They cut my vagina with scissors on my daughter’s birth day.
Hours before they cut my vagina, I had a conversation about bicycle saddles with the woman who would later cut my vagina. It feels like a very “me” anecdote, off my head on opiates, sleep deprivation, pain and anxiety, yet still extolling the qualities of Brooks saddles.
A bicycle saddle is one of three touch points between you and your bicycle. A saddle is not a seat. You don’t “sit” on it as you would a chair, depositing all your weight through your bum and thighs. Your public bone arch connects with the saddle, carrying a variable percentage of your body weight, while your general pussy area rests just above the saddle, taking no weight. We talk about saddles, we talk about padded shorts, and we even talk about saddle sores, but it is mostly done in a way that doesn’t acknowledge the intimacy of the subject. Years ago a prospective thief questioned why he shouldn’t rest his hand on my bicycle saddle. (A Brooks B17 S, naturally.) “Because my vagina has been on it for thousands of miles!” I shouted at him. Shouting about vaginas at prospective bike thieves is also probably another very ‘me’ anecdote. You need to “break in” a leather saddle, which is a process of moulding the saddle to the shape of you, but also you getting used to its shape. If you steal my bicycle, you steal a collaborative relationship created over thousands of miles between that saddle and my junk.
Anyway, back to the scissors. The woman who cut my vagina with scissors was, and probably is still, a consultant obstetrician and she was, and hopefully is still, a cyclist.
Unsurprisingly, I did not want my vagina cut with scissors. I experienced labour as a spiralling away from any options and agency. It was a cascade of coerced interventions, with my consent existing only as a technicality. I had been in labour for almost 40 hours by the time the scissors made their appearance. Beforehand, I signed medical paperwork in a fog of opiates, exhaustion, and fear. In a situation where you have no option, and have left the concept of a “sound mind” far behind you, what is the meaning of consent? Shortly after, in the operating theatre, unable to feel anything below my belly button, I watched the scissors being passed to the consultant, felt the cut itself as an abstract tug, then watched them passed back, covered in my own blood. I remember thinking it was like something from a horror film.
I’ve been working on the trauma of my birth experience recently. I’ve semi-anthropomorphised trauma memories as these goblin-type creatures that sit somewhere undefined and inaccessible in your brain, where they can tug on your anxiety strings and viciously insert themselves into your day-to-day thoughts whenever they fancy it. I’ve been engaged in a reclassification and reorganisation process. Hunting down these trauma thought goblins, having a long hard look at the bastards, and then filing them neatly into long-term storage. This involves thinking about things I have been actively not thinking about for two years. Like those fucking episiotomy scissors. In my memory, they are the size and shape of garden shears but having just googled them to check the right terminology, they actually look like a non-descript medical scissor. Less an a tenner on eBay, though my internal snob hopes the ones they used on me were more pricey.
Through this process, which is called Prolonged Exposure Therapy, I have found a gentle ambivalence about my episiotomy and, it’s equally unpopular friend, forceps. It is the part of my labour that reads like a horror novel, bloody scissors and clamps that left marks on my tiny daughter’s head, but I have discovered that most of my trauma stems from the medical neglect and coercion I experience at the hands of midwives in the run up to scissor time. My labour experience was psychologically damaging, but that final medical intervention was actually quite straightforward. I’ve been picking apart the guilt and shame for the last two years. Fighting the feeling that the reason I had to have medical interventions is because I’m fat, weak, and pathetic. I didn’t do the hypnobirthing hard enough. My mother outright suggested that it was because I’m fat, proving that the old tunes are the hardest to rid ourselves of. But my medical records show that my daughter was in the wrong position for an intervention-free vaginal birth, she was two weeks overdue and in the 98th percentile, and no amount of weight loss, pelvic floor exercises and mindful breathing would have prevented things going the way they did. I was a fucked up mess when we got to scissor time, but it seems as though my cycling consultant obstetrician did a good job with those scissors. The cuts were precise, the forceps gently turned my child, and even though I couldn’t feel the muscles I used to push, those muscles did push my baby out. At this point I was too deranged to understand that my baby’s lack of penis meant she was a daughter, but I was happy for my labour to be over and for my child to be safely in the world.
It took me five weeks to cycle again.
I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about the 30-odd hours I was in labour, but not so much about those five weeks. At first, I hurt so much that I couldn’t believe I was OK. I couldn’t look at my cut up, stitched up perineum and grazed labia, but was so sore I asked almost every midwife who came through the door to look at them. Something must be wrong. The helplessness of having to show your vagina to, and relying on reassurance from, the profession who’s fuck ups had left you traumatised was awful in itself. I had flashbacks sitting in baths of salt and tea tree, I cried watching lochia spiral down the shower drain, I had disturbing nightmares when I fell asleep with my baby. Those weeks were relentless. I cared for my baby while broken with exhaustion, and I cared for my scissored genitals while being unable to touch or think about them clearly. Not to mention a hellish three weeks of triple feeding, pumping breast milk every 2-3 hours. I thought I would never cycle again.
Matrescence is the motherhood equivalence of adolescence, a process of resolving who the fuck you are now you have responsibility for a child. While I am still figuring out motherhood, I look back on those weeks like some heroic battle. Like the episode of Battlestar Gallactica where the fucking Cylons keep turning up every 33 minutes. My partner wisely insisted on buying a Croozer trailer, and on a Saturday around five weeks after my daughter’s birth we gently cycled to the local park. He towed the trailer, I just focused on cycling. I remember being acutely aware of how my arms and core held my body above the bicycle, the way my pubic bones engaged with the saddle, and how my still sore vagina rested on it.
Cycling is just cycling. It’s just a thing we do. The difference between who we are and what we do is a theme of many therapy sessions. But cycling is how I transport myself – and now my daughter – through the world, come what fucking may. I am still angry that my repeated questions about a cesarean section and my fears of an intervention heavy birth were ignored, and that I was coerced into a long traumatic labour full of hormones and drugs, but I’m pragmatic that the outcome – the consultant obstetrician with the excellent scissor work – was probably the best for me, my body and my return to the bicycle saddle.
If you are struggling with a shitty birth experience, I would urge you to consider talking to your GP about what psychological help is available and contacting your hospital’s PALs service to arrange a debrief. It’s not been a magic bullet for me, it’s been incredibly tough at times, but it has helped. The anger and sadness about some of the treatment I received during my pregnancy and labour remains, but the Prolonged Exposure CBT process has helped me clarify some of the experience that was previously difficult to think about, as well as declawed the worst of the intrusive thoughts and negative feelings. Reconciling and connecting to my postpartum self and body is still a work in progress.