Ellen was overcome with love for Sarah, her exquisite newborn daughter. Watching her husband Michael tenderly rock the tiny precious being they created, she thought she’d never been so happy. Ellen never dreamed that life, and love, could feel like this. For the first time, she understood the meaning of the word bliss.
But it soon became clear that bliss was not to be Ellen’s perpetual state. In fact, she was learning all new meanings for many emotions, not all of them so pleasant. Exhaustion, irritation, frustration – these feelings become all too frequent visitors as she negotiated the challenges of motherhood. And to complicate matters further, she and Michael were experiencing totally different sexual needs.
The last thing Ellen wanted was sex. She was getting more than her share of cuddling and loving connection with Sarah. Michael, on the other hand, was not. He seemed to want sexual contact even more than ever. He had been patient during her pregnancy, she wasn’t physically comfortable the last trimester and mostly not interested in making love. However, at Sarah’s six month check-up, Michael suggested Ellen ask her own doctor if her low sex drive was normal. Ellen didn’t really care if it was or wasn’t – all she knew was that sex after baby was not something that she was interested in!
Ellen did talk with her doctor, who assured her that low libido was normal for mothers, lasting typically up to a year after the birth of a baby. Although this was a relief for Ellen to hear, all it did for Michael was irritate him further. Ellen was at a loss. She was so tired at night she could barely keep her eyes open. Sometimes his touch felt so intrusive that she thought she’d scream if she didn’t pull away! And to top it off, Michael seemed more and more distant from her. She began to seriously wonder what these feelings meant. Had she fallen out of love with Michael? Would they ever be able to resurrect their sexual relationship after all this? Would she even want to? Ellen had no idea.
Ellen’s story is a common one in my sex therapy practice. That is because parents have been sorely prepared for what to expect in many aspects of their lives – sexual and otherwise – following the birth of their baby. For new mothers, finding energy for just about anything can be a challenge. Sleep is at a premium. Needs for intimate contact are already met by cuddling, rocking, and breast feeding her infant. And of course, hormonal changes continue creating chaos in a mother’s emotional and physical body for months after giving birth. All of these changes can certainly impact her experience of sex.
Many new moms are unpleasantly surprised to find that the physical sensations of making love can change after giving birth. Some women feel sexually numb for a while. They may have a difficult time orgasming, or feel less enjoyment from the feeling of her husband inside her. This can be particularly an issue for women whose pelvises sustained significant trauma while giving birth. These issues, coupled with massive changes in everything from her daily schedule to her identity, would make anyone loose interest in sex for a while!
Anyone, it seems, but her husband!
He is probably feeling very differently during this time. For him, life also got more complex, but in a different way. He’s experiencing new pressures as a result of his increased family size. When he comes home from work, he finds his wife either focused on their child, or exhausted and hoping that he’ll parent for a while. Even though he, too, is totally in love with their baby, he deals with the increase in pressure very differently. For him, sex is an obvious choice to both relieve stress and reconnect with his wife.
For many couples, these issues can intensify over time, causing distance in what was once an intimate and affectionate connection. Both partners feel misunderstood – probably because they are. Both find themselves detaching from their partners. He, immersing himself in work and sports; she, focusing on their baby. Couples also fall into bad emotional habits – poor communication skills that serve no good purpose. He becomes emotionally distant and distracted, avoiding in-depth conversations or emotional exchanges. She finds herself at the other extreme – expressing irritation regularly. She looses the motivation to be intimate with him. And this unfortunate process unfolds at a time when each partner is under significant stress and could very much use the support of their loved one!
This may be the most typical scenario, but it’s certainly not the only one. Sometimes it is husbands who experience sexual concerns. Fatigue, stress, or difficulty integrating his new role as father can cause him to loose his sex drive, or develop a sexual dysfunction. Relatedly, he may struggle adapting to his wife’s new identity as mother. Needless to say, with all the changes going on for both partners, the situation is ripe with opportunities for sexual problems.
Solutions for Both
Giving Translates into Receiving
When couples struggle intimately, it’s easy for partners to become frustrated and allow the distance between them to grow. This is particularly the case when hectic schedules and children’s needs must take precedence. Getting children to sleep though the night helps with parent’s mood and energy levels so they can focus more energy on their intimate connection. If we don’t care about our partners needs, they probably won’t care much about ours. Taking the time to consider and attend to your partner’s needs is ultimately in your own best interest. In one sense, caring for your partner is selfish behavior in that it can ultimately serve you and your children.
Communication is Key
Remember that your different viewpoints don’t mean that one of you is right and the other is wrong. Respecting your partner’s perspective will result in their feeling understood and decrease the tension between you. Aim to find compromises that will work for the short term. For many new parents, intimacy issues will lessen as your baby ages.
Intimacy doesn’t require intercourse – there are many ways for couples to share intimate moments. Depending on intercourse will only limit your creative possibilities.
It may be helpful to keep in mind that sexual excitement is enhanced by newness. Obviously, as a relationship ages, newness becomes more and more challenging to come by. Investing the time to plan exciting sexual experiences ahead of time can pay off with increased passion. The feeling of newness can be tapped with anything from lingerie to a hotel room (without the baby!).
The Art of Rejection
Many new mothers frequently find themselves turning down their lover’s requests for sex. Thus, learning to say “No” lovingly and respectfully can go far in alleviating tension. Rather than just saying “No”, try offering an alternative time (“I’m too tired now, how about we set a date for Saturday morning?”) or a compromise. These options allow for everyone’s needs to be met in some way.
Relearning Your Body
Women’s bodies can change significantly as a result of pregnancy and delivery. As a result, many women find that their sexual experiences change – at least temporarily – after having a baby. For example, it may be difficult to orgasm for months after giving birth. Sometimes women feel stretched out internally, finding sex less stimulating. A woman may find it helpful to take time getting to know her body again after delivery. Many women find it helpful to re-connect sensually with her body alone first, before sharing this part of herself again with her partner.
Being Gentle and Caring with Yourself
All new mothers know that a primary hazard of mothering is giving too much of oneself away. When constantly caring for others, it can be excruciatingly difficult to carve out time for oneself. However, it is also true that if a woman doesn’t somehow make herself a priority, at least on occasion, she won’t be the only one who suffers for it. The more restricted and deprived she feels, the less success she’ll have in loving others well, too. It really is true that everyone benefits when mom is happy.
Supporting Her Only Benefits You
Women who have just given birth are exhausted and overwhelmed. They probably need more understanding and sensitivity from their partners than at any other time in their relationship. Men who are able to help with the baby, the house, and offer emotional support to their partners find themselves in happier marriages. Their wives feel more understood and cared for, and as a result, are more likely to feel positively about connecting intimately.
Help Her Feel Comfortable with Her Body Again
For a woman, feeling comfortable with her body goes a long way in being receptive to making love. New mothers have experienced a multitude of physical changes in a relatively short period of time. They are frequently self conscious about these changes, and can have a challenging time letting go sexually and enjoying themselves. Help a woman feel comfortable with intimacy again by acknowledging the miracle that is her body. Respectfully admire the aspects of her body that are particularly pleasing to you. Support her in comfortably and gently reconnecting with her physical and sexual self.
Solicit Her Feedback
After giving birth, a woman benefits from time to explore her evolving sexual self. She will have undergone physical changes that take some time for her to integrate. She may respond differently to certain techniques and ways of being touched than she did before her pregnancy. Take time to gently re-learn your lover’s body. Be open to finding new ways to please her. When making love, be sure to watch her responses to know what is working and what isn’t working to turn her on. Ask her directly in a loving way what feels good, and solicit her feedback to learn what she wants and needs as her body and psyche are undergoing so much change.
Giving birth is probably the most significant change that a couple undergoes through the course of their marriage. All emotional and physical changes can have an impact on a couples sexual life. It is easy for couples to loose their intimate connection during this time.
A strong intimate bond is always in everyone’s best interest – hers, his, and baby’s. Partners who develop compassion for each other, and who make cooperation a priority, can use this blessed time as a springboard to greater intimacy in the long run. After all, the miracle of birth is probably the most intimate experience two people can share. Use it’s magic to take your relationship to the next level!
Dr. Marianne Brandon is a clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist in Annapolis, Maryland. She is co-author of “Reclaiming Desire: 4 Keys for Finding Your Lost Libido” published by Rodale. You can learn more about her work on her website.
photo credit: Tampa Band Photos via photopin cc