Even seeing a heavily pregnant woman terrifies her, but now she is pregnant herself. She explains how she is managing
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 March 2010 21.00 GMT
I'm lying in hospital, shaking with fear. There are no familiar faces, only doctors and midwives hovering above me, their mouths moving silently. The contractions keep coming, and I'm horribly confused. How can I be in labour when I would never have allowed myself to get pregnant?
Welcome to my subconscious, which regularly reminds me of my terror of childbirth. The nightmares started in my teens, when I decided I could never cope with giving birth; the pain would be intolerable. Since then, the merest glimpse of a heavily pregnant woman has filled me with searing panic – my hands shake, my heart races.
I had grown used to the idea that I would not have children. But when friend after friend started a family, seeing them with their babies led to a brief suspension of terror, and six months ago I got pregnant. At first, it didn't seem too worrying – after all, I had the best part of a year to go – but the anxiety has grown and grown.
The extreme fear of childbirth, tokophobia, was first identified in 2000 by Dr Kristina Hofberg, and is surprisingly common, affecting one in six women. Hofberg separates sufferers into two categories: primary tokophobes, who fear childbirth before pregnancy, and secondary ones, whose fear is ignited by a traumatic birth. Speaking as a primary, the fact that a secondary category exists says it all.
What separates tokophobia from the usual anxieties of mothers-to-be is the depth of fear. Some tokophobes think they will die; others imagine something unbearable happening. The most common trait is a fear of vaginal birth, with no corresponding dread of caesarean sections (although some women find both prospects equally terrifying). For many, the idea of a baby growing inside them is deeply unsettling. They often seek out stories to back up their fear of labour, and my recent internet history includes a shameful number of awful-but-compelling parenting sites.
Alison Ellerbrook took a similar path when she was pregnant with her daughter, Isobel. "I read everything I could on childbirth, but it only made my imagination run wild," she says. "By the third trimester, I was frequently tearful and shaking. I had panic attacks and terrible nightmares about labour. I would tell my husband, 'I can't do this.' At my NCT [National Childbirth Trust] class, people would say they were nervous too, but it wasn't the same. I was scared I was going to die."
Unfortunately for Alison, her labour turned out to be long and complicated. "I started to feel like my body wasn't my own," she says. "Towards the end I had 13 people at the bottom of the bed. I felt like a piece of meat – there was no dignity – and I was in complete shock."
She suffered flashbacks, and was later diagnosed with postnatal depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. It has taken her two years to recover. She would love a second child, but thinks it unlikely; she uses two forms of contraception – not unusual for a tokophobe – and will not countenance pregnancy again unless, at the very least, she is guaranteed a caesarean section…