Copiously. Publicly. In a corridor in the maternity ward, with lots of newly-enlarged families around me. I don’t know how many people noticed, but I felt humiliated and tearful. I blamed it on being 12 hours post-birth, on the stitches, on the catheter I’d just had removed, and told myself it was a one-off.
Well, it wasn’t. Six months on, three physio sessions, and innumerable pelvic floor exercises later, the situation’s improved. I only piss myself when I crouch down, when I lift something heavy, when I cough, when I sneeze, when I run… You get the picture. I spend my time looking after an active toddler and a baby. I do all those things a lot. I’m also scared of pissing myself during sex. Some people are turned on by involving urine in their sex lives, but I’m really not one of them!
Other than medical professionals, only my husband and my parents know about this. I haven’t mentioned it to my baby-owning friends, certainly not to my child-free friends, and I’m immensely grateful that Ocado sell incontinence pads so I don’t have to chat to the nice people in Boots about it.
As much as my rational, informed side tells me this is a really common problem, my emotional side is shuddering with self-disgust. I mean, I’m meant to be toilet-training a toddler, but I can’t get through the day without an “accident”! But why the disgust? NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) estimates that 5 million women in the UK have urinary incontinence. 5 million? Seriously? That’s about the same as the entire population of Scotland! You almost certainly know a woman who’s wearing a pad and working out what she can do without leaking. It’s most commonly brought on by childbirth or the menopause. Yes, it’s our reproductive cycle kicking us in the teeth again.
The thing is, that’s an estimate. NICE don’t know because women are too embarrassed to talk about it. Many don’t go to their doctor. Some can’t even tell their partners (though how they deal with the sex issue, I don’t know). Women are suffering for years through embarrassment, assuming that it’s just something that happens with age, and they should put up with it.
Well, that’s bollocks. There are things that can be done – physiotherapy, pessaries, even surgery for really severe cases. They might not cure it, but they will help. What won’t happen is that it’ll just get better on its own. If you wet yourself regularly, talk to your GP. Now.
But why are normal, intelligent women simultaneously embarrassed about incontinence but prepared to just put up with it? My theory is that there are three things to blame:
1. Little Britain. OK, not only Little Britain, but it’s a good example. Remember David Walliams’ incontinent old lady carrying on as normal while urine cascades all over the place? Lesson: Incontinence happens to old people, is funny, and embarrassing.
2. Tena Lady. Invaluable products, don’t get me wrong (though not my favoured brand!), but their TV adverts. Really? Pissing yourself is just like getting your skirt caught in a lift door? And a tag line saying that everyone has their little “ooops moments”? Lesson: Everyone gets incontinence, but there’s nothing you can do to make it better. It’s also embarrassing, so don’t talk about it.
3. The patriarchy (yay! You knew they were to blame really!). Seriously, we have a culture of shame about the real workings of women’s bodies. This whole series of posts and the demand for it demonstrates that there’s not much discussion about these issues.
My incontinence is manageable. I’m keeping going with my pelvic floor exercises, trying to lose the pregnancy weight (which can be an factor) and hoping that things will improve when the pregnancy hormone levels finally drop. Many other women have far more serious incontinence, and what we can all do to help them is to lose the embarrassment. While I’m not planning to scream “I have incontinence!” from the rooftops, I can stop the self-loathing and talk to my friends. You should think about doing the same. And while you’re thinking, do your pelvic floor exercises!