Many women see pregnancy announcements and tenderly reminisce about their own experiences or feel envious of the mother-to-be. Many women see an expecting mother and think of a dream fulfilled. Many women see a pregnant belly and are drawn to it, often wanting to touch it.
I am not one of those women.
I see pregnancy announcements and experience a visceral negative reaction related to my overwhelming terror of miscarriages, stillbirths, diseases and illnesses. I see an expecting mother and envision unbearable pain, ripping, bleeding and screaming. I see a pregnant belly and my instinct is to retreat to avoid any possibility of being invited to touch it.
I have an extreme fear of pregnancy and giving birth.
I’m not just talking about the nerves that many women have around the subject ― I don’t know any woman who doesn’t have at least some level of anxiety about how her body will change during pregnancy and all the things that could go wrong during childbirth. It seems everyone has heard a horror story or two that sticks with them.
What I’m talking about is severe, debilitating fear. I cry when even considering the possibility of getting pregnant. I feel physically ill at the idea of a body growing in my core. Being even one day late for my period can trigger a panic attack.
The thing is, I don’t hate kids. On the contrary: I have always loved children and embraced their imaginations and happily taken on the role of “monster” or “princess” or whatever character is needed for their play. I genuinely celebrate with my friends and family when they announce they are expanding their families because I am excited to see them as parents and I love spending time with their kids.
So what kind of “monster” am I to be an otherwise perfectly “normal,” functioning adult who loves children but hates (no, despises — no, is terrified of — no, is disgusted by — no, is all of these emotions related to) the idea of personally experiencing pregnancy and childbirth?
I’m someone who suffers from tokophobia.
Tokophobia is the fear of pregnancy and childbirth so extreme that it interferes with daily life and actively prevents someone from getting pregnant. There are two types: Primary tokophobia is the fear of pregnancy and childbirth in women who have never been pregnant or given birth. Secondary tokophobia occurs after a woman has had a child and, perhaps because of a traumatic pregnancy or birth, develops an all-encompassing fear of becoming pregnant again.
I have primary tokophobia. I have never been — and I will not ever be — pregnant.
“Tokophobia is the looming, ever-present third partner in our bedroom. When we physically express our love, we do it using a minimum of two forms of birth control. And, even then, I hold my breath all month until, mercifully, I get my period again.”
My husband knew about this fear when he married me and understood I would never bear his children. Our marriage is eight years strong and he is as near to perfect as they get. He loves me thoroughly and I love him. But tokophobia is the looming, ever-present third partner in our bedroom. When we physically express our love, we do it using a minimum of two forms of birth control. And, even then, I hold my breath all month until, mercifully, I get my period again.
Of course, this is hard on a marriage. I often gently push my husband away because during sex I’m consumed with the terror of “what if he’s impregnating me?” My refusal to have sex can feel like a personal rejection to him. Do I not love him? Do I not find him attractive? Is he doing things wrong? These are all things we’ve had to address during the difficult and deep conversations we have had over the years while dealing with my tokophobia. And while these conversations have left us raw and vulnerable, they have also brought about an intimacy that I believe has been paramount to the strength and survival of our marriage. It has forced us to communicate regularly and clearly about our feelings on the topic, a practice that has become useful for other situations in our life together and this has created a relationship that is profoundly honest and meaningful.
Women who have this overwhelming fear usually don’t talk about it because other people just don’t get it. My tokophobia causes me extraordinary shame. I can’t relate to my friends who are pregnant or are trying to conceive. I can’t hear the stories of their beautiful births — or the ones that didn’t go as planned ― and I probably never will be able to.
I’ve been told to “get over myself,” “don’t be so selfish,” and “just give it some time.” People tell me my “biological clock will kick in.” Women assure me my “maternal instincts will wake up.” I’ve heard “any day now, your uterus will start throbbing and it’ll be begging to carry a baby.” These comments are insensitive and hurtful and, while I know they often come from a good place, they make me feel like I’m broken or less of a woman.
I have felt this way my entire life. As a child, I played “orphanage,” not “house,” because I refused to pretend that I had given birth to a baby. The idea appalled me at 6 and it still appalls me at 30. I’m quite certain it will appall me right through menopause. It is a foundational, ingrained part of who I am. But I actually didn’t know the fear had a name until a couple of years ago, when I started watching a TV show called “Call the Midwife.” I had hoped that forcing myself to watch these pregnancy stories would take away some of the fear, but it definitely did not. Still, I did happen upon an episode that depicted a woman with secondary tokophobia. While the phobia wasn’t given an official name until 2000, the narrator describing the symptoms of this mid-20th-century woman sounded like she was describing me. So I started researching more about the phobia.
Armed with newfound knowledge and terminology, I went to the doctor. At this point, I was also experiencing severe general anxiety in addition to my lifelong fear. My doctor believed that the medication I was being prescribed to help treat my general anxiety would also address the symptoms of my tokophobia. But even as I got my day-to-day anxiety under control, my fear of pregnancy and childbirth remained as strong as ever.
“Womanhood is not — and should not be — based on our childbearing capabilities, regardless of the physical, mental, financial or personal reasons we have for not wanting biological children.”
And even if therapy is able to help me with some aspects of my phobia, which is a possibility, it’s unlikely that I will ever be able to completely overcome it.
So, for that reason, and for the sake of my mental health and the health of our sex life ― and since we are confident biological children are not something we desire ― my husband and I have decided it’s time to do something a little more definitive and permanent to address my fears. We are looking forward to pursuing either a hysterectomy or vasectomy in the next year ― though, to be honest, even if my husband got a vasectomy, we would still use another form of birth control because I’m too afraid of even the slimmest of chance that I could become pregnant.
Maybe I will be a mother one day. But I can almost certainly tell you I will not birth my children. And that’s OK. Having dealt with this fear my entire life, I am slowly learning that while it is a big part of who I am, it is not my entire identity. I am not less of a woman for it. Womanhood is not — and should not be — based on our childbearing capabilities, regardless of the physical, mental, financial or personal reasons we have for not wanting biological children. Being a woman is about more than having or using a womb. Motherhood is more than biology. I am more than my tokophobia.
Danielle Steiner is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in British Columbia, Canada, and occasionally emerges from behind her desk full of words to explore the great outdoors with her husband. You can find more from her on Instagram at @willowtreewords and on her website, willowtreewords.com.
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