Illustration: Justine Wong
While on mat leave, I took my me time seriously. Like, really seriously. Oh, how I looked forward to my rare afternoons off. I’d book my mother-in-law to watch my baby for an hour, put on nice clothes (“nice” was, in hindsight, relative: I put on clothes), head downtown and treat myself to a coffee before skipping down the street alone and free, without even a diaper bag weighing me down! And soon, I’d be lying in a sunny room, making small talk and taking deep breaths while a stranger tested my sphincter control and asked me to rate my pain on a scale of one to 10. Sure, I might have preferred a pedicure, but getting pelvic-floor physiotherapy was the best thing I did for myself after giving birth to my son.
A third-degree vaginal tear had left me with searing perineal pain, a leaky bladder, the inability to poop without conjuring demons, and the fear that the bear trap I used to call my vagina would leave my son an only child. I desperately wanted to show off my new baby, but weeks after giving birth, I was still holding ice packs to my crotch while writhing on the couch, crying about how I was failing my son. After all manner of infection had been ruled out and with no specific reason for my pain other than “healing,” I was sure there had never been a weaker, whinier, worse new mom.
At my six-week postpartum appointment, my OB/GYN doubled my painkiller and laxative doses, and apologetically informed me I was not yet ready to resume sexual activity (um, I was not yet ready to wear pants). Then she told me to start physiotherapy with a specialist, like, yesterday. So I limped to my first physio appointment, as red-faced about the indignities to come as I’d been when I’d explained to my mother-in-law why I needed her to babysit. But my therapist put me at ease.
Maybe it was the fact that I was away from the screams of my colicky baby. Maybe it was the fact that instead of a medical gown, she handed me a silky slip to wear. Maybe it was the fact that I was lying down. But for the first time since my son was born, I felt able to take a deep breath. Yes, I had to squeeze my therapist’s fingers with my vagina and anus as I exhaled, but beggars can’t be choosers.
My sessions were one long dance with dignity. I’d lose a little every time my therapist squeezed lube onto a gloved hand and told me to spread my knees. But I’d gain some as she’d describe the nerve damage, the intolerable tightness, the length and depth of my scar. I’d lose some more when I’d tell her I couldn’t take my son for walks without feeling like I’d treated myself to a sulfuric acid douche. I’d gain it back when she told me to be easy on myself; my body needed to heal.
It took months, but pelvic-floor physiotherapy is what got me off the couch, back into jeans and out of diaper-size pee pads. It also gave me the chance to talk to another adult. Eventually, I even joined her postnatal yoga class, where I tried to forget that the same woman leading me through sun salutations also gave me regular taint massages. She met my baby and then my husband. I told her jokes. She told me to do my exercises. Maybe we could have even been friends. If, you know, I hadn’t been paying her to stand under me and watch my urethra dilate while I performed pantsless squats.
Of course, it wasn’t all fun. Spending an hour a week with a medical professional eyeballing my vaheen was as uncomfortable as doing the exercises she suggested. (Her: “The shower is a great time to make a peace sign and pull down on your vaginal opening as hard as you can bear.” Me: “Righto! Will do!”) Her visualization exercises ruined my relationship with blueberries (“Imagine picking them up and dropping them with your vagina”). And her suggestion that I use coconut oil as a personal lubricant has put me off pina coladas for life.
Still, at a time when I felt like a failure for not bouncing back from childbirth, pelvic-floor physiotherapy helped me heal—emotionally and physically. I wasn’t weak or whiny; I was recovering from very real vaginal trauma, one teeth-gritting scar tissue massage at a time. As I lay there each session, I learned to forgive myself for not yet being the active mother I’d hoped to be. And as the pain slowly went away, relief was twofold: My injuries were legitimate but didn’t need to be permanent.
Would I rather have used my rare me time to raise a glass or two with my friends? Yes. Obviously. But now I can take my son to the park without feeling like my vagina is going to spontaneously combust.
I’ll say “bottoms up!” to that.
This article was originally published online in December 2017.