Let’s face it - the birth of a child can feel like death to your sex life, at least in the short term. For some couples, the effort to keep any kind of romance alive starts to feel like a battle against an army of forces hell bent on knocking out any and all intimate connection they had once enjoyed. Hormones, the physical aftermath, breastfeeding, sleeplessness, stress… and that is only the beginning. So what, if anything, can new parents do to keep romance alive? While some of the roadblocks may be non-negotiable, there are steps you and your partner can take to keep an intimate connection alive during this tough period - something you can continue to build on when the chaos subsides.
Most of the impediments to intimacy will simply disappear over time. Hormones reset, babies start sleeping, bodies heal. If you and your partner can go into this phase with reasonable expectations and a good sense of humor, the time apart will feel less alarming. One of the best mantras for new parents is “this is just for now”. The more you hold in mind the idea that this is just a phase, the less panicked you will feel about the sudden disappearance of your sex life. And the less likely you will be to let yourselves settle into the lack of intimacy as the new normal.
Once you’ve been given the go-ahead to start having sex again, couples should have in mind an idea of what kind of sex life they would like to continue having, based on reasonable expectations under the current conditions (and not the past). For most couples, this will entail some downward adjustment in the actual amount of sex they can expect. At the other end of the spectrum, many of my patients have found it helpful to actually articulate a floor, or minimum amount of contact, they feel they need to maintain for the sake of their marriage. Even though it might not sound romantic, it’s actually a way of honoring and protecting the relationship by building in certain safeguards.
After babies arrive there may not be much room left for an intimate life - at least the way it used to be - but you can still find small ways to keep the connection alive. In the end, it’s not so much what you do or for how long you do it for that defines sexual connection. Rather, what matters is whether some sense of sexual rapport is present. An atmosphere of intimacy can be manifested by small acts and gestures that carry a message of interest and desire. This could be a look, a kiss, a flirtatious text -- anything that says “I still think of you as someone I desire.”
For many couples, the radical changes birth can bring for a woman’s body becomes the elephant in the room - one that blocks their path back to an engaged sex life. Many women are self-conscious about their post-baby bodies; they are unsure of whether their mate will still find them attractive and may themselves have trouble imagining their body as a source of sexual pleasure after giving it over to motherhood. And while they may naturally be reluctant to express this, fathers themselves are often disoriented by the disappearance of their partner’s pre-baby body. The worst thing couples can do is to pretend that everything is business-as-usual. While it might feel risky, having an honest (and sensitive) conversation about these issues can actually open up a new path to intimacy.
Couples often make the mistake of trying to get their sex life back to where it was before the baby - an effort that invariably ends in defeat. It will never be the way it was before, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! When people get stuck on the idea of pre-baby sex as the gold standard, they are destined for disappointment. Bodies change, people change, the way you love changes. The trick is to figure out how you want it to be now. That might mean learning to live with some work and planning. It also might mean re-examining what it takes to ignite the spark of desire when you can’t rely on spontaneous surges in libido.
With all the forces working against keeping your sex life alive, many couples just decide to give up and console themselves with promises that they will do something about it when the baby gets a bit older. The problem is that kids continue to provide a great excuse to not try to reconnect. And for many couples, later never really comes, as they fall into the habit of diverting all that love into parenthood - something that feels safer than trying to find a way back to each other.
If you are waiting for your bodies or imaginations to give you the old signs to head into the bedroom, you might be waiting forever. With all the changes afoot, most likely your libido is not going to give the signals it used to, if it gives any at all. This is especially true for women, who in addition to fighting through some desire-dampening hormones, may be experiencing normal changes in sexual responsiveness. The desire to have sex may come from a relational instinct - such as love for your partner or a longing for connection - rather than from obvious physical cues.
Couples often tell me that they hate the idea of “scheduling” sex because it sounds so unromantic. But the truth is that when you were courting you probably “scheduled” and planned for sex all the time! Back when you are dating, the anticipation and preparations for a night out together, especially one that you knew would end in bed, seemed like part of the romance. As new parents, there’s no reason why you have to approach sex any differently. Remember, we are always planning for the things that are really important to us, and sex with your partner should be included in that.
Most new parents feel daunted by the difficulty of keeping their sex life alive. Faced with the multitude of challenges that come home with the baby, it can feel like an unsolvable riddle. But with some patience, acceptance, and willingness to redefine expectations, parents can maintain a connection that will ultimately reinforce their much-needed sense of mutual love and support.
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