There was a weird pulling sensation… and then I heard it. That most powerful of cries announcing the arrival of life into this world. A cry that forever is echoing in my ears. Then the screen went down, and a little blue foot dangled before me, kicking with an intensity so visceral I thought there and then my heart would stop. In fact, I’m pretty sure that for the briefest moment, it did. Hello little blue foot.
What happened next was a paradox… time went in slow motion, but also so quickly. The little blue foot was out of my sight, and then too, my fiancé was no longer next to me and across the theatre. The affects of the spinal block had me numb to my arm pits and yet I knew I was shaking from the adrenalin, but as the morphine kicked in I began to relax and feel like I was floating, just about elevated off the operating table. Whether it was the drugs or the euphoria, I still can not say.
From across the room I heard those cries, short loud bursts expressing distress at being launched into this world of bright lights, cold, discomfort and unfamiliarity. “Help me. Hold me. Protect me,” cried Little Blue Foot. And then the cries stopped. I was watching a little blue hand grasp Alex’s index finger. The comfort and recognition was instant, incredible heart-wrenching. Daddy, we’ve never met, but I’ve known you down to my molecules and you are comfort.
I was so honoured to be witnessing this bonding happening, but then panic set in. What if you wouldn’t find comfort in my touch? This disappeared like a puff of smoke a genie would leave behind after returning to his lamp, as they placed Little Blue Foot across my chest. Oh so small, how is this possible? The love was light a weighted blanket… all encompassing, complete, integral. My heart just cracked open and you, Little Blue Foot, entered. We found home in eachother.
Now pause and rewind. Let’s talk about pregnancy. You see, pregnancy was a weird and even traumatic experience for me, and that’s why I saw birth as the beginning and pregnancy as the end. Many would find this take on pregnancy hard to accept or identify with, and I even have to agree that motherhood begins in pregnancy, but for me it was very different. Me and pregnancy were like oil and water. It’s just not for me. For those of you expecting this to read like a gushing novella, it won’t. It will instead read like the ramblings of a woman who for 37 weeks and 4 days felt utter despair at losing complete control over her, body, her emotions, and even her mind.
I come with a clinical diagnosis of tokophobia. According to NCT: “Tokophobia is where women have an extreme fear of pregnancy that can lead to them avoiding childbirth altogether. The fear becomes paralysing and terrifying, and can become physically and emotionally disabling.”
But it’s natural to have fear of childbirth right? This isn’t a natural fear. It’s irrational, pervasive and it forms a chokehold over your existence. Feelings of fear, inadequacy, and instability dominate your waking hours and consume you whilst the world sleeps. It casts a dark shadow over you that you can never quite shake off. This was a level of fear that had me believing I was going to die through childbirth and left me feeling alone and helpless, and if I am honest, pathetic and ridiculous.
During my pregnancy I had intrusive thoughts enter my mind at random times which were so intense that I would vomit violently (and no, this was not morning sickness related which I also had). These thoughts were always there, and would either keep me awake at night, or give me nightmares which had me waking up soaked in a cold sweat.
In its essence, tokophobia affected my whole body. Debilitating tension headaches would cause my neck, shoulders and back to seize up for periods of up to 72hours. I was caught in a kind of limbo between wishing away my first trimester, and being filled with a building sense of dread as my due date approached, and having to face giving birth, which gave rise to worries about labour; not just the physical pain, but the idea that my body would be torn in two, my bones break, and most worryingly, that my baby would experience trauma like the cord wrapped around his neck, breach or worse.
Bodily autonomy, is a really big thing for me. I don’t like losing control over my own body yet all of a sudden, I was crying in the supermarket over half the sandwich selection being off limits due to ordinarily inoffensive ingredients such as cheeses, hams, mayonnaise etc. And this I found was an underlying theme… The more I became aware of the new limitations my condition placed on me, the stronger the grip of tokophobia over me. I just couldn’t deal with the absoluteness of pregnancy and that my choices as an individual seemed to be getting narrower and narrower (and the ensuing guilt and feelings of worthlessness and weakness because I couldn’t deal with something that billions of women the world over fully embraced). It’s the limitations on the day to day things which made me feel like my world was closing in around me…
“…Don’t have this and that because of the risk of listeriosis… don’t have these eggs done that way because of salmonella… don’t have more than x-amount of coffee because if you do, you are the anti-Christ. Make sure you rest, but don’t rest too much and stay active… don’t move this way… don’t sit in hot baths… have a hot bath to sooth yourself…this cheese is a no no… that fish is off limits… make sure you eat this fish, but don’t eat it more than x-times a week… you can have this thing, but only after this many weeks because of blah… oh change your vitamins… but make sure you don’t eat carrots and have x,y,z supplements.”
Furthermore, I developed hay fever for the first time in my life and was told that I was not allowed to buy over-the-counter antihistamines by the pharmacist and would need a prescription (which GP’s are hesitant to do because of the liability of possible side affects), and instead was offered the sage advice of ‘staying indoors’ or using a saline nasal spray (great, to spend the entire summer indoors). I even had a foot injury which meant I couldn’t walk without assistance or crutches for weeks, but NSAIDs like ibuprofen were off limits, so I had to just grin and bear through the pain. I don’t mean to gripe but the list is extensive, contradictory and down right confusing at the best of times. All it did was cement in my mind that my needs were no-longer a concern, and I was basically just a vessel. I described this to my therapist as feeling like I was battery pack that had been plugged into, and that I wasn’t growing a child, but a mere collection of cells that happened to exist around it (this is subsistence). The ‘I’ in my ‘existence’ was was getting smaller and smaller.
When you already have to contend with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, the feeling of losing control over all the things that are your own structures and rituals you have put into place to keep you from fraying apart daily, is not easy to take. It is a daily battle added on top of being overwhelmed by potent hormones that control you physically and emotionally.
These thoughts were all-consuming, and there was no escape from them. They exacerbated, an already anxious mind to the point where I was becoming increasingly withdrawn. There were few people I wished to discuss this with because I already felt pathetic and like a complete failure as a woman. I was an unwitting participant in the pregnancy olympics (think heavily Insta-pregnant women with their swollen bellies pushing weights, doing trail runs and parading effortlessly in flowing chiffon gowns in a fields of lavender, the before bump/5 mins after baby with svelt physiques types… the I-just-breathed-out-positive-affirmations-AND-my-baby-types because you know, because pregnancy is a breeze types). Social media and algorithms have a lot to answer for in perpetuating and serving this nonsense… Don’t get me wrong, these women are amazing in what they achieve during their pregnancies, but it only helps to normalise unrealistic visions of pregnancy (and motherhood) and I think we could all do with seeing pregnancy through raw and unfiltered lenses instead of the insta-bullsh*t, whether you have tokophobia or not.
The few people who I had tried to speak (bar my best friend and cousin) to about my thoughts, unintentionally downplayed my concerns in an attempt to allay what they thought were natural fears that affect most pregnant women… ‘You’ve got this… your body was made to do this’…but what about my mind, was that made to do this? There’s no better confirmation that you’re a glorified petri dish than someone ignoring the importance of your mental wellbeing and citing the wonders of the human body.
In all, your world becomes very small, very quickly when you’re continuously been fed these images of what pregnancy should (could) be like, and in real life when you try to share how utterly terrified and mentally tortured you are but are only met with reductiveness and minimisation. It’s a lonely road to be on. This is only further complicated by the mental see-sawing of conflicting emotions of at once looking forward to something (meeting my son — the result), and being absolutely petrified (of the process).
So, what happened?
Things changed when my GP called me for a telephone appointment (at this point, because of covid, all maternity appointments before 12 weeks were on the phone or via zoom) and she asked me how I was feeling. Me? My feelings? Someone is asking how I feel?
I. Broke. Down.
I asked her if I could be honest, and she told me that it’s the only way. So I told her. Everything. I told her about how I felt like I was losing control, of my body, my mind, my emotions, all if it. And I finally said those words aloud, ‘I hate pregnancy, it’s just not for me,’. I felt a release… I would’ve felt the usual shame and guilt, but by that point I was a pressure cooker of anxiety, and my words erupted from my mouth with fire and finality. I didn’t even realise I was sitting crumpled on the floor in tears, or that my partner who I had left sleeping in the bedroom was woken by me sobbing and hyperventilating down the phone. After that, it all happened very quickly. I was referred to the perinatal team at my hospital, who called me less than 24 hours later, and contacted by the in-house therapist at my GP surgery to discuss starting therapy, and by the end of the week had spoken to a psychiatric consultant who evaluated me and made the formal diagnosis of tokophobia, a word that I knew nothing about then, but will never forget.
I was offered chemical solutions to help manage the affect it was having on my sleep, as well as mood stabilisers, but I opted out of these interventions, instead finding therapy a more longterm and fitting solution. Over a course of months I worked through things with my therapist. The one ‘good’ (if you can call it that) thing about tokophobia is that the crescendo is the grand event itself; birth, and there’s the clue to the final recommendation by the consultant psychiatrist when discharging me from the care of the perinatal mental health team: a scheduled caesarian section. By no means was this the easy way out. This was not a case of ‘too posh to push,’ but one of giving me a sense of control over the unknown (and my own body). A scheduled c-section would take out the guess work, especially in those final days of early labour and would mean I would forego active labour and any possible complications which terrified me to my core, as well as having a definite date (provided that I didn’t go into labour before the scheduled date). The thought of surgery scared me but ultimately, this baby was coming out of me one way or the other so I just needed to deal with that as avoidance was altogether impossible.
The rosy warm and mushy feeling inside is where I am at now…Little Blue Foot who used to be my tiny 2.8kg bundle of helplessness and vulnerability, is now an almost 9kg robust little boy who smiles back at me when I smile at him, who lets me know that the texture of the potato dish I served him was not to his liking…It’s my everyday. It’s my ritual of sitting in bed before I sleep and reviewing and replaying the 300 different photos of Bo I took today. It’s the feeling of missing him, because once he’s asleep, the flat isn’t filled with his coos and laughter and him blowing raspberries… it’s like the idea of travelling a country you’ve been in your whole life, but seeing new things everytime… both the known and the unknown…it’s the thoughts of how fast he’s growing up, and wondering what new skills he will show us… and of the man he will become, and I couldn’t feel more proud.