It was at my six-weeks-postpartum appointment that someone in the birth world finally admitted what we all fear to be true: vaginal birth can ruin your vagina, even might ruin it—and, in my case, did. The doc inserted the type of speculum she’d always used on me in the past, then took it back out, turned to the nurse, and said, “The other one.”
“Other what?” I squeaked out, the fluorescent lights suddenly casting an accusatory glow on my splayed legs.
“Oh, I just need the other speculum. Childbirth… changes things.”
YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST.
Here are all the other ways I’d noticed a change. At the gym, I couldn’t tell if I was doing crunches right because I’d lost the mind-body connection between my brain and pelvis. During sex, I’d try to tighten up around the penis (one of my specialties prior to baby) and didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything. I’d stick a finger up there and it felt okay from the finger’s perspective but like nothing from the vagina’s. Sometimes, when I’d laugh or cough or pick my baby up too fast, a little bit of pee would spill out. The last straw came when I peed my pants at Coachella this year, unable to make the trek to port-a-pottys across a mile-wide field after a few glasses of white wine. I remember thinking, “I’m only 37, for fuck’s sake. I can’t live like this.”
So I did what any of us would do: called Brandi Glanville’s vagina repair dude. Brandi—star of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, ex-wife of LeAnn Rimes’ husband—talks about the miracle Dr. Matlock performed on her pussy in her bestselling memoir, Drinking & Tweeting. She took now-infamous revenge on her cheating ex, Eddie Cibrian, by charging the procedure to his credit card. “A brand-new vagina would be an Eddie-free vagina.... I decided that since Eddie had ruined my vagina for me, he could pay for a new one.” Go Brandi. Get it girl.
Dr. Matlock is an OB/GYN who pioneered the procedure in the late ‘90s. You may remember him from early episodes of E!’s Dr. 90210—he’s the doc who operated on his own wife. Matlock initially developed what is now called Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation to cure urinary stress incontinence, but a happy side effect was that it tightens up the muscles and “restores youth” to your hoo-ha. This video, now 10 years old, is a good primer on the surgery:
I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles where he is based, so heading to his Beverly Hills office for a consultation was easy.
Here’s the scene in the waiting room: there are two beige—BEIGE—leather—LEATHER—couches for seating, and framed press clippings cover the walls. Brandi’s book is propped up on the window sill, pertinent pages marked with Post-Its. The first two times I visited, the only other women waiting were in hijabs. One had who I assumed to be her sister and either a brother or brother-in-law with her; both women were draped in black while the dude wore a polo shirt and jeans and talked on the phone the whole time. I overheard the nurse chatting with all three of them about re-hymenization, an even newer procedure that’s being used to re-virginize religious women in order to turn them back into marriage material. As the patient was filling out forms, she came to one that asks if she would allow the doctor to use photos of her procedure for educational purposes. She showed it to her male chaperone and he said “No, absolutely not,” so she didn’t sign it. I got a little sad at this whole scene, but my mood was about to change drastically.
Let me just say that I wish Dr. Matlock were my regular gyno. He had the best bedside manner of anyone who’s ever used a speculum on me: soft-spoken, he gave plenty of warnings before he touched me about where his hands were going and what temperature they would be. He was also surprisingly… light? I don’t know about you, but the majority of my gynecologists have been more on the “brooding” end of the spectrum. We chatted a bit about which procedure I wanted—he does vaginal rejuvenation, labiaplasty, rehymenization, etc. I said I like the look of my shit so don’t mess it up, but that I’d lost feeling and control.
“You’ve had a child, correct?” he asked. “Around 30 percent of women who’ve given birth vaginally have these exact same issues, and we’re going to fix it, okay? It’s going to be better, I promise you.” I was not expecting such a confident diagnosis that quickly. Perhaps, I had feared, my vagina was the only unfixable one on earth. Or perhaps I didn’t injure it during childbirth but instead I had a rare case of vaginal atrophy (a disease I hope I’m making up but I don’t want to Google it to check). But Dr. Matlock was sure he could help and that I’d have a great outcome—boo ya. I only had two decisions to make, said the doc: what kind of anesthesia we’d use, and how tight I wanted to be in the end. (!)
“We can make it like it was just before the baby, go back to 20, 18 or 16. Up to you.”
I chose 18, with a definite uptick in my voice that left other possibilities open. He said he’d take a look and help me decide.
Dr. Matlock did this nice temperature test on my inner thigh with the gel; said things like, “I’m going to touch you here [touches my knee], I’m going to touch you here [lightly taps my thigh], and now I’m going to touch you here [taps my vaginal opening before inserting the speculum].”
It was actually delightful. When he was done, he told me I could sit up, took his gloves off, and said, “Let’s go 16.”
The worst part about how bad childbirth fucked up my vagina was the fact that, to begin with, I hadn’t even necessarily wanted to give birth that way.
The reason I did was this: Five weeks into my pregnancy, I’d gotten a bad pap smear result. Not only did I still have all the HPVs humanly possible, but now something called atypical glandular cells showed up. My doctor called and said she couldn’t tell me what they meant—could be all sorts of cancers or nothing at all, further tests would determine that—but that we could wait 35 weeks until the baby was born to move forward on it.
Apparently, she added, the kind of biopsies I’d have needed couldn’t be performed on a pregnant person, but the kind of cancers I could have were typically slow-growing. (I still can’t believe no one suggested I abort the pregnancy and get that shit taken care of, but that is for another essay.) She presented me with two options: One, if I did end up having some horrible cervical cancer and wanted to have another baby after this one, they could always remove the cancer, implant an embryo in my uterus and sew me shut behind it, a procedure called cervical cerclage. I said, “Nah, I’m cool.” And two, if I could manage to have a vaginal birth, it’s possible I could push all the bad cells out with the baby. Seriously. You shed a lot of tissue giving birth and there was a chance I could flush out whatever was wrong. Challenge accepted.
So I watched The Business of Being Born, I read all the Ina May Gaskin natural childbirth books I could get my hands on. I went to the hippie-dippiest birthing class I could find in Los Angeles. Natural childbirth advocates all tell you generally the same thing, which I’ll sum up here while leaving out all the important scientific info that backs up their claims: if you get an epidural or pitocin (a drug that induces contractions), your chances of having a C-section go through the roof. I did not want a C-section, because I wanted to flush out this possible-cancer by pushing my child through my birth canal, remember?
So I went hard in the natural childbirth paint.
Having a doula has shown to decrease the likelihood of getting an epidural, so I got one of those. (Sort of. She was barely certified, but that’s who I could afford.) Eating seven dates a day increases the chances of going into labor on your own, thus avoiding the pitocin trap, so I got way into dates. Getting acupuncture in the final weeks of pregnancy is also shown to support a natural birth, though when I asked my acupuncturist if I had to believe in acupuncture for it to work, she said, “It helps if you believe.” The repurposed back room of a dance studio on the top floor of a barren strip mall, it turns out, was not the place for me to have a spiritual conversion. Oh well.
Still, when I went into labor at 2 A.M. the night after my due date, I felt pretty positive, like I’d done a good job so far. Then shit got real.
I did all the hippie crap all day—bounced on a yoga ball, had a glass of wine and a bath, labored in the tub, got massaged by my doula, tried to get orgasmic with my partner—and by about 8 P.M. I’d had enough. The contractions were 3-1-1—three minutes apart, one minute long, for one hour—so it was time to head to the hospital. Except when I got there and they examined me, they said I was only 4cm dilated and 70 percent effaced. I almost punched someone, but let out a wail instead. The midwives I’d chosen to see instead of an OB/GYN because of that whole trying to rid my vagina of cancer thing told me I could go home or “lean into the pain” if I wanted to make progress. Maybe I said “LOL, FUCK YOU!” or maybe I just thought it? But I was trapped so I decided to try the leaning in.
For four hours I leaned in as far as I could. Walked the halls, danced in the shower, screamed at everything. And that’s when we all kind of noticed something was awry. I was not getting any relief between contractions; I was in constant, excruciating pain. They said I was experiencing “back labor” and that my baby was in the wrong position. The phrase that kept coming to mind to describe the agony was “I’m shattering.” At one point I wondered to myself, “We’re on the fifth floor. Is that high enough to kill me and the baby or just maim me and kill the baby or just kill me and maim the baby?” That’s when I asked for a progress report. And that’s when Polly, my midwife, told me I’d made no progress since arriving at the hospital. And that’s when I asked for the epidural, 24 hours in.
Seven hours later they manually broke my water. One hour after that I began to push. Three and a half hours later, my daughter finally got in the right position and came tearing through my body. Literally. I tore in three places, requiring over 30 stitches. Pushing that hard for that long apparently wrecks you. Shit got really, really fucked up.
The vaginal rejuvenation procedure itself only takes one hour. As I understand it, they go in and open up all four walls of your vagina using a laser. They trim off some excess tissue and then stitch your muscles up tight and close you back up. I chose general anesthesia, but some people do this under local, which sounded crazy to me—although, so did going under risky general anesthesia in order to have a tighter pussy. I agonized over that part: was I going to Donda myself for this? Well, yes. I like peeing on toilets and having good sex, so, yes. If my daughter grew up without a mother because I flatlined on the operating table, at least she’d know I had my priorities straight.
The day of surgery was pretty chill. My anesthesiologist chatted about the line at Starbucks while he injected me with that first woozy shot. I got pretty high. Then a nurse came in and covered me with a blanket that had hot air running through it. I loved it. Then Dr. Matlock came in and shook my hand and we rolled out to the operating room. I woke up a few hours later still super stoned and I don’t remember much of that first day.
The recovery sucked, though. I had a catheter—that’s right, a tube up my pee hole and a bag strapped to my leg—for five days. It was kind of cool, not thinking about peeing for a week; I just had to remember to empty the bag, which was a little troublesome since I couldn’t feel when I peed, so I had no idea if it was full unless I looked. I was also on Valium and Percocet, making the world very fuzzy (which was awesome). All in all, it was a week before I was really up and around. I couldn’t pick up my toddler, but that was a nice break. She was very sweet about the whole thing, checking on me regularly and bringing me supplies. Brandi said the recovery was worse than childbirth. Dr. Matlock explained that the baby distracts you from the pain so this can seem worse. I disagree with both of them: this was way easier than what I went through with my daughter, probably mostly because of all the cool drugs, but still.
As with childbirth, the recovery is said to take six weeks, but mine has been a little longer. I tend to scar badly, so my perineum is taking awhile to soften up. But Dr. Matlock said in another few weeks he can inject it with a steroid that’ll fix things, if it doesn’t chill out on its own.
“But did it work?” you wonder. Hell yes, it worked.
I haven’t peed my pants even a little bit in the two months since surgery. And I can feel things down there again. I can suck in my stomach and feel it. Crunches are a thing once more. And I hear I’m “tight as fuck” but who cares what anyone else thinks, what matters is that I have a neural connection to my pussy again. It feels wonderful.
You want to know how much this cost and whether insurance covers it, yeah? It’s $10,000—the price of a used car—and no, insurance does not cover it. This is how cool our health care system is: if I just wanted to fix the bladder incontinence part, I’d have to have a pretty severe case for insurance to step in, and then they’d just do some bladder sling or vaginal mesh-type thing that you hear about in radio ads for class action lawsuits. Having scarring from tears during childbirth and atrophied muscles from pushing do not count as real medical issues, but instead are considered cosmetic complaints. Meanwhile, there’s Viagra. Fuck the patriarchy.
But! There are payment plans and credit lines available for those of us who can’t just plop down 10 Gs all at once. It was worth it for me, as worth it as the used Chevy Malibu I bought in 2002. I have no regrets. I’m sure as hell never birthing another child, though.
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Illustration by Tara Jacoby