There has been a lot of debate recently around fear of birth and tokophobia, the pathological fear of birth and pregnancy. Much of this debate has centred on the culprits that are being blamed for the rise in women experiencing fear of birth and these culprits have been named as social media, bloggers and Mumsnet. As you can imagine, the internet nearly broke.
The truth is that fear is little more complex than this. It is not enough for us simply to point the finger at one source and say “That’s it! That’s why women are scared of birth!”. Instead we need to understand the various forces at play that can have an impact on how women feel about birth, while also acknowledging that some of these things may be happening concurrently.
Put simply, fear is not something we can oversimplify.
So what are the forces at play that create fear around birth and pregnancy?
The 4 TRUE causes of fear of birth and pregnancy
There are some key influencing factors that we know contribute to the fear that women experience around birth. Thankfully these are backed up by research which you can read about here.
1. Watching birth on TV and in the movies
The research tells us that when a woman has witnessed a birth her level of fear is lower. But there’s more to it than simply seeing a birth. The location matters, i.e. where she saw the birth. If she has seen a birth on TV/video/internet then her fear will be higher. Whereas if she has seen a home birth then her fear will be lower.
If she watches a home birth on YouTube then this will probably help to reduce her fear. Yes, I know this is still the internet, but this is something I’ve read time and time again from the women in my Facebook group (so not confirmed by research). These women say that watching home birth videos help them to reduce their fear and they can’t get enough of them.
The real problem is watching birth on TV or in a film;
This is usually bad news when it comes to fear.
The reason behind this difference is down to the way that birth is portrayed by screenwriters and reality TV shows. They dramatise birth and edit it for entertainment which changes things.
There is also no context for women to better understand what they’re watching – why decisions have been made etc – which can leave them to fill the gaps in their head. And we all know how our fears like to fill in gaps…. by making things even more scary!
“… Also, Hollywood with how they dramatize giving birth to be this scary/loud/crazy thing (which I know isn’t always accurate, but it still painted a scary picture in my head).”
Compare that to a woman sharing her birth on YouTube who’s doing it to share it to show how beautiful it was for her. She is unlikely to be editing it for entertainment purposes and will probably leave the footage as raw as possible.
Now even though the research suggests that TV births are bad news, this does depend on the woman watching it. If she’s watching with no prior experience or education around birth, then what she is watching will more likely assume an educative role. Because she doesn’t have anything else to compare it to, she’ll just add it to the box in her mind labelled “childbirth” along with all the other portrayals of birth, and eventually, she’ll build up a picture of what childbirth is like.
Compare that to a woman who has watched her sister give birth at home, or has heard her mother talk about birth positively her whole life. This woman is less likely to add any birth she watches to the “childbirth” box in her mind. Instead, she’ll dismiss it as entertainment. The box labelled “childbirth” in her mind already has some reliable information in it that she’s unlikely to override based on what she sees in the movies or on TV.
I co-authored a book on this topic so if you’re interested in reading more about the impact of the media on women’s perceptions of birth check it out: Childbirth, Midwifery and the Media.
2. Stories from friends and family
Hearing birth horror stories can, in some cases, add to women’s fear. We can add in here the social media element as many women form deep connections with women they’ve never actually met.
These stories can be a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, it’s useful for women to hear real stories of how other women’s experiences have unfolded. But these stories are not always helpful to women who have yet to give birth.
Again, we cannot oversimplify this as there are many factors at play;
- How the story is told… Lots of gory details? Over-exaggeration?
- Is the woman sharing context… things she learned/would avoid/do differently next time? In other words, is there something for another woman to learn from her story?
- Is the woman reading/listening to the story prone to worrying or being anxious? How will she respond?
“I think social media did make me more scared at times, but hearing the positive POVs from other moms made me feel calm in the end.” Ana
Shannon, who had a series of difficult birth and miscarriage experiences in a hospital says
“I don’t think that social media made it worse. In fact, because of social media, I found Fear Free Childbirth and it helped me so much.”
Sadly, many women have had difficult birth experiences so you don’t have to wait too long before you come across another one, either online, in the headlines or from a friend.
Yes, those women who’ve had those difficult experiences need to talk about what’s happened, but women who’ve yet to give birth are not necessarily the right people to be exposed to them. Especially given how hearing these stories can have such an effect on her level of fear.
The problem doesn’t necessarily come from one person’s story but from the sheer quantity of stories that a woman will be exposed to. When you hear one story, you can shrug it off as one person’s experience.
When you hear a lot of these stories, you begin to believe that this is simply “the way it is”.
And “the way it is” is that “childbirth is a fucking nightmare”
“Initially, I think my fear is completely from social media/movies etc. but lately I have started to see more of ‘movement’ of moms saying how beautiful their birth was, which helps, so it depends now I guess.”
Which, while it might be for some, isn’t for everyone. Lots of women have enjoyable and painless childbirth experiences. Unfortunately, we don’t hear about those so much. When I share positive birth stories on my podcast, women LOVE to hear them. It’s refreshing for them to hear them because it’s so unlike anything they’ve ever heard when it comes to birth. This shouldn’t be the case, and yet it is.
3. Previous traumatic experiences
Some might say this is an obvious source of fear and it is. I’m referring to traumatic experiences that relate to childbirth so sexual abuse, hospital procedures, miscarriages for example.
But what’s less obvious is considering the impact of our own birth experience.
Some might laugh me out the room now while spluttering “well who remembers their birth, for gods sake??” Well, it doesn’t matter if you remember it consciously. What matters is that the memory of that experience is stored subconsciously, just as many other experiences that we had up until we were around four years old.
And, if it was a traumatic experience – for you as a baby, not for your mother – then this will have an impact on a how you feel about birth.
I work with a lot of women who suffer from tokophobia to help them overcome it and this is one area that comes up time and time again as being the main source of their phobia. When I was tackling my own tokophobia, I noticed the biggest difference once I’ve worked on clearing the trauma of my own birth – even though I have no conscious memory of it.
4. Cultural narrative around birth
We could say that this overlaps some of what I’ve said before, but it’s important enough to pull out and discuss. The fact is the cultural narrative that exists around birth is negative and scary. We are told things like ….
Childbirth is painful – probably THE most painful experience you could ever imagine.
Childbirth is pretty much the gold standard for pain. And yet, many women who’ve given birth say that passing kidney stones and gallstones are much much worse. Yes, some women find it excruciatingly painful, while others don’t experience any pain at all. But most women are somewhere in between.
Women give birth on their backs and strangers (men) will look at your vag.
Hmmm, how desirable does that sound like an experience? Unless you’re a porn star, this is probably a terrifying thought.
There are many other “lies” that are spread about birth, and to be honest that could be a whole other blog post, so I won’t detract. Emma Thompson, the actor, has just come out saying just as much.
This cultural narrative, when paired with real life stories from friends and social media can create quite a damaging cocktail. If you add a traumatic experience to the mix, then what you have is pretty lethal psychologically.
So you see, we can’t just point at one thing. All of the above have an impact, and yet we’re still missing half the picture. We also need to take the individual women into account, those on the receiving end of the stories and media coverage.
How women respond to fearful things
What may frighten one woman won’t necessary frighten another. One woman’s ability to bat away her fears will differ quite a bit to another. Our individual responses also play a huge factor when it comes to fear and as we are all so different, this makes it something very difficult to “solve” or address.
Our emotional capacity to deal with challenges varies massively depending on our own life experiences, our age, our emotional resilience, the support we have around us and more.
Many of these fear factors are all around us, so we can’t simply ask women ignore them or just forget about them.
Thankfully, there’s quite a bit that women can do to tip the balance in the other direction and lose their fear and feel confident and positive about birth.
Women need to take responsibility for how they feel about stuff, and if they want to change those feelings, then it’s important that they accept that some of that change work can be done at their end. This is life stuff, not just birth stuff.
We get that if we want to become more confident that it’s a piece of inner work, well birth is the same. Losing fear and boosting confidence are two sides of the same coin.
5 Ways women can lose the fear
Things that women can do to lose the fear include
1. Get emotional support
Especially if they’ve had a difficult birth experience. Talking about their experiences with friends can help a lot, but professional support can often be the best solution if they are to truly let go of a traumatic birth experience.
2. Get savvy and learn about birth.
Read about it from books and trusted sources, as opposed to scary forums and social media groups.
3. Seek out positive birth experiences
Listen to positive birth stories and hear from women who can inspire you.
4. Watch home births.
It doesn’t have to be in real life, YouTube has a ton of them.
5. Clear your fears
If you have strong fears that can’t be shifted from doing the above, then do some emotional clearance. Fear-clearance techniques like the Head Trash Clearance method that I share in my book Fearless Birthing work very quickly to rid you of your fears.