Woman in bed / Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels
When it comes to researching the husband stitch — a.k.a. daddy stitch, daddy tuck, husband knot and all the mix-and-match combinations of them — I feel like stories are all I have to go on.
Medical practitioners assert that it is not widespread, that it is so rare it has become somewhat of a myth. An old midwives tale. It is not a defined medical procedure. There’s no Wikipedia page for it. All this means that you can’t measure or define it, and that in turn means you can’t study it.
There are no statistics. Just stories — but many of them.
One of the most harrowing I read was Carmen Maria Machado’s (very aptly) titled short story, The Husband Stitch, which helped popularise the procedure. It’s disturbing, but only because it’s familiar. Her writing made multiple parts of my body twinge with second-hand pain. The story is about handing your body over to people you are supposed to trust, only for them to hurt you — inadvertently or not.
And that’s how many women describe the process of childbirth. “To give birth is to hand over your body and perhaps be returned something different, that you don’t quite recognise.”
The husband stitch is given to women who need stitching up after childbirth. It’s one or multiple stitches more than what is medically necessary, aimed to tighten the vagina for the sexual pleasure of the husband. It’s infrequent and outdated now because medicine is getting better. The emphasis in post birth care is on stitching up just enough to allow the body to facilitate its own healing.
But the husband stitch remains worse than a myth, because it still happens. There are stories upon stories upon stories of many women reporting intercourse and using tampons becoming painful weeks after giving birth, only to discover during a checkup that they’ve been stitched up too tightly.
Most of the women choose to believe that the stitching was accidental, because how would you reconcile being intentionally betrayed by the people that are supposed to prioritise your health? Some joke about the stitch in the delivery room, suggesting that they get a few stitches thrown in there for hubby. The woman giving birth might roll her eyes. The practitioner might continue the banter.
And no-one knows what to do when painful side effects appear weeks later.
I guess the reason the husband stitch disturbs me so much is that it represents those hidden, intangible burdens of being a woman. It can completely ruin a woman’s mental and physical health, her feelings of pleasure and ability to return to routine — and it can do so undetected, unnamed.
I put myself into the shoes of the women. I couldn’t blame my husband, who surely wouldn’t ask for something so warped — but did he have to joke about it? I couldn’t blame the practitioner, who assures me that they did what they thought was best for me — but is their perception of ‘best’ practice influenced by biases? I couldn’t blame whoever trained the practitioner, because that will start a chain that stretches centuries backwards. I don’t know what sort of long-term side effects to expect because the husband stitch doesn’t exist in the literature. It’s not reversible, because technically nothing happened.
Discussions about the husband stitch often veer into wider discussions. They address the patriarchy infiltrating maternity care, of all spaces. They get people talking about believing and being believed, about accepting the experiences of women without holding your hand out for more proof. It demonstrates that violence against women doesn’t have to be at the hand of anyone in particular.
That last one is especially important to me. Don’t get me wrong, there are many ways that women are violated at the hands of tangible, human perpetrators; these obviously deserve spotlighting and discussion. But so do the ways that women are hurt by the system. The invisible, elusive, intangible system.
If we want horrors like the husband stitch to fade into fiction, we need to dismantle all the current patriarchal systems — the healthcare system included — and rebuild them around protecting the rights, voices and agency of women and men alike.Support Villainesse