playing out during the pandemic among the many people who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing. Human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.
A historian believes he has discovered iron laws that predict the rise and fall of societies. He has bad news.
Peter Turchin, one of the world’s experts on pine beetles and possibly also on human beings, met me reluctantly this summer on the campus of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where he teaches. Like many people during the pandemic, he preferred to limit his human contact. He also doubted whether human contact would have much value anyway, when his mathematical models could already tell me everything I needed to know.
But he had to leave his office sometime. (“One way you know I am Russian is that I cannot think sitting down,” he told me. “I have to go for a walk.”) Neither of us had seen much of anyone since the pandemic had closed the country several months before. The campus was quiet. “A week ago, it was even more like a neutron bomb hit,” Turchin said. Animals were timidly reclaiming the campus, he said: squirrels, woodchucks, deer, even an occasional red-tailed hawk. During our walk, groundskeepers and a few kids on skateboards were the only other representatives of the human population in sight.
Anxious? Here are some of the best and most rewatch-friendly movies to soothe your mind.
Over the course of 2020, I’ve compiled several movie-recommendation lists for viewers who are at once in desperate need of distraction and yet never able to fully escape the year’s pressing realities. A global pandemic. Economic turmoil. An impending election showdown. Natural disasters. Police killings and unrelenting national protests. With movie theaters shut down around the world, I curated collections of films to watch at home—works that were unheralded upon release, took singular approaches to storytelling, or told stories about horror, government mistrust, and the end of the world.
But I think this fall season calls for lighter fare—movies that don’t make serious emotional or mental demands of you, that entice you to sink deeper into the couch and give yourself over to the screen. These films lend themselves best to multiple viewings (and eventual line-memorization). Everyone has their own personal list of “comfort movies,” but the films I rewatch the most have no particular theme or genre. Some of the movies that relax me the most are intense action epics, while others are quiet conversational comedies. Comfort movies don’t have to be low energy or low stakes to be soothing; they simply have to evoke a certain mood or atmosphere, or transport viewers to a world they’ll want to revisit. Below are 25 of my own favorite feel-good watches, films I cue up again and again whenever I need a brief break from the world.
More people than ever are hospitalized with COVID-19. Health-care workers can’t go on like this.
On Saturday morning, Megan Ranney was about to put on her scrubs when she heard that Joe Biden had won the presidential election. That day, she treated people with COVID-19 while street parties erupted around the country. She was still in the ER in the late evening when Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris made their victory speeches. These days, her shifts at Rhode Island Hospital are long, and they “are not going to change in the next 73 days,” before Biden becomes president, she told me on Monday. Every time Ranney returns to the hospital, there are more COVID-19 patients.
The president’s act of clemency was less about mercy than self-interest.
Here’s the first and most important thing to understand about the crime for which President Trump just pardoned former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn: Flynn did not lie to protect himself. He lied to protect Donald Trump.
At the end of December 2016, Flynn had a series of conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. A month later, on January 24, 2017, Flynn was asked about those conversations by the FBI agent Peter Strzok.
In the first set of conversations, Flynn urged Kislyak to oppose a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity. The second set occurred a week later, while Flynn was on holiday in the Dominican Republic. There, Flynn sought to convince Kislyak to persuade the Russian government not to retaliate against the United States, over a round of sanctions punishing Russia for intervening in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump.
The new Netflix film is a think-piece trap—shiny on the outside, hollow on the inside.
“Everyone in this world is one of three kinds,” declares Mamaw (played by Glenn Close), the wise grand-matriarch of Ron Howard’s new film, Hillbilly Elegy. “A good Terminator, a bad Terminator, and neutral.” I hate to correct Mamaw, who is trying to encourage her impressionable grandson, J. D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), to follow a righteous path by invoking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s beloved action franchise. But there is no such thing as a “neutral” Terminator; those cyborg heroes exist to either protect or destroy. I cannot imagine what a neutral Terminator would do, save sit in a chair and remain forever shiny and inactive.
Mamaw is entitled to her bad movie opinions, of course. But this monologue is the kind of speechifying that rings hollow throughout Hillbilly Elegy, an adaptation of Vance’s best-selling 2016 memoir that debuts on Netflix tomorrow. When it first arrived on bookshelves, Vance’s story was celebrated as a glimpse into an oft-ignored pocket of America: the white working class of Appalachia and the Rust Belt who swung to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Hailed as an “anger translator” and cited by Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton, Vance wrote about growing up poor, living with a heroin-addicted mother, and clawing his way into Yale Law School. The book arrived at a seemingly serendipitous moment, offering a bleak but candid view of communities gutted by drug abuse and poverty.