Fear of pregnancy
January 14, 2016 5:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in hearing from women who had (or have?) an intense terror of pregnancy and childbirth, but decided to get pregnant anyway. How did you cope with this fear?

To clarify, I am NOT interested in dismissive answers of "oh, everyone is scared of childbirth." I am talking about an INTENSE TERROR of pregnancy and childbirth. Getting pregnant has been one of my deepest fears for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is learning about pregnancy for the first time and being utterly horrified by it.

Specifically, I am afraid of the following: pain; complications; loss of control of my own body during childbirth; being unable to predict what might happen; having a traumatic birth that results in PTSD; vaginal tears, prolapse, or any of a number of other horrible things that can happen to a lady's junk; feeling disgusting and ugly in a post-birth body; being treated by doctors and medical staff like more of an incubator than a person; being forced to have unwanted surgery (c-section); post-partum depression; death; etc.

I've always been strongly against having kids, but I'm beginning to realize that 90% of my aversion to kids is really just an aversion to pregnancy and childbirth. I'm wondering if other women have faced this same issue but decided to have kids anyway.

I'm aware that adoption exists. My question is not about adoption.
posted by a strong female character to Human Relations (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a terror, but I am afraid enough of the complications that when the time comes, I would seriously consider a surrogate. Have you considered that?
posted by pando11 at 5:34 PM on January 14, 2016

You may already be aware, but this condition is called tokophobia and there are various resources online if you google terms like "overcoming tokophobia."
posted by vegartanipla at 5:38 PM on January 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

I used to have to literally leave businesses where very pregnant women were because they freaked me out. I burst into spontaneous tears while watching the graphic, detailed labor video in my childbirth class. I am currently 6 months pregnant with my second child.

You now know my credentials, feel free to memail me. This is obviously pretty personal stuff for many many reasons, but I'm happy to talk you through it.
posted by town of cats at 6:05 PM on January 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

When I was pregnant with my first child, I felt almost all of the things you specify--especially the childbirth complications/pain and post-childbirth issues. But I think my feelings made delivery and recovery worse; I was so paralyzed with fear and self-consciousness that I could not bear down and push properly. I asked for drugs as soon as I could, which resulted in numbing so much that I stopped feeling contractions and thus didn't know when to push. The doctor had to use forceps--now *that* I felt. I needed stitches--which again, I felt--and my lady parts became very swollen. I couldn't sit properly for weeks and was mildly depressed. Ultimately, being so shit-scared was the real trauma, and as a bonus it made me feel really incompetent.

But with my second child, I accepted that childbirth is natural and my body should be able to do anything that it is designed to do, as long as my mind is not encumbered with fear and doubt. Because I felt so much regret with the first childbirth, I was able to relax, feel the contractions, and push when I felt them. In short, I listened to my body instead of freaking out. Not only did I feel almost no pain (!) and need no drugs, but my lady parts were fine (no swelling or tearing). I was up and about normally later that day (YMMV, obviously). No baby blues this time either.

I truly believe that my vastly different attitude the second time is what made it so easy. Of course there are things that optimism or confidence can't affect, but those things are outside your control anyway. The best--which is a lot--you can do is trust yourself. Don't let fear override that trust.

This may be TMI, but when my previous lover first saw me naked, he could not believe that I'd had kids. And after we'd been intimate, he often remarked on my 'tightness'. So yeah, your body will recover. Not entirely on its own, but somewhat. Exercise and self-care will help a lot.
posted by destroying_angel at 6:14 PM on January 14, 2016 [8 favorites]

If you identified with destroying_angel's comments, there is an essay in Caitlin Moran's "How to be a Woman" that talks about her fear of failure during childbirth and outright denial of her own pregnancy that may resonate as well. She goes on to have another child and, later, an abortion, and overall seems pretty upfront and honest and funny about her terror of pregnancy. (fucking hilarious book, you should read it regardless)
posted by samthemander at 6:48 PM on January 14, 2016

I can't see myself doing it, frankly, not with the things I've read and come across in school and during clinical rotations. And, as a health sciences student, sometimes I'm flabbergasted at how many women just do the research and learning after they get pregnant, and they didn't know (how could they really?) because it's only recently that people talk openly about the experiences. They don't know know even the basics sometimes: the possibility of tearing, they don't know how exhausting and sometimes disabling pregnancy will be (and they get judged and called lazy and questioned at work and home by resentful coworkers and partners who feel inconvenienced) , they don't know about certain conditions that can be induced by pregnancy, they don't know and are often surprised at how unhelpful and disconnected their partners become during even planned pregnancies, they don't know how lonely and unsupported they'll feel, etc. the list goes on and on. And their non-pregnant partners often very willfully choose to know less.

I've just assumed that they're stronger people than me (some are; my one pregnant friend, to her credit, is not afraid to push back) and more resilient, but I think more people are becoming aware of the enormous toll it takes on many women physically, mentally, and emotionally. And these women keep on keepin on and that takes its own toll. But many take pride and solace in knowing that they aren't alone in these problems, that women of current and previous generations went through the same experience.

I think it's fine to be terrified and conflicted. Because even if you have a partner, it's your body and health you're risking, and you're very alone in that. You're putting your income and career and wellbeing at risk when you put yourself at risk physically.

If you're someone with anxiety who values and prioritizes and longed to create an adult life with stability, it makes perfect sense to be afraid. Only you know what's right for you.

I honest to God admire women who decide to do it. Though many of them only find out after they're pregnant the enormity of the risks they've undertaken to be mothers. Some smug women find their pregnancy a breeze and think other women (those who end up with irreversible health conditions induced by pregnancy or injuries and trauma suffered while giving birth) are overreacting or at fault for these problems that occur that are difficult to predict beforehand.

Basically, I think you're smart to take stock of your fears. They're not unfounded or silly worries at all. Being pregnant, going through childbirth---these things have risks that can't be perfectly estimated for the individual because of all the variables that are unique to you. And these things will shape your life, your lifestyle, your economic security, your health, your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing forever.

Basically, I think it just comes down to everyone's individual level of anxiety and their own ability to cope with their anxiety. Plenty of women have the mental strength and resilience to know they'll deal with whatever happens and those things are just attitudes and personality traits they are born with. Plenty of women have abortions because they know pregnancy, childbirth, etc. isn't just some cakewalk and makes them extremely vulnerable in a way that can compromise them physically, mentally, emotionally, economically, etc. in ways they won't be able to control.

I want to add one thing: I feel like I am constantly learning about autoimmune conditions that arising primarily in women who have been pregnant and affect them decades after they've been pregnant and had children (then there are studies that posit that pregnancy can be beneficial to a woman's immune system, so there's that). There are women who struggle with chronic pain issues that arose due to being injured during delivery and it reduces their ability to function and work and parent the way they wanted to (and there are a lot of awful ppl who don't want to believe it could happen to them so they say dismissive stuff because they're scared of it happening to them).

And this all isn't even a sixteenth of it. And you can understand why I personally don't really care for the term tokophobia. I think it makes a lot of sense for women to be informed and aware and really think about going through pregnancy and childbirth as taking a legitimate risk, even if it's been done since the beginning of time. And don't let people hand wave and minimize your worries; you should be able to express them and have them acknowledged. And it's really unfortunate that so many mothers who could share some pretty horrific stories often get shamed and blamed by other mothers with louder, more aggressive personalities and voices who assert their own perfect experiences aren't the result of luck and good fortune, but because they did everything right and anyone else whose experience doesn't match theirs must have done something wrong or done something to deserve it.
posted by discopolo at 7:45 PM on January 14, 2016 [40 favorites]

Thanks discopolo. I was just reading about the term tokophobia and I strongly disagree with the premise that this is an irrational phobia. Part of the problem is that pregnancy is, even with modern medicine, inherently extremely risky and things often go very wrong for the mother, or the fetus, or both.
posted by a strong female character at 8:01 PM on January 14, 2016 [7 favorites]

(I feel bad if I'm making it seem like things "often go wrong"---I think I'm supposed to say it's not frequent, it's just that it happens and we have no way of knowing if it will happen to you or not, or how anything will affect your overall wellbeing and quality of life in the long term unless we know you personally and thoroughly . Even with studies and registries and all these things, there are enough intervening variables that a worrier like me (who not only likes to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but also assess if I can handle the worst or not so bad or less than ideal) can't see myself risking it. And that's primarily because most women with children are already risking their economic potential and security by having children---throw illness or injury into the mix and things start becoming even more financially precarious.)

Just listen to your gut and believe your feelings, I suppose.
posted by discopolo at 8:16 PM on January 14, 2016

For a long time I thought I just didn't want to have children, and the crux of it was that I was terrified of the pain of childbirth, of something going wrong, the pain of vaginal tears, of maybe needing an episiotomy -- did I mention the fear of pain? Then I learned it was possible to have an elective C-section -- and all my fears disappeared. I went on to have two pregnancies and have loved being a mom so much. So if this is part of your issue, please research or talk to your ob/gyn about elective C-sections!
posted by lgandme0717 at 9:03 PM on January 14, 2016

Me. I was terrified. And when I think back on giving birth, I'm still kind of horrified that I gave birth at all. When people ask me if we are having another, I generally tell them that I can still remember what it felt like, so I won't be having any more until that feeling subsides. Which may be never.

I did two things, which may not be recommended, but hey! That's not the question, right? First of all, I spent the first seven months of my pregnancy in a foreign country with much more lax approaches to childbirth. None of this American worrying about eating sushi or whatever. Basically, my doctor never told me not to do anything or terrorized me or anything like that. But the real thing was this: I did not even think about my "birth plan" or make any plans for it until I was almost 8 months along (that's when we moved back to the U.S. and into our city of childing). I doubt you can do that in the U.S., but I honestly don't know. It's worth asking a doctor if you can just not discuss things until late in the game. That way, I didn't spend all my time worrying about the birth and the horrors awaiting me. I didn't read stuff, I did not watch any videos (barf), I didn't talk about birth plans or anything. I just had a baby in me that would come out at some point and that was that. It kept me from worrying about things I couldn't predict or control.

Second, I had a very strong advocate with me in the hospital. It was my husband, but it can be anyone, really. We wanted a natural birth (no surgery, but yes, drugs if necessary -- and it turned out they were necessary) and he was super strong when the team started pushing stuff we didn't want. A good doula can do that, or a partner or a friend or a doctor, even. But it helps a lot to have someone to stand up for you, since you'll be thinking about other stuff.

Finally, I would say this: the drugs are there for a reason. If you are terrified of the pain, then get an epidural. I held out for 24 hours and when I finally got one, I was pissed that I hadn't gotten it in the first place. I know the risks and I know the issues, but I also know that I was happy to have one. And my 22- month old is a freaking genius. So I'm not so concerned that I did something bad.

As for the other stuff: PPD, body changes, etc. well .... Those things do happen. And they are scary. Again, drugs for PPD are there for a reason. Enlist some lady friends who know the signs. Have them around. Ask for help. Get all the help you can after the birth. Get Mom to move in, or sister to come over, or friends to be there just to hang out. The body changes happen, but work out through the pregnancy, get back to the gym as soon as you can after the birth. Make that a priority over everything else: showering, personal hygiene, reading. I'm back ten pounds under my pre pregnancy weight -- no major body changes except I look better now. Not true for everyone, but it's also not not true for everyone. I also made sure I had pretty things waiting for me at home after I gave birth.: nightgowns, new clothes that fit my swollen body, etc. I got my hair and nails done right before, so I wouldn't have to worry about that. I also looked a lot at Kate Middleton's pictures after she gave birth to Prince George. It helped immensely to know that, even with a professional team of handlers, she still didn't look 100%.

Having kids is not for everyone, but I always thought I wouldn't make through the horror I felt. Turns out I did. Good luck!
posted by mrfuga0 at 9:50 PM on January 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have some mantras/ bad thought stoppers if that helps:

If it happens, I'll deal with it....
X doesn't happen to everyone....

I also didn't have a birth plan. My birth plan was "have an epidural immedietly" (and I did have a psychic sense to push at the right times, and was able to push even though I couldn't feel a damn thing) and I didn't read any pregnancy books, only "the panic free pregnancy" if I needed to Check a subject like sushi.

I didn't discuss birth with anyone that had a bad birth, I found some women to be too willing to go into great detail and scare me too much over something I couldn't control!

In my first pregnancy I had to get an emergency cerclage, I can't tell you how fucking scared I was of that spinal and surgery, if you had told me I would have to have my ladies bits operated on while I was awake I would never have gotten pregnant. As I was being rolled down the corridor I thought that I would never ever have another baby, and how I would break the news to my husband, I even fainted on the table and then laid there like a stunned bird.

Then it was over, and it was a success!

Then baby flink came and it was all worth it and we are waiting for baby flink number 2.
posted by flink at 6:50 AM on January 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

First, it might help to put your concerns in context. The reality is that pretty much all women have some degree of concern. Read up on the risks involved with hormonal birth control and the horrible side effects that can have. Then recognize that it is widely used because those risks are still less worse than having one unplanned pregnancy after another. Even if it doesn't destroy your health, women who become moms pretty universally take a hit to their career. For some, the hit is relatively minor. For others, it is quite major.

So, the short version is that pregnancy is something women the world over try to limit their exposure to, if they have the ability to do so. Your emotional reaction may be stronger, but your aversion is not some weird ass statistical outlier. It is pretty much the norm.

Second, anecdotally, it seems fairly common for women to be so traumatized by their first pregnancy that they are not readily willing to do it again. It took me a year or more to forget how hard my first pregnancy was and try again. As soon as the vomiting started, I told someone "I hope I am pregnant, because this is making me remember how ad the nausea was and making me not want to do it again. If I am not already pregnant, I may never have a second child." I knew one couple who said their kids were so far apart in age in part because it took her two years to be willing to try again, and then it took a long time for her to conceive.

At age 35, I was diagnosed with a homozygous recessive genetic disorder. The following month, my first child was diagnosed with the same thing. He had just turned 14. I have read online discussions where the first baby has a serious homozygous recessive disorder and this clues the parents that they are both carriers. They want more children, but they now know that there is a 1 in 4 chance that any baby they have will have a dread disease. It ends up being a really stressful decision.

I didn't face that horror when I had my second child, because neither I nor my first child had a diagnosis at that time. But, because it is homozygous recessive, if the man is a carrier, the odds of me producing a child with the condition are not 1 in 4. They are 1 in 2. It is 50-50. A flip of the coin.

I later got divorced. Having both lived with the condition and raised a child with the condition, my worst nightmare would be having another baby with the same condition. The condition is most common among whites and ethnic Jews, so, during my divorce, I tended to get involved with non whites. I blogged about that. You can memail me if you want the longer explanation via blog.

I have no plans to get over my dread of having another baby with a dread disease. But I appear to be hitting menopause, so I get less freaked out these days when a white man makes eyes at me. At some point, pregnancy will stop being a concern, and that will fix the issue I have with being terrified of having another baby with this condition.

Based on that, I will suggest that you assume your terror is completely rational and try to dig down into what is the source of your biggest concerns. Specific complications tend to run in the family, so talking to relatives can give you the heads up as to what you need to watch for. My mother's water never broke on its own. They always had to break it. My water also never broke on its own. They had to break it. When my sister had a high risk pregnancy, I told her "If they offer you pain killers, take them. Do not wait until you think you need them." High pain tolerance runs in the family and my birthing experiences suggested to me that by the time I wanted drugs, doctors would reply "It is too late for that. You should have gotten them earlier." My sister indicated she took the drugs when offered and she was glad I gave her the heads up.

Also, some cultures are more pregnancy friendly than others. Latino and Middle Eastern cultures tend to be better about telling a pregnant woman "Sit down. Put your feet up. Quit working so hard. Stop endangering the baby." Generally speaking, White Americans are the worst about acting like full time moms are merely leeches and welfare queens, regardless of their marital status and how they actually spend their time. Of course, the flip side is that pregnancy friendly cultures also tend to be kind of against women having careers.

But, if you can get good medical and social support, it makes a huge, huge difference in your experience of pregnancy and your actual outcomes. My sister's high risk pregnancy got very high levels of support both medically and socially. The result: she delivered a healthy baby 3 weeks early and it was a vaginal delivery on the one day that could possibly have happened. There had been zero discussion of a vaginal delivery. They had always talked about doing a C section.

So, I was traumatized by pregnancy #1 and did get over it and had another baby. I later was terrified of a specific pregnancy related outcome -- having a baby with a dread disease - and I did what I could to mitigate it, ie getting involved with men who were less likely to be carriers. I am 50. I no longer want more children, so this is, hopefully, basically behind me. But my terror was in no way irrational. There is a reason they classify my condition as a dread disease. Dreading the possibility of having another baby with the condition is not at all crazy. You would have to be crazy to want a child with the condition. And my pregnancy with the child who has the condition was much harder than my second pregnancy. I don't think that is mere coincidence.

But, if you actually want to have a baby, there are ways to mitigate a lot of the issues pregnancy causes. You can be picky as hell about your partner. You can marry into a pregnancy friendly culture or at least go visit one for a time and find out what that looks like. You can be picky about your medical team. You can educate yourself about the risks and how to manage them as best as possible. Etc.
posted by Michele in California at 12:55 PM on January 15, 2016

I was pretty terrified, in part because I don't like hospitals, I don't like blood draws, anything where there might be bleeding or messiness, and ... that's pregnancy/childbirth! Oh, and also I have a condition (vaginismus) that made me ... um, really nervous about any pelvic exams, ultrasounds, etc, much less actually giving birth! I have given birth twice (both by c-section) and am happy to talk over memail.

Honestly, I definitely took the first pregnancy one step at a time. Like, ok, this week they are going to take my blood, and it's going to be ok, and when it was, what was next? Tried not to spend too much time fixating on the actual childbirth stuff until about the third trimester. By then I'd had so much blood taken and people up in my stuff that I was able to read birth stories and get better prepared.

By the second one, I'd already done it once so it was much less terrifying. I hope to never do it again, though :D
posted by freezer cake at 4:34 PM on January 15, 2016

Those fears are totally normal on some level, for anyone who's pregnant. But there are lots of ways to cope with fear and anxiety (which left unchecked can indeed make the experience worse for all involved.) Have you looked into mindfulness training for birthing? Mindful Birthing is a good overall introduction and really helps reduce the fear spiral through exercises — like training yourself to hold an icecube in your hand and learning breathing exercises to handle tough moments.
posted by amoeba at 1:21 PM on January 16, 2016

I have had a fear of childbirth since adolescence, enough that I was never sure if I would be able to have children because of it. Well, I just had a baby 6 weeks ago, and here's how I did it.

Eventually the fear of never having a child and experiencing such a profound human experience, outweighed my fear of childbirth. In my mid-thirties, it was becoming a matter of now or never, so I decided to face down my fear. Then I found that I needed fertility treatments, and I was facing the possibility of my new greatest fear coming true: a life without biological children. This strengthened my resolve to face childbirth even more.

I kept reminding myself that millions of women before me have been through this experience, many more than once. And there has never been a safer and easier time in history to give birth. I also reminded myself that this would be a traumatic experience for the baby as well, probably worse than what I was going through. It helped me to think of us getting through the experience together as a team.

Multiple rounds of IVF desensitised me to the more medical aspects, like being poked and prodded by strangers, constant needles and blood draws, invasive ultrasounds, etc. By the time I fell pregnant, doctor's visits became monthly or weekly instead of daily. It almost felt like a holiday!

Finally, I simply accepted I couldn't know what to expect from the birth experience. And I was right, it was not as I imagined, with some aspects being worse and some better. Pregnancy was surprising easy. I was most terrified of the end stages of childbirth, and thanks to an epidural, I literally felt no pain even through crowning and tearing. On the other hand, while I was prepared for painful contractions, I wasn't expecting that they would be so intense right from the start. Again, that all went away with the epidural, which I highly, highly recommend. Recovery has been uncomfortable but not painful, and six weeks later, I feel almost back to normal in every way.

Would I do it again? I would, and although I would still dread the birthing process, I would know that I could get through it one way or another. In the end, it's one day of pain in exchange for a lifetime with my child.
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 7:24 AM on January 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am 29 weeks pregnant right now, my third attempt, and I am terrified enough of my own experience that sometimes I take an antihistamine to calm me down. I had a weird premonition when I was 12 that I would never have my own children and doom would befall me if I tried. Alas, I could not stop thinking about how much I wanted children, so even though it seemed like tempting fate, I allowed myself to get pregnant.

Despite the graphic and horrible experiences involved in both my stillbirth (pregnancy 1) and early miscarriage (pregnancy 2), this backdrop of "I must do this, I must do this" persisted until I got pregnant again. I worry about what might happen in the birth process, and I worry about coming home empty-handed again. But I just kept watching the train go by me and eventually I had to get on it. Even if there was a statistically significant possibility it would end in a fiery crash, I had to get on it. So I did, and I guess the primary way I deal with it is I tell myself that just like life, it's not going to last forever. An outcome of some kind is imminent. The worst has already happened to me, and if it happens again, so it does. If the need continues, I will keep trying until it goes away or I get too old. Things are not as complex as I make them.

I realize that even after I have won the dark lottery twice, my desires are not different and I actually feel less afraid on my third try than I felt on my first. Because uncertainty is more terrifying than reality. The fear is real, not exaggerated, and it may come to fruition. The desire is also real and not fulfilling it may result in true pain and regret. Which one is stronger? That's the core question to which there's no right answer.

Regarding fears about temporary/permanent pain, injury, or loss of control of my body, I reason with myself that some or all of these things will happen to every woman whether or not she gets pregnant, since none of us are yet immortal or indestructible. In my mind, I'd rather weather my mortality as a biological mother if I can. If not, at least I tried my best to be one.
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 1:58 PM on January 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

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