Most women feel some anxiety in the face of child birth. This completely normal reaction to the unknown, and to the possibility of being pushed to your mental and physical limits, is understandable. It is also exacerbated in our society by our presentation of birth as an ordeal to be suffered through. No media representations of birth are ever positive. Instead women are lying back, legs splayed, faces contorted in unbearable pain whilst their bits are exposed to an audience of onlookers. An American commentator once said, ‘American TV heroines only ever give birth in lifts, taxis, beside remote lakes or in planes, three miles up above the Earth.’ To present birth as anything other than dramatic and horrifying would do nothing for ratings. So our culture becomes, through story and tv, increasingly fearful of birth. And what happens? The prophecy is one of those self-fulfilling ones, for the more fearful a woman is, the more difficult and hence potentially traumatic her birth will be.
Thankfully, for most women, this fear of childbirth can be alleviated, at least in part, by antenatal classes, yoga for pregnancy, hypnotherapy and talking to experienced birth attendants. For some women however, this fear is so extreme that it is categorised as a bona fide phobia; tokophobia (’toko’ means childbrith in Greek). Helen Mirrin once attested to suffering from this very phobia in a Daily Mail feature, saying it explained why she has never had children. Far from being a simple culturally induced fear, this is absolute terror, insuring such women not only avoid pregnancy altogether, but also often reel in disgust at the pregnancies of others. For these women, no amount of positive thinking can help. Sadly, few sufferers admit to their feelings, so the ailment goes largely undiagnosed and the subject remains a virtual taboo. Whilst the origins of the phobia can often be childhood sexual abuse- and so the fear is wrapped up in all sorts of other understandable mental trauma- for other women the fear has come from a video or image or early horror story that they were privy to. Perhaps we should think twice before we sell the idea of birth as horrific?
At this stage there are no known cures for sufferers of tokophobia, but as with all birth related issues, open dialogue is essential. Too much of birth is cast off as virtual taboo. Choices facing women, fearful or not, are extremely limited and mandated by a profession that is increasingly ignorant of the physiology of birth. As the obstetric profession has increasingly sought to take care of every possible physical complication in the birth process, the emotional side of things has been increasingly ignored. But how a woman feels about birth is an essential component of her birth experience. Women need to be encouraged to talk, and given the time to do so. Only then will birth related subjects cease to be taboos, and many women will have better experiences- and might even find the courage to embark on the journey of motherhood- because of it. And for those whose fears are too great to overcome, dialogue will at least create a social understanding of tokophobia and demote it from a taboo topic to one that can at least be explored through conversation and debate.