I’ve been thinking about my vagina. I imagine other women who’ve given birth to multiple children—big children, children who barely made it through the birth canal without forceps (first baby) and a broken collarbone (second baby)—think about their vaginas, too. I’m pitiless when I accuse my 6’3” estranged husband of ruining my pussy with his oversized DNA. I’m worse when I’m alone and wondering if I’ll ever unveil myself to another man, when I remember a version of me that wasn’t perfect but closer to it than I am now: older, mother, sort-of-single.
Mom vagina is simply another indignity to go with all the others that accompany pregnancy and motherhood: stretch marks (now rebranded as “tiger stripes”), a puckered pooch, distended nipples, hemorrhoids, constant lower back pain, occasional incontinence and constipation (there’s no rebranding that shit).
In the States, gynecologists offer Kegels-rhymes-with-bagels as the primary, usually only, solution to mom vagina. I live in France, where a laissez-faire approach to monogamy requires uninhibited tactics to tighten pussy—under the euphemism of “strengthening the pelvic floor”—and it’s paid for by the government. Vive la chatte!
When the physical therapist explains the electric dildo she holds in her hand will reset the nerve endings in my vagina so I won’t need to pee every hour, I say, “Get it in me and let’s go.” After ten sessions of electric currents reverberating inside me for twenty minutes (during which she and I discuss our children and our mushy abs), I’m relieved to find it works. I now pee every few hours like I’m not a mom.
You can rail loudly against the patriarchy, but until men evolve uteruses and give birth out of their anuses, there is nothing fair about being a mother.
The sharp imbalance weighs on me, as if I’m beneath an actual scale of justice, pressed down by the responsibility, the expectations, the emotional labor, the physical duress. I gaze over at my husband’s side and it’s so much lighter, it practically swings in the breeze. He went back to the office five days after our first daughter was born. He left to film for a month when she was five weeks old. For the first six months of our son’s life, he slept in the guest room so he could get enough rest; after all, he had the responsibility of feeding our daughter breakfast when she woke at 7:30 a.m. I nursed and rocked and crooned to our gigantic baby boy all night, sleeping for stretches of forty minutes at a time. Some nights I cried from exhausted frustration, my breasts deflated, my nipples gnawed beyond repair. One night, I swung him back and forth in my arms so hard he started wailing and I thought I would go to prison. Those shards jagged the edges of my marriage, no longer smooth with love and romance, much less sex.
The next ten therapy sessions are why I’m really there: the blessed grail of a taut vaj. I play a video game with my cooch, striking targets by squeezing and releasing the dildo as it pulses inside me. I’m determined to hit every mark and ask if it keeps score so I can measure my progress. (It doesn’t.) The therapist tells me she’s had some non-mom patients come to her because their boyfriends complained their vaginas were too loose. I feel offended for these women.
“Maybe their penises are too small,” I say. Where’s the therapy for that?
In the morning, before my children come up dressed for school in the clothes we laid out the night before, my hand wanders between my legs. I grip one finger and try to remember what it felt like in there before. Before, my body was under my control and answered to no one else. Before, my vagina was about pleasure, not procreation. Before seems long ago. I slip another finger inside until I’m somewhat satisfied. Maybe it’s not pre-baby narrow—how could it be?—but it’s not cavernous. Should I have sex with my husband to see if the treatment is working? I dismiss the idea as I recall the last time we had sex. I tried to fantasize about a new crush, but the physicality of my lover and partner of fifteen years was overwhelming. I pushed away his skin, his hair, his scent. He tasted foreign and terrible. It was the first and only time I’ve cried during sex in my entire life.
I was sexless after the second baby. Neutered. My identity had been subsumed by motherhood and every nerve ending was frayed. I was constantly grabbed, nuzzled, pulled, pinched, bit, and sucked on by either my toddler or my baby. My ears started to ring from my son’s hunger screams and my daughter’s complaints for attention. The last thing I wanted was for anyone to touch me. Certainly not my husband who lumbered to work every day or jetted to faraway places for weeks at a time, leaving me to the screams and sleeplessness. His life continued—the same needs, desires, and capacities—while I was reduced to my most mammalian nature. Feed the baby. Care for the baby. Forget you were anything but this, a mother.
A previous me kept peering out of the maternal iteration. As the newborn months turned into preschool years and my body returned to a reasonable facsimile of its former self, at least in clothing, I started remembering desire. I wanted the heated breath, the press of skin, the collapsed weight of someone… anyone but my husband, who’d become a roommate with irksome habits I barely tolerated.
There were fancies. Men who were unavailable for anything but subtext messaging. Meaningful looks, the squeeze of a hand, one stolen kiss. Nothing that crossed lines which were becoming increasingly fluid in my increasingly French marriage. Was it because of deep-rooted Catholic guilt or my relentless perfectionism? How could I reveal this me, creased and marked by motherhood, to anyone who hadn’t witnessed the mutation firsthand? I stayed clothed.
Resignation and resentment do not the struts of marriage make. I shouldn’t have been surprised my husband-roommate transgressed first and worst. I still was. They tell you this about babies and children as a consolation for the bone-wearying drudgery: “The days are long, but the years are short.” Is this true about anything excruciating?
It was back to endless, sleepless nights. To not sitting down to a proper meal. Back to the despair of wondering when this would be over so I could feel normal again. Except this time, I was the one being mothered. By friends, by therapy, by my babes themselves. They would crawl into bed with me, already dressed for school. When they saw I wasn’t getting up, my eight-year-old would go into the kitchen to prepare breakfast for her five-year-old brother.
I had a running joke with my daughter since she was six, “When mama’s old and has to wear diapers, will you change me and clean up my poop the way I did for you?”
She usually screamed, “Noooo! Gross! I’ll get you a nurse.” Here we were, neither of us old enough for what we were going through.
Until one morning feels manageable, time sanding down the acute agonies, and you’re able to get out of bed. Routine takes over again. Life pulls you back in. Children, too. This is how the often thankless work of motherhood rewards you. It grounds you in the prosaic, forces your presence and resuscitates your atrophied heart.
I was in labor for three days with my daughter, a foolish bid for natural childbirth that didn’t account for the size of my baby or my genetic predisposition to sluggish dilation. (My leg was still numb from when I broke it skiing nine months earlier, she the size of a sesame seed, her presence announced as I was wheeled into surgery.) By the time the obstetrician tugged her out with giant salad tongs and sewed a single stitch into me, I was crippled with fatigue and only wanted to shut my eyes and rest. My daughter forced my hand again. She needed to eat. So began all the sacrifices in the name of unfettered love.
Suffering is a channel to purification according to some religions. As I examine my life’s sorrows, I think they’ve led not to purity but to love. The pain of motherhood, the pain of betrayal, the pain of rebirth. Without those trials, would I know what love, after the erotic performance of it, looked and felt like? Would I be grateful for the agape and philia that propped me up during those boneless months of grief? Would I finally love myself enough—an imperfect woman, an indelible mother?
The electric current zaps the walls of my vagina and I tense. “Is that too strong?” I nod and the therapist lowers the levels. “Better?”
I consider. “Raise it up a little.”
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.