I graduated vagina training today. Yes, you read that correctly. And yes, I’m going to be using words like ‘vagina’ in this post, so if you don’t think you can handle it now is probably a good time to hit that little ‘x’ up there in the righthand corner.
Of course, the use of the word ‘vagina’ here isn’t entirely accurate. I graduated from pelvic floor physiotherapy. And when I say “graduated”… well, there were no caps and gowns. But I did finish a course of physiotherapy to rehabilitate my pelvic floor from an injury sustained in pregnancy and birth. Or a few injuries, I don’t know exactly how to classify it. Maybe my fantastic physiotherapist Zoe can write a guest post and explain what the hell happened down there. In the meantime, I’m going to share my story, what I’ve learned, and hopefully get a start on realizing my newest mission – to raise awareness for the pelvic floor, both literally and figuratively.
I’m now 13 months post partum. I had a natural, fairly uncomplicated birth which resulted in a beautiful, 3.8kg baby, enough blood loss to send my hemoglobin levels way down and my heart rate through the roof, and some second degree tears for good measure. How many stitches? I vaguely remember asking the doctor how many I would need and he basically laughed at me. It took him an hour to sew me up. So in a nutshell, after the birth I was – apart from being the happiest woman on earth and completely in love with my new little family and all of that – totally wiped out and experiencing a lot of pain, especially when sitting.
But the physical stuff is only part of the problem. A small part even, I would say. The real problem was in my head (surprise!). In my mind, I was meant to be back to my old self in a couple of weeks. A month, tops. I even planned a wedding for five weeks after my due date (yes, Gadi was five weeks old at our wedding. And yes, I’m insane). On the surface, it all turned out fine. I managed to walk down the aisle, stand up for a few hours to mingle at our chilled brunch wedding, but looking back – I want to scream “what was I thinking?!” Why didn’t anyone tell me to stop climbing up and down the four flights of stairs to our rooftop apartment twice a day, lugging a growing baby, groceries, accessories and whatever else. To sit the fuck down and go the fuck to sleep. Well, anyone apart from my dear husband of course. He told me to go to sleep all the time, but I don’t like being told to go to sleep so you can imagine how well that turned out.
Maybe I was an extreme case, but there is definitely an expectation in Western society that women are meant to be getting ‘back to it’ as soon as possible after giving birth. Back to socializing, keeping house and cooking. Back to their bodies. Back to sex. All I’ve got to go on is my own experience, but I don’t think it’s healthy. Women need to rest after birth – and their newborn babies need milk and cuddles and sleep, so snuggling on the couch or in bed is pretty much perfect. Next time around – I’m not leaving the house for a month. Bugger anyone who tries to convince me otherwise.
But back to my pelvic floor. So I overdid it, and probably made things worse – but who knows, maybe if I had rested up properly I still would have sustained these injuries. Anytime I was on my feet for more than about half an hour I would have this heavy, aching feeling in my pelvic floor. A dull, downward sensation, kind of like period pain. I never thought of it as painful, but I did often have to stop and sit when I was out and about – it was uncomfortable to say the least. And yet for some 10 months, I didn’t do anything about it – I think because I was embarrassed. Or because I thought that it was normal and it would just get better. I’d “passed” my six-week check up, after all – so surely that meant everything was okay and I didn’t really think that much of it. Especially since I’d been such an advocate of natural birth, such a believer that my body was made to grow and birth this baby. I felt like it would be conceding defeat to admit that actually, pregnancy and birth had left me injured.
It wasn’t until I was starting to experience some uncomfortable symptoms of pelvic organ prolapse that I finally decided to see my ob-gyn and ask her what was up. Naturally, between scheduling the appointment and going to it I also did a bit (ok, a lot) of googling, self-diagnosed the issue (rightly, as it turned out) and discovered that a whopping 50% of women experience some form of pelvic organ prolapse – either as a result of childbearing or later on during menopause. And yet I’d never heard about it. And neither had the majority of the women I’ve brought up the issue with in recent months.
The pelvic exam was straight-forward. I mean let’s face it – after giving birth, a trip to the ob-gyn is pretty routine. Squeeze, cough, bear down, and a few minutes later I was diagnosed with a super weak pelvic floor and some moderate pelvic organ prolapse. I was given a referral for pelvic floor physiotherapy, reassured that this was almost entirely repairable, would not affect future pregnancies or births, and was not a dangerous condition. And so off I went to vagina training.
It was amazing what a difference the first few sessions made. I learned proper awareness of this frankly fascinating muscle, and with daily practice was able to alleviate the symptoms in just two weeks. Two months on and I am feeling great, finally back to my ‘old self.’ Though the muscle is still weak, I know what to do to strengthen it and don’t need any further sessions.
I should mention – if the ob-gyn’s examination was par for the course, vagina therapy certainly was not. Which was probably why I had to make up a name like vagina therapy – to deal with the awkward reality of a full one-hour pelvic floor workout, with either a hand or an electrode inside me most of the time. “And contract, two, three, four, release, two, three, four.” Sometimes I even had the pleasure of electric shocks up my vagina – I didn’t like that one very much. But the biofeedback was fun – beating my high score each week totally gamified the process for me. (Yes, I may have a competitive streak.) My physiotherapist did everything she could to make it as comfortable as possible – we chatted most of the time – but there’s nothing to be done, there’s just something inherently awkward about the whole process.
Or is there? There’s nothing awkward about getting physio on your leg, right? If I had an accident and the muscles in my arm needed an hour’s worth of stitches, surely going to physiotherapy would be pretty standard. If only it was the same for the pelvic floor, maybe women wouldn’t be needlessly putting up with pain and discomfort after birth.
And this brings us to my mission to normalize and raise awareness for pelvic floor issues, and my PSA. To women of all ages, and all shapes and sizes: Ladies, at some point you might need vagina training. While it may be a bit awkward, it will be totally worth it. Feeling good physically – and sexually – is so important, and your body deserves to be rehabilitated. And if you do end up with injuries after birth – please, take the leap and talk about it. Or even just share this post. You’ll feel better for it, and you just might make things easier for other women down the line, too.
PS – for anyone who has experienced something similar – I recently found this amazing The Longest Shortest Time podcast episode, entitled Healing After Childbirth. Give it a listen, I’m guessing you’ll really enjoy it too.
Blogger’s note: As always, I have thought of a million things to add to this post since publishing (less than 12 hours ago!!). I’ll just pick one: I did kegel exercises all through the pregnancy. Religiously. So either I wasn’t doing them right – as I understand is often the case – or the weight of my uterus along with intense pushing and tearing during birth did their work on my pelvic floor regardless. My fantastic physiotherapist has already agreed to write a guest post, so hopefully she’ll go into more detail on that point.