When I told my mom group that I was seeing a vaginapractor, I used a knowing, can-you-believe-what-I-just-paid-for-cold-pressed-lettuce? tone. We all laughed in that way where noise emits from your mouth but your eyes don’t crinkle.
“Like a pelvic-floor specialist?” asked one.
“That sounds expensive,” stated another.
“Does your vagina even crack?” asked someone else.
“Mine sure did,” said more than one.
I’ve known this group for about ten months now, since our babies were freshly hatched. The fourth trimester, they call it: a time when night bleeds into day and you wake up from sleep that’s not sleep, drenched with panic and often still bleeding. A time when you’re reeling from the anesthesia and the pain, the cutting and the tearing, the stretching and the stitching. A time when, no matter how you gave birth or became a mother, you rock your baby, feed your baby, bounce your baby, burp your baby. A time when, weary from lack of sleep and too much blood loss, you welcome visitors to sit down but are often unable to do so yourself.
It was during this time I learned that many of us had something in common beyond our babies’ birth month: a newfound fear of wetting ourselves when we sneezed.
Kimberly Ann Johnson welcomes me into a loftlike, white-walled studio space in Brooklyn with a soft, calm smile. I don’t know what I expected: Perhaps a glassier stare? An outfit of mysteriously flowing linen? A naval piercing on display? A Goddess tattoo displayed prominently in white ink on her sternum? A tan, a middle part?
This is my first vaginapractor appointment, scheduled within weeks of my son’s first birthday. For nearly 12 months, I’ve been clenching, steering clear of dander and dust, popping vitamin C like M&M’s to prevent a runny nose, afraid to cough lest I need to change myself as well as my son.
Johnson is both a vaginapractor and the creator of MAGAMAMA (an unfortunate term in the age of Trump; in Portuguese, maga means sorceress), a collective dedicated to helping new mothers pass through the postpartum window “more radiant, healthy, and whole.” She looks just like my mom friends. Only a little more certain.
There is no one else in the room — and it is just the one room. No waiting area, no desk, no sign-in. Natural sunlight, no music, not even wind chimes or Enya, just a stillness. With the exception of the Rolfing table close to the far wall, nothing about the space seems medical. Johnson sits on a daybed, inviting me to sit beside her. I know she has a fully booked day, but she seems in no hurry.
Johnson calls herself a vaginapractor, a Goop-esque term coined to describe her specific combination of sexological bodywork and somatic-experiencing trauma resolution. In laywoman’s terms? Johnson massages her clients’ genitals to release pelvic tension and calm the nervous system. While she offers her holistic pelvic-care work to women of “all walks of life” (who can afford the $300-a-session price tag), Johnson feels most drawn to postpartum women. A former yoga instructor, she found her calling following the birth of her daughter.
“My reality shifted dramatically,” Johnson describes in her new book, The Fourth Trimester. “The simple act of walking was so painful that for months I couldn’t make it to the grocery store … For two months, I wasn’t able to sit. It took more than two years for the constant lower back pain, hemorrhoids, and searing pain during sex to ease up.”
While her Google searches yielded plentiful results for postpartum depression, therapy and prescription meds weren’t exactly what Johnson was looking for. It was upon being told that she would need a full surgical pelvic-floor reconstruction that Johnson vowed to not only heal herself completely without going under the knife, but to also help other women after she did.
Now I am one of those women: naked from the waist down, lying flat on my back, legs open. Johnson kneels in the open space between them, pressing on my pelvic bones. She is gentle and careful, but purposeful in her touch. She waits, asking me if I feel my legs.
What do my legs have to do with it? Everything, it seems. Once sensation returns, she says, we can begin. Now with her hands gloved in black latex, Johnson gives me an option: She can cup my vulva, or I can while she covers my hand with hers. I’m frozen in place so I let her do all the work. She cups her hand and places it between my legs and waits until I breathe again.
Johnson continues giving me choices, talking me through what she is doing next to make sure I’m not taken by surprise as her fingers enter my vagina and start to massage. She says I can look her in the eyes, but I don’t do that. That’s too much. The rest is okay, though. Fine, actually. Like a deep-tissue massage on a crick in the neck, a vagina massage postpartum is, oddly, not an entirely unpleasant sensation.
After another moment or two, Johnson asks me to talk about labor. It was fine, I tell her. I mean, it hurt a lot. But the doctors weren’t worried. The machines I was connected to never once indicated fetal distress. My son was born safe. Johnson is silent for a moment before her simple statement.
“Talk about the bare minimum.”
When I was pregnant my husband and I went to one childbirth class. Knowing what could happen before or during labor seemed important. We didn’t think to ask what happens afterward. I was proud of myself for thinking I wasn’t arrogant. For acknowledging the correct protocol — it was my job to grow a baby and then someone who went to medical school would deliver him whole and intact. Coming home after two days in the hospital, with my healthy son, was a privilege. The fact that I felt torn apart seemed like a minor detail.
It was six weeks before my doctor saw me again. Six weeks with a newborn who doesn’t know the difference between night and day. My OB/GYN gave me a questionnaire and a physical. My stitches, despite the degree of tearing, looked good. He was pleased. I was recovering. Fifteen minutes later, I was given the all clear for exercise and sex. As I pulled up my sweatpants he asked me what I planned to use for birth control. I pointed to my son in the nurse’s arms: “His name is Daniel.” The doctor smiled politely. It was a punch line he’s heard many times from women who aren’t joking.
Johnson has spent years studying the fourth-trimester approach, absorbing the “lying in” rituals and care for postpartum women in countries like India, Korea, Turkey, and Brazil. She refers to this same postpartum period as the “black hole of women’s health” in the United States.
“There is education on how to care for an infant but women receive very minimal instructions on how to be cared for themselves,” says Johnson. “No matter how they give birth, all women need a visit (or many) with a pelvic-floor PT specialist. Muscle tone and strength need to be checked, as does organ placement.”
Near the end of my vaginapractor session, I cried. I cried because I laughed about it to a group of women who need it just as much as I do. I cried because it was the first time since I had Daniel that I’ve discussed how I feel without someone giving me a condescending-look-at-the-watch nod that says, Yeah, you’re a new mother. Of course you feel this way. I cried because, despite being half-naked and exposed, I wasn’t jabbed, poked, or prodded.
I left Johnson’s Brooklyn studio disoriented and energized, relieved but so angry. This time last year, I had a 2-week-old infant, both of us bundled against the freezing air as we left the house to buy groceries. We should have been inside, resting, recovering. I’m one of the luckier ones, with choices and options and information available to me.
But how did I not know that scar tissue could be released? That by visiting a pelvic-floor therapist or a vaginapractor earlier I could have realized that urinary incontinence — known as stress incontinence — might be normal but doesn’t need to be accepted? That I don’t need to wait until my son is ready for potty training to live my own life with dry underwear. Johnson insists that women like me and my mom friends — and all women who give birth — should see a specialist, and that, depending on the degree of injury, we could get relief in as little as one to three sessions.
Tears of relief or not, that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.