By Kimberley Johnson
Kimberly Johnson is a Mama Natural reader who experienced a common postpartum condition that’s rarely talked about: pelvic organ prolapse. Here, she shares a personal story about how she coped with the diagnosis to help other mamas who might be struggling.
Just over nine months ago, my daughter was born. From the outside, it appeared to be the kind of labor and delivery experience that crunchy mamas dream of. She was born in water at a birth center, without any medication or intervention of any kind, after just five hours from start to finish… a far cry from the 20-plus hour endurance event I was told to expect. She was healthy and perfect, and I was so proud of the journey we’d taken together.
After giving birth to my daughter, I felt so fiercely strong and empowered.
I attributed at least a portion of this to the meticulous planning and research I did in preparation for my daughter’s birth.
At the end of my pregnancy journey, I had such confidence in my body’s ability to bring this baby into the world. But as it turns out, I did not emerge from the Herculean feat of childbirth unscathed.
It turns out, no matter how well you prepare, pregnancy and childbirth can bring not only the prospect of aesthetic changes, like stretch marks and extra weight, but previously taken-for-granted functional ones as well, like the ability to carry the child I grew inside me.
Though things felt off right away, I accepted my symptoms as part of the normal post-baby healing process. My midwife reassured me as well, encouraging me to get as much rest as possible. And I did. I loved the idea of a slow postpartum transition. I embraced the slowness of this time, and let my body gently heal.
Though I’d never had a baby before, as a former professional athlete, I know my body well. And so when, by the end of the first month, I still didn’t feel even remotely back to “normal,” I knew something wasn’t quite right. I set up an appointment with both a pelvic floor PT and a urogynecologist, and was officially diagnosed with pelvic organ prolapse, a form of pelvic floor dysfunction that’s a surprisingly common postpartum condition.
Pelvic organ prolapse totally rocked my world…
In an instant, my vision of motherhood was completely upside-down.
The urogynecologist asked me, “Is there anyone who can help you lift and hold your baby?” My eyes welled up with tears. Needing help holding my tiny girl? This was not part of the plan.
There were so many things I was excited for that suddenly felt out of reach, both now and in the future. How could we backpack the Pacific Crest Trail together someday with a 15-pound lifetime lifting restriction?! I felt blindsided and broken, betrayed by a body I’d trusted, a body that had always felt capable and strong.
I wondered why nobody talks about pelvic organ prolapse
For all my careful preparation, the possibility of this type of birth injury was not on my radar at all. No provider or book ever mentioned pelvic organ prolapse.
It seems, for all the ground we’ve gained in feminism and self-love and postpartum body positivity, pelvic organ prolapse is still shrouded in shame and secrecy. Search #takebackpostpartum, and you’ll find a celebration of stretch marks on the outside, but virtually no discussion of the ones that can happen inside—despite the fact that pelvic organ prolapse and obstetric injury occurs in over 10% of first vaginal deliveries and impacts up to 50% of women by middle age.
And whether I could have done more to prevent it
I’ll never know if this could have been prevented, but what I do know is that if even one provider had discussed the potential for and prevalence of pelvic organ prolapse, along with strategies to reduce the risk, I wouldn’t have felt so blindsided and broken.
But this isn’t a story about brokenness, it’s one of hope and strength
Today, I’m active…
At nine months postpartum, I’ve reclaimed many of the pieces that felt lost. I’ve worked with PTs who take a more positive and functional approach to managing prolapse. I’ve learned how to breathe and stand and move in new ways that allow me to hold my baby, carry a backpack to and from campus, and even hike and cross-country ski.
And have a stronger appreciation for my body…
Possibly more profound than my physical progress has been the shift in my own sense of self. Appreciating your body for what it’s capable of, rather than what it looks like—a common body positive anthem—sounds enlightened until you experience loss of function.
Through the experience of pelvic organ prolapse, I’ve learned to live in my body and love myself in a way that transcends function and form. I still think the body is capable of amazing things, but no matter what happens to mine, I’m working to rebuild an identity that doesn’t depend on it.
And when I need an extra ounce of perspective, all I have to do is look at my daughter…
I adore her—my perfect little wrecking ball. When she looks at me with magic in her eyes and sunshine in her smile, I think, “I’d let my bladder hang to my knees for this girl.”
Here’s what I learned through my experience with pelvic organ prolapse
If you can relate to my story—and, unfortunately, I know many women can—I hope these 10 tips, served up straight from the trenches, will help you in your own journey.
1. You are not alone
It might feel like it—I know it certainly did for me—but the reality is, so many women are suffering in silence. I was devastated when I fractured my cervical spine bike racing, but not ashamed. Why is an injury that occurs while enduring one of life’s greatest physical feats—bringing a brand new little person into this world—any different?
2. Stay off Google
It’s a terrible doctor, and an even worse friend. I didn’t know my life was over until Google convinced me it was. And guess what? It’s not! I’m now back to cross country skiing, hiking, and flowing through vinyasa yoga. Plus, I’ve learned to cultivate an identity that does not depend on my body’s appearance or capabilities.
3. Do not be afraid to advocate for yourself, even if it means pushing back against those with more advanced medical degrees
For whatever reason, we’re still living in the dark ages when it comes to certain women’s health issues, pelvic organ prolapse being one of them. I’ve found that the responses and advice I receive tend to fall into one extreme or another—invalidation of symptoms and their functional impact on one end of the spectrum; fear-inducing catastrophizing on the other. Neither one is helpful or accurate.
4. Find and focus on stories of hope
They’re admittedly a bit harder to find (part of why prolapse feels like such a devastating diagnosis), but they exist. Remember: Someone who heals and returns to a full, active life is far less likely to be posting on message boards. What you find online is often a self-selecting sample of those struggling the most. That is not to say that those groups aren’t valuable, or that those women’s stories aren’t just as real. The community I found certainly helped me realize I wasn’t the first young woman to have her bladder make a great escape.
5. Start by shifting your timeline, not your goals.
Prolapse is unlike any injury I’ve experienced. Healing isn’t linear, progress is painfully slow. There isn’t a direct correlation between effort and results.
In the early days following my diagnosis, what kept me up at night wasn’t just the current sense of loss, but the fear that this was forever. That I would never be able to hike long distances again. Never trail run. Never hoist my future three-year-old onto my hip. Over the last few months, I’ve begun to chip away at that fear. One by one, my “off limits list” grew shorter. I’m not yet backpacking, but I no longer see it as being off the table. And when I shifted my timeline, I was able to approach my own healing journey with more gentleness, and I began to be more present in the moments of beauty that still filled my life.
6. Take care of your heart and mind, and seek out the support you need to do so.
This is possibly even more important than the effort you put into your physical healing. For many women, coping with a prolapse diagnosis is incredibly difficult. Our minds and bodies are integrally connected. No matter how many hours we dedicate to physical rehabilitation, the dark rabbit hole of rumination inhibits healing. I’ve experienced significant changes in my physical symptoms since incorporating more mind-body work as a complement to pelvic floor physical therapy.
7. Pelvic organ prolapse is not your fault
You have to let yourself off the hook. I spent far too many hours ruminating over why and how this happened. Whether it happened because I had my foot on the side of the birth pool when I was pushing; whether I should have taken stronger cough medicine instead of natural remedies to ease a harsh cough during the last few weeks of pregnancy; whether I could have truly breathed her out instead of following my body’s intense urge to push.
At the end of the day, I’ll never know what caused pelvic organ prolapse to happen to me. But here’s what I do know: I didn’t have any of the risk factors; I didn’t have an assisted delivery; I didn’t exercise or push it too hard soon after birth. I didn’t even walk around the block for three weeks. I did the best I could, and I still ended up with prolapse. Just like most things in life, you can still do all the right things and have something go wrong.
8. The words we tell ourselves matter
Sometimes subtle shifts in the way we frame things can make a world of difference. You are not broken, you are evolving. It may not feel like it. Any shift may be so slow it’s imperceptible. But through the lens of time, you will find that you are healing, you are growing.
9. Though your body may have changed, you are still YOU
And chances are, there is so much more to you than your physical abilities. During a postpartum period in which I was more physically limited than I ever imagined, I revisited old hobbies that had nothing to do with my strength or endurance. I played my violin, pulled out my watercolors, tried new restaurants with my husband and baby, went on picnics. It turns out, life can look different than you’d planned, and still be full.
10. They say comparison is the thief of joy, and it’s true
I can’t tell you the number of times I started feeling okay, only to open my phone and see photos of fellow mamas sharing trail running adventures or tandem babywearing photos. I’d feel the weight of my own loss come crashing down all over again. Take a break from social media when you need it, and surround yourself with the kind of friends who remind you exactly who you are. (Hint: You are NOT your pelvic floor!) Your version of motherhood will not look like anyone else’s, and someday, maybe you’ll believe that that’s not only ok, but brave and beautiful. Lean into vulnerability, and let this glorious mess unfold.
For more on this common postpartum condition, including signs and symptoms, plus strategies to prevent and treat the condition, check out this explainer.
Do you have pelvic organ prolapse after pregnancy?
How are you coping with the diagnosis and what are you doing to heal? Share your story below and connect with Kimberley through Instagram.