Family Matters

Why France Pays for Postpartum Women to “Re-Educate” their Vagina

In France, Social Security funds la rééducation périnéale, up to 20 sessions of physical therapy intended to firm and tone the postnatal pelvic floor. The humiliation is apparently worth it.

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France has been in the parenting headlines a good bit lately.

First there was the release of Bringing Up Bébé, a treatise on why French kids are better eaters and sleepers, more well-mannered and less prone to meltdowns than American children. Author Pamela Druckerman built the case that France knows a thing or two about raising children that U.S. parents have yet to grasp.

Now Claire Lundberg puts in another plug for the Gallic people, sharing on Slate, in unblushing detail, how the French government foots the bill for la rééducation périnéale for new moms — up to 20 sessions of physical therapy intended to firm and tone the postnatal pelvic floor. “Two months after our daughter was born,” she writes, “I summoned the courage to teach my vagina some new tricks.”

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Perhaps the most captivating part of Lundberg’s essay is her clever use of euphemisms for the female sex organ. Hearing the word vagina over and over can “can make people a little squeamish,” she notes, which is why Lundberg offers up some creative options: wuzza, vajinga and shnush, to name a few.

Nearly as captivating is the explanation of why Francophile ladies have, since 1985, been the recipients of government-subsidized manual and biofeedback therapy for their nether regions: “It being France, everyone wants you to be able to have sex with your husband again as soon as possible. (You’ve gotta get that area back in shape before he gets fed up with your recovery and finds a mistress!) On the other hand, the government also wants to make sure you can easily and safely have another child; thanks in part to official encouragement, the French birthrate is now the second-highest in EU, at 2.1.”

Lundberg, at first incredulous over this French tradition, winds up extolling its physiological virtues. Yes, it’s embarrassing to have what amounts to a personal trainer for your vagina, but, she says, it actually works:

There haven’t been extensive studies done, but what studies exist show that la rééducation significantly reduces incontinence and pelvic pain at nine months after giving birth. Frankly, I’m happy there’s a medical professional paying attention to what happened down there. Rééducation périnéale gets scoffed at in American and Canadian publications as one of the most lurid examples of the indulgent French welfare state, but as far as I can tell, we do exactly nothing in the United States to help women get back into shape after giving birth.

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She’s right on that count. Six-week postpartum check-ups stateside are typically brief affairs where you may or may not be advised to remember to do your Kegels (discreet contractions of the muscles that control the flow of urine and help a wayward bladder or uterus stay put); they mark the end of regular obstetric visits that began shortly after pregnancy commenced. An entire year could easily go by between the postpartum farewell and the next appointment.

Speaking of personal trainers, France is doing one more thing right: the health-care system also underwrites “abdominal re-education” sessions, which Lundberg calls “government-financed sit-ups to get myself back in shape for bikini season.” It’s hard to know which would ultimately be more appreciated.

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