‘Sex after birth was excruciating for years – we need to be honest with new mums’

‘Sex after birth was excruciating for years – we need to be honest with new mums’

December 26, 2022

When it comes to navigating day-to-day life after having a baby, there’s a lot to get used to. From working out a feeding routine to coping with the sleepless nights, becoming a parent brings a lot of changes.

But while sex may be a taboo subject, in recent years an increasing number of parents have started talking about how parenthood changed their sex lives.

From Cara De La Hoyde revealing that welcoming baby number two had caused her libido to drop to Kourtney Kardashian explaining that sex was “very painful” after giving birth to her first son, celebs aren't afraid of demystifying the topic.

And now writer Clio Wood has opened up about the realities of sex as a new mum. Here, she tells her story…

“It took me three long years to get my mojo back after I had my first daughter, who’s now eight years old. That’s 1,095 days of not feeling myself, of struggling with the trauma of the birth, postnatal depression, of being in pain and not knowing why or how to fix it, and of feeling like my husband was in another country, one that I didn’t know how to get to.

Having a baby put my mental, physical and emotional health under strain and my identity, sensuality and sexuality completely disappeared.

We don’t discuss enough how we can often feel a shadow of our former selves after having a baby. We don’t acknowledge how motherhood can upend the way we feel about ourselves and erase our confidence. We don’t give ourselves enough credit for the work it takes to get through this new and confusing change, for how hard it can be to move forward into our new identities.

The fourth trimester is the three month period after birth, when discombobulation is at its max. But for many of us, even when the fourth trimester is finally in the rear-view mirror, there’s still plenty of transitioning to do to get to a comfortable and confident place in motherhood, and we don’t reach the other side for quite a while.

I had a traumatic birth with my first daughter. It was a long labour, and the baby had difficulty descending. They tried ventouse and then she was born by forceps delivery. The umbilical cord was wrapped around my baby’s neck and when the obstetrician tried to take it over her head to release it, it snapped. She lost some blood, was resuscitated and taken to NICU where she stayed for four days. It was a shock for us all, but ultimately she was fine.

I, however, had a longer recovery period. The lack of control in my birth was a problem I really struggled to come to terms with; once we had her home I developed postnatal depression.

My depression manifested a lot as rage, so it’s fair to say that my relationship with my husband was not at its best during this time; what I didn’t know was that it wouldn’t get any better for a long time afterwards either.

The forceps delivery and episiotomy (a cut the obstetrician makes to ease the passage of the baby’s head through the vaginal canal) left me with vaginal scarring. I’d been doing my pelvic floor exercises religiously but wrongly, and, coupled with the all-over muscle tension from my trauma and depression, I ended up with a too-tight (hypertonic) pelvic floor.

When we eventually decided to try and have sex again, it was at my insistence – and attempt to try to assert some authority over my own identity. It didn’t go well. I look back wryly now, as I can see that I was grasping for even a small sense of normality that seemed so beyond my reach.

The sex was excruciating, but I didn’t know why. I had a bruised ego and emotions that were all over the place. My mental health was battered and communication with my husband was terrible.

When I visited my GP to ask for help with the pain during penetration he swabbed for infection, and then did the same again a month or two later when they didn’t find anything and I was still in pain.

I was sent to a gynaecologist who referred me eventually for an internal ultrasound. No-one physically examined me and it took nearly a year to get to the bottom of the problem. I only realised, after finding a women’s health physio myself, that it was potentially related to my overly tight pelvic floor and vaginal scarring.

Unfortunately, my mental health issues were just the icing on the cake of my too-stressed body. With the trauma and mild PTSD from the birth and the resulting postnatal depression and rage, my body seized up.

My muscles were always tense, which made the pelvic floor issues even worse. And like most mums, I had a lot to think about, and was exhausted too: the body is constantly in fight or flight mode. There’s no room on the newborn motherhood agenda for soothing our own nervous system. Even now after years of rehabilitation, releasing my muscles and relaxing my body, particularly my pelvic floor, is hard for me.

It’s now over eight years since that first birth. I’ve found resolution to my problems and my husband and I are happier than we’ve ever been – and that includes our sex life – but it’s taken years to get to that point.

Whilst it was three years before we had pleasurable sex again, it was another two before we climbed off the potential divorce train and rediscovered how to be happy with the help of lots of therapy.

What I find particularly strange is that all of these physical and mental health problems are allowed to fester. We aren’t offered help or information when we need it (at no point did my doctor suggest that a women’s health physiotherapist might be useful to me). And I know it’s not just me who feels that her suffering has been de-prioritised.

A lot of the provision that would help women is preventative: inform new mums about the possible physical and mental rehabilitation they might need. And be honest about some of the damage to their bodies that will impact their daily and sexual lives. If we did, we might be more prepared and better informed on how to fix things.

For me, empowerment and information are the keys to both the postnatal journey and the ability to take ownership of our new identities as mothers. If I’d been able to advocate for myself the way I now know how to, I could have saved myself and my family a whole lot of pain.”

Clio Wood @andbreathewellbeing is the author of Get Your Mojo Back, Sex, Pleasure and Intimacy After Birth (Watkins) out 10 January 2023. Preorders are available now.

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