Last week, I visited the newborn son of my neighbours, and nearly embarrassed myself by tearing up a little immediately (and then overcompensating with loudness, a bit like Emma Thompson in Love Actually).
Being handed a baby that’s younger than a week old is a frightful, though beautiful, experience. The baby was warm and weightless like a perfect, hiccuping cloud. On the other side of the dome of my belly was my own baby, almost the same size, separated from their world and this one by skin, flesh and about 200 contractions.
And then, a thought bubbled to the surface that really did make me want to cry out, like that other Emma Thompson scene in Love Actually: "How in the hell am I supposed to get something this size out?"
That the newborn baby’s mother appeared to be in exceptionally fine fettle (considering) gave me little comfort. Come to think of it, most of the mothers I know seem normal, and not especially haunted by the experience of getting something the size of a watermelon through what’s effectively a piping bag.
“It’s just one day,” shrugged one. “Women have been doing this forever,” reasoned another. “It’s what we’re designed to do.”
Still, I’ve been thinking about impending childbirth in much the same way I’ve long thought about death. I know it’s something I’ll have to do at some point, but beyond that realisation, I quickly back away from the precipice of reality in case I make myself mad. And, for someone who has been able to control – with varying degrees of success – finances, home life and career, walking headlong into a situation that I’ll have no control over is, well, terrifying. I don’t do vulnerable as a rule, but this time, I might just have to.
Most women are afraid of childbirth, though. There’s the odd hardy soul looking forward to it, hoping to do it without intervention, or facing into the job with the mindset of a warrior, and god bless every one of them.
I am not one of them.
I learned of a new term recently: tocophobia, or the extreme fear of giving birth. First identified by Dr Kristina Hofberg in 2000, it's said to affect one in 10 woman. One of these was reportedly actress Helen Mirren, who says an educational video shown at school put her off labour for life. "I swear it traumatised me to this day," she said in an interview in 2007. "I haven't had children and now I can't look at anything to do with childbirth. It absolutely disgusts me."
What separates tocophobia from the usual anxieties of mothers-to-be is the depth of fear. Some tocophobes think they will die; others imagine something unbearable happening. But surely both thoughts have crossed every pregnant woman’s mind?
In any case, it was revealed earlier this year that instances of tocophobia are on the rise, thanks in part to social media where tales of bloodbaths, post-traumatic stress disorder and episiotomies are more easily found than not. Justine Roberts, the chief executive of Mumsnet, has said: "One of the most common complaints we see on this topic is 'Why on Earth didn't anyone tell me the truth about how bad it could be?'"
I’ve been told that knowledge is power when it comes to preparing for childbirth, and truth be told, a birthing workshop (at The elbowroom in Dublin) did go some way towards calming some of my fears. The vibe was decidedly chilled out, the workshop facilitator serene down to her bones. We even managed to get a few jokes in about trying sex in the early stages of labour if Netflix isn’t bringing enough chill. I can’t quite say I’ve come out of it empowered enough to take on the mindset of a warrior, but there’s an outside possibility I won’t completely embarrass myself in the delivery suite.
Having a birth plan is advised, and mine is this: get out alive, with an alive baby. Good for you if you have your 12-page plan laminated, with its Spotify playlists and directives about what coloured washcloth will be used where and when, but I’m going in with the mindset that best laid plans often end up on the floor, like a queasy birth partner that’s just fainted.
I’m only human though, so I have created some idle fantasies about how my imminent childbirth experience will all go down. Call it extreme naivety, but I’ve envisaged myself walking into a delivery suite with a cervix dilated to 6cm (“wow, that cervix is really behaving itself!” an admiring nurse will remark).
I'll be like Lucille Ball at cocktail hour, tossing pithy one-liners hither and thither in the "either that CTG machine goes or I do" vein. I'll quip about putting the anaesthesiologist on next Christmas card list. In my wildest and most outlandish fantasies, I send them on their way as the pain isn't all that bad, actually ("I've had gallstones years ago, you see," I'll tell a midwife, as she gives me a reassuring high-five for being such a badass).
Later, I’ll overhear the staff say, “oh, I wish I had Room 6 today! She’s so. Much. Fun”. And of course I’ll steal affectionate glances and cuddles from B in what we would hope and expect to be our final moments together as a twosome. The baby comes obediently in three pushes, the world falls away as I am drugged to the eyeballs with pure love. The end. Fade to black. Roll credits.
Anyway, don’t say I’m not good for giving you a proper laugh, but it’s these silly, idle daydreams that are keeping me from psychologically bolting on myself. In any case, I shall report back from the other side. I just hope there’s even one tiny Lucille Ball moment in there somewhere.
Tanya Sweeney's pregnancy series
Part 1: More chance of Bosco getting pregnant
Part 2: First came the shock, then the advice
Part 3: I'm pregnant and have a glass of wine
Part 4: People have never seen me like this
Part 5: Baby bump makes a woman so visible
Part 6: No more well-meaning advice
Part 7: Facing the financial shock
Part 8: My last child-free Christmas
Part 9: Being a mum but not having a mum
Part 10: I have a baby name in mind
Part 11: 'Biological clock' deadline annoys me
Part 12: What's my birth plan? Simple