This is a very long story that includes tales of the baby blues, struggles of early breastfeeding, something that might have been postpartum depression, my journey with vaginismus and how I fixed the problem that was causing helluva stress in my own marriage. Be warned, if you don’t particularly like reading about the downright ugly truths of postpartum depression and sexual health after baby, then maybe rather read something lighthearted, like I don’t know… Juwan’s nursery decoration blog post. Also, if you’re one of my close friends and you continue reading – please know that I am a little embarrassed to share this story online, but I’m doing so in the hopes of creating awareness and maybe helping other struggling couples find a solution to a problem that very possibly could wreak marriages.
I write this from a happy home. A home where my beautiful toddler boy is asleep in his own bed, where he is now sleeping through the night, allowing me to have slept next to my husband all night. I find the quiet moments of the hour before dawn the best time to write – the house is peacefully asleep. It’s just me, the keyboard and my coffee – tackling this very difficult to write story. It’s May 2018 – World Maternal Mental Health awareness month – and I feel the urgency to get this story out. I’ve been putting off writing this one for far too long.
The physical trauma
Let’s start where it all began – the day and night and 2 hours into the next morning I spent in labour (you can read all about my birth story here). Before giving birth to Juwan, I can sum up my pregnancy as stressful and filled with anxiety (you can read about the reasons here). Then, about a week before giving birth, my gynae performed what is called a stretch-and-sweep (Google define it as: stretching the cervix so it opens a little and sweep refers to separating the membranes from where they adhere around the cervix in the lower portion of the womb. The cervix needs to be soft and slightly open already so that a finger can be inserted.) in the hopes of speeding up labour and she did this again two days before labour started. It’s hard to say if this was part of the problem or not, but I felt a little caught off guard by this procedure. It was uncomfortable while being done and I felt like my gynae didn’t quite explain the how, the purpose and the side effects of it well enough before going ahead and doing it.
In the end, my labour started two days after the last stretch-and-sweep. My mental game started out strong, until the first nurse performed an internal examination to see how labour is progressing and decided she’d pull my very posterior cervix forward. This hurt so bad that I ended up in tears and my confidence in giving birth naturally without pain medication was shaken badly. This was done three times, twice by nurses, who hurt me terribly, and once by my gynae who managed to do it without hurting me. We’ll get back to this section a little later, but the context is important.
What happens if you’re not immediately in love with your baby?
Labour in itself was incredibly painful and I was exhausted and drugged up (I caved and took the pethidine and atarax injection) by the time Juwan arrived at 1:54am. An episiotomy was performed and Juwan had to be delivered vacuum assisted. I was stitched up and sent to recovery where I spent three days with my newborn baby, being visited by family and friends throughout. You always hear moms and dads say how they fell in love with their baby instantaneously once they were born. I remember it feeling a little differently and I’ve come to understand that this happens sometimes and that it’s not your fault if it does. Maybe it was the drugs I was given during labour, but when Juwan was placed naked on my chest and started nursing, I felt out of it, like it wasn’t real, like it was just a dream. I wish I was more present to take in those first moments and really start the bonding process the right way. I remember feeling like this strange little creature was beyond a doubt mine, that I had to protect it with everything in me, but I felt like I didn’t know him, like he was a stranger.
I didn’t feel the warm fuzzies quite yet – you know that feeling you get when you look at someone you love dearly. I expected it to be there, but it wasn’t, and I felt so guilty. It took almost a full day (or maybe two, I can’t recall exactly) to start feeling anything other than pure responsibility for my baby. He once opened his eyes while nursing and we made eye contact – that was the first time I felt like I might love this little human and it was a relief. I soon learned that my husband too didn’t feel the warm fuzzies right away and it took him much longer to really bond with our baby.
You may feel out of your league, like you don’t have a clue what to do or how to do it
I remember feeling ill equipped and undereducated to be able to take care of this little person. After two days the nurses asked if I wanted to go home yet and I said no, I want to stay my full three days. I was afraid to take my baby home, where there might not be help available at all hours of the night and day. I didn’t know if we were getting breastfeeding right (the nurses were very rough, they pulled and pinched and squeezed my nipples too hard when at first they tried to see if there was any milk). I relied on what I learned about breastfeeding during my weeks spent at the antenatal classes, but it would’ve been so great if someone who actually knew could take a look and tell me what I was doing wrong. Only later did I join a wonderful women’s group called La Leche League on Facebook – a safe place for moms to get accurate advice on breastfeeding – and knowing what I know now, I would’ve called one of the lactation consultants from LLL to visit me in hospital.
My nipples cracked and bled quite a bit, because Juwan’s latch wasn’t right at first. It was pretty painful, but after going through labour you shrug off this pain quite easily. It wasn’t just the breastfeeding I felt undereducated with though. I didn’t know how to change a nappy (isn’t this like the first thing they’re supposed to teach at an antenatal class?). The first time I had to change Juwan’s nappy, I was alone. I didn’t have a clue what to do and he started crying, so I started crying and then I called a nurse and asked her to show me. She gave me the most incredulous look. Way to boost my confidence madam nurse! In the end, she did show me how though.
From the very start, I felt an incredible sense of responsibility towards my baby. I felt protective, maybe even overprotective. I’ve done so much research on SIDS before Juwan was born and it was probably my biggest fear. We bought a crib that met safety requirements and it had no padding on the sides. In fact, we bought an air mattress to go with it, which makes sense in theory (basically a box frame that is covered in a soft slip on cover with breathable holes throughout so baby can breathe even if they accidentally roll onto their face while sleeping), but the whole setup proved hard to execute in reality. And maybe it’s just Juwan, but he didn’t want to sleep out in the open, on his back, only covered lightly with breathable cotton blankets or just in a sleeping bag. He wanted to be close to me (um hi, DUH, fourth trimester right here! If you don’t know about the fourth trimester, I highly recommend you read up on it.), he wanted to be held, he wanted to sleep in my arms or at the very least, swaddled and placed in a nest-like space I created with rolled up blankets.
That terrifying car seat incident
But before we even left the hospital premises, something frightening happened and it felt like all my fears were now validated – they were not irrational. Not knowing much (or anything) about car seats, their installation or how to take a newborn baby home, I put Juwan in the car seat and got in next to him, while my husband drove. I was constantly looking at Juwan, checking if he’s okay, and good thing I did too. Within the space of maybe 30 seconds his lips started to turn blue. I picked up his hand and it just dropped straight down. I patted him on his cheeks urgently, all the while telling hubby to stop, something’s wrong, he’s not breathing! I thank God for my instincts in that moment as I grabbed some wet wipes from his bag in lightning speed and roughly wiped his face with them, which gave him a fright and made him jolt awake.
I was shaking and crying. He was now responsive again, but I have never in my life been so afraid. I realized that he couldn’t breathe in the position he was in, so I kept his head upright all the way home. Once home, I googled the sh#t out of what just happened and this I didn’t know, but babies actually die this way a lot, because parents aren’t told that babies should never sleep in a position with their chins on their chests as this closes their airway. It happens in car seats and even in baby carriers when the baby isn’t positioned correctly. I realized that the problem in our car seat was that with using the Isofix base, the car seat couldn’t be reclined far enough back for Juwan’s head not to be on his chest. So I decided to use the car seat without the Isofix base for the first couple of months, only using the seat-belt version of the installation. I cannot stress the importance of educating yourself on car seat safety before baby is born enough. In fact, I think this might be important enough to validate a whole post on its own at some point.
The fear and the exhaustion
Once home, it didn’t help that Juwan didn’t want to sleep in the way that the safety precautions set out to help prevent SIDS said he should. So even though I slept when Juwan slept (with him swaddled and placed snuggly in his little nest next to me), I constantly woke up terrified, feeling the adrenaline rush through me as I sat up to check if he’s okay. Sometimes I managed to get him to sleep a little while in his crib next to me, but not nearly enough. Most of the times he would wake as soon as I put him down in the crib, so most of the time he slept with me in our King size bed. I was also too afraid to sleep under thick blankets, or any blankets really, for fear of accidentally smothering him in my exhaustion. So I put him at the very top of the bed, and I made sure I slept more towards the foot of the bed.
I didn’t sleep much and I didn’t sleep well. Juwan wanted to nurse around the clock, every two hours (which is totally normal for newborns) and I was dead tired. So tired that at some point I remember I put him in the crib to sleep and woke up with him next to me in bed, not remembering how he got there. It was all a blur. A terrifying, exhausting blur. During this time, my husband moved to the couch in the living room – he needed to sleep to be able to function at work and couldn’t be of much help with the feeding anyway as I was breastfeeding. He would however help if Juwan needed to be rocked asleep, or to give me a little bit of a break during one of his inconsolable crying colic bouts.
Ah yes. And then there was the colic.
Juwan would have these periods during the day where he would just cry. I checked if all his needs were met. He was fed, burped, nappy changed, appropriately dressed, he’s been sleeping when he was supposed to, I didn’t think he was overstimulated, I haven’t been eating anything strange to affect my breast milk – in fact I was eating a very nutrient rich, but bland, diet. But still, for over three hours on end, every single day for the first 4 months, he would cry. I held him, rocked him, tried to feed him some more, tried dummies, everything. It was so bad, that we just walked around with him, sometimes in the middle of the night, up and down through the house, until he finally cried himself to sleep. I remember my brother and his wife visiting us once, coincidentally during one of these bouts, and my brother saying that he doesn’t think he’s ready to have kids yet, because he won’t be able to deal with this amount of crying. I was thinking ‘Just great! Now I’ve dettered my brother from having children! #facepalm’.
At first I didn’t want to give him medication, but I gave in and gave him all the usual things people advise you to try for colic, none of which helped. He was checked by doctors and paediatricians, all who just said it sounded like colic and sometimes it’s hard to say what is causing it, because he was otherwise so healthy. He was about three months old before I found something that actually helped. It’s called Colic Calm – an activated charcoal mixture, black as the night. It costs a fortune but it finally brought us a little peace in our home. I would express some milk and mix it in the bottle for him, which he drank without problems.
The baby blues. Or was it?
On top of the screaming baby issue we were experiencing, I was feeling increasingly depressed, but I didn’t let on. It’s not that I intentionally didn’t tell anyone, I just thought that what I was experiencing was normal and that if I soldier through it will get better. I cried a lot, mostly at night when I was alone with Juwan. I talked about this with my mom afterwards, and she said she had no idea I was feeling this way. I seemed to have it all under control, which is probably the really scary part, because in my head I was sort of losing it. I was exhausted, and especially at night, I would get so incredibly frustrated with Juwan for constantly crying and waking up and needing to be held or fed. Sometimes I would just walk away from him for a couple of minutes to cool down, because I got red hot angry type of frustrated. I felt so ashamed of feeling like this, because I’ve never seen myself behave this way. Some nights, when he was crying and nothing I did would help, I would put him down first and then hit the wall with the flat of my hand. Or scream into the pillow.
I am crying while I’m writing this. I can’t believe this person was me.
I was lucky to have help close by. My inlaws lived in the flat on our premises at the time and she helped out a lot and for that I am eternally thankful. But I never got the help I needed for what was happening in my mind. I didn’t realise at the time that I needed help. I often felt like there was another person inside of me, one I didn’t recognise or wanted to admit WAS me, that had terrifying thoughts and feelings. I always knew that I would never intentionally hurt my baby, I loved my baby. But I had these visions/premonitions of disaster happening, accidentally caused by me. Like accidentally dropping him, or accidentally bumping his head against something. There were other scenarios as well, which I thankfully don’t remember. But the fear and anxiety was with me constantly. I never talked about this and I recommend that if you ever find yourself in this position, do talk about it, do seek help. I now know that this wasn’t normal and actually a very dangerous position to be in.
Did it go away? I think so. I don’t remember exactly when or how. I know at some point I started taking Eglonyl to increase my breast milk production, which I learned is also a mild antipsychotic drug which is sometimes used in low dosages to treat anxiety and mild depression. So maybe this helped? I certainly started feeling better. It was never officially diagnosed as postnatal depression though. I just think that after reading some of the symptoms online, it might have been. I am thankful to be past that with myself and my baby unharmed. Some of these symptoms include (thanks Google):
Mood: anger (check), anxiety (check), guilt (check), hopelessness (check), loss of interest or pleasure in activities, mood swings, or panic attack
Behavioural: crying (check), irritability (check), or restlessness (check)
Psychological: depression (check), fear (check), or repeatedly going over thoughts (check)
Whole body: fatigue (check) or loss of appetite
Cognitive: lack of concentration or unwanted thoughts (check)
Weight: weight gain or weight loss
Also common: insomnia
If you experience any of these after giving birth, please, PLEASE, reach out to someone and seek help. I’ve heard that the normal baby blues never last for longer than the first two weeks or so, but I’m not a medical professional, so please seek help if you suspect you’re dealing with something more than just the normal baby blues.
Finally, there was this thing called Vaginismus
Let’s talk about sex. Right, so here’s the part where you either need to stop reading because it’s awkward, or buckle down for some brutal honesty. I don’t remember the episiotomy during birth being painful, or being stitched up for that matter (due to the injection they gave me down there to numb the area), but the recovery was fairly unpleasant. Apart from the bleeding and the constant washing with salt water and the salt bath soaks, it was very sensitive. Needless to say, sex was off the table until all has healed and healed well. Normally they say that you can start having sex six weeks after birth, if given the all clear from your gynae. My six week checkup came and the doctor said all was healing fine and gave me the all clear. I still felt really sensitive down there though. We gave it a try once (can’t remember exactly when), but it was so incredibly painful. It felt like the doctor stitched me up too tightly. I literally felt like a virgin, only worse. So we agreed to give it some more time, because clearly I haven’t had enough time to heal, or so we thought.
My husband was very understanding and completely supported the idea of waiting some more. Of course as time went on and with me being completely submerged in my mental state, sex just wasn’t an option. In fact, I was avoiding it like the plague. I was dealing with all the aforementioned thoughts and feelings and was feeling no sense of desire, not feeling very beautiful and perhaps the slightest amount of resentment towards my husband for having it so easy in the general life and sleep department. It became a vicious downward spiral of not giving each other love or intimacy. The fact that Juwan was sleeping in our bed and not my husband, didn’t help either. I think perhaps my husband was also resenting our baby for taking up all my time and energy.
My marriage have always been very important to me, but right then I was exhausted and drained and so consumed by the responsibility of keeping this tiny human alive that I completely neglected myself, my husband and in turn my marriage. We tried to have sex again a couple of times, each time the pain only got worse and then afterwards the amount of time that elapsed before trying again was longer.
When Juwan was about 6 months old I realised that I had a problem that was clearly beyond just an episiotomy that struggled to heal. Still, I didn’t know what to do about it. I knew I needed to get professional help, but I had no idea where to start. One day my employer randomly decided to invite a sexologist to give a talk about sexual health and afterwards I plucked up my courage to go and talk to her about the problem I was experiencing. She told me I had what sounded like Vaginismus. I took her business card and decided to pay her a visit to talk about it in detail.
Talking to her didn’t make me feel better like I imagined talking to a psychologist would, but then she wasn’t a psychologist, she was a sexologist. It was a very important visit though – a turning point and a shove in the right direction. She explained that vaginismus (or vaginism) is a condition that often occurs after some form of trauma (physical and/or emotional or even relational – the pain during birth is considered trauma and who knows, maybe the PND could’ve added to the problem emotionally), recognised by ongoing painful sex and difficulties with penetration. This also happens to some women because of estrogen-related changes, causing vaginal atrophy. It can happen to women of all ages. I did not know that!!
I cannot remember the anatomical names for all the things she described, but she said that women have a muscle down there that is shaped like a figure eight and that this muscle is one of the strongest muscles in our bodies. It is the same muscle you flex when you do your kegel exercises. Vaginismus is what happens when this muscle is so tense that it doesn’t allow penetration and when the latter happens it hurts. A LOT. The weird thing about it is that it is both a physical and a psychological problem and you need to tackle both in order to heal and get back to your old self. Vaginismus is also a vicious spiral if you don’t fix it in the early stages, like I soon found out. With time passing by and us trying to have sex from time to time, and me even allowing it once or twice despite the extreme pain just because I felt bad for my husband, it just got worse. The pain creates more pain. The more you try without fixing the problem, the worse it gets. The more your mind anticipates the pain that is about to manifest in your body, the tighter this muscle pulls and the worse the pain you experience. It felt like the cut of a knife – sharp stabbing pains. It got so bad around the 6th month that we just stopped having sex altogether for almost 3 months (not that you could call what we were doing before stopping sex really). It was awful and my husband was not dealing well. We had fights, lots of them, and it felt like things were falling apart.
I used to tell myself it’s all in my head and I’m being silly – I just need to fix my mindset and it will be gone, but turns out that’s not true. So visiting the sexologist was a very good call, as she explained to me what was happening and pointed me to other healthcare professionals that would help me treat the problem. First I paid a visit to a gynaecologist, who officially diagnosed it. Then I saw one of the few Pelvic Floor Physiotherapists in Pretoria over the course of several weeks.
None of this was fun, but it was helpful and I hope that by writing about this I could help someone in the same position. At the first physio session the therapist did a physical exam (awkward) to see where the pain is coming from and how bad the pain is. So she basically pulls at that muscle and ask you how it feels. Afterwards, and for many sessions that followed, she would apply laser to the area. She said that the laser helped in healing body tissue. It also aids in pain relief, reducing inflammation and reducing scarring. When you hear the word laser, you think thin red light that burns, right? But this laser, although also a red light, doesn’t hurt at all and isn’t concentrated into a thin/small light. The tool used to apply the laser was probably as big as a coffee mug, and it radiated a soft red light from it. It felt warm, but not uncomfortably so.
She also gave me several exercises to perform daily. It consisted out of two types of exercises: 1) Kegel Exercises, and 2) Physically stretching and massaging the area in question
The purpose of these exercises is to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, in order for the woman to better control these muscles during sex. So if you learn how to squeeze those muscles, you can also learn how to relax them, and that’s what you want to be doing consciously during sex in order to beat the pain. Remember, the more tense the muscle, the more intense the pain. So the opposite is also true.
Stretching and Massage
The physio sold me a very strange tool set, with strict orders to use, irrespective of how weird it was. It’s called a Vaginal Dilator – and honestly – I much prefer this clinical title to what it may be called elsewhere. The main difference between this particular tool and what you might find in a sex shop is that this one works like a russian doll. It starts small and gets bigger as you get more confident. The purpose of this exercise is to recondition the muscles (and your brain, very importantly) to recognise penetration as something that is good and not something that causes pain.
Then, with a bit of olive or coconut oil, massage the outer muscle where the pain is felt with a gloved hand and stretch it to the sides and hold there for a few seconds. This conditions the muscles to become used to being stretched again.
At first it felt like the exercises didn’t help at all and I cried during these more than once because it was just so painful, but slowly with consistency it got better until the pain was completely gone.
Claiming back your sex life for your OWN good
I remember talking to a friend about our sex life and how horribly wrong everything has gone since Juwan’s birth. We also talked specifically about my lack of desire and how I was avoiding sex at all cost. I remember her saying that an important aspect of a healthy sexual relationship is claiming back your sensuality and your desire for YOURSELF first. You need to want to do it, for YOU, before you want to do it for your partner or your marriage. As soon as I made that mindshift it became a lot easier to find the motivation to heal the pain and soon, as a result of the right mindset and consistently doing these exercises, we were able to return to a normal and healthy sexual relationship. Actively taking the above steps to reclaim my sanity and my health was the best thing I’ve ever done for our relationship.
I hope that this very long and weird post will help someone who is going through a rough time after the birth of their baby. I am also very happy to say that all that has happened to me is not the norm – so if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive – please don’t stress. These things happen pretty rarely. Pregnancy, birth and life with a newborn can definitely be a beautiful thing, even though it might not be easy and awesome all of the time. Life for us almost three years later, is good. We are blessed and happy and our troubles aren’t many. We all go through difficult times, but always remember that this too shall pass – sometimes it needs a little help to pass – but it will.