Why the French government paid me to play a video game with my vagina


The author and her baby in bed.

The first time I heard about Kegel exercises was in an episode of “Sex and the City” that I saw in my late teens.

After hearing Samantha rave about them, I came away with the impression that their only advantage was to tighten the vagina. And really, I reasoned, it only benefits men.

Turns out there’s so much more to it.

But it wasn’t until I had my first baby that I understood the importance of pelvic floor health. After 28 hours of intense labour, my cervix did not dilate beyond nine centimeters and my planned home birth became a nightmare as I was rushed to hospital in Cannes in the south of France, where I live. I was hoisted onto the delivery bed, surrounded by a team of masked strangers and my husband, James.

Without asking my consent, the midwife performed an episiotomy – an incision in the area between the vaginal opening and the anus – to make room for the baby, and I was asked to push.

With my son’s head and shoulders already out, I started shaking from a fit brought on by eclampsia. My blood pressure skyrocketed and my heart flattened out. After medical intervention, I woke up the next morning alive but traumatized.

After eight days of recovery in intensive care, I was sent home with my son, Oslo, in tow.

I never wanted to go back to this hospital, but during my six-week postnatal checkup, I had no choice. I walked through the automatic glass doors with my heart in my throat and fought back tears as I walked through the maternity ward.

In the small doctor’s office, with no barrier behind which to change, I took off my jeans and underwear, and placed my legs in the stirrups on either side of the examining table.

The 12 episiotomy stitches had healed, but deep-rooted pain and shame remained.

At the end of the examination, the obstetrician gave me a prescription for 10 perineal rehabilitation sessions paid for by the state, which I knew well in French. moms and expats like me swear by postpartum care.

I had no idea what they involved, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want her or any other doctor or midwife to touch me again. Outside the hospital, I looked for a trash can to throw the prescription away.

With the prescription in a pile of garbage and no aftercare at all, I soon realized what can happen when those muscles aren’t strengthened again. I started peeing in my pants. My cravings weren’t funny I have to go now variety. If I had to go, I was going.

There’s nothing quite like trying to acclimatize to a new country while wetting your pants in the middle of the street. I suddenly found myself browsing the feminine hygiene aisle at the local grocery store for adult diapers and pads, at the ripe old age of 27.

Embarrassed to tell my French friends, I called my elders in North America, and to my surprise they had all suffered from poor perineal health after birth. We exchanged stories of our illnesses via text, sending laughing emojis, as each was worse than the other.

A friend revealed that four weeks after giving birth she was struck with extreme pain and felt like her insides were sticking out. An ER doctor told her she had a prolapsed uterus. It happens when the pelvic floor muscles become too weak to provide enough support for the uterus and it slips in or out of the vagina. She was told that it was quite a common occurrence in women after giving birth. We stopped laughing at the stories shared after that.

New mothers have to manage everything from breastfeeding and vaginal recovery to cesarean section recovery and sleep deprivation. But countless other conditions, including painful intercourse, uterine prolapse, constipation, and urinary incontinence, can be prevented with pelvic floor physical therapy.

The more I talked about mothers, the more I discovered that France is one of the rare countries to take the health of the perineum seriously.

Here, rehabilitation has been paid for by the government since 1985. In other countries, including America and Canada, women suffer.

The author with his third child, Sunny.

When I had my second son less than two years after the first, my doctor gave me the same prescription for 10 free perineal rehabilitation sessions, and this time I held on.

After six weeks of healing and with my stitches removed, the midwife said I was ready to start. She used what is called manual training, where she inserted two fingers into my vaginal opening to feel every muscle inside.

She explained that women have nine muscles that attach to the perineum and they weaken after giving birth.

She had me imagine my vulva as a flower, with each petal representing a different muscle, then coached me as I held and contracted each one.

It was weird at first, but after just a few sessions, I could physically feel a huge difference.

After taking the hit, I naturally found myself doing the exercises at home when breastfeeding my baby, changing diapers, or sterilizing bottles.

Over lunch, my expat friends and I shared our stories. A friend said she was told to imagine a ball being sucked into her stomach, then bouncing it from side to side as she released her breath.

Another friend explained that her midwife used the image of a large castle, in which her clitoris was the drawbridge, the labia majora were long velvet curtains, and the moats her anus.

Anything that works.

Although we all used different methods to rehabilitate our perineum, we all agreed on the importance of being taken care of after going through something as upsetting as childbirth.

Now that I gave birth three months ago to my third child, I am back in the rehabilitation period, but this time I am using technology.

I had heard French moms swapping stories in the doctor’s office about a brand new rehabilitation device – a pink electric dildo that measures perineal strength with a video game. Instead of manually measuring my strength, each week my midwife inserts the sensor device and I select which game to “play” from a tablet.

I can be a racing car, a crankbait or a rocket. It’s similar to how I play Mario Kart with my two sons (now ages 4 and 6).

As I race my character around the track, I use my internal muscles to maneuver them around different cyber challenges while squeezing, contracting, holding, and breathing my way through obstacles.

If I have to take my vulva to the gym, it might as well be as fun as possible.

Now that six weeks of rehabilitation sessions are over, my midwife says my pelvic floor health is better than ever (and I no longer need adult diapers).

Even though it’s been almost seven years since I had my first child, when I talk to my North American friends with babies, nothing has changed.

Women are always expected to suffer from the lingering symptoms of childbirth. So while the French method may sound a bit funny, it’s actually quite serious.

“Not peeing your pants for the rest of your life” shouldn’t be a luxury reserved for women who are lucky enough to live in a country that takes postpartum health seriously.


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