When I was four months pregnant with my husband’s and my first child, I have a vivid memory of standing at the foot of our bed looking down at my adorable bump and declaring, “I’ve never felt sexier in my life. After she’s born, I can’t even imagine how powerful and comfortable I’ll feel in my own skin.”
My next vivid moment was about a week into motherhood, and I was standing again at the foot of the bed, this time with a tiny, wiggling, baby-shaped meatloaf over my shoulder, my bra stuffed with breast pads that smelled vaguely of bad cheese, hair that hadn’t seen the business end of a shower in days, and just as I leaned over to set our precious angel in her bassinet, the little traitor puked down my back. I stood there a full two minutes feeling the spit-up drip down my hair. My husband finally said, “Nothing has ever encompassed motherhood more than what I’m looking at here.”
So, I guess I wasn’t completely shocked when our sex life (when we finally resumed it about six weeks postpartum) didn’t go as smoothly as before. There was tightness and pain where there hadn’t been any before. I chalked this up to sleep-deprivation, stress and the fact that I expected a shriek to come through the baby monitor at any moment — not sexy.
But the discomfort down there only got worse. As our family hit a comfortable routine around six months in, my nether region went on strike. When I brought it up to my doctor, she quickly explained it away. “You’re a new mom. You’re stressed out. Give it time, you’ll learn to relax, and sex will sort itself out.” But as the weeks dragged on, that didn’t appear to be the case. So I turned to the internet. I know; rookie mistake.
In an online mothering group, several women jumped in to shame me. Because of a spinal deformity I have that made vaginal childbirth impossible, I needed to have a C-section — a wildly unnatural act, I was told — and that had confused my body. You see, vaginas are built to birth babies and repair themselves after. Therefore, my body was trying to repair itself, but since no baby had passed through, my junk was overcorrecting and had created an environment ripe for painful, tight sexual experiences.
The most efficient way I’ve found to describe what I was experiencing is this: When something flies by your face, your eyes reflexively slam shut. That — but it was my vagina. And it can happen during sex, OB-GYN exams, trying to use tampons, basically anything. There was a party in my pants, but the overzealous bouncer wasn’t letting anyone past the velvet rope.
I knew something wasn’t right, so I made a special trip to my OB and laid down the law. “Sounds like you’re dealing with vaginismus,” he said casually as though this was a term I should know offhand. I left that appointment in a daze, armed with printouts and pamphlets and an order for physical therapy… for my vagina. Which is a thing. Our small Indiana city doesn’t have an Applebee’s, but by the gods, we have vagina therapists. I appreciate the priorities.
I wish I could say I strutted out of my doctor’s office with a new sense of determination and a plan, but in reality, I carried my new diagnosis around in secrecy with an ever-present cloud of shame hanging over me. I knew it was nonsensical, but I couldn’t stop thinking that vaginas have very specific purposes, and I was batting zero in two big areas (childbirth and sex). I knew the internet mom-mob was bullshit, but at the same time, I felt like my body was broken. I’d opened up to my husband as soon as I was diagnosed, but I never really laid out all my fears and guilt. In an effort to regain personal control, I pushed myself through more sessions of uncomfortable and painful sex than I care to admit, refusing to ask for help from him, my doctor or anyone else.
Three years after the birth of our daughter, I became pregnant with our second child and had a moment of genuine horror wondering whether my bits would overreact post-C-section and my vagina would never work again. A few months after our son was born and sex had become physically impossible, I was out with a few local moms, a night of wild debauchery consisting of sushi and whatever Twilight movie was in theaters at the time, and at some point, the stress and shame and fear bubbled out of me.
“So, did you know vagina therapists are a thing!?” I blurted out. That was the last time half of those women ever spoke to me, but the glorious other half — four, to be exact — knew exactly what I was talking about because they’d dealt with vaginismus or a similar disorder themselves. Some had turned to medicines like Xanax to help them relax, while others had mastered at-home physical therapy. One had even been through the full PT gauntlet at the hospital.
I was beyond relieved to hear that my vagina wasn’t some rebellious anomaly, but more than that, I found myself impossibly frustrated, wondering why in hell more people don’t talk about this. I became a woman obsessed. I did all the research I possibly could. I started seeing a therapist (the regular talking kind, not the vagina kind). I bought what in retrospect might have been an excessive supply of at-home physical therapy equipment, making my house a one-stop shop for dilators, phallic instruments, dildos, vibrators, lubes, scented candles and a prescription for Klonopin for when I needed to break out the big guns.
I stopped internalizing my shame and demanded personal accountability. If sex was uncomfortable, I said so. I spoke the word “vagina” often and proudly. I wrote a novel about the disorder based entirely on the idea of creating something I wished had existed at the time of my diagnosis to help me deal with the situation with some humor. I brought home intimacy exercises from my therapist that my husband awkwardly agreed to participate in, and after a few weeks, we were laughing together over naughty dice rolls and medically prescribed foreplay techniques. (Bless every one of those.)
What began as an extremely common but rarely discussed medical condition and morphed into a cocoon of personal doubt and self-flagellation eventually grew into an exercise in marital bonding, a fantastic topic of conversation with new friends and a successful quest to embrace an aspect of my own sexual swagger that I’d never realized was even missing.
Has sex been a barrage of rainbows and orgasms ever since my epiphany? Hell no! This isn’t like riding a bike. Some days, things work fine after a lot of foreplay and deep breaths and concentration. Some days, despite all my best efforts, my below-the-belt struggles win and it all locks down and my self-esteem does take a hit. Honestly, there isn’t even really rhyme or reason for the wins and the roadblocks. This is just a part of my life now, and while I may have to really work to remind myself, I always cut myself some slack when things don’t go smoothly.
Sometimes I think back to my declaration that night, pregnant, glowing, standing at the foot of our bed. Things definitely didn’t end up the way I’d imagined, what with an unexpected boycotting vagina, but I really did end up feeling powerful and comfortable in my own skin. Plus, it’s always fun to say I found my confidence by way of medicinal sex toys.
Summer Heacock is an author of women’s contemporary fiction, mom to two scampy kidlings and wife to an amazingly understanding husband. THE AWKWARD PATH TO GETTING LUCKY (7/25, MIRA) is her debut novel.