As I walked to my car carrying my new box of wax dildos under one arm and my breast pump over my shoulder, I thought to myself: I simply must write share this — the less glamorous side of motherhood.
Conceiving my daughter was not an easy road for my partner and I, but after three frustrating years, many visits to fertility clinics that ultimately resulted in nothing, we found ourselves pregnant in the late Spring of 2009. In February of 2010 I had an adorable baby girl. Aside from the regular baby chaos, everything had gone extremely well with my pregnancy, her birth and the baby milestones that continue to come along. Except for one thing: sex. I can’t have it.
I’m not talking about the new parent, “I can’t have sex because I’m too exhausted/covered in pureed squash/tired of having another being crawl over me all the time” dilemma. I actually can’t have sex because it hurts. A lot.
After a few prodding questions to girlfriends who had kids (and vaginal births) about just how “uncomfortable” or painful post baby sex should be, I was able to determine that my own experience was definitely not a standard case of post-pregnancy healing taking its time.
After a few prodding questions to girlfriends who had kids (and vaginal births) about just how “uncomfortable” or painful post baby sex should be, I was able to determine that my own experience was definitely not a standard case of post-pregnancy healing taking its time. So, off I went to see my doctor.
She was awesome — she listened to me, agreed it wasn’t normal and did an internal exam. The OB/GYN she sent me to did the same, plus some tests and an ultrasound. Once the tests were in I went back to the office and they told me that they didn’t know what was up, but that they thought it might be endometriosis (something I’ve never had any hint of having before) and that the best thing they could suggest was that I stop breastfeeding and go on the pill. That solution didn’t work for me and I frankly strongly suspected it wasn’t actually going to solve my problem.
So, for a few months, in frustration, I gave up. After another month or two, both I and my partner started getting pretty … well … frustrated. Repeated attempts at intercourse were seeing no improvement and I was convinced that the diagnosis of possible endometriosis was not getting at the actual problem.
After some further asking around, I decided to pop into my midwifery clinic to see if they had any advice. Luckily for me and all involved they did. After asking me some more detailed questions, they determined that the problem sounded bio-mechanical. They agreed that it was almost certainly not endometriosis and they suggested I make an appointment with a pelvic physiotherapist. Did you know such a thing existed? I sure didn’t, but I’m here to tell you that they just might be your post-baby BFF.
Before I get into what my awesome new pelvic physiotherapist is doing for me, and why exactly I was walking around town with a box of wax dildos under my arm, I’ll get really personal with you here. When asked to describe my pain during intercourse attempts, it took me a while to really put it into words. The sensation, aside from just “Owww! Not good, stop it now!” was a bit of a barrier. It felt like there just wasn’t any room for my partner to go once he got on his way in there. He would “hit a wall” as it were. A painful, nasty wall.
Other than during intercourse, I had no pain. At all — no discomfort. Nothing. Frankly, I often started to worry that the whole thing was in my head. What I’ve since learned is that my body was being triggered, due to some sensitive post-delivery nerves which cause the internal muscles of the vaginal wall to spasm, literally closing off my vagina and making penetration difficult/painful. Not in my head.
It turns out that the condition I have is called vulvar vestibulodynia (how’s that for a mouthfull?), and it can manifest in many different ways and at different times for different women. A common time for it to occur is post vaginal birth. For some women the pain is all the time, for others it’s just with intercourse (like me). For some there’s also itching. For me: no itching.
The crazy thing about it, which is ultimately what compelled me to write this piece, is that many women go years (!) without being diagnosed properly. Often they see multiple medical practitioners before finding someone who can diagnose it, let alone treat it properly.
Similar to miscarriages and infertility, this seems to be an area of women’s health that is kept pretty hush-hush and as a result very few people seem to know about it, health professionals included. But also like miscarriages and infertility, now that I’ve started talking about it with a few close friends I’m hearing tales of other women who suffered with the same thing. According to my physiotherapist most women take between 3 to 5 years to be properly diagnosed. That’s 3 to 5 years of painful or no sex. Ugh.
So what am I doing now? Well I have to do daily exercises to learn to take control of my pelvic floor muscles and slowly start to teach them to relax and not spasm. It’s honestly more than a little bit weird, but also kinda cool. And yes, some of those exercises involve the dildos, which in the pelvic rehab profession are called accommodators. And, like I said, it’s kinda weird.
That said, I can not begin to tell you how liberating it was when I had my first physio appointment and the therapist listened to me, diagnosed me, and assured me that this was a treatable, not at all uncommon condition, and not all in my head. And, so while it is definitely a bit strange to spend an hour at 8am every second week doing pelvic floor exercises while hooked up to a bio-feedback machine, it is working. After that initial appointment, the simple knowledge that what I was experiencing was real and treatable was in and of itself a huge stress reliever for me.
I’m sharing my story with y’all here in the hopes that for some of you I can reduce that diagnosis time from 3-5 years to like 3-5 weeks. If you experience similar pain/discomfort with intercourse post-baby birthing or you have a friend who starts asking you subtle probing questions that hint at such a condition, high thee hence to a pelvic physiotherapist! If you don’t have such a thing at least bring the condition’s name to your doctor, midwife or suitable healthcare professional and ask if they can help point you to some resources.