When you embark on the journey of motherhood, there seems to be a website, app or expert for every month and stage of conception and pregnancy...
And that’s before you even book an obstetrician, doula or similar. What’s often much less spoken about, to the detriment of women everywhere, is the postpartum period. As much as birth is a momentous occasion, it can often leave women feeling emotionally and physically depleted, and in some cases, traumatised – and the unexpected side effects from either natural or c-section births can result in a number of issues, including pelvic floor complications, painful sex, haemorrhoids and scar tissue, just to name a few. Kimberly Ann Johnson has taken her own experience with traumatic birth healing, which saw her battle with pelvic floor tearing, searing pain during sex and constant lower back pain, to help other mothers in similar situations regain their health and sexual confidence. She became a birth doula, certified sexological bodyworker and somatic experiencing practitioner in order to bridge the gap between medical intervention and women simply giving up on ever feeling normal again. In short, she’s doing what all women desperately need but didn’t know they could get help for thanks to her individualised sessions (that span from birth rehearsals to doula services, sexual discovery sessions and birth trauma healing) and fantastic book, The Fourth Trimester, which offers practical advice on healing, balancing and restoring mind and body after birth. We are so thrilled to share our chat with Kimberly and help extend and promote the necessary conversations surrounding postpartum issues and sex after birth. Read on to hear more from Kimberly on everything from why stress incontinence is common but not normal, how the postpartum period is time for “deep quiet and deep rest” and why vaginal steaming is something to add to the must-try list… Words: Marisa Remond | Go to www.magamama.com
Relationships often deteriorate in the first year after having a child – why is this?
Having a baby is an enormous transition. That transition requires support, and as a culture, we really have no idea what that would really look like. So, partners give it a go, hiring a little help here or there. Many people live far away from family or extended family and we have forgotten how to take care of new parents. Relationships suffer for it. The message is that you can go on, business as usual, just add a kid to the picture. People buy that idea and a lack of realistic expectations set people up for a lot of dissatisfaction and frustration. The anxiety gets projected onto the relationship. Gender roles can be exaggerated, and for women brought up as feminists, it can be confusing when the reality of biology kicks in – that a mother is meant to be more attuned so that she will attend to and feed her baby. A woman’s attention turns from mothering her partner to mothering her spouse. She needs to be mothered, and if that doesn’t happen the relationship takes the brunt of the absence of real care and support. In truth, husbands aren’t supposed to be the ones delivering postpartum care. The postpartum time is a time to expand our definition of sex and intimacy. Penetrative sex isn’t usually desirable, so it is a time to put a woman’s pleasure at the center. After having a baby, a woman is in a huge physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual transformation – a very tender evolution. It’s absolutely important to see the relationship as an important source of strength. Connection is a part of that. How that connection looks is something that needs to be negotiated. Our sexual selves shift. This period calls into question everything we have been taught about sex – all our conditioning. For that reason, it is an excellent place to establish an even more authentic connection that actually leads to better sex. It just might not look how it looked before or how you think it “should” be. It’s important to note that most men say that they want sex, but they are seeking connection and acknowledgement in the first year postpartum.
“ Gender roles can be exaggerated, and for women brought up as feminists, it can be confusing when the reality of biology kicks in ”
In a Sexological Bodywork session you touch genitals as a way for women to prepare for birth, to heal from birth trauma, to restore full pelvic floor function, and to establish healthy sexual boundaries. How do you make your clients feel comfortable/not embarrassed – and why do you think so many of us feel embarrassed?
Religious roots have really done a number on our sexuality. The false separation of body and spirit has led us to believe, for ages, that what is spiritual is better than material. This disconnection from body and desire has led to so much destruction and behaviour driven by repression. Sessions look all different ways. We usually start talking and meeting each other. Then we talk about the work we want to do together. I am noticing how a woman’s facial expressions, words, and body language are coordinating or not. Then I offer some options, depending on how ready I think the person is for internal work if that’s what they came for. Sometimes we work on boundaries by playing out wolf/rabbit scenarios within space – physically defining protection and boundaries. If we do table work, then I safe port them through the whole process. I put on gloves. I anticipate anything that may seem surprising and I announce it beforehand. I cup their vulva and direct their full awareness, and then we go on a journey together mapping their vulva and their vagina – naming the different parts, attending to scar tissue. A lot of questions and emotions arise. Overall it is a reparative experience. I am not a doctor or a lover. I am a witness and listener, and that is a very unusual role. Most women can’t stand OBGYN visits, and this is a way to go step by step and let the body talk.
“ I cup their vulva and direct their full awareness, and then we go on a journey together mapping their vulva and their vagina - naming the different parts, attending to scar tissue ”
Women often feel they aren’t worthy of pleasure – it’s often all about the man having an orgasm. How can we change this pattern?
We can take the words “foreplay” and “finishing” out of our vocabulary. We can take back sex for ourselves and recognize that we have all been shown a kind of performative sex rather than sex as a playful experiment.
When is the best time for tired parents to have sex?
Each couple will have their own sweet spot. It’s important to remember that sex is not a light switch you turn on and off. It’s more of a dimmer switch. So there are ways to stay feeling connected and loved and nurtured, even if you aren’t making it to the bedroom kid-free, which let’s face it, can be really difficult in the first several months postpartum. I really recommend simple daily check-ins and long hugs. Some people like to have a babysitter for a couple hours on a Saturday or Sunday morning, so that there is less of a rush and less pressure to “finish before the baby wakes up” which doesn’t make for sensuous exploratory sex. A woman has a new body and needs time to rediscover it.
Tell us more about the shame pattern in our culture?
Shame is the flavor of the water we are swimming in with sex. We don’t even realize how much shame there is surrounding our innocent curiosities. They are buried under layers of conditioning functioning to keep us small, quiet, tame, and productive.
After having a child, a lot of women don’t feel sexy. How do you encourage confidence and self-exploration in your clients?
I encourage my clients to start with self-exploration. I love vaginal steaming as a therapeutic practice for so many reasons. I share vulva breathing in my book. It’s a simple practice of placing your hand on your vulva and then breathing all the way down through your pelvis into your vulva. We have to come back into our bodies and complete the birth energy before we are ready for reengagement.
What is the difference between orgasm and climax?
Climax is like a genital sneeze. Orgasm is a deep abiding state that has ebbs and flows, but no sharp rise and steep drop. Orgasm is something that lasts – it is our deep life force energy coursing through us as warm golden energy.
What is predator energy and how do we activate it?
This is a huge question. In nature, almost all animals are both predator and prey. Women are conditioned to be prey more often. Men are conditioned to be predators more often. There are corresponding emotions and body patterns that go with each of these nervous system states. Claiming sexual sovereignty and protagonism of our lives requires that we know how to activate and access both the predator and prey energy. My course Activate Your Inner Jaguar is a step-by-step guide to accessing that predator energy.
How many of your clients suffer from painful scar tissue? How can this be repaired?
People seek me out mostly for painful sex post childbirth. Often, it is caused by scar tissue from tearing and surgery. Heat and pressure as well as attuned presence can melt scar tissue.
How important is it to see a pelvic-floor PT specialist after birth?
It should be routine for all women. Until it is, women must make this a priority for short-term comfort and confidence as well as for long-term health.
Is urinary incontinence — known as stress incontinence —normal? Many women still wet their pants years after childbirth – what can they do?
Common but not normal. Nobody has to live with the fear of wetting their pants or actually wetting their pants regularly. Seek help from a physical therapist. It’s about more than just the function of incontinence, it is about the overall health of your pelvic floor and your feeling of self-sovereignty. Your attitude towards sex changes when you don’t feel confident about controlling your bodily functions. Make yourself a priority and take care of this soon!
In your book, The Fourth Trimester, you write: “My reality shifted dramatically… The simple act of walking was so painful that for months I couldn’t make it to the grocery store … For two months, I wasn’t able to sit. It took more than two years for the constant lower back pain, haemorrhoids, and searing pain during sex to ease up.” What do you remember about this period of your life and what life lessons did you learn?
It was very disorienting to be in pain. It was also very disorienting to feel so alone, and to simultaneously understand that this was not just a personal problem but a societal problem. I saw how I would be pushed into a category – “postpartum depression,” and I was depressed, but it was from feeling so alone and so broken, with no solutions in sight. All the lessons I learned are the reason I wrote the book, so that other women could feel that there was at least a lantern in the darkness, someone who had walked the path also, and ideally could show you the hole before you fell in it.
There is education on how to care for an infant but women receive very minimal instructions on how to be cared for themselves – why do so many mothers feel abandoned after they give birth? How can we take better care of mothers?
Most of us have lost touch with extended family networks. We live in an isolated way and believe that being independent makes you stronger and better. We translate those beliefs to motherhood. Most women aren’t used to asking for help. Our culture needs to remember that taking care of women is taking care of our future and our planet. And women need to recognize that slowing down is not weakness. It will actually create more health and strength long term.
You’ve said it’s “an absolute misconception that we can do it all and that we can do it all well”. Can you elaborate on this?
Lives have seasons. Women are suffering because they don’t want to give up any roles they have had, and we are picking up more and more. Women are depleted. Women’s bodies are the site of this disease. We can allow for certain times of our lives, just like fields we might farm, to be more fertile, to be fallow. When we go against the nature of the season, we suffer. The period of postpartum is one for deep quiet and deep rest.
You lead workshops throughout Thailand, Malaysia, Brazil, Portugal and the US on the intersection of women’s sexuality and spirituality – what are some of the biggest challenges/blocks you help your clients overcome?
I have helped them unravel their own sexual scripts and discover their erotic identities. I have helped them through the stages of grief of getting to where they are in life and having had so little support or education or permission for their sexuality and helped them find hope, that there is still time. I help them piece together their spiritual identities, what their religion imprinted upon them with sex, and their current lives. I help them to create something that is more in alignment with their current beliefs. Many women’s minds have changed – for instance, now they believe that masturbation is great, but their bodies still shut down. I help them bring their bodies and arousal into coherence with their thoughts, desires and dreams.
We all strive to be comfortable in our own skin – how can we move towards this daily? As mothers, we’re often so critical of ourselves…
We have to make a decision to have an oppositional gaze from media portrayals of women. We have to practice self-care in limiting time on social media and/or recognize its effect on us. We have to develop an appreciation of what our body can do, not how it looks. We have to move towards a felt sense of living in our body, from our body, accessing that power. Otherwise, we are in a hamster wheel of perfectionism that is never-ending.
“ Our culture needs to remember that taking care of women is taking care of our future and our planet. And women need to recognize that slowing down is not weakness ”
How can you prepare your body for birth – physically, mentally, spiritually?
The most important part of birth preparation is proactively choosing a birth team that is in alignment with your desires. If you want a natural birth, you need to choose a care provider who actively advocates for woman-centred health care. It’s important to spend time with other pregnant people and families. In my book, I share some unorthodox ways to prepare your nervous system vis-a-vis sexuality. The important thing is to make time and space for the changes, to connect with your baby, and to connect and prepare for the postpartum time. It’s also important to give the whole system a chance to ease into the birth process. It’s very hard to work right up to the due date and then have the body smoothly shift gears. I recommend meditation (I like the Expectfull app) and embodied practices, as well as just giving the whole process space, which means not channelling anxiety into purchases and events, but doing some inner work. That inner work often requires a guide. Midwives are great guides.
What are some simple practices and home remedies to facilitate healing and restore energy in women after they have a baby?
Vagina steaming, staying warm, eating warm foods, wearing socks and hats, keeping the neck belly and feet covered, drinking warming teas, minimizing meaningless talk and outside input, creating and maintaining a sanctuary for the first 40 days.
What are some of the complex and often conflicting emotions that arise postpartum?
Elation and grief. Unmet expectations. Unexpected gender roles. The postpartum time will show us the full spectrum of emotion as we experience intense change in a short period of time. Our entire identity shifts. We lose control, and in general, our lives in the West are very manicured – we’ve been able to avoid a lot of discomfort. So for some women, this is the first descent and it is a big and disconcerting one.
What tips do you have for other single mothers? What have been the highs and lows of your journey?
Get financially stable. Prioritize that stability. That took me 10 years and I wish I knew how critical it was earlier. My nervous system is infinitely different since I have had more financial flexibility, and my daughter’s life is better because of it, not because I can offer her more things, but because I am more grounded and less stressed.