‘I’m staying childless to avoid the maternity ward’
Juel Stokes, 43, a videographer, lives in north-west London with her fiancé
Jerome, 44, a musician. She says:
“People assume I’m childless because of fertility problems, or because I just
don’t want kids. But they’re wrong. I want to be a mum more than anything.
I long for a baby, but I’m simply too afraid of giving birth. Now I’m 43, time
is running out, and it is devastating.
A lot of women who’ve never had kids probably feel squeamish about the
prospect of giving birth – but my fear is a panic-inducing phobia.
My mother used to tell me how horrific labour was. When she gave birth to me,
she had to have dozens of stitches and stayed in hospital for over a week.
Her grisly descriptions planted a seed in my young mind, but it wasn’t until
I watched my sister Gillian, now 47, give birth that my phobia really took
After splitting up with her boyfriend, she asked me to be her birthing
partner. But no amount of antenatal classes could have prepared me for what
happened when Gillian went into labour in March 1994.
Although she had an epidural to relieve the pain, she couldn’t stop screaming
in agony. I tried to help her with breathing exercises, but I felt
light-headed. I’ll never forget when the doctor took a knife to cut her, and
blood spurted over the floor. I almost vomited. I tried to be brave – but
when he used forceps to wrench the baby out, I had to shield my eyes. It
seemed barbaric, like something in a horror film.
Thankfully, after Samantha, now 17, was born, Gillian couldn’t remember the
birth. But I couldn’t forget it. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed being part of
Samantha’s life. I’ve longed for my own child, but couldn’t get past the
horror of that birth.
Then, in January 2007, I met Jerome at Salford University where I was studying
videography. We hit it off, and he proposed a few months later. Just five
months on, I accidentally fell pregnant. While we were overjoyed at the
prospect of being parents, I was terrified too. My biggest fear was imminent
– and I didn’t know what to do.
I looked into different birthing options. I liked the idea of a home birth,
but my GP said I was too old. And the thought of being sliced open for a
caesarean was as terrifying as giving birth. I started having vivid
nightmares. In my most awful dreams I was on the hospital bed instead of
Gillian, and it was my blood squirting on the floor, not hers. I’d wake up
Part of me cherished the life growing inside me, but another part felt like a
parasite was taking over my body. Jerome was supportive, but didn’t fully
understand my phobia. He put my moods down to hormones, and I was too
ashamed to tell my friends or my GP. I felt so alone. Then, at eight weeks,
I miscarried. I was sure anxiety had caused it and I was both heartbroken
and relieved. But what a price I’d paid.
I’d love to start a family, but adoption looks like our only option. I feel
heartbroken that my phobia has won.”
‘Pregnancy meant nine months of fear’
Helen Clasper, 30, a family support worker, lives in Coventry with her
husband Stuart, a police officer, 30, and son Harry, 20 months. She says:
“Looking at that little blue line, I knew I should’ve been ecstatic. After
months of disappointment, I was pregnant at last. But as I stared at the
positive test, my biggest feeling wasn’t joy or excitement. It was terror.
Because, for as long as I could remember, I’d been petrified of giving birth.
When I was a child, the idea conjured up images of agony, of not having
control, of being trapped, and feeling like I wanted to die.
If a woman in labour appeared on TV, my palms instantly got sweaty. If I read
anything about birth, my stomach knotted up and I felt sick.
In my 20s, the truth hit me. Even though I loved babies and I was a trained
nursery nurse, having my own child seemed to be an impossible dream.
As my friends started to fall pregnant, I realised the huge difference between
us. While they felt nervous about the birth, it didn’t stop them looking
forward to it.
But unlike them, I couldn’t move past the fear, and that made me feel like
such a failure. What kind of woman was I? I was terrified of the one thing
my body was specifically designed to do.
Desperate to become a mum, I tried cognitive behavioural therapy to beat my
phobia. It did help a bit, but at £100 a session it was so expensive, I had
Luckily my husband Stuart was fantastic. When we started to talk about
marriage six years ago, I knew I had to be very honest with him. I told him
I might never be able to have a baby and gave him the chance to walk away.
But he supported me 100 per cent, saying that if it was meant to happen,
then it would.
In the months after our wedding, as everyone asked when we’d start a family, I
was in a whirlwind of conflicting emotions. My biological clock was ticking
louder each day, but the fear was still there.
On one hand, I longed for a baby of my own. If I saw a new mum pushing her
pram down the street, my heart would contract with envy. But then I’d
remember birthing horror stories that friends had told me, and shudder with
It was a constant tug of war between longing and fear. Then suddenly, a year
after we’d married, the desperate urge for a baby overcame my phobia. I was
ready to try.
But I knew I needed more help. My mum had found a midwife who understood about
tokophobia [a fear of childbirth or pregnancy], and had experienced it
herself. Talking to her, I felt so relieved. Finally here was someone who
understood exactlywhat I was going through.
But, ironically, I just couldn’t get pregnant. Month after month passed, each
period bringing a mixture of real sadness and genuine relief. I felt guilty
too, truly believing that my fear was somehow preventing the pregnancy I so
badly wanted. Then, 12 months later, the blue line was there. Through the
shock came the relief – and the fear. I was finally on my way to giving
birth – something I’d dreaded all my life.
As the baby grew, I tried everything I could to put my fear to the back of my
mind. I avoided hearing terrible birth stories and kept a diary focusing on
my positive thoughts and feelings. But when we were decorating the nursery,
it all hit home. This was really happening to me; there was certainly no
avoiding it now.
My stomach lurched as nightmarish images flashed through my mind. Lying in a
bloody hospital bed, with no one able to help me…
I tried to tell myself I was overeacting, and that the reality couldn’t
possibly be as bad as my fevered, panicked imagination.
But it was.
I ended up with a midwife who gave me absolutely no emotional support. The gas
and air and pethadine had stopped working, and at the final stage of labour,
I lost it. After screaming and begging for an epidural, I ended up having an
instrumental delivery, where doctors used forceps to yank my baby into the
Did it feel worth it when I saw Harry? To be honest, it took a few days. I
thought that as soon as the delivery was over I’d feel on top of the world.
Instead I was in a traumatised daze, and physically I felt like I’d been run
over by a bus.
After that though, I banished the awful memories from my mind and just focused
on Harry. Now motherhood has exceeded all my expectations, and Harry is a
happy, healthy baby.
My fear of birth definitely hasn’t gone though, and I don’t know if I could go
through it all again. But when Harry gives me a kiss or wraps his chubby
arms around my neck, I know it was all worthwhile.”
‘The birth left me so petrified I swore I’d never do it again’
Jaime Fagan, 32, a writer, lives in Bristol with her husband Noah, 34, an
architectural designer, and two-and-half-year-old Isaac. She says:
“As I stand here, just a week away from giving birth, I can’t believe how
different I felt the first time around.
Then, at 29, I was relaxed. We had the cot ready and my parents had got my old
Babygros out of the loft. I couldn’t wait to be a mother – the birth itself
seemed inconsequential. After all, I was healthy. I’d planned a home water
birth and while I’d heard horror stories, the baby had to come out somehow.
I was confident it would go to plan.
I was wrong. When my labour started on the Sunday, I woke Noah excitedly. ‘By
tomorrow, we’ll be parents,’ I said, not realising I had five agonising days
to go. As the contractions came, the pain was so intense I couldn’t speak.
It was like nothing I’d experienced.
Noah took me to hospital as my labour intensified. By Wednesday afternoon I
was only 3cm dilated, delirious with pain. They gave me drugs to hurry
things up. But it was 12 hours before I was ready to push, and I was so
exhausted I needed the help of forceps.
After Isaac was born, I slipped into unconsciousness. I was haemorrhaging and
needed a blood transfusion, and wasn’t discharged until five days later.
By then, I had so many holes in my arms and hands from the IV drugs – I’d had
an infection too – I looked like a junkie.
I was madly in love with my son but after that first euphoric week at home,
memories of the birth flooded back.
It was always on my mind, and I’d tell anyone who asked all the gory details.
I became paranoid, sterilising bottles over and over again, and panicking that
our cat would harm the baby.
I was being irrational, but I couldn’t get past the birth. It was the most
frightening, traumatising thing that had happened to me, and I told Noah
there was no way I could do it again. I was adamant – if we wanted another
baby, then it would be adopted.
Noah was wonderful, saying it was my choice. I thought I’d never change my
mind, but then in August 2010, I saw how much Isaac loved playing with other
children. I felt guilty for depriving him of a sibling. ‘Let’s start
trying,’ I said to Noah, thinking I’d have plenty of time to get my head
around the idea.
The next week, however, I was pregnant. How was I going to get through it?
When Noah asked how I felt, I insisted I was fine. If I could hold it
together, maybe I could convince myself.
Then, at the 22-week scan, I broke down. Everything the doctor mentioned – the
epidural, the blood transfusion – led to a terrifying flashback. Suddenly, I
was back in that hospital room, hysterical with agony and fear. I’ve been
trying to prepare with hypnotherapy and yoga breathing techniques. I won’t
know if they’ve helped until I’m in labour. I’m trying to contain my panic,
but I’m petrified.
I’m having another boy and although I’d love a girl there is no way I’d
consider another pregnancy. It has been a struggle to get to this point. I’m
having this baby in spite of my fear – but this is the last time.”
- If you suffer from a similar phobia, discuss this with your GP or visit Birthtraumaassociation.org.uk.
PHOTOGRAPHY: LIZ GREGG HAIR AND MAKE-UP: SABINE CHAMMAS STYLING: CARA LEPS
JUEL WEARS: DRESS, PEACOCKS BY DESIGN; BELT, SHOES, BOTH NEW LOOK HELEN
WEARS: DRESS, PRIMARK; SHOES, NEW LOOK JAIME WEARS: DRESS, NEXT; SHOES, NEW