Guest post by Laura Cooke

The sound of the labouring woman’s bellows of pain echoed down the hospital corridor. Her face was bathed with sweat and her hair clung to her face as she inhaled gratefully on the gas and air.

Actress Tessa Peake-Jones was turning in a barnstorming performance as Raquel giving birth in Only Fools and Horses.

I turned to my mum: “It doesn’t hurt that much, does it?”

“It’s one hundred times worse,” came her solemn reply.

And that is how my tokophobia started.

Fast forward 25 years or so, I am 33 and pregnant with my first child. My childbirth phobia is firmly entrenched. I am terrified.

I wanted to have a cesarean but naively didn’t realise just how hard it could be to get one, especially as previous abdominal surgeries had left me with a good chunk of scar tissue. So my consultant persuaded me to have an induction instead. That way I would have some semblance of control over the birth itself, and being induced in a hospital would mean I would be near the drugs the second it all kicked off.

But it didn’t change the fact that pushing a baby out your vagina HURTS.

Two popular pain relief options, TENS machines and pethidine, were not available to me because of my epilepsy. And I had heard various tales from women about failed epidurals and entonox-induced sickness. What if there was nothing which could get this horrendous pain under control? (Oh, apart from the deep breathing and hip gyration recommended by my pregnancy yoga instructor? Seriously, if you are ever told by a yoga teacher that no one needs painkillers during labour, stand up and walk out. Don’t put up with that shaming bullshit).

In an attempt to tackle my tokophobia, I self-referred to an NHS mental health support service. I had a couple of telephone assessments with them and my case was discussed to find a way forward.

Now, it is no secret that mental health services are overstretched and under funded, but it didn’t make it any less shocking when I was told, just into my third trimester of pregnancy, that because I was so close to giving birth, there was nothing they could do for me.

And that was it. I had no further mental health support for the remainder of my pregnancy.

Despite the fear, I went ahead with the induction. Although it wasn’t one hundred percent how I wanted my labour to pan out initially, it was a good birthing experience, by anyone’s standards.

I giggled, slept through transition, woke up and giggled some more, pushed a bit and out popped a healthy baby. Job done.

Ten months later, I’m pregnant again. The tokophobia had evaporated. I knew I could give birth powered by the winning duo of epidural and gas and air. I had conquered my fear. I could even watch One Born Every Minute for the first time in my life. Nothing could hold me back. Hurray!

Except it didn’t quite work out like that.

The anxiety was back with a vengeance, but this time it wasn’t one particular issue which left me feeling anxious, but a myriad of things, from worrying about my ability to cope with two under twos to the inevitable identity crisis which goes hand-in-hand with motherhood. Unlike my specific phobia in the previous pregnancy, there was no solution, no ‘cure’ if you will. It was just a huge, messy tangle of fear and insecurities which needed to be unpicked.

On the advice of my kind, patient and generally wonderful community midwife, I self-referred to the same service I came into contact with before. Once again they told me the same thing – you are too far gone in your pregnancy for any mental health support from us. There was zero acknowledgement that the anxiety issues may not end with the birth.

I was referred to another agency but they also did not want to know.

The birth came and went, but the anxiety didn’t.

For three weeks I carried on, the mask slipping a little day by day until eventually I returned to the postnatal ward, emotionally wrecked and exhausted from crying. After a peaceful night in a side room with my husband and newborn, I was finally assessed and started receiving regular outpatient support from the perinatal mental health team. The counsellor was amazing, we had a great rapport and these regular sessions helped me through this unsettling period.

Ironically, the other counselling support came from the same service which had sent me away twice previously. Insert your own punchline here.