Our Founder, Clio Wood, is passionate about parental self-care and helping new mums and dads through the often confusing days of new parenthood. One, rarely addressed, issue is postnatal sex and the difficulties that we have getting back to intimacy. She shares her story here. It’s long one, but it’s worth it.
6 weeks in
When I went to my 6-week check up post-baby, they asked me all about the her. They checked her and tested her, prodded and poked her, got worried about her mottled skin, weighed her and asked about her poo. For me, no examination, no mention of the birth, no worrying about my scars or healing. They asked me two questions.
1) what contraceptive I might want to go on to post-birth. (You've got to be fucking kidding me).
2) on the way out the door the doctor asked in a throwaway sort of manner, "Oh, and are you depressed?" (I was, but I didn't say anything. Would you have done in that situation?)
back in the sack
So it wasn't the best reintroduction to postpartum sex. From that auspicious start, we tried a few days later to get back in the sack. [In case you're wondering, I didn't go for the the implant, injection, or coil that the doctor suggested. I was too squeamish for the first, didn't like the thought of not being able to immediately control the second, and no way anyone was putting yet another foreign body up my vagina. So condoms it was.] And it was brutal. I was hormonal, I wasn't feeling at ALL sexy - at odds with my previously strong body, leaking milk and tired AF - and christ, it hurt. It really hurt. Like shards of glass cutting my vagina hurt. I cried. We stopped. I felt guilty and wanted to keep trying. My husband didn't think that was a good idea. I cried some more. I was confused, he was confused. It wasn't our most passionate experience.
Here's the thing. I was prepared for postpartum sex to be different. Not great. Bad even. But for a whole host of different reasons to what actually happened. I'd heard stories about flapping vaginas, penises barely touching the sides of your hoo ha, gratuitous fanny farts, body shame, claiming headaches in lieu of romance, sex interrupted by crying babies, not keeping up with your partner's sexual voracity. But they are just that - stories. We hear, and are used to, joking in bad taste, anti-sisterhood humour, accepted tropes which diminish the seriousness of the female sexual identity, turn women into objects of ridicule (again), trivialise the extent of the emotional impact of bad sex, ignore what this can actually do to you, to you other half, to your relationship, both mentally and physically.
what’s wrong with me?
I thought there was something wrong with me. Why was it so painful? Why didn't I want to have sex any more. Surely I still loved my husband, didn't I? Over the proceeding weeks, months, and yes, years, I slowly figured it out. I thought there must be cuts inside my vagina, so I went to my doctor. She swabbed me and sent the samples to the lab to check for infections. Nothing. She looked at my vulva, labia and vaginal walls for signed of damage. My episiotomy scar and other internal tear were all healed, so that couldn't be it (apparently). I was referred (which took months by the way) to a gynaecologist at the hospital who examined me again. Nothing. She referred me for an internal ultrasound. This took more weeks. Nothing. No answers. There's nothing wrong with you.
At my last appointment. The gynaecologist took another look at me internally, and said, I'll just have another look at those scars and ran her finger over them. It was agony. So that was it. Mystery solved, after only 10 months and multiple appointments. All it needed was for someone to actually examine me properly and feel what was going on - rather than just glancing into my lady garden. Simple answer: just wait for the scar tissue to become less sensitive. 'And how long does that take?' 'Maybe a year.' And off I went with my signed discharge papers. WTF?!
We tried, very infrequently, to have sex over the next few months but it was an unpleasant experience for both of us and every time we tried, we both felt even worse about it; and I felt even worse about myself. My husband felt helpless and guilty too. I cried a lot and life really was a bit shit. I had postpartum depression too and these two situations are definitely linked. Though of course it's hard to say which came first, they definitely fed in to each other.
By this time, I had started my business &Breathe - wellbeing and fitness retreats for new parents who need to refind themselves, re-set, get fit, eat well and feel good in their new identities. I started it from a desperate desire to have something of this nature for myself but found nothing. I was introduced to the amazing Amanda Savage, who is now our Resident Women's Health Physiotherapist. She invited me to come and chat, and as she explained some of the most integral (I now know) concepts of pelvic floor health, ab separation and core strength, and mind-body integration, my jaw dropped. 'I hope I'm not teaching you things you know already?' 'No-one has mentioned ANY of this to me before.'
When Amanda physically examined me, internally and externally, the situation was ridiculously clear! Yes, I had scarring, but it was hugely exacerbated by the fact that I was incredibly tense. My shoulders were up by my ears, my glutes were always squeezed together, my pelvic floor was constantly engaged...all due to the fact that I was so traumatised by my birth experience that my body had gone into self-protection mode. I just closed in on myself and had been like that for over a year. By that time, my pelvic floor was so tight, that Amanda struggled to get me to relax enough to be able to examine me. So it's no surprise that when my husband's penis tried to get in there, my vagina was reluctant to permit it.
After treating me and starting to loosen some of my muscles, Amanda talked me through things I should be doing at home. She taught me the massage to desensitise scar tissue, how to relax my pelvic floor through a combination of mental relaxation and physical manipulation, how to tell I was doing it correctly, exercises to de-tense the rest of my body, but above all, helped me to understand how and why these things were related and the simple steps I could take to correct them. It would take time, but they were all things I could do to help myself and all things that would get better over time, except for getting a therapist, which I also did. Put together, these things were game-changing and my physical and mental health, outlook and our marriage, improved 100-fold. Yet no-one had ever mentioned any of these things to be before. No-one. That's shocking.
I was mad. Really mad. Why on earth had no-one told me any of this before? By the time my husband and I were having a fulfilling sex life again, we'd been struggling for, and missed out on, at least two whole years. TWO YEARS! That's a bloody long time, especially when life is not great and divorce is seriously on the cards. Time does not fly when you're miserable.
is it normal?
Childbirth is seen as a natural and normal process and it is; I get it, women have been doing it since we crawled out of the swamps. But that doesn't mean that we should be left to get through any complications and issues by ourselves, with no support from healthcare professionals. Pop out a small being and off you go. The postpartum wellbeing information, mental and physical, out there is patchy at best, irresponsibly scarce at worst. If, at my first doctor's appointment, she had just told me to visit a Women's Health Physio, I would have been on the path to recovery within 3 months. In France, all women are entitled to 10 hours of physiotherapy post-baby to help them rehabilitate their pelvic floor and core. I didn't even know such a thing as a WH Physio existed, let alone that s/he might be able to help me with my problems.
Most of us have trouble enough adjusting to our new identities as mothers, quite apart from the physical problems and mental health issues we may face postnatally. This comes on top of the ridiculous male-gaze-lensed double identity of nurturing goddess / sex object (such a fine line we are supposed to tread as women) anyway. For me, I really struggled to come to terms with the dual purpose of my vagina for pushing out a fucking HUMAN BEING, but also being a sex object: titillating and tight for your partner's pleasure (though let's be clear, this pressure never came from my husband). It's no wonder that emotionally the transition to postpartum sex life can be a difficult one. But don't give up hope. It can and will get better. Whether your problems are physical (vagina too loose or too tight, scarring, itching, dryness), mental or emotional (postpartum depression, anxiety, psychosis, identity-related), hormonal (your body just doesn't seem to respond any more) or circumstantial (baby crying, interruptions, exhaustion) there is a solution out there. Don't accept that this is it. Don't be fobbed off by doctors who are too busy or just don't care enough. Don't be made to feel ashamed as a 'frigid mom' because society mocks those who don't conform but judges you no matter what you do. I promise, it will get better.
I know because it did for me. We are actually now having the BEST sex of our relationship. We know and love each others' bodies. We know what turns each other on. We're confident in ourselves. We've been through a lot and come out the other side. Of course we have ups and downs, patches where we haven't had sex for a while because we're super busy and too stressed, or we've just had an argument. But when we do, it's genuinely mind-blowing. Even better than before we had kids. And I never thought I'd say that.