“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
[Content warning: discussion of birth trauma, including tears]
I had intended on writing this literally 10 months ago. During my pregnancy, I wrote about the impact of each trimester on my sex life pretty much as soon as it was over, and I had planned to write about sex after birth in a similarly timely manner – three months after she had been born, at the end of the ‘fourth trimester.’ I put that in inverted commas as the fourth trimester is not yet a medical term but has been used to describe the first three months of a baby’s life when they adjust to life after birth and outside the protection of the womb, and when we learn how to be parents!
I’d wanted to write about this time because I’d struggled to find enough information about sex after birth and wanted to share my experiences in case others needed to hear it but damn, it’s been difficult to write…
It’s not only because writing has ended up being a lower priority after our girl was born; I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t write about it, but it’s now been over a year and I think I’m ready! And I want to write three posts, although I can make no promises on when the others might appear! This one is about the physical recovery; the next will be about the more psychological effects; and the final part will cover the social impact. What can I say? It’s been a world-changing experience!
Sooooo, childbirth. What a strange and extraordinary thing that is! And how ridiculous and unexpected is the recovery. I say unexpected because the birth and early motherhood books that I read in preparation were pretty unsatisfactory. Obviously, sex is a really important part of my life and I was keen to know as much as I could about what would happen next and what I could reasonably expect from my post-baby sex life, so I read everything I could find!
Now on reflection, I have to admit that some of the advice in my pregnancy books isn’t as bad as the memories I carried of it. In my mind, each book had just one paragraph hidden among more general non-specific advice, but the reality is somewhat more positive than that. Most discussed low libido and commented on how everyone is different; most mentioned managing pain and warned that it might feel different; the most useful was Rebecca Schiller’s ‘Your No Guilt Pregnancy Plan,’ which even advocated masturbation as self-care, which is always great to see! But it was all generic, all reassuring about potential negatives, and all oddly silent about pleasure; the books were quick to reassure me that it was normal if I didn’t want sex, but I found nothing to guide me when I did.
In their defence, the generic nature of the advice is perhaps understandable – there are just too many variables. Everyone has a different birth story that causes them different levels of trauma for a start! We may even experience the same potential traumas differently – I think of my labour as a very positive event but, objectively, quite a lot went wrong and required a lot of rapid decision making. Afterwards, each of us will recover in a different way and face different challenges as new parents. And from a sexual side, everyone has a different libido and different sexual needs, and so it must be near impossible to write something brief that is reassuring for everyone.
I do, however, feel that the need to write something brief is the problem – these books did not want to dwell on sex and so too often only gave it a cursory glance, which is almost worse than no advice at all. Perhaps my main criticism is that I wanted more detail. I’m a sex nerd: of course I wanted more! I had too many questions to be reassured by a vague statement and all the euphemistic mentions of ‘down there‘ only made me feel less understood. I also noted that so much of the advice focused on emotional recovery and libido, rather than the physical act. As usual, sex was dismissed and marginalised…
Because it was my experience that my libido recovered pretty quickly after birth, and then didn’t change for quite a while after our baby was born (spoiler for future posts!). I never had the much talked about pregnancy horn but sex has always been an important part of my wellbeing and that didn’t change after childbirth. Yes, I was sore and bleeding and tired, but I was still horny and that was unexpected as I’d been led to believe that I wouldn’t want sex so soon.
Our baby was only a few days old when we started having sex again, although we didn’t try penetration for several more weeks. And it felt so good to have a normal orgasm again! After the intense full body and uterine orgasms that had triggered Braxton-Hicks style contractions during pregnancy, I loved the basic and delicious tension and release of a clitoral orgasm. By taking care not to touch too close to the healing wounds in my labia, I got to enjoy the most amazing fingering and sex without needing penetration. And obviously handjobs and oral for my partner weren’t affected by my tender vagina, so it felt like we were having a pretty great sexual recovery. If nothing else, it was a reminder that sex can be fucking great without PIV!
And so it carried on for the next few weeks. We were both exhausted and somewhat disorientated as our baby couldn’t yet tell day from night and it felt like she wanted to be fed 24/7, but we were able to find time for sex more often than I’d expected. Even if I wasn’t horny, I wanted the normality and intimacy that came with sex. My whole life was adrift in nappies and breastfeeding, and his touch was an anchor that reminded me that I was still a woman and not just a mother. During this early time, our baby was also asleep more than she was awake, so we had time for ourselves in a way that rapidly vanished as she got older and more alert!
It’s often suggested that you should wait until the 6-8 week GP check before trying penetration so that they can ensure everything has healed up properly. From my experience and anecdotally from friends, the major flaw of this approach is that GPs may not perform an intimate examination unless you ask and I can’t imagine many would ask unless they have already discovered a problem or are comfortable enough talking about sex to initiate these conversations with their doctor – a proportion of people that is still too small. This discomfort many people feel when talking about sex with our doctors is evidence of a much larger issue with doctor-patient communication, and I fear that opportunities to discover problems are missed too often.
8 weeks was too long for us anyway! As a medic and a sex nerd, I’d already spent a long time looking at my vulva with a hand mirror, wishing I’d taken more photos of what it looked like before so I could see exactly what had changed. I was monitoring my healing stitches and cautiously touching inside my vagina to see how it felt. My whole vulva looked so different from what I remembered from before that I became convinced at one point that I had a freaking massive prolapse before discovering that postpartum (ie after birth) vulvas do look different and I needn’t worry. Why wasn’t THAT in the books? But the fear certainly encouraged me to do my pelvic floor exercises so maybe it was no bad thing!
After four or five weeks, we felt ready. Slowly, slightly fearfully, and with liberal applications of lube, I let EA gently fuck me!
And it was really disappointing.
This is obviously not a criticism of EA; it was more that sex felt unrecognisably different and not in ways that I was expecting. I’d expected pain but that wasn’t the problem. Sadly, it wasn’t pain-free as EA’s cock stretched me more than the three fingers I’d tried but I was ready for that and it wasn’t unmanageable. It was disappointing because I didn’t feel anything inside. I had no idea how deep or not EA was fucking me as I simply couldn’t feel it! If I hadn’t been able to feel his body pressed against my vulva, I wouldn’t have believed he was inside at all. I squeezed my muscles and felt nothing; I rocked my pelvis to create contact and felt nothing. Just…nothing.
EA was able to allay my initial fears that my cunt was just too loose, claiming that it felt almost exactly the same as before, but that worried me even more. Why was I so numb? Did the delivery cause permanent damage? Was this ever going to get better??
It was so demoralising and felt the same even after many changes of position, although some were more comfortable against my healing wounds than others. And there was nothing in any of my books or in any of my online searches to help me. I felt really lost and found myself melodramatically mourning the loss of my sex life, resigning myself to only clitoral orgasms from now on. I began to wonder if that was why so few women come from penetration – they’ve had a baby and lost that magic power – and, over and over again, I wished we could all talk more freely about sex after birth so I could have known what might happen. Sex is so important for our wellbeing and happiness and, if my fears were true and a relatively straightforward labour could have had a lasting effect on sexual pleasure, why the hell wasn’t I warned?
In the end, I asked a medical mothers Facebook group and found both the reassurance and the shared stories that I needed. In short, I wasn’t broken; I was too eager! I needed to be patient and wait for a deeper recovery than just the superficial healing that I could see with my hand mirror.
Reading this and talking more about it, I realised that there was another issue with the sex advice in the pregnancy books beyond their brevity: even in books written BY women FOR women, the malign hand of the patriarchy was hard at work – yep, you’ve guessed it, they only really looked at ways to make post-partum sex work for the benefit of the penetrator rather than the penetrated.
I couldn’t shake this feeling that most of the advice was written for a reluctant woman who was being badgered for sex by her partner and needed to know when it was safe and not when it would be enjoyable. The focus was all on when my cunt would be stable enough to put a dick in, not when it would be healed enough to feel good when that dick was in it, and that really makes a huge difference! If I’m honest, I’m pretty sure we’d still have had PIV sex at that stage anyway, but I would have understood that the numbness was temporary and part of the process.
Because it was temporary and it was part of the process. You’ll be pleased to know that my cunt feels incredible again!
There are subtle differences; pushing a 9lb9 baby through my vagina did have a lasting effect. For example, I used to come most easily from spooning during PIV. The angle of his cock against my g-spot was exactly right and it gave me access to my clit as a sort of top-up if needed. It was perfect! But now, it doesn’t feel nearly as magical. Oh, it’s good but it’s not the same. Missionary, however. Dear God! Again, I used to love this for the intimacy and body contact, but now I get all that with added g-spot fireworks. It’s been kind of fun learning how my body has put itself back together!
I have one last theory that is again only based on anecdote and personal experience, and it involves tears and stitches and all that deep rooted horror, so skip the next couple of paragraphs if you’d rather not know!
I was deathly afraid of tears. I wished beyond everything that I could forget my prior knowledge of fourth degree tears and faecal incontinence, and was furiously massaging my perineum to make it as flexible as possible to reduce the risk of the dreaded tear! Sadly, our baby with a massive head (98th percentile!) had other ideas and I ended up needing an episiotomy – essentially a controlled 2nd degree tear (involving skin and muscle) in my perineum. But much to my surprise, this really wasn’t that big an issue with later sex. It healed well and hardly affected my enjoyment of PIV sex. For the first few months of PIV, I was aware of the scar and could feel the stretch of penetration more than with unaffected areas, particularly when being taken from behind, but it didn’t hurt and I stopped feeling it after a few months.
What did cause a problem and what did cause pain was a very very minor tear of the labia up near my clit. It was so small that they almost didn’t bother stitching it, and in fact it barely counted as a 1st degree tear – the midwife referred to it as a graze. But it didn’t matter how small it was; it hurt when we first had PIV! Even after so many weeks, the pull and stretch on that upper region of my vulva dragged the scar open and was a definite sharp pain. Luckily, the graze really was small and it had completely healed within a few more days, but it did suggest to me that location is almost more important than depth. A friend had a second degree tear in her labia on one side and, even after a few months, this remains too painful for PIV sex.
It is very possible that my sample size of two is too small to really come to a conclusion, but it makes logical sense to me that the location of tears and wounds on the labia would change their effect on sex. Maybe that should be part of the consent process for an episiotomy – not only does this controlled cut prevent deeper uncontrolled tearing but the site of the wound has the least effect on your recovering sex life. If true, that’s really important knowledge I’d like to have had when making that decision!
For me, the physical recovery from childbirth took around four months. By that time, there was no position that still caused pain and the scarring had faded enough that I was no longer aware of it. Sex wasn’t yet normal – I wore a bra almost constantly for several more months as my breastfeeding nipples were too sensitive to casually brush against the sheets and even now my core strength could still do with some work – but my body and my cunt had healed.
But did it feel like mine? That took a lot longer to work out…
UPDATE – Girl On The Net has previously posted a guest post about sex after C-section, and how the recovery can be just as challenging, if not more!