How Birth Trauma Almost Ruined My Sex Life:
by Clio Wood, Founder of &Breathe
When I went to my six week check up post-baby, they asked me all about her. They checked her and tested her, prodded and poked her, and got worried about her mottled skin. They even weighed her and asked about her poo. But for me, there was no examination. In the UK, which is where I live — a woman’s first postpartum checkup is with her General Practitioner (usually, her family doctor) rather than an OBGYN. With my doctor, there was no inquiry into how my birth went, and no investigation into how my scars were healing. I had had a traumatic birth: a very long labor, during which my baby’s heartbeat had dropped, a ventouse (i.e. vacuum) suction, and then, finally — a forceps delivery, which required an episiotomy. To add insult to injury, I also suffered an internal vaginal tear.
Despite knowing all of this, the doctor didn't ask about a single one of these things, or how I was faring. He did, however, ask what contraceptive I now planned to use, since he had just granted me the 6-week go-ahead to have sexual intercourse. On my way out of the exam room, in a nearly throwaway kind of tone, he mustered the energy to ask, "Oh, and, are you depressed?" (I was, in fact, but I didn't bother saying anything. His tone was hardly inviting of any confidences.)
So, lacking any knowledge about the internal state of my body whatsoever — I wasn’t in the best place for a reintroduction to postpartum sex. It was brutal. I was hormonal, I wasn't feeling at ALL sexy — I was 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.
Why didn't I want to have sex any more? Surely I still loved my husband, didn't I?
Here's the thing: I was prepared for postpartum sex to be different than the sex we had had before. Not great. Bad, even. I'd heard horror stories about flapping vaginas, penises barely touching the sides of your hoo ha, gratuitous fanny farts, body shame, women claiming headaches in lieu of romance, sex interrupted by crying babies, not keeping up with your partner's sexual voracity. But they were often just that —stories, and cliches. The unfortunate side of these “jokes” is that they turn women into objects of ridicule, and trivialize the extent of the emotional impact of bad sex. These cliches ignore the damage that bad and painful sex does to our significant others, to our relationships with our partners, and to our own mental and physical health. And yet we keep reinforcing them, and don’t question the root cause of the truths behind them.
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, which despite not being invasive, was still painful. She sent the samples to the lab to check for infections. Nothing. She looked at my vulva, labia and vaginal walls for signs of damage; and, even through she inserted her instruments gently, I cringed with pain. My episiotomy scar and other internal tears were all healed, so that wasn’t it (apparently). I was referred (a several months-long process) to a gynecologist at the hospital, who examined me again. Nothing. She referred me for an internal ultrasound, which took more weeks to happen, and when it did, was agonizing. Again, nothing. No answers. “There's nothing wrong with you,” the medical professionals all agreed.
I was finally at what would end up being my last medical appointment. The gynecologist took another look at me internally, and said, “I'll just have another look at those scars.” She ran her finger over them — the first time a doctor had actually touched my scars, let alone touched me internally. It was agony. And that was it: Mystery “solved”. After “only” 10 months and multiple appointments, all I needed was for someone to actually examine me properly and feel what was going on, rather than just glancing into my lady garden. Her simple answer: Just wait for the scar tissue to become less sensitive. “And how long does that take?” I asked. “Maybe a year.” 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. 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 were almost certainly linked. Though of course it's hard to say which came first, I know that they fed in to each other.
By this time, I had started my business — &Breathe — wellbeing and fitness retreats for new parents who need to re-find 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 had 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?” she had said. No-one had mentioned ANY of these things 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 also incredibly tense. My shoulders were up by my ears, my glutes were always squeezed together, my pelvic floor was constantly engaged. Because I had endured such a traumatic birth experience, my body had gone into self-protection mode. I had closed in on myself and had been like that for over a year. By the time I’d met Amanda, my pelvic floor had been so tight, that she had to struggle to get me to relax enough to be able to even 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 desensitize scar tissue, how to relax my pelvic floor through a combination of mental relaxation and physical manipulation, and how to tell if I was doing it correctly. She taught me exercises to de-tense the rest of my body — and above all — helped me to understand how and why these things were related, and the simple steps I could take to correct them. It took time, but they were all things I would eventually be able to 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 medical professional had ever mentioned any of these things to me 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 had missed out on, at least two whole years of intimacy. Two years! That's a bloody long time, especially when life is not great, and divorce is seriously in the cards. Time does not fly when you're miserable.
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, and irresponsibly scarce at worst. If, at my first doctor's appointment, she had just told me to visit a Women's Health Physio (i.e. physiotherapist), 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 Women’s Health Physio existed, let alone that they might be able to help me with my problems.
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. My husband and I 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.
Clio Wood started &Breathe in 2015 after her daughter, Delphi, was born. She was desperate for a way to reset and rehabilitate both physically and mentally from childbirth, and adjust to her new mother identity. It didn't exist, so she created &Breathe: an award-winning family wellbeing company which runs postnatal & family fitness retreats, where babies and partners are welcomed. It helps parents get fit, eat well and feel good, with childcare included. Clio is from London, has lived in Paris, Singapore, and on a canalboat, and is married to Bryn. She has a degree from Cambridge University, used to be a headhunter and then an interior designer/upcycler before having a baby.
Image of Charlotte Rampling, photographed by Helmut Newton, Vogue, July 1976