When my child was born, I was so overwhelmed by his need for me that I ended up forgetting to take care of myself. I was hurting, emotionally and physically. I pushed myself too hard, and I thought I had lost all sexual energy. Forever.
Going into my second pregnancy, I’m relieved to know more about just how wide the range of “normal” is, including the shifting nature of the day-to-day experience of parenting a newborn.
I know how to access more compassion for myself and for my partner. I know how hard it is – and I know that it can be done.
The first time around, I felt I was drowning. Even the kinds of frightening thoughts that accompanied my postpartum depression (oh hi! Just want to wander into the backyard during this blizzard with my newborn and curl up somewhere so we both freeze to death!), terrifying as they were and are, I learned that they are quite common. It took the reassurance of my psychiatrist to let that sink in. The fact that I was able to admit, without much prompting, that I was having those thoughts was what was less common.
As with the potential sexual changes of this time, we keep a lot of it quiet, and sharing might help normalize the whole situation.
According to a study published by The Journal of Advanced Nursing in 2015, even the idea of postpartum sexual health remains “conceptually immature.” It’s an understudied field – and this “has the potential to leave [people] unprepared to manage transient or normative sexual health changes after childbirth.”
And it’s not only people who have just given birth who are affected. Adoptive parents, new fathers, and partners also feel these sexual changes.
As it stands, and as a doctoral candidate in this field shared with me, postpartum sexual health is often approached by health care practitioners as a strictly biomedical topic.
Research and common sense suggest that this checklist mentality (have you resumed intercourse? are you using birth control? what kind of birth control are you using?) not only leaves new parents ill-equipped to deal with changes that are both temporary and normal, but often takes too narrow a view of the sexual experience, both in terms of the interpersonal aspect (relationship satisfaction) and what “counts” as sex (often seen by providers as nothing more than penis-in-vagina).
Parenthood, especially in the first year, is a profoundly engrossing experience of shifting identity and expectations. And this shifting identity impacts our sexual lives.
Too often, according to one Planned Parenthood Nurse Midwife with whom I spoke, people are told, “Just have sex more – you’ll start wanting it again.” Not only is this not necessarily true, it isn’t useful advice for everyone. I know it wouldn’t have been useful to me. I was dealing with extreme pain that made this kind of “advice” worthless. It didn’t reflect or acknowledge my experience in any way.
Of course, not everyone is sexual for a variety of other reasons – you may identify as asexual, for example, or choose not to engage in sexual activity for health or trauma-related reasons. Those reasons are absolutely valid, and this does not mean that you’re broken. It just means that not every aspect of this resource will resonate with you (and that’s okay!).
We can support one another with more care and nuance as we navigate the sexual changes that accompany postpartum life. Here are eight ways to get started.
1. Communicate (Honestly) with Yourself and Your Partner(s)
I vented to my mother-in-law about the stress of feeling (note: my “feeling” doesn’t necessarily reflect my reality) that I’m in charge of absolutely everything in my family. She countered that ships have one captain for a reason.
This may be true, but it doesn’t embody the kind of equality I’m seeking in my marriage. When people come together to co-parent, it’s likely that there will be differing styles, parenting views, and senses of urgency over various tasks (how clean does a house really need to be? how many dishes in the sink is okay? how much spit up and pee on the sheets before you wash them?).
It’s all so banal – and it all has the potential to spill into the bedroom. If one parent feels responsible for every chore, might sex, too, begin to feel like just another demand being leveled on their physical body?
If you are co-parenting or have a more involved partner (or partners), it’s important to consider the balance in your relationship, as communication can impact the intimacy between you.
When we begin, or continue, to communicate honestly about our needs, we’re much more likely to get what we need and want from ourselves and our partner(s).
Have you heard about “I” statements? I know, it’s like the punchline in every semi self-aware indie rom-com, but it really works. Framing our needs in the first person is a simple and dramatic way of taking ownership of our feelings and giving those in our lives room to act and react.
Some examples: Instead of “you always say that,” try “I feel like I’ve heard that from you before.” Or instead of “you never help me with nighttime feedings,” try “I really need your help with nighttime feedings.”
Another fruitful practice is personal and mutual prioritization. Basically, how important is something to you personally, how important is it to your partner(s), and how important is it to you together? Sometimes, just expressing that you value help with early morning parenting at a ten-out-of-ten is enough to give your partner some incentive to step up at that time.
2. Have Patience with an Evolving (Or Devolving) Situation
A study in the August 2016 edition of The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality discusses just how important relationship satisfaction is to overall postpartum sexual satisfaction. Well, duh.
What is “relationship satisfaction” (or dissatisfaction) code for anyway? Being a new parent comes with so many physical demands and previously unfamiliar expectations and responsibilities. Balance between partners in taking on new tasks is often elusive, especially at first.
If you aren’t parenting alone, it’s important to keep perspective around your relationship – keeping in mind that change is a part of the process.
Relationship satisfaction is dynamic. Personally, mine plummeted postpartum. I was scared about this until I realized how common and temporary it is.
Whether due to entrenched habits, gendered expectations, or variances in individual levels of skill and comfort, when we, as new parents, forget to help each other and communicate about it in ways that work for all parties (which might involve a lot of trial and error), relationship satisfaction tanks.
“Do you hate your husband yet?”
This is what one dear friend asked me as I struggled in the early postpartum phase with my first newborn. Her comments helped me to realize that it was “normal,” this intense change in viewing my relationship. It also helped me to step out of the moment and be open to it being a transitory phase.
3. Engage in Sensual Contact That Isn’t Goal-Oriented
Aside from the physical and hormonal changes that accompany giving birth, the impact of extreme fatigue is often a factor. There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used as torture; it quickly disorients and breaks a person down.
It’s not surprising that, especially during that “fourth trimester,” when a newborn still thinks day is night and their activity levels reflect that, sex may be complicated. And in many households, everyone involved in caring for the child feels the fatigue of a new baby.
So how might we create space for intimacy in the midst of all this?
One approach is broadening the very definition of the intimate. Connection between new parents can get lost in the consuming work of caring for a newborn, but with a partner, even just acknowledging the difficulty in finding the moments to connect may be enough to remind one another of the possibility for real physical and emotional intimacy.
In this demanding time, appreciating the beauty and power of one another’s physicality might take the form of skin to skin contact (it’s not just for babies!): holding hands, relaxing together, experiencing simple touch.
And for both co-parents and single parents alike, touching and reacquainting ourselves with our bodies is another form of sensual touch that can bring us back in touch with our sexuality.
4. Explore Your Body and Accept That Sensations May Feel Different
If you have recently given birth, there will certainly be some fairly extreme physical changes happening in your body. For those who have recently become a parent and haven’t given birth, the changes are still there in the shape of new demands on time and schedule that impact overall physical and mental wellness.
The damaging, demoralizing, and misogynistic myth of “getting your body back” postpartum is deeply entrenched in our popular culture. There’s an expectation to engage in quick transformation, shedding “excess” weight and toning all over. The reality is, for many, the weight is not “excess” – it’s critical to the body processes that are still ongoing.
I argue that body love and acceptance are especially crucial at this time. And that it’s possible to plant the seeds within ourselves and our relationships for loving and valuing our new and changing forms.
What would it mean to see the postpartum body as beautiful, with no caveats? What about this might be challenging personally, and why? Who benefits from a new parent’s dissatisfaction with their body? Do your body beliefs serve you in feeling, being, and living well in your body? If not, who do they serve
5. Unpack Your Sexual Baggage
How do we unpack our sexual baggage? For some, it will require the help and guidance of a caring professional. For others, it may begin with a series of questions, and an openness to seeing what arises in their face.
For many (maybe most), sex is a complex thing. Raising an infant doesn’t simplify the equation.
How honest are you with yourself and your partner(s) about your desires, needs, your need to feel desired? What feels good for you? What turns you on physically? Mentally? Emotionally?
Have you worked through and with sexual trauma(s) in a safe and supportive environment? How important does sex feel for you? Your partner(s)?
What messages about sex did you receive over the course of your life – and how many of them do you feel you’ve accepted or rejected as your own? How do you and your partner(s) approach changing dynamics in level of desire and interest in sex? For you, is it acceptable to engage when you don’t feel desire? For your partner?
These aren’t easy questions, and whatever the answers, your truth is precious.
By asking these kind of questions of ourselves and our partners, without expectation and hopefully without judgment, we open ourselves up to the possibility of truly intimate connection.
6. Heed Your Own Signs
Culturally, with so little guaranteed support for new parents and parents of young children, it may be difficult to transition into roles of parenthood. Even brief time out of the work force can feel “selfish” or be “risky” or impossible when there aren’t adequate economic supports in place and it isn’t understood to be a crucial and valuable part of the human experience.
Just last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines pertaining to SIDS, advocating that infants room share with parents for the first six months to a year. Without guaranteed leave and support policies, the interrupted sleep that goes with sharing a space with a grunting (albeit adorable) infant doesn’t make going back to work easier.
It’s yet another in a long list of ways policy contradicts with recommendations and expectations.
We’re told to breastfeed, but not given adequate leave; allowances are made for pumping, but pumping produces less milk, and research is still unclear about whether all the benefits of breastfeeding translate when bottle feeding breast milk. Now add to that the suggestion to room share, and again, without adequate leave, it’s just not possible for some parents.
Personally, I felt a kind of betrayal by everything I thought I knew about feminism up until the point of becoming a mother. For one thing, I was so confused by messages of “having it all” being a possibility, that I didn’t know how to deal with the liminal time of the newborn period. I thought the changes to my body and mind would be permanent and devastating. I was angry. I felt lied to. Sex felt like part of the problem.
I worked and am working through this by noticing and allowing whatever feelings seem to arise in the moment. By not trying to silence them, I was able to explore what was standing between me and indulging and exploring my sexuality both with myself and my partner.
This sometimes meant asking for a pause during those rare times my husband and I were about to be sexually intimate. I could feel my body reacting (tightening in the throat, anger in my stomach) and I needed to acknowledge those emotions before I could feel ready for sexual intimacy.
7. Help Is Out There
I tried to have sex with my partner. I wanted to know it would “work.”’
The pain, even eight weeks postpartum, was excruciating. It wasn’t just the actual tear to my perineum that hadn’t healed properly – I was also dealing with some PTSD, which I learned is pretty common.
My physical pain was unusual; most people recover sooner than I did, but, due to an emergency with my baby, I received an extensive episiotomy. I’m still processing just how uncommon the complications of my vaginal birth were.
For some new parents, prioritizing self-care, already a challenge for many, will become especially important. This could include massage therapy, Mayan Abdominal and Internal Massage, Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy (standard for all new childbirthers in France), a colorectal specialist, or lactation consultants. Sometimes it requires a team effort to build and rebuild.
Support groups are a very effective way to learn from and lean on others in similar situations. They have the added bonus of being, often, free. Whether, for example, through new parent meet-ups, lactation support groups, babywearing gatherings, there are others in similar situations who may have perspective, resources, or simply a willingness to listen to offer.
8. Acknowledge the Changing Role of Sex in Our Lives as New Parents
The unknowable nature of the change, vulnerability, and raw realness of new parenthood is not easily expressed. But once people are initiated into this period, which is, of course, different for everyone, being able to talk about it honestly and openly may be one way of dealing with the very hugeness of it all.
It is a place that benefits from patience. Patience with the physical processes of healing, with fluctuating levels of desire, with the new pulls and priorities on our time and schedules, with changing sex drive, and more.
For those who suffer from postpartum depression, or other mood disorders, there may be the additional factor of impacted libido from SSRIs and other medications. We have to take care of ourselves in order to take care of our children.
In a world that isn’t gentle with new families, might we provide that softness for ourselves?
Sarah Toatley is a writer and teacher. She and her growing family are based in Rhode Island. More on her work can be found on her website.