How Mama Gets Her Groove Back
It is not uncommon to experience a dramatic reduction in sexual interest after having a baby. As you can imagine, if you did not anticipate this evolution in the lifespan of your marital relationship, it can lead to secondary problems such as feelings of guilt and abandonment. So let’s lay it all out on the table, look at all the factors at play in the sex life of a new mama, and reconstruct a sexual relationship that incorporates the new you and your new life.
I want to start off by saying that evolution is a wise and beautiful thing. You see, Mother Nature compels us to devote ourselves physically and emotionally to our new babies for their very survival. We breastfeed, carry, cuddle, co-sleep, all of which set our little ones up for a lifetime of thriving as healthy, independent members of society. And in meeting that high level of need, we receive the chemical bath of feel-good love hormones that boost our dangerous postpartum mood, facilitate the bonding process of falling in love, and imprint our baby’s best interest into the core of our life force. We all have a love cup, and in filling our babies’, ours runneth over. This powerful dance of attachment is nature’s birth control: insurance that you will not yet have another child, diverting your resources. Your little human is more likely to survive if you don’t have sex until your baby is no longer physically dependent on you.
The letdown you experience when you breastfeed is the chemical equivalent of an orgasm. (This is not to say that breastfeeding feels like an orgasm but that your chemical love cup is filled in the same way.) Feeding and holding your baby all day and night (which is wonderful and absolutely the right thing to do) keeps all those feel-good love hormones sky-high for both you and your baby. By the time they finally fall asleep and you finally manage to slip out from under them, frequently the last thing on Earth you want to do is have someone else get on top of you. You are all touched out. This is normal. This is how it is supposed to be. This is nature’s way of providing you the time and energy to recover from birth and focus on nurturing this new life through the fourth trimester.
The final trimester of pregnancy is usually very sexually active. Even though you are big and uncomfortable, an increased sex drive serves to invest your partner in your post-birth care (think caveman days) and actually stimulates labor. The best thing you can do for your marriage and sex life while pregnant is to educate and prepare yourselves for the hibernation of your sex life during the babymoon (and beyond, depending on the physical condition of the mother). Accurate expectations and open communication are the keys to moving through this marital developmental state. Research tells us that following the birth of a baby is the time of lowest marital satisfaction. Sit down with each other and have a frank conversation:
Husband, you are accustomed to having your love cup filled through our physical intimacy and attention. After the birth of a baby, we will not be physically intimate and our attention will be on this new life. Hear that the space you will feel between us is in no way a reflection of any decreased love, desire, or attraction to you. It is solely a result of the rushing river of attentiveness that must flow from me to our new baby. With the absence of sex to connect us and satisfy your love needs, what can I do for/say to you to communicate my steadfast attachment to you?
Wife, I hear and appreciate that you will be physically devoted to nurturing our baby through the birth and fourth trimester. I will focus on supporting you and our baby in this transition. I look forward to strengthening our relationship by learning to rely on new and creative ways to stay connected like . . .
Once your physical recovery and the fourth trimester come to a close, you can begin to wade back into the sexual layer of your relationship. If having a healthy and active sex life is a priority for you and your partner, then it is important for you to work with each other to discover ways that you can enjoy sex as a mother and incorporate his satisfaction into your lives. This transition offers a prime opportunity to reinvent your sexual relationship and connect with each other in a much more empathetic and satisfying way. This is because having sex after having a baby feels different. Slight pressure here might hurt, while slight pressure there feels good in a different way than before birth. The process of communicating that to your partner and having him respond in turn, in real time, can take your sex life to a whole new level. The more receptive and attentive he is, the better it will feel for you, and the more often you will want to have sex. If he did everything you wished your sexual partner would do in the moment, what would that be? What would that look like?
Are you really in tune with what feels good for you sexually? Often the first ventures into the fresh landscape are self-guided expeditions. If you don’t even know what, where, and how feels good, then how could anyone else? Especially if you are gun-shy about the post-birth situation downstairs, you need to set aside some time and space to get reacquainted. Once you are feeling comfortable with your own contact, then you can invite your partner to the party. I realize I’ve made it to the end of this paragraph without actually using the word. So just because I like to break down stigmas and taboos to promote healthy communication: masturbation.
Speaking of masturbation, you are likely not the only partner in this relationship engaging in some self-satisfaction. A husband who can take care of his own needs without shame during the sexual drought of the fourth trimester can relieve a lot of the pressure on the marriage by removing the physiological desperation. Many men masturbate most efficiently with audio-visual aid, which is why I want to make a special note on pornography. Porn in and of itself isn’t inherently harmful to a healthy sexual relationship. The unrealistic expectations that can be fostered through repeated and long-term viewing of misogynistic porn most definitely are. What’s commonly referred to as “sex positive porn” is out there, portraying reality-based, healthy sexual relationships.
Talk It Out
Are you able to openly communicate what feels good for you to your partner? For example, most women are unable to climax through penetration alone. Most women require external stimulation of the clitoris (through touch, oral sex, vibrators, etc.) to achieve climax. Knowledge of these things and open conversations about things like this can go a long way. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by establishing a clear, open, and honest line of communication. Now is the time to embrace this sometimes-uncomfortable dialogue. What are you afraid will happen if you are open and honest with your partner?
First and foremost, create a safe space to have this discussion (no ridiculing, shaming, etc.), and dive right in. If his complaint is that he wants more sex and there are things that he could do to make sex more enjoyable for you, I bet he would be willing to have that conversation and be open to you expressing your desires. Just lay the groundwork for a very safe space in which to express those feelings without fear of defensiveness. The expression of your desires is not criticism; the dessert was so good that you want more.
One good strategy to facilitate this journey of discovery can be to take turns having a night where you focus on satisfying only your desires. Spend one night focusing exclusively on you, then one night focusing exclusively on your partner. One of the most important parts of this can be the conversation during which you sit down and plan out exactly what that will entail. “Tomorrow night is your night; what would you like that to look like? How will the night start?” and so on. You most certainly are not obligated to do anything and everything your partner wants. Both parties are free to respectfully decline any requests. The point is that you feel safe enough to express those desires and get a turn being the focus of your partner’s efforts. You can learn a lot about each other through an experience that can enhance your trust and improve the overall quality of the sexual experience for both parties (which in turn leads to greater quantity).
Included in the post-baby sex talk must be a conversation about birth control. Did you know that half of all pregnancies are unplanned?! You have a baby. So you now understand that penis + vagina = baby. Period. Give yourself the time you need to properly recover and meet the needs of the baby you already have. There are numerous options out there (vasectomy, IUD, condoms, natural family planning, etc.), and I encourage you to do your own research and discuss with your care provider. Speaking of period, just because you haven’t yet had one (a glorious side effect of breastfeeding on cue can be a prolonged absence) doesn’t mean you haven’t yet ovulated. Be smart and be responsible.
Sex after giving birth can be painful. There is just no prettier way to say it. For example, tearing is a fairly common occurrence during birth and can extend the recovery time (obviously) and alter your nerve anatomy. The notion of rushing back into wild and rough penetration the night after the 6-week postpartum checkup is unrealistic. The most important aspect of reentering the sexual realm is to have a positive sexual experience each engagement. If sex is a painful thing you are forced to endure for the sake of your partner, it is not going to get you where you want to go. Every encounter doesn’t have to end with intercourse. Spend a night being physically intimate with no intercourse. The relief of pressure from taking that off the table can help you to connect physically in a loving way with no fear. Be creative and be patient.
The Loop of Doom
A lack of patience can leave you stuck in a pursuer-distancer loop. If you get stuck there long enough, the walls of defensiveness become so fortified that they can become difficult to dismantle, having seeped into your very couple identity. This pursuer-distancer loop is created when Partner A is always pursuing Partner B, thus leading Partner B to always distance from Partner A, leading Partner A to always pursue Partner B, continued ad nauseam. It is a posture of attack/defend that can become habit. He looks at you and you say, “No!” and create as much physical distance as possible in that moment. This distance makes him long for your closeness even more, which causes him to pursue you even more, which causes you to distance yourself even more. Are you over it yet just reading this? But if Partner A stops chasing, Partner B can stop running. “I know you want to have sex. If you are constantly reminding me of that, I feel nothing but defensive. Support me by helping with the baby so I have more energy and by encouraging me to feel beautiful and sexy with your words, and let me come to you.” Every once in a while we need to halt and right our heading by reversing course.
Body After Baby
One vastly important factor in the sex life of a new mother is her relationship with her new body. So important, in fact, that I dedicated an entire chapter to Body After Baby. Unconditional love, acceptance, and gratitude are not things only for your new baby but for the physical goddess who created that baby! This is a vulnerable time for a woman. Exposing herself to her partner can either deepen the trust or demolish it. To have and enjoy a sex life you have to feel sexy, within yourself and with your partner. Your partner has the power to elevate you on your journey with your relationship with your body by giving that unconditional love, acceptance, and gratitude to every curve and line that created the family he now gets to enjoy for a lifetime. Tell her. Show her. Believe him.
Having an empowered birth experience can make a world of difference in transitioning back into your sex life. When you come out of this profound physical and emotional experience feeling like a birth warrior, you are alight, even more in touch with your strength and feelings than before Baby. This keeps you in shape in the body, mind, and heart to ravage your partner on that dance floor. If you are walking away from your baby’s birth feeling defeated, failed by your body, or violated by the “support” you received, you are dancing into the tango traumatized. Healing must take place both physically and psychologically. Some good narrative therapy with a marital and family therapist (MFT) and/or birth story writing and witnessing can help you along this healing process. A surgical birth or an outcome that strayed from your birth plan is by no means a kiss of death for your sex life, but your perceived experience, or the meaning you assign to the events of your birth, carry significant weight as you continue on walking your journey.
There is a distinction between clearly communicating, both subtly and overtly, your steadfast and wild attraction to your partner on the other side of this transition and accosting and hounding with demands. Both partners need to know they are desired, especially now. Both parents are constructing their new identities, and this message can secure a positive, confident narrative for you as a new mother or father. The transformation of your body, including weight gain, lactation, and a human passing through the sexual playground, leaves both partners in need of reassurance. Mom might be chomping at the bit while Dad is stalled in fear. Hold each other’s hands, keep it simple, and talk through it: “I want . . . I am afraid of . . . “ You don’t have to have all the answers for communication to be effective. Distance and avoidance are not the same as patience.
As parents in this very busy society we often feel spent. We do what we need to survive and have nothing left at the end of the day for the extras (husbands and wives included). I have heard people quip, “Well, if your marriage is a priority, then you will make sex a priority.” But this is an insulting oversimplification. Your devotion to the physical care of a newborn is a life or death matter. You can’t just stop feeding/holding/tending the baby in order to have more energy at the end of the night for your partner. And a good co-parent would support and include himself in that devotion. This spent feeling is in no way a reflection of a lack of affection for your partner or a reduction of his place on your priority list. It is just a natural reality of undertaking the daunting task of caring for a baby.
That said, how do you incorporate a healthy sex life into the demanding daily life of parenthood? This goes back to creativity. Sex doesn’t always have to mean 10 p.m. in the master bed. Steal away time together whenever and wherever you can. Share a morning shower together. Take to the floor when Baby finally falls asleep for their nap in your bed. Loosen the boundaries around when, where, and how you connect, and shift the focus to sharing a positive physical experience. Think in terms of integrating small instances of physical connection throughout your day and night so it becomes woven into the fabric of your new life as opposed to dreading a hefty and painful duty on your to do list.
Many families fall into the joy of the Family Bed and some (usually outsiders) wonder how a couple’s sex life will fare in this arrangement. Co-sleepers enjoy a sex life that is no better or worse than any other couple’s; although, with a personal bias, I would argue that it is a little better because you are forced to be more spontaneous and creative. Being a sexual person (having sexual energy live within who you are as a whole person, woven seamlessly with your other traits and hats like mother, adventurer, cuddler, professional, lover, etc.) doesn’t mean you live in a world where you cross the border of your master bedroom door and suddenly whirl around to find yourself in lace and lipstick. Your bedroom, your bed, your heart, your hands, your lips can all house your fully integrated personhood. You can leave your sleeping baby in your bed to find your husband irresistibly doing dishes in the kitchen and act on those feelings right then and there. You can playfully slap your partner’s ass with one hand while holding a baby on your hip with the other. Why would you want to be limited to an elevated rectangle on the floor of a single room between certain hours of the night? Whether you have a standing date in your calendar to go to Funky Town during naptime on Saturdays or you steal away the moments life gifts you as they come up, err, arise, err . . . you know what I mean, the Family Bed does NOT preclude a healthy, active sex life. Forty-eight percent of Swedish parents of infants have sex once or twice a week while 40% of American parents report sex being so rare they might as well be sleeping in separate beds. Know what one-third of Swedish parents do? Have sex while their babies are asleep in the Family Bed.2
“You can’t have a sex life if you co-sleep.”
“Oh, you only have sex in a bed at night? I’m sorry.”
Research points to a correlational sweet spot where sexual frequency and happiness intersect: once a week.1 That said, the question of how often constitutes a healthy sex life is completely subjective. There is no “right” quantity, only what is right for you and your partner. Whether you have sex once a day or once a year, you need not concern yourself with meeting anyone else’s standards outside of your relationship. You answer to yourselves and to each other. If you are both satisfied, then you are doing it right. Problems can arise when one partner prefers more frequency than the other, and in that situation, after you have negotiated through the rest of the content in this article (and other helpful resources), consider the help of a professional. There are truly amazing therapists out there doing superb work in the area of sex therapy who can help you to bring out the best in your sexual relationship.
But I feel compelled to expressly note that we tend to pathologize the female sexual experience in our culture. By this I mean, your husband’s desire to have sex every other day is not “normal” while your desire to have sex every other month is “abnormal” and needs fixing. A negotiation of both partners’ needs should take place but it should not begin from a place of, “You are broken and need to be fixed.”
Research shows that men who do more housework have more sex. Did you read that? Let me say it again: men who do more housework have more sex. Sexuality is so much more than a physical sensation for women. A woman who has felt isolated, exhausted, and alone, drowning in spit-up and poop, and surviving the trenches of family management, does not feel sexy and does not feel magnetized to you. I allowed my husband to sleep in on Saturday mornings and he managed all the kids (including the baby) so I could sleep in as late as I wanted on Sunday mornings. And darn it if he was not the sexiest man alive all day Sunday. To clarify the processes at work here, he was the sexiest man every day. But after watching him do the dishes or take the kids on a bike ride, the tiger in me that wanted to pounce him was awakened. If your husband treats you like a queen, you will feel like a queen. And you know what queens are? Sexy. So have a well-rounded view of enhancing the marital relationship. Being in a revered partnership goes all the way from equally sharing housework to holding hands, making eye contact to engaging in honest communication, being physically intimate without intercourse to having sex.
Have a little one who nurses to sleep? Want a date with your partner? Have a date day instead of a date night. This way, your babe will have all her needs met while being left with a caregiver during her most social hours and you can have some private time connecting with your significant other without the stress or worry of your sweet babe in distress.
As previously mentioned: the time period after the birth of a baby is the period of time reported to have the lowest marital satisfaction. I don’t see this as a lack of marital satisfaction, per se, but a huge shift in . . . everything. The focus shifts from each other to nurturing a new life to survive and thrive. Who you are and the way you saw the world are both changing. A whole new dimension has been added to your marital relationship: co-parent. All these shifts provide an amazing opportunity to deepen and strengthen your connection with each other. As with most things, you can tap into the potential of this opportunity with information (know what to expect and why) and communication (safe and open). Be patient. Be creative. You can get back in the saddle once again, and the ride can be even better.