When sex is a step too far...
I love my body. Say a few women. I love my postnatal body. Says no one that I know.
Not immediately anyway. Even if they're amazed by what life it's held and nurtured.
Female bodies can feel like leaky vessels. Whether it’s a period leaking unexpectedly or flooding when you least need it. Or the postnatal lochia bleeding from where the placenta came away. Or the let-down reflex soaking your top with breastmilk, female bodies can feel leaky and out of control.
I really appreciate my body for the two daughters it has grown. But even 7 years after my second child was born, I’m still aware that my belly and bellybutton do not look the same as they did. Most of the time I’m ok with that, but some days I’m not.
It’s very hard when you’re bombarded with air brushed images of unrealistic perfection. Although there are photos that circulate on social media of real postnatal bodies (e.g. some amazing images on Birth-Ed on Instagram) or in magazines (my favourite parenting magazine Juno has had some great photo stories), they are a tiny fraction of what we see.
The story we’re fed by airbrushed celebrities is that postnatal bodies snap back into shape. The NHS talks about two years and Chinese medicine of 5 years to regain balance in our bodies after carrying a child.
Most days I feel very grateful to have a body that lets me live my life, moving around, teaching yoga, hugging my family, but I often feel tired in that same body too. Mixed feelings towards your body are normal.
Recently, sex has been coming up in conversations with women in my community a lot.
All sorts of physical symptoms can make sex difficult or put you off trying.
Tight pelvic floors, tissue fusing from conditions like lichen sclerosis, itching from thrush or bacterial vaginosis, and postnatal issues like over-scarring after tears or episiotomies, or slow healing. Pelvic pain or heaviness during pregnancy can make sex the last thing that you want. Incontinence and prolapse may mean women are embarrassed or scared to try to make love. Or vaginal dryness as oestrogen decreases during menopause.
Stress and exhaustion are massive factors in not wanting intimacy.
Postnatal rage comes up commonly as mums go back to work and find that with juggling a job and family life, there is no time left for self-care. It may be at particularly times of the menstrual cycle that the rage flares up, but whenever it appears it’s not conducive to being intimate. Postnatal rage is just as real as postnatal depression.
Sometimes there is trauma that makes a good body image challenging or feel impossible. There can be so many little traumas that build up over time, like feeling vulnerable during a smear test, or big events such as sexual abuse.
All this can make life difficult when we want to show our partners that we love them.
The body is not failing you when you find that you can’t or don’t want to have sex. The body and mind are trying to keep you safe.
At a basic biological level, the body may be trying to stop you reproducing because it knows that you don’t have the reserves to carry another child.
In your state of exhaustion or fear, even if subconsciously, your intelligent body is trying to protect you.
There's not something wrong with you for not wanting sex. Your body is trying to tell you something.
So what can you do in these situations?
Something can be done about all that I’ve written about above. You don't have to be on your own thinking about this. Living with it.
First, make time for self-care, communicate and find other ways to be intimate.
If you’re running on empty, it’s unlikely you’ll want to be intimate.
Prioritising your self-care might mean you have to lower your expectations in other areas of your life, like housekeeping. Sometimes it might feel like there’s an endless list of tasks to do, but remember that if you take a little time out, you’ll be more productive afterwards and feel less overwhelmed. Delegate in the house or externally if you can.
Communicate how you feel rather than assume that your partner knows. If it’s hard to say directly or find the time to talk about it, perhaps write it down in a letter or a text. It might be easier to organise your thoughts and feelings ahead of time.
Communicate with other women who you trust about how you feel about your body rather than use social media as a benchmark and to set your expectations. You’ll most likely find that your feelings are really common. A Red Tent is a women’s circle where we honestly talk about all aspects of life, including our female bodies. It’s very reassuring to hear that we have the same worries, and be heard.
I suggest changing expectations of how to be intimate when you are struggling. Take full intercourse off the table (or off the bed – you know what I mean!!) and create a space for being together. Cuddling while watching a comedy or feel good movie while phones are in another room can be a good start.
If you’re busy parenting and passing like ships in the night, creating space to simply catch up can be all it takes to feel witnessed and validated in all that you’re carrying.
Just being really seen and heard is what a lot of women really want, I believe. Emotional connection first, physical connection second.
Second, you may need support to achieve this. I work with a mixture of wonderful colleagues from a reflexologist and homeopath who has great success with conditions like lichen schlerosis and bacterial vaginosis, to specialists in internal massage for tight pelvic floors and over scarring. I am the queen of helping women to identify what self-care to put into place to work with their cycle, whether through menstrual medicine circles, period / cycle 121 mentoring, and group courses. (‘Queen of helping women’ sounds better than ‘The Period Lady’ haha).
Let me signpost you to support. Don’t put up with this silently.
We expect so much of our bodies.
Too much sometimes for how we treat them.
Our bodies are not convenient fleshy vessels to order around, but incredible, intelligent, sensitive forms through which we experience life with all its ups and downs, traumas and pleasures.
You have every right to want to move towards feeling pleasure in and about your body.
I'd love to hear which bit of this resonated with you.
Stuck in a rut? Sick to your gut? Time for a transformational conversation.
"You probably won’t agree with me, but wouldn’t you feel better if you did that?”
“What would a happy ending look like to you?”
I know which question would help me move forward and feel like I was going to be supported in my decision rather than judged.
Can you remember a conversation over the last week that didn’t go well? Maybe it left you feeling unheard, confused or downright angry. Most likely there was some misalignment between how you saw something and how the other person did: a reality gap. They might not have even realised that your perspectives didn’t align or just weren’t interested in understanding your view. When you boil it down, this kind of conversation leads to a feeling of disconnect.
As human beings we’re social animals and research shows again and again that we would put belonging before physical safety. Feeling disconnected hurts as much as physical pain. Or feeling rejected – remember the first time someone ever said they didn’t want to go out with you? Big ouch!
The problem is that conversations can be hard to navigate.
Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It’s common knowledge now that a lot of communication is nonverbal: 7% words, 38% tone and 55% non-verbal to be precise.* Within seconds, we are subconsciously deciding whether this is person makes us feel safe or unsafe.
Or how this particular conversation makes us feel safe or unsafe. This might also be our best friend or life partner that we trust, but in a conversation that makes us feel unsettled. If we’re broaching a difficult topic or something that you know you have different perspectives on, the flight, fight, freeze or appease reaction might kick in before you know it. For our basic animal self, there’s no in-between, no grey area, simply safe or unsafe.
If we decide that the conversation feels unsafe, our defences will go up and our amygdala (the oldest part of the brain) will go into overdrive, activating the limbic area (that stores old memories) and when the brain remembers similar hurts and threats, distrust is generated even more. When cortisol is released it has a 26-hour shelf life in your body, meaning that the effect of the conversation will last long after the encounter is over.
I also know people who are addicted to being right. (Not me. Obviously. Haha.) When someone feels they’ve scored a point or won someone around to their viewpoint they get a dopamine hit. They can actually get addicted to the release of that chemical. Testosterone and adrenaline are also elevated so that they feel pumped. Cue Rocky music.
The problem is that when we feel threatened, we go into protect mode, whereas when we trust the conversation there is an opportunity for growth and connection.
That is a pretty major statement right there that we can take into any life situation, whether at home, at work or at play. Even if it’s subtly and subconsciously happening, when someone is trying to convince you of their perspective, it’s most likely you’ll distrust them and disconnect.
“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart… Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens” wrote Carl Jung.
When we want to have a good outcome from a conversation, we can start by taking a truthful look at our intentions first. If you’ve already pre-decided where to go on holiday, you will be focusing on influencing the other person rather than openly listening and deciding on an option that suits both of you. At some level, subconsciously or consciously, depending on how skilled you are at manipulation (ouch again, just telling the truth), the other person will pick up on this.
We can be aware of both the intention we have for the conversation and the impact on the other person. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of having a really good gossip (I know you’re not usually one for gossiping) and enjoyed the close connection with that person while you were doing it, only to feel a bit yucky afterwards. Although the main intention was to connect with this person here with us right now (yay success), the impact may be that you both wonder if the other’s going to gossip about you elsewhere (not so nice).
Nurturing talk is an art, but can be supported by clear groundrules.
This is why Red Tents and other women’s circles can generate a different kind of talk and atmosphere: a place for safe and nurturing conversations. This is possible because the ‘rules of engagement’ (which sounds like a knights duel) are spelled out. At the beginning of a Red Tent, I share how we are creating a safe space where everyone is aiming to be non-judgemental, open-minded, keeps what they hear confidential and takes responsibility for their feelings. Taking responsibility means that they ask for support or clarity if they’re feeling unheard or misunderstood.
We do a lot of listening to women’s experiences and feelings, rather than immediately responding with our own experience or a solution. Then as a group we are in coherence (in sync, connecting and bonding). Being in coherence with others actually affects your heart’s electrical patterns; we feel trustful, oxytocin flows, and we feel understood. And there is nothing in the world as good as that!
This is not just useful in Red Tents, but also corporate business. Judith Glaser is an organisational anthropologist who coaches CEOs to make them and their companies conversationally intelligent.* She moves them from a tell/ask level of information exchange to a share/discover level of co-creating that enables brands to make creative leaps.
Of course, there will always be conversations that don’t go well. The best you can do is step away for a break from the conversation and do something like get a warm drink or have some fresh air to break the stress cycle. In the Red Tent, I might suggest that we get a refresh of our drinks if there’s a feeling of discordance that feels like it’s increasing and not resolving.
There’s research from Yale university that if you feel warm (whether from the room’s temperature, a soft cosy chair rather than a hard one, a hot drink or physical contact including a simple handshake) you will evaluate a situation better and be more altruistic. The physical sensation and emotional feeling of warmth is regulated by the same part of the brain.
So you can prime a conversation to go better by thinking about the environment. Hence why women’s circle are circles. Not power over, but power with. Many workplaces are moving away from rectangular tables with the senior person at the head end of the table in favour of circular tables or moving to soft chairs next to each other rather than opposite. This generates a feeling of co-operation, openness, transparency, togetherness, respecting others views, and trust.
The two most powerful human needs are belonging and having a voice.
A lot of people who rather push their opinion or new idea down, than risk being an outsider. To have a voice, somebody needs to listen. With the next conversation you have, see if you can do more listening than usual. See how your nervous system responds to the conversation. Try to really listen to what they’re saying than hearing through the filter of your previous experiences. Try not to listen with ‘threatened ears’. Ask for time to be listened to with an open mind once you’ve given the other person that gift.
When you trust someone, you can also have the most transformational conversations because even when you feel the conversation is going into territory that makes you feel uncomfortable, you know that they won’t judge you for exploring a different way of feeling or being, or voicing what you’re been scared to voice for fear of their reaction.
I love creating space for someone to feel safe in what they want to explore.
Whether you want to
*connect with your cycle and put more sustainable self-care into place,
*move from a feeling of being stuck to discovering your truth and passion,
*take your business to the next level by discovering and aligning your goals and self-worth,
I can work with you in a heart-centred approach through transformational conversations and holding space for breakthroughs by honouring your own wisdom and intelligent mindbody.
When you feel safe, you can risk sharing your best ideas and make them a reality. When you feel accepted and valued, you can connect to something bigger and channel the ideas that will transform someone else’s life and maybe even the world.
Or just book a holiday that everyone enjoys.
[*Judith Glaser (2016) Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. Routledge.]
So are you too much or not enough?
I bet at some point in your life you’ve been told either that you’re too much (too loud, too opinionated, too fat, too showy, too out there…) or not enough (not speaking up enough, not pretty enough, not clever enough). You may even have been told you’re too much AND not enough by different people. Or the same person at different times! The truth is, you can’t please everyone. Whilst that’s a truism, why is it that we still try so hard to be liked by everyone? What I really want to know is: do you please yourself? And how do we do that in times of uncertainty when everything feels out of our control?
Most teachers value imagination in children. Not my teacher when I was eight years old. I had written a detailed story about lions and elephants, and the teacher called my mum over at the end of school to say (with an eye roll), “Tessa, has an inflated imagination. This was supposed to be a story about a real experience.” Can you be too imaginative? Thanks to my mama bear defending me, my love of writing was unharmed. But a need to rein in my experiences for fear of others disbelieving me was born. We had not long returned from Malawi, living half an hour from safari heaven.
I wonder if you can think of defining moments when you were a child that changed how you presented yourself to the world? A moment when you were made to feel that you were too much: taking up too much space and should just make yourself a little smaller to be ok (or safe). Or a moment when you felt that you were considered lacking in some way and not worthy to be considered an equal, and so should just stay small and out of the way. It may be that you’re a highly sensitive person (like me) and are much more affected by these moments than others in your family or friendship group seem to be. How can we build resiliency, particularly in times of uncertainty when it’s not clear what is needed to be safe in life?
As is often the case, the answer is: it depends. I don’t want to give you four top tips for how to be comfortable with uncertainty and how it’s manifesting for you. That would be disingenuous. What I want to suggest is that we need space to be present with the uncertainty. Space to feel what effect it’s having on our physical and mental health, and what might help. Then we can find our way to what will nourish us and keep the ship steady through the storm. If your livelihood is threatened, it’s tempting to work all the hours that Goddess gives us. However, without downtime to rest, we will become less productive in the longer term. Burying your head is ok for ostriches (I never saw one of those in Africa), but will mean that you miss opportunities to adapt to the new situation.
Personally, space to decompress comes in the form of yoga nidra (a relaxation technique – check out an amazing resource here). Uncertainty tends to make me physically tired and overwhelmed by nervous system overload. When I’m listening to a yoga nidra track, I am resting my body, not on social media or listening to news, and have a chance to totally switch off. Another form of spaciousness for me is going for a walk in nature, and specifically ‘shinrin-yoku’ (森林浴): taking in the forest atmosphere. I’m then reminded by humans’ insignificance in the history of the universe and that melts away the overwhelm. I admire the magnificent oak trees and get over myself! This fits with my values that one species is not more important than another.
I live on a road that leads to a cemetery. Some people might not buy a house on such a road, but I like it. I’m not a horror or vampire fan (far from it, remember my inflated imagination and sensitive nervous system?!), but I do appreciate a reminder of the inevitable cycles of life. When my daughters were babies, I used to walk around the graves in the hope of settling them into an overdue nap and found that the engravings would put the most taxing day into perspective. We do ourselves no favours from hiding death in everyday life. A practice of gratitude is another way I create space in times of uncertainty. These things work because they fit with my physical, mental and spiritual make-up.
Finding others that share your values or your traits helps tremendously in not feeling alone with uncertainty. The Red Tent that I host has created a sisterly community where I feel totally accepted, and there are other forums online that provide a nurturing camaraderie like the Commit to Kindness Facebook group. I have had a Listening Partnership for three years and know that I can say anything, absolutely anything to this woman who is also sensitive by nature, even though not all of our values align. We are committed to non-judgement and the process of deep listening and witness. I have found a tribe through these different mediums.
You are a unique tapestry. Only you can do you. You might agree that you are a bit too much of something and not enough of something else. As long as these are not projected onto us, we can accept that we are a combination of quirks, passions, ennuis, life experiences and values that will thrill some and turn off others. Yes, I get too swept up into an idea without knowing all the facts. (It drives my husband crazy) but that’s me. No, my house is not tidy enough that I know where everything is. That’s ok.
We can own this tapestry and know that this is what we have to share with our families and friends, our community, and beyond. With those who have enough commonality with us, to get us. Our own unique story will also hold the key for how to cope with uncertainty at this moment in time – your way. If your way to channel is uncertainty is rage, you will need to find a way to express that safely. If it is despair, a process to move through it and towards hope.
We don’t have to be made to feel wrong or a failure by experiencing the pandemic differently, or not finding the well-meaning advice of others doesn’t help. Recognising your personal weaving of the many threads that make you you is also the route to finding meaning and self-expression. I'm not going to rein in my experiences for fear of others disbelieving me anymore.
I want to hear your story because nobody else can tell it.
Why mothers are not always right
Have you ever had a transition in your life? Gone through puberty, left home, started a job, moved in with flatmates? Maybe become a mother, been made redundant, retired, bereavement? Of course you have – change is a part of life. These transitions affect our sense of who we are and form our identity.
For some of these transitions tailored support is given, like with the increasing number of workshops for mothers and daughters preparing for menarche (the first period) or employers who offer work-to-retirement workshops. But for so many changes I hear you say, “What support?”
When I became mum to baby Zara, I felt nobody had prepared me for how the responsibility would change me. In the middle of the first night at home with this little being, it felt like I had been pushed off from the harbour wall in a little boat towards an immense ocean with no way of navigating. I was no sailor and I was no mother, yet. From being an academic researcher having intellectual discussions on a tight schedule to a knackered mum wondering how I couldn’t get out of the door before 10am, it felt bloody challenging some days. I was a mother, but it hadn’t landed fully in my psyche. Why did I feel like I was grappling with something shapeless?
I wondered then, “Why don’t we have a map for how to make sense of the big life transitions?” I will share four stages of transformation that can be applied to any life event, from the perspective of somatic experience. I’m going to use the process of becoming a mother – matrescence* - as an example because it’s one of the biggest changes in our lives: when we are responsible not only for ourselves, but another little human being, we’re in for a journey you won’t forget.
Although millions are spent every year on antenatal courses to prepare for the birth itself, the emotional part of becoming a mum is often overlooked. The shift in identity is usually realised retrospectively when the dust has settled. What if we could shine a light on the process to make the different feelings recognisable and potentially less unsettling? If we don’t know how to navigate change, we can feel confused at best, and sick at worst.
Change goes through four stages according to Richard Strozzi-Heckler of the Strozzi Institute for Somatic Coaching: current historical stage, the open unbounded stage, the new shape and an embodiment into the new shape. I’ll unpack those terms in a moment, but they point to the fact that transformation takes time and takes you through an undefined, uncertain phase. This could be exciting if it was setting off on a backpacking adventure or starting a new job that you’ve been working towards.
Interview with Sarah O'Mahoney
In this conversation, Sarah and I talk about where the idea for our books came from, the writing process and publishing decisions. We had technical issues so went back to the written word! I know, old school!!
Making Pink Lemonade & Ruby Luna's Curious Journey
Both of these books deal with periods and normalising menstrual cycles. Making Pink Lemonade is in a diary format for 9+ girls and Ruby Luna's Curious Journey is an illustrated book with fun actions on each page for 5+ year old children.
Cyclical Wisdom for Birth (1): Surrender
One of the most fundamental processes of birth is surrender. This is not a popular word today because it has connotations of weakness and handing over power to another in our culture. But what if our habit of controlling and doing is derailing the natural unfolding of birth? This is the first in a series of blogs where I will share with you how cyclical wisdom can help us prepare for pregnancy and birth.
12 minute video of four postures encouraging us to slow down, be present and surrender to the magic of our bodies.
You will need a pile of cushions or pillows, a chair and a belt.
[Please read the description below the video on YouTube for modifications where there is pelvic pain.]
Menstrual Medicine Circles for Menopause
You may have heard me talking about MMCs, but what on earth are they? I talk to my dear friend and colleague Kate Codrington about how she specialises in using this amazing process for women who are journeying through menopause. She can be found at www.katecodrington.co.uk.
I focus on cycling women, those who are pregnant and wishing to become pregnant. I charge £40 a session.