Ever wondered if you’re the only one who feels hesitant to resume physical intimacy following childbirth? You’re not. Absolutely and emphatically NOT.
Yes, there are numerous—and very valid—reasons why sex is not at the top of the priority list for many women in the weeks and months following childbirth: sleep-deprivation; feeling “touched-out”; feeling like we have nothing left to give; perineal tears, episiotomies or Cesarean-Birth scars that are still healing. Then there are the hormones: rock-bottom estrogen levels that cause vaginal dryness and thinning of the vaginal walls, leading to painful intercourse; high prolactin levels which lower the sex drive (low progesterone levels in males typically cause impotence) and generally contribute to low moods and energy levels. And then there are the greatly decreased progesterone levels—which counteracted the effects of the prolactin during the pregnancy. So yes! Many reasons why we just might not be putting the moves on!
But let’s talk trauma.
What if you add to the above Not-In-The-Mood Postpartum Cocktail the fact that the birthing experience was traumatic? Maybe add a shot of PTSD, too, shall we?
When trauma is in the mix, it’s no longer about simply not wanting to engage in sex.
It’s about needing to avoid it. Out of self-protection.
Here are 5 reasons why physical intimacy following traumatic childbirth is a whole other ballgame:
1. Hormones on top of hormones.
Remember those new-mother libido-suppressing hormones mentioned at the beginning? Now add to those the Stress Hormones: adrenaline, norepinephrine, and, the biggie—cortisol. In essence, their role is to keep us safe by readying us for fight, flight or freeze.
Women who have experienced birth trauma and are still in the initial postpartum weeks and months, are almost always in that hyper-vigilant state of fight, flight or freeze. Stress hormones are extremely high. Self-protect at all costs. And those prolonged elevated levels of stress hormones suppress sex hormones. After all, when our welfare is at stake, why would our bodies allocate resources to such things as pleasure?
2. Intimacy may bring about more emotions than we can handle right now.
Being a sacred vessel for new life is an intensely emotional thing. Being traumatized by that pivotal experience is an unimaginably and chaotically emotional thing. And guess what? Sex is a deeply emotional thing, for us, too. And it’s possible that maybe, just maybe, we’re not ready to be swept away by that torrent if we allow the flood gates to be opened.
3. We were violated—body, mind & spirit.
For many of us, a big part of our birth trauma includes feeling violated—at the very core of ourselves. Unwanted vaginal exams. Internal monitors heartlessly shoved inside us. Episiotomy. Forceps or ventouse. Laying there, powerless, with our genitals exposed and being belittled; having our needs or feelings dismissed or ignored; having things done to our bodies without our consent.
In the weeks, months and even years following traumatic childbirth, something as simple as our partner gently touching our shoulder—with or without an implication—can cause us to startle. Or the mention of a needed PAP Smear can elicit a panic attack, simply because it would require us to be flat on our backs with our legs apart, and someone else in control, coming at us with foreign objects.
Violation can come in countless packages. And if we felt violated in any way during labor or delivery, we have most likely shut down that aspect of ourselves. Our legs are closed. Our minds and our hearts, in regards to our sexuality, are closed. In self-protection. And if any attempt is made—regardless of how loving and well-intentioned it may be—to pry open that part of us (physically or emotionally), further damage will be done and extra fortification will be added. We need our partners to tread lightly. That self-protection must be honored. And the lowering of a woman’s defenses must be in her time.
4. Fear of going through it all again.
Hey, guess what? Sex can lead to babies. Surprise! And so, we may avoid sex for fear of getting pregnant again. Maybe we fear another pregnancy because of the sense that our family is complete and there’s a desire to not disturb that balance. Maybe because we’re still healing physically and can’t imagine the thought of going through labor and delivery again. Maybe we were traumatized by the experience and don’t even realize it yet, let alone have been able to process it all. Maybe we almost lost our lives during childbirth and are afraid of leaving our child motherless if it happened again.
(*Countless other reasons exist that will not be mentioned here. If you, dear mama, have another reason, you certainly don’t need to be reminded of it yet again. Whatever your reason, it is valid. Completely. Much love to you as you heal…)
5. Past trauma was triggered.
Even if the most recent birthing experience itself wasn’t traumatic for us, it may have triggered trauma from our past. Past sexual abuse can be triggered during childbirth, due to the shared intimate nature, the sense of being out of control, and the fact that things are happening to our bodies. Same with a previous traumatic birth. Aspects of that experience may have resurfaced that need to be worked through once again. We may be avoiding intimacy now because we need to retreat within ourselves in order to re-process past trauma.
If you are in the thick of all this and feeling afraid to even think about physical intimacy, hang in there. It does get better. As you are able to process the many different layers that comprise your trauma, they do begin to dissipate. Even the layers that affect your relationship with your sexual self.
For me, it was a few months before I was able to even begin to grasp what I was dealing with, and another several months until I was able address it all to the point where I could even be open to the possibility of sex. It was a topic that came up often in my journal writing—its many layers and nuances, its many accompanying self-criticisms and emotions. Birth Trauma was, for me, a wounding of more than just my lady parts…
Birth Trauma and Sex. For many of us, they just don’t mix. If you’re in that boat, know that what you are feeling and going through is absolutely valid. And far from rare.
We need time to reconnect with our selves in a compassionate way before we can reconnect with our partners in a sexual way. We need to go within before we can reach out.
And Mama friends, if you just can’t “go there” right now, let that be ok.
You are not alone in this.
Much love to you from someone who’s been there.