It’s actually normal and common.
Pregnancy is dangerous. If you weren’t already aware of the many things that can happen to both you and your fetus during both pregnancy and childbirth, don’t worry – you can remedy that with a quick Google search. (Also, maybe don’t do this, and talk to a doctor instead.) It’s not weird or wrong to be anxious about pregnancy, and it certainly isn’t uncommon, just as it’s not unheard of to hate being pregnant – it just isn’t talked about.
“To me the words pregnancy and fear are synonymous,” K told me. “The specific fears are many, probably more than have even occurred to me, I think of new ones all the time. Not being able to use my body the way I want to, feeling like my body has been co-opted by another, feeling like the baby is actually some sort of parasitic alien object staging an alien invasion in my uterus. Don’t even get me started on birth! It’s not even necessarily the pain that scares me, actually. There’s something that fundamentally creeps me out about the idea of a living being coming out of my body.”
L has had recurring nightmares about being pregnant since her mid-20s. In her dream, she’ll look down and see that she’s easily eight months along, somehow never having realized it. She tells herself she still has a while to deal with her situation, but then her water breaks, and she wakes up in a panic.
If you know you never want to be a parent, not getting pregnant seems like a good way to mitigate your fear, but what if you are afraid, but you do still want to give birth? Do you persevere? How?
Anonymous grew up in a large family where she saw people who were pregnant all the time. “By the time I got pregnant, two of my sisters had each had a baby, and it didn’t seem like a big deal to be pregnant or give birth, given their stories. I expected a little morning sickness for a couple weeks, which I figured I could handle.”
She did handle it – twice -but it was not what she expected. She was relentlessly sick and developed gestational diabetes. “It took me two years to not feel nauseous any time someone told me they were pregnant, or any time I saw a banana or rice cracker. When my son was 2, I could finally entertain the idea of being pregnant again.” Her second pregnancy was somewhat easier, but in spite of how it all went down, she says she’d do it again. “I’d love another kid, but I think I’d have to drop out of society before getting pregnant again.
“The physical changes really scare me, and the side effects,” said A. She and her partner are discussing the pros and cons of having a baby. “I’m still planning to do it because we want to have kids and if we can have them that way, it’s just easier and more doable for us. but I’m terrified and keep reading as much as I can about pregnancy so I’m like, armed with information.” A’s concerns are primarily related to her anxiety medication (if she can keep taking it while pregnant – her doctor says she can), the likelihood that she’ll have postpartum depression, and the fact she’d likely need to have a c-section (major surgery).
What helps mitigate her fears? “I also have friends who are currently pregnant who don’t sugarcoat what the experience is like, so I’m getting information from people I trust, which helps, but it doesn’t make the fear go away entirely. But I don’t want it to stop us from living our lives.”
Dr. Rebecca Levy-Gantt, an OBGYN in California, is deeply familiar with folks who experience fear throughout pregnancy. “Every time they come in for a visit they have to tell me about every single horrible thing that they have heard or read about and are sure that it is all happening to them. They tell me of every catastrophic thing that every pregnant person they know has gone through, quite sure that they are suffering the same fates. They make endless calls to the office, and feel the need to be examined and reassured constantly that these things are not happening to them.”
C, who has two children, was most afraid of giving birth, which she coped with via hypnobirthing. Still, she told me, the fear doesn’t necessarily end after your child is born – there’s anxiety about breastfeeding, post birth bleeding, etc. In spite of all that, says C, “At the end of the day, the risks seemed worth it.”
Of course, being afraid of something and having a phobia of it are very different things. A phobia is triggered by a specific situation, and when you encounter that situation, you are physically and/or psychologically impaired by it. “Pregnancy phobia is more common than people might realize,” said Elizabeth Manning, a mind-body fertility expert. “It can actually affect the body’s ability to repel pregnancy. This becomes a problem when people want to get pregnant!”
Pregnancy phobia (or tokophobia) says Manning, is often connected to a fear of loss.
“In either talk therapy or regression hypnotherapy we often find that they themselves had birth trauma at their own birth. Or, their own mother was afraid of birth, or losing her baby.” Manning urges people to confront the fear, and engage with it, especially if you do actually want to be able to give birth. “Fear causes stress and stress causes cortisol and cortisol smothers the fertility hormone pathways. It’s all related.”