This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
For years, my vagina and I had a rock-solid relationship. From a clumsy fall on my bike’s handlebars at seven to those first damn period cramps at 12, all the way to the unbearable fits of pain when my IUD was installed, she and I have been through a lot together.
Recently, our relationship has changed. Weirdly enough, I paid very little attention to her while I was giving birth. It wasn't until the nurse’s assistant told me I had to get an episiotomy – a little cut between the vaginal opening and the anus – that I realised she might come out of the whole ordeal totally unrecognisable. I can assure you that, in the days that follow childbirth, even a small incision can give you hell.
My first postpartum visit to the bathroom made me curse my baby. Was I bleeding to death? Did I still have any labia? On the second day, I gave birth to a second baby – a blood clot the size of a fist that fell onto my sanitary pad. “I'm going to weigh it,” the midwife told me. I never got an answer from her, and I still haven't got over that image.
In the days that followed, things started to gradually get better. After two weeks, the intense pain I’d felt disappeared. But even now, five months later, I still can't touch my vagina or vulva, even in the shower. She’s a stranger to me. We have lost contact. And although my boyfriend reassures me that everything looks the same as before and that she’s at least as tight (how is that even possible?), I am continuing to ignore my friend for the moment.
I feel unattractive, a mother with sagging breasts. And the pain. So much pain. Have other people felt the same pain or am I just a wimp?
“During delivery, a mirror was held in front of me so that I could see. It was a beautiful moment,” says Félicia Appiah, 30, who became a mother at 19. “A little bit of Abel had already come out, but for the most part, he was still inside me.”
Her first look at her son would also be her last look for a long time. “No one warned me I’d have to start paying attention to my sexuality all over again,” Appiah said. “It took me about a year to realise this part of my body was not just for peeing and giving birth.”
Fortunately, Appiah’s delivery went well. Her vagina tore a little bit upwards, towards her clit, but she was young and kept the stitches for just two days, at her own request. The worst of the pain went away then, too. But, her young age also meant Appiah didn’t have anyone she could talk to about these uncomfortable issues. “My adoptive mother couldn’t have children and my friends were simply busy with other things,” she said. “It was hard.”
Sophie Whetton, 30, gave birth a year and a half ago and had to get an episiotomy, too. And just like me, she felt alienated by the procedure. She was hospitalised for three days following her childbirth and said she couldn’t wear pants the whole time. “I was just sitting there in this kind of bathrobe that covered the hospital gown,” she continued.
She said she hasn’t touched herself again yet – not even to wash up. “While I was in labour, my hand was briefly placed on my baby's barely protruding head,” she said. “I found it so disgusting, I pulled away. That sticky head felt so weird…”
Whetton said she wishes she had known more about her own body before giving birth. But, as we know from books like Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, academia has historically failed to research – let alone spread correct information about – female bodies, assuming male anatomy as the standard and that there are no differences other than the genitals between the two. This so-called gender data gap is still very tangible in people’s lives today, as people with vaginas who experience medical issues related to their sexual characteristics – rare and common alike – can attest to.
Besides your vagina and vulva, yourself and your baby, the sperm donor (wink) also require your attention. It makes perfect sense, of course, but, as Whetton said, it’s easier said than done, because taking care of a baby is so all-consuming. “I felt I had to reassure [my partner] that everything would go back to normal at some point, both in our sex life and in relation to my body,” she said.
"During this turbulent first stage, you don't think about sex," Appiah continued. “You're just exhausted. The few hours of sleep you have are so precious that you don't want to sacrifice a single one to get laid.”
After you’ve given birth, they usually advise you not to have sex for at least six weeks. I felt good and healthy while I was pregnant, so six weeks seemed incredibly long to me. Now, as a new mother, I feel like I've only had time to take one very brief nap since my baby came. And then – boom, the six-week mark came and went in the greatest of silences.
I finally found myself between the sheets again, mainly out of fear that my hymen would grow back like a stubborn weed. My partner managed to seduce me even at my most unsexy and barely-washed. Whetton reassured me she took time to get back into it, too. She experienced vaginal pain for three months after giving birth, particularly when she had to go to the bathroom. “After six months, I was ready to have sex again,” she said. “I needed this time, physically and mentally. I no longer felt attractive.”
Given the mismatch in libido during the postpartum period, Whetton came to see sex as “a kind of duty”, something to keep her relationship alive. “My connection with my vagina is mainly functional. It gives life and sustains it,” Sophie said. While acknowledging this all sounds very much like misogynistic advice for 50s housewives, Whetton said that for her, it works.
Appiah also said that, at the time, she didn’t really see sex as something she’d be interested in doing for herself, but she was tired of doing things for other people. It took her six months to get back into it. “I'm not exaggerating when I say that tear continued to bother me for at least a year after giving birth,” she said. “I didn't even want to masturbate anymore.”
For all of us, this new body created a whole new set of doubts and insecurities. Appiah said she felt uncomfortable at the idea that her body’s appearance had changed. “When I met someone, I had this recurring thought that would gnaw at me from the inside,” she said. “Would they notice that there was something weird about my vagina?”
“When I finally got there, I had no more pain during intercourse,” she said. In fact, her love and sex life have gotten better. “Since the birth of our son, my partner and I have been closer to each other,” Whetton continued. “There is a deeper connection. I also find my life more fulfilling and it makes me really happy.”
Appiah also thinks her sex life has improved. “Maybe it's because of age or because I’m with a woman now, but having sex feels a lot better,” she said. “I'm more comfortable with myself, with the look and feel of my vagina. My vagina and I are on the same wavelength.”
My conversations with Whetton and Appiah ended on a light and hopeful note. But talking about the relationship you have with your vagina and vulva isn't always easy. Everything changes when you have a child, including your sexuality. And while we rarely if ever talk about it as a society, there’s no reason not to.
As mothers, we’re still attached to our bodies, but we need time to find each other. Re-discovery will happen at its own pace and will be different for every individual person.