You may well recognise mum-of-2 Jess, known as @TheFatFunnyOne, for her honest, relatable, and often funny ‘grams in which she seems rather content ?
But during her 1st pregnancy, in 2012, Jess was far from happy: she was sleepless, scared and struggling to cope with her tokophobia.
Tokophobia is a serious fear of birth that goes way beyond your typical ‘OMG I’m about to produce a human’ panic, which at its darkest it can result in self-harm, a refusal to labour, and can affect how you bond with your baby.
In Jess’s case, she was diagnosed in the nick of time, though the impact did reverberate throughout her life and her following pregnancies.
Here, she shares her story exclusively with MadeForMums…
‘I was petrified of birth, absolutely petrified’
“It started around April or May of 2012, when I was pregnant with my daughter Sophia, and my midwife started to talk about birth options. I quickly realised ‘actually, I’m not comfortable with this at all’.
“It sounds ridiculous, because I was really happy to be pregnant, but the fear and anxiety around the birth built up over weeks and weeks, and it got worse and worse and worse.
“I got brushed off a little bit, too, with people saying, ‘Oh, its really natural, you’re a first time mum, it’s natural to be a bit fearful, you’re just worried’ – but my fear wasn’t a normal fear. I wasn’t worrying about it and then going to bed at night. I wasn’t sleeping. I found it really hard to eat.
“My fear was irrational, and I was adamant: if I have this baby, I’m going to die, or my baby’s gonna die. It wasn’t normal, I wasn’t just worried about the unknown.
“And then it just escalated. And because I really only discussed it with my husband and my mum at the time, and I did kind of talk to midwives but again, it was like ‘Ohh don’t worry, its normal to be worried’ and I was like ‘No, I’m not just worried, I can’t cope’.
“I’d gone to birthing classes, too, around the end of May, beginning of June, and I didn’t even go to the last few sessions because they were just making me so anxious.
“Nothing to do with anyone there – because they were brilliant – but it made me feel like it was gonna happen too soon, like it was too real, making me more nervous, more anxious. I was petrified, absolutely petrified.
“The midwives tried to help, they offered to take me around the birthing centre – to which I had a massive panic attack and didn’t even manage to go.
“I saw several midwives in the end, and they made me meet the head of the midwifery department at our local hospital. They kind of tried to help – but they didn’t really realise how bad it had got, and by this time it was late June.
“It was getting closer and closer to the time, and it was making me more and more anxious about what was going to happen.”
‘Recurring nightmares forced me to stay awake’
“When I was 7 months pregnant, I kept having this recurring dream, when I eventually did fall asleep, that I would birth my baby, and they wouldn’t be alive.
“I had this recurring dream over and over and over again, every time I closed my eyes, to the point where I said to myself don’t fall asleep, because I didn’t want to have the dream again.
“I’d force myself to stay awake, try to watch telly, play on my phone, I would do anything – and I was working at the time so it had a massive effect on my work – I was exhausted constantly.
“I couldn’t enjoy being pregnant, I couldn’t enjoy it like I wanted to because I was so emotionally drained, constantly fearing that the worst was gonna happen.
“Then I was frustrated, thinking: ‘Why can’t I enjoy it? Why can’t I get rid of these fears? Why am I being so irrational?’ Everyone’s telling me I’m being ridiculous – so there was that argument in my head.
“It was just so dark, so upsetting, and I didn’t hear anybody else who was as frightened as me, so I didn’t feel like I could really talk to anybody.
“And as for my husband – this was our first baby, neither of us had ever done this before. We were both only 22, so I didn’t have any mum friends who I could talk to, and my family had all had such horrible birth experiences.
“I was just at such a low point. I just remember feeling so, so low and not being excited in the one time in my life I should’ve been excited, and that made me feel really, really sad.
‘I was hysterical – I just wanted someone to knock me out’
“The last straw was going to see the head of the midwifery-led unit, and she had made some quite horrible comments to me – because at that point I told her I wanted a C-section.
“I wanted someone to knock me out. I just wanted the birth to happen, I didn’t want to know how it happened. I need to know when, I need to know how, but I don’t want to know – you know?
“And she said, ‘You’re not considering the safety of your baby. I’m considering the safety of your baby and that’s why I’m not gonna let you do this. If we do a C-section, the risks could be this and this…’
“She was really negative, and they wouldn’t make an exception unless it was an emergency. Which I appreciated – but it really upset me, and I left the hospital hysterical that day.
“I remember my husband ringing my mum, and saying, ‘I don’t know what to do with Jess, I can’t calm her down’, and my mum said, ‘Go back in, and let them see her in this state, let them see how bad it is’.
“The panic attacks and everything I’d had at home, all of this was in private, it was never in front of a midwife or any medical professionals – so we showed them how bad it really was. And when they did [see] they sat me down and said, ‘OK, we really need to escalate this’.
“I wrote a massive statement and sent it to the hospital, saying how I’m feeling, where I’d got up to – then they pushed me into a meeting a consultant, who within a few minutes of meeting me and asking me a few questions was like ‘Right, there’s no doubt about it, you’ve got something called tokophobia’ and then explained what that meant.
“Suddenly, I felt like I wasn’t going crazy, and that it was a real life thing, that it wasn’t just me being completely ridiculous, and then he scheduled my C-section that day, for about 5 or 6 days before my due date.
“It didn’t completely erase the anxiety but it made things a whole heap easier because I knew what was gonna happen. It minimised the risk of going into natural labour which was one of the biggest fears for me.
‘The birth I’d been dreading was a bit of a blur’
“In my case, I had natural baby blues, and I struggled to breastfeed for the first couple of weeks which added an extra pressure.
“But I think the recovery process was quite easy for me physically and that had a huge bearing on how I felt, because I wasn’t feeling that awful. Don’t get me wrong I couldn’t walk for days – but I didn’t feel as bad as what I’d mentally prepared for.
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to walk for weeks. People always say, ‘6 weeks – you can’t do anything for 6 weeks!’ And I panicked about that.
“The birth itself was a bit of a blur to some degree, because it felt surreal, like I’d finally approached this day I’d been dreading for so long.
“I didn’t have what you necessarily see in movies, where waters break and contractions are happening and then the baby’s born, so it didn’t feel like I wasn’t gonna get a baby that day.
“I kind of rocked up to the hospital like I was going for a blood test. Very surreal.”
‘I didn’t want my fears to get the better of me for baby no 2’
“My 2nd daughter Bella is 3 months old now, but in between I had another pregnancy which miscarried at 12 weeks.
My first thought was: ‘OK, what are my birthing options going to be, because I’ve already had a C-section. Are they gonna let me have another one? Are they gonna make me try for a vaginal birth?
“Unfortunately a few weeks later, we lost the pregnancy, and obviously that made it worse when I became pregnant the 3rd time around, because now there was this added stress of miscarrying, on top of thinking about the birth.
“I’d practised a lot of mindfulness in those years though, and I’d done lot of work on my anxiety in general and knew how to calm myself during a panic attack, and that took away some level of the tokophobia.
“On another level, I was still freaking out about having another baby and what my options were. But I decided I didn’t want my fears and demons to get the better of me, so I invested a lot in hypnobirthing classes and talking to more people about tokophobia and reading more positive birth stories and filling myself with the good side and all the positives that there are.
“When you watch telly, even programmes like One Born Every Minute don’t help. There’s just all these screaming people out there, and there isn’t much to show you really can have a positive birthing experience.
“I researched a lot and realised actually I might be OK when I do this it’s not as scary as we’ve been taught or conditioned to believe.
“Bella ended up coming 4 weeks early, my waters broke when I was about 36/37 weeks, and I kind of thought: ‘I’m ready, I can do this’, only to have an emergency C-section 2 days later.
“But my whole feelings in those 2 days were so, so different that I could have ever imagined because I wasn’t panicking, I was really ready and determined not to feel how I felt before, and I really pushed myself to believe I could do this.
“I remembered there are positive birth stories out there, and that the worst case scenario isn’t necessarily going to happen to me.”
“Don’t brush people off” – how you can help someone with tokophobia
If you’re reading this story and thinking ‘Holy smokes, this is ME’ or someone you know, then there are ways you can help.
Jess says the key is to listen and be an ear, also to try and dig a little deeper. If it’s you going through it, try to really get the severity of the situation across to family, friends, and your medical professionals.
“Don’t brush people off,” she advises. “The NHS is stretched as it is, and midwives have a million people to see, and were all packed in appointment after appointment.
“But I think if someone expresses some kind of fear and there’s a level of you can see they’re feeling more anxious than what’s normal, you should dig a bit deeper if you can, ask more questions: are you sleeping OK? How scared are you, really? Is it overcoming your thoughts?
“Look at the bigger picture, don’t say, ‘Oh don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine’ – it might take a lot more reassurance than that.
“Everyone always says to you, ‘Oh birth, it’s the worst thing in the world! But you get a baby and that’s great…’ but some people don’t realise that the ‘worst thing in the world’ bit is all you can focus on.
“Not everyone’s going to have a beautiful, magical, pain-free waterbirth, I know, but I just think there needs to be more options and more positive stories, positive experiences.
“Actually, birth can be a lovely experience. It won’t always be this horrible, awful thing. It just has to be talked about more.”
Jess is hosting a mental health event for mums in London on Sat 21 July 2018 – buy one of the few remaining tickets here
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Have you been diagnosed with tokophobia? Perhaps you’ve had similar feelings to Jess and weren’t ever diagnosed?
Images: courtesy of Jess