It started with a cough. A deep, hacking cough that shook my entire body, right to my core.
I coughed for months—straight through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. My bronchitis sounded worse than it felt, with one horribly embarrassing exception: every time a cough took me by surprise, a drop of pee did the same. By the second week, I wasn’t very surprised, and I had learned to cock my hip and subtly shift my weight whenever I felt a cough about to explode through my chest.
This is not fine, I thought.
My pelvic floor had been weak ever since I gave birth to my first son seven years earlier. He was tangled up in his own umbilical cord, and it took me six hours and the help of a fetal vacuum to push him out. At the time, I remember feeling very grateful I had been able to finish the job without a C-section, but in the months that followed, as I started trying to get back in shape, I realized I could no longer run without peeing. Not any distance. Not even if I limited liquids and took care of business before I set out. I guessed that the strain of pushing for so long had permanently stretched things down there. So much for the expensive jogging stroller. The loss of control wounded my pride so badly, I simply gave up running.
But, to tell the truth, I wasn’t that worried. Giving up running wasn’t a huge loss for me. We could walk to the library just as easily as run there, and I wouldn’t even have to get sweaty.
I thought I could just ignore my problem and it would fade into the background. I thought it was isolated and it wouldn’t affect how I lived or enjoyed my family.
Almost seven years later, I finally realized I couldn’t pretend my pelvic floor weakness into oblivion. It had followed me through two more births, and quite suddenly and unexpectedly became an issue that consumed almost every waking thought. I started wearing pantyliners to go on hikes and I would ask my husband to chase after our toddler when she tried to escape. I no longer trusted my body to perform the most basic function, and no amount of Kegels seemed to get me anywhere.
I cautiously brought up the subject with friends, who all agreed that sneezing is the worst. One well-meaning older lady told me that sex was the answer, and another told me I could just have surgery and forget about it.
Even as I nodded along, I didn’t feel reassured. I suspected my problem was worse than they imagined. I was beginning to grasp its magnitude, and I was afraid.
When I googled my symptoms, I learned that I had “stress incontinence.” Yikes. That sounds like a problem for a nursing home, not a 30-something mama chasing after toddlers. But if it had a name, then surely I wasn’t alone. Surely there was some way to find healing, some way I could cooperate with my own body again.
After months of anxiety, someone handed me the name of a physical therapist. “She’s great!—she can tell just by how you stand and walk what exercises will help,” my friend assured me. “She worked wonders for me.”
I showed up to my first physical therapy appointment wearing heeled booties, skinny jeans, and makeup. I care about my image, and I was about to tell a stranger that I also wet my pants sometimes. As I peered into the therapy room and spotted all the sneakers and leggings, I realized with chagrin that it had been so long since I’d trusted my body, I didn’t even own the right clothes to freely move around.
My therapist, a friendly and energetic woman, laughed at my boots and told me to stop apologizing so much. She didn’t bat an eye when I poured out my most embarrassing secret (and her subsequent questions made me realize I still had a lot to be grateful for). When I asked her with tears in my eyes whether I was ever going to feel comfortable in my body again, she told me something I won’t soon forget.
“Melissa, we can work on this. Your brain has forgotten how to connect to your pelvic floor. Those muscles are stretched out, but we are going to make them strong. We are here to remind your body what to do.” She told me that eventually, if I kept working on it, my body would remember how to hold itself together again.
“Are my knees supposed to hurt?” I asked her a few minutes later as I lay on my back with my feet on a chair and a kickball between my knees, crunching all the air out of my lungs. She assured me I was doing exactly what I was supposed to do, that my knees are connected to my adductors and my adductors are connected to my hips; everything is actually connected to everything else (just like the song says!)—even my stress levels.
I had been compensating for my lost strength by using every other part of my body in strange ways, so every part would have to learn to work differently—even my knees.
I was doubtful as I shoved my feet back into my leather booties and left. I had a new trick, but I wasn’t sure it would matter. Consistency has never been my strong suit; I’ve tried a few “miracle” programs before and never managed to stick to them. What if I can never reconnect with this part of my body I’ve neglected for so long? What if all my bad habits are too ingrained for me to overcome them?
I missed two days of exercises that week. It was hard for me to work a new routine into the hectic rhythm of my days at home. As I lay on my bedroom floor at midnight and attempted to repeat the simple exercise, curving my lower back down to the carpet and breathing out until my lungs ached for fresh air, I reminded myself to keep trying, that doing something is better than nothing.
I wish I could say I was all better after a week.
I wish I could say I don’t have to worry about my pelvic floor anymore. But I’m still working on it.
Connection (and especially reconnection) can be hard work. Sometimes it is uncomfortable, and sometimes a false start makes me want to give up in despair. But I can’t assume a real connection will happen without a deep investment, or without affecting every other part of my life. Just like any relationship I’ve ever had, forging a bond is slow and requires my persistence. No matter how much I want it when I start out, it won’t become second nature instantaneously.
I have to put in the time.
Melissa Hogarty is a habitually overwhelmed mama who is learning to slow down and sometimes say no. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and three kids, who regularly teach her that she has more to learn in the areas of grace, patience, and letting loose. She can often be found cuddled up with a good novel or pulling cookies out of the oven. Melissa is an editor and regular contributor at Kindred Mom and a member of the Exhale creative community. She enjoys singing with her church worship team and fellowshipping with other moms. She also writes a personal blog, Savored Grace, where you can find recipes as well as ideas about motherhood and faith, and occasionally updates her Instagram.