How to regain your mojo after having a baby, sex therapist Dr Allyson Waite has a recipe for sex-cess.
On arriving home with your bundle of joy, sex may not be the first thing on your mind as you begin to adjust to the many delights and challenges of parenthood. However, from the moment of conception, the reality for any couple is that you, as a cosy twosome, have inevitably changed forever. This is, of course, true for pretty much every area of your relationship but when it comes to sex, parenthood can most certainly throw a spanner in the works. Keeping passion alive for the long haul can be a struggle at the best of times but adding children to the mix can test the most resilient of relationships.
Pregnancy, child birth and parenthood are a rollercoaster of physical and emotional experiences which can affect us and our partners in our bodies, minds and hearts, all of which can affect us sexually. It is also true that sex is frequently an area that is not discussed, particularly when difficulties arise. Difficulties with sex can also place a huge strain on our relationship, leading to conflict and emotional distance which, of course, does little to help our sex lives.
What is normal?
Accurate information and frank discussion about sex can be hard to find and, instead, we are faced with multiple myths and stereotypes, romanticised ideals or fantasy images of sex in the media. These ideas can powerfully shape our expectations about what is “normal”, creating unrealistic expectations, a sense of pressure and feeling that we are not matching up. As a sex therapist I am frequently asked, “What is normal?” And, as Mary Klein, a US sex therapist, writes, “Most people really, really don’t want to be abnormal!”
If it is hard to find sound information at the best of times, then what to expect sexually after children is even more shrouded in mystery. As such, couples may be unprepared for dealing with these changes, giving rise to feelings of anxiety, inadequacy or isolation.
Dr Martien Snellen, in Sex and Intimacy after Childbirth,writes: “If your sex life falls away in the latter parts of pregnancy and takes months to return, you can consider yourself normal. If things improve for you during this time, you are also normal and if you don’t notice much of a change then you are still normal! The reality is that many couples do report changes after the arrival of children, all of which are in the range of common experiences.”
So let’s look at and debunk some of the common myths around good sex, particularly in parenthood. Changing our outlook on what constitutes good sex can open the door to rekindling our love lives and bringing sexy back.
Myth 1: You should always feel desire for your partner
Sexual desire is complex. A mix of physical and psychological factors following child birth may affect your desire for sex. Sandra Perrot, an Australian researcher and sex therapist, found that 50% of new mothers reported being less interested in sex in the 12 months after child birth than was usual for them and 25% reported less enjoyment.
Aside from recovering and healing from the physical effects of child birth, hormones can play havoc with our sexual functioning. Changes in levels of oestrogen which continue through breastfeeding may alter our sexual response, for example, difficulties lubricating, which can contribute to discomfort and pain during intercourse. Our breasts may also be more uncomfortable to touch or now associated with nursing rather than an erogenous zone to be enjoyed. Motherhood can be a powerful challenge to seeing ourselves as sexual beings and it can often feel as if they are mutually exclusive! Finding a way to bridge the two is an important part of the adjustment to make.
Fatigue and exhaustion are, of course, common complaints from new parents and we may be more likely to prioritise sleep in the bedroom rather than sex, particularly in the early months. Lust waxes and wanes with time, energy and the stresses of daily life. The endless routines of feeding, napping, changing etc can feel a little like Groundhog Day and, added to this is the fact that many of us will have temporarily given up work and other roles that may have fulfilled us. This can change the way we see ourselves and we can struggle with mixed feelings and a sense of loss. It is often hard to talk about these things as we may feel selfish about our feelings. More serious problems such as postnatal depression most certainly affect libido and sexual function and require professional help on the road to recovery.
A baby in the home demands endless attention and energy which means that there may also be less time available for each other. While we intuitively expect this, the reality can often be much harder and may give rise to feelings of frustration, resentment and disconnection unless we are able to talk about it and reconnect. Some partners may feel excluded or surplus to requirements and also experience the need for a period of adjustment. It’s an important but perhaps neglected point that it may well be our partner who experiences some change in their interest and enjoyment in sex.
Myth 2: You have to be young, thin and gorgeous to enjoy sex
Certainly not! Pregnancy and child birth change our appearance in many ways and we can suffer from a loss of body confidence as a result, feeling that we are unattractive, unsexy and fearing that our partners will think the same. The way we view ourselves can most certainly negatively affect our libidos as well as our enjoyment of sex. If we are focusing on how we look, rather than how we are feeling during sex, this can seriously inhibit our enjoyment and connection with our partner. Learning to embrace the new you with all the badges of pregnancy and child birth is an important step to reclaiming our sexuality in those early months.
Myth 3: Sex should be spontaneous
With little ones the days of spontaneity may be seriously numbered, when even getting out of the door to the supermarket requires military planning! However, Esther Perel, a sex therapist specialising in the area of sexual desire in long-term relationships, challenges this notion that sex was ever spontaneous, even in those heady early days.
Sex “in the moment was often precipitated by hours of preparation, what to wear, what to eat, what to listen to” and that the planning actually heightens the desire for sex. Rather than “waiting for sex to happen, you need to make it happen”. Scheduling a night for sex can sound unsexy but often, without this intention, it doesn’t happen. “Intentional sex is sexy because in effect you are making a statement about the priority of your relationship, intimacy and sex.”
Myth 4: Sex = intercourse
Another powerful myth is that proper sex equals intercourse and this does little but set us up to believe that it is all or nothing. The reality is that intercourse is only one of many options. Sex can also be about many other kinds of intimate touch and sexual pleasure which can be enjoyed even if intercourse is off the menu. This may be important while physically recovering from child birth or surgery.
Myth 5: Sex is always fabulous
Sex can be fabulous of course, but it can also be good or mediocre or even, on occasion, not so good. What matters is that we have realistic expectations. Sometimes we may only have the time and energy for a quickie, sometimes we may not orgasm, sometimes we may be distracted. Expecting sex to always be fireworks often sets us up to fail or feel disappointed. The reality is that sex can be messy (leaking breasts), awkward, interrupted (finding your little one at the foot of the bed…). Having a sense of humour to deal with these unexpected moments can go a long way to feeling positive about sex.
The following tips are sure-fire ways to ensure that your love life is back on track (or even better than before!):
Start talking. Good sex begins with good communication. It can go a long way to ensuring misunderstandings are cleared up, differing expectations are negotiated and it is the best way to ensure that we get what we want or need from sex. Partners, too, may be feeling left out, uncertain and afraid of making the first move. Talking together leads to a sense of closeness and intimacy from which you can work out together the next steps.
A sense of pressure, obligation or resentment will put a dampener on libido.
Take care of yourself. Try to arrange some time out for yourself, whether it’s to exercise, have a nap or a soak in the bath. Finding ways to replenish ourselves emotionally and physically are important to help us feel good about ourselves, re-energised and relaxed — all important foundations for sex.
Take care of your relationship. Relationships need nurturing too so try to create some time for just the two of you. Are there relations or friends who could give you an hour or two for a date night?
Take your time. Don’t be afraid to take it slowly. The timing and pace of resuming your sexual life will vary greatly depending on any number of physical and emotional factors and circumstances for you and your partner. Generally, couples are advised to wait for the six-week check with their lead maternity carer before resuming intercourse. Using lubricant can help to make things more comfortable if you experience vaginal dryness as a result of hormonal changes. And remember contraception for peace of mind!
Remember desire for sex is often made not born. Sending flirtatious texts or a playful kiss over dinner may be ways of setting the scene and creating the mood for sex.
Try changing your normal routine. This might be what you actually do between the sheets but practically as well, such as leaving the chores for tomorrow and having an early night or taking advantage of little one’s afternoon nap.
Finally, remember, there are lots of ways to maintain an intimate connection. Lots of non-sexual touching, cuddles, taking a bath together and sensual massage may all be ways to stay connected.
So while it is to be expected that your sex life may not be quite the same as when it was just the two of you, becoming parents should by no means signal the end of the road for sex! Keeping the flame alive requires effort, commitment, good communication and prioritising but it can be done. However, if you find that things don’t get back on track as you hoped, you may benefit from talking things over with a professional trained in sex therapy. See sextherapy.co.nz for further details. Enjoy!
Dr Allyson Waite is a mother of six-year-old twins and a specialist in sex and relationship therapy. She is a member of the OHbaby! panel of experts. You can ask her a question by visiting our “experts” section.