Sex can be one of the simplest pleasures of a relationship: Elemental, physical, a deep kind of communication that doesn’t need words. But in the months after becoming parents, things change for many couples.
Normally secure, sexy adults lose their mojo. Intimacy is stifled by sleep deprivation. Space changes, the bedroom morphing to accommodate a sleeping, sometimes caterwauling infant. Time itself is altered, as consciousness and oblivion, night and day, tumble into a clutter, like chopped-up bits of film on a cutting-room floor. Hormones, those corporeal pirates, maraud in hidden hoards through the bloodstream.
Six weeks after giving birth, the official advice states, is when a woman can start having sex again. This proved true for me: Roughly a month-and-a-half after having a baby (by emergency Caesarian) my partner and I did try making love. It was possible. But it was then that we realized: In all the books we had read about pregnancy, childbirth, and baby-rearing, nobody had given us any advice on how to manage a sex life in the months, and decades, to come.
Perhaps there are people who cheerfully resume intercourse and don’t feel it’s much different. For many, however, having a baby complicates the love life in ways that go far beyond the immediate, physical issues.
Mostly this experience happens in private, and is barely spoken about even among close friends or in doctors’ offices. But I was determined to find out whether I was alone, and how other people manage the wildly new world of being parents, without losing touch with the lovers they used to be.
“It’s quite interesting that out of sex comes babies, and yet babies are sure to put one of the biggest dampeners on sex that you’re ever going to experience,” Caroline Lovett, a psychosexual and relationship therapist, told me when I asked her about this. Lovett, who is accredited with the UK’s College of Sex and Relationship Therapy, has 20 years of experience working as both a nurse and a therapist. Based near Lewes on the South Coast of England, she keeps horses and counsels couples and individuals tackling the complexities of committed relationships.
During a long conversation, I asked her everything I could think of about sex after childbirth. Here—in her words, edited and condensed—are Lovett’s answers.
Why don’t people seek help for sexual problems?
I think it’s very difficult to come and talk to a therapist about your sex life, full stop. And it’s very difficult to admit that there’s a problem. We see these wonderful, glamorous magazines about becoming a mother, becoming a parent. And if you’re not fitting into that model, who do you talk to about that? It’s a really difficult time for people.
People often only come once the problem is very well established. It’s not unusual for someone to have been living with difficulties in a relationship and to come and see a therapist many years later. People certainly present in the therapy room struggling with their relationship and, within that, their sexual life post-having children. They might not have made the link: That the changes started happening post-children. But, through talking, we can often make that strong link.
Sex can be a good mirror of what’s happening elsewhere in life. It can be a good indicator of what’s going on emotionally for somebody. Undealt-with things like grief, and shame, and anger, can often come to the forefront around somebody’s sexual identity.
Sex therapy isn’t necessarily about the act of sex. It’s about somebody’s whole sexual being. The sexual identity which they own.
What do people find difficult about sex once they have kids?
The reason people present can be so varied. A woman might turn up and say she’s completely gone off sex: She doesn’t want to have sex at all in her relationship, and it’s causing problems. Or, I might see a man whose partner doesn’t want to have sex, and he’s feeling rejected. Or, as part of that, he might be experiencing erectile difficulties.
One of the obvious things is how people feel about their bodies, physically, after giving birth.
People worry about their genitals. They worry, “Will my vagina ever go back to how it should be?” And of course we know that it does, but this can be a big concern for women. It’s not always very helpful that women tend to hear this six-week message: “By six weeks you should be ready to have sex again.” Your body might have repaired itself in six weeks, depending on many things, for example whether you’ve had stitches. But you might not psychologically be in that place. A partner, however, might think, “Oh great, six weeks is up!”
Your body does change. The issue might be how women feel about their bodies changing; it could also be how their partner feels about their body changing. Becoming a parent brings with it a massive identity shift. How easy is it, then, for your body to feel sensual and sexual again? And how easy is it for you to feel sensual and sexual, when your body has been very much about creating another little person—a person for whom you are then completely responsible? Re-owning your body as a sensual part of yourself is important. And finding space for that in the relationship.
Is it important for couples to attend sex therapy together?
If sex in the relationship is an issue, I try to encourage couples to come to therapy together, because relationships are complex things. I might also recommend individual therapy alongside that. That’s not because anything needs to be kept secret. It’s from a place of respecting that they are individuals, and some things might be easier practiced talking with a therapist, before they feel OK to talk about them with their partner.
We have a saying in sex therapy: Communication is lubrication. It can get you out of a lot of trouble.
I love my baby but have a lot of mixed feelings as well—is that normal?
Emotionally you can feel really overwhelmed after giving birth. A “straightforward” birth can be really overwhelming. But if you’ve had a traumatic birth—if you’ve had doctors poking around, you’ve had a forceps delivery or another intervention—to be able to reclaim your body back for you is a really big thing.
Intimacy, and how we act with each other at that intimate level, is something we’ll look at. (And this is with the presumption that there isn’t post-natal depression, which of course is a whole different area.) The intimacy that a mum can feel with her baby can be very strong. Breastfeeding, for example, is a very intimate connection. And for a mum, at that time, that might be enough; that intimacy might be overwhelming in itself. And that, in turn, can feel quite difficult for the dad. Where’s his intimacy? Dads can experience a sense of loss.
Something else can also happen emotionally: A lot of things that might be experienced during life, but not come to the forefront, can come up at the time of having a baby. Things like shame, anger, and grief, these can all be aroused by the experience of pregnancy and childbirth. And that can be really confusing. There’s this expectation of being delighted, and that might be there. But there might be these other feelings going on as well.
How does sleep-deprivation affect parents’ sex life?
What we know about sleep is that the hours of sleeping between 11pm and 3am are the most important in terms of restoring everything that we need to restore in our body. So those broken nights: People just aren’t able to cushion themselves through sleep, to restore all their energy and help their thought processes in those times.
Sometimes that experience can bring couples much closer together. But for other people, particularly if they’ve never experienced anything like that before, they go into a kind of shock. And again, it’s really confusing. Because all the messages are around the joys of parenthood. Yet suddenly they’re feeling tired, and resentment starts to build up: who is getting the most sleep? Particularly if somebody is breastfeeding, and they’re not sharing those night feeds.
How does the birth experience affect couple’s sex lives?
One of the issues that comes up fairly often is around traumatic birth, and women experiencing that they have no control over what’s happening to their bodies.
The women might be finding that sex for her isn’t a pleasurable experience. Her partner can then feel rejected. The distance builds and builds, and all sorts of avoidance creeps in, where one or both partners might begin avoiding even being in a situation where sex is an option.
Particularly if a women has perhaps planned a very “natural” birth, and suddenly something happens—they get taken in for a Caesarian, or a forceps delivery, or a ventouse-type birth [where forceps or suction are used to help the baby out of the woman’s body]. It can seem like everyone has taken over. And sometimes women hold onto this in their bodies. That can play out in the sexual field, in a fear of being able to let go and enjoy the sexual experience. Because what happened last time they tried to let go, and give birth? It all went terribly wrong.
Being able to recognize that that’s happened can be a major thing for women: To be able to talk about it, and to be able to share that with their partner. To realize it’s not that the woman’s gone off her partner, that she doesn’t want sex. She doesn’t want to reject him. But this very traumatic event has happened for her, that at the time wasn’t explored. And she probably didn’t have the words or the energy to explore it then.
Ok, so how can couples start to address some of this stuff?
The first, most important thing is this: There’s no blame associated with anything. There’s no blame, and there’s no shame.
First I might encourage couples to work on a program that starts with them reconnecting with their own bodies. We might call this a self-focused program.
Before you can really work on the sexual part of the relationship, you might need to do a bit of work on yourself. That could be around working with all of the senses, and being very attuned to how we experience our senses. This should come from a point of pleasure: What do we find pleasurable? What tastes pleasurable, what feels pleasurable, what looks pleasurable?
Because, of course, sex should link to pleasure. It shouldn’t be something we feel we have to do, or to get out of the way. Sometimes that link can get lost. If IVF has been a feature, for example, sex can become very functional: to make a baby. The pleasure bit might have got lost. So that’s the first aim: to reclaim our sexual identity and allow ourselves to experience pleasure.
So we start off with self-focus, and self-pleasure. Then, when couples feel comfortable with that, and we’ve explored any vulnerabilities around sex and the self, then we’ll move on to focus on the couple. I try to help individuals to develop their language, with the aim of sharing what they’ve discovered with their partner. This part can be really difficult: Firstly, to identify what it is that you like and don’t like, and secondly, to be able to ask for it.
And here, the way we normally work is to take sex—in the form of penetration—out of the equation, for a while. That’s because people can begin to focus solely on sex as an act of penetration, and an orgasm. And if that’s not working it can produce an absolute sense of failure. But, in fact, the beautiful, beautiful thing about relationships is that people can have sex in whatever way they want, providing they’ve worked it out between them. We work to re-establish intimacy, and desire, and pleasure, looking initially at those things away from penetration, and away from orgasm.
Everyone keeps their clothes on in therapy room. But there might be exercises for people to do at home. Then we come back and talk about them: What went well? What didn’t go well? What’s coming up for you? What blocks were there? All sorts of things come up!
What do you tell couples to do? Some magazines suggest “a nice romantic dinner,” but is that really the answer?
It’s one of the things. Long-term relationships are really hard work: If couples are experiencing difficulties, they are not alone. Most long-term relationships experience difficulties, if people were really honest.
That’s because the very thing that’s important for the relationship is the thing that gets squeezed out. Time for each other, and time to be really attentive, and listen to each other, gets squeezed out amongst everything else. Cleaning the kitchen floor and emptying the bins and shipping the kids around everywhere. Going to work. Everything else seems to take a priority. It becomes a functional relationship, rather than an intimate relationship.
So having a date night, or having some time set aside when you do something just for yourself, is really important. But there needs to be more to introduce intimacy back into a relationship. That’s the bit that can be tricky. You can go out to dinner four times a week and still not have any intimacy. To actually sit down and really be interested in each other, and each other’s experiences, and how each other is feeling—that’s the tricky stuff.
To get there I might say: I just want you to be curious. Try to have an empty sheet of paper, and make this presumption: That you know nothing about your partner. We’re just going to be inquisitive and see what we can find out. We think we know our partner really well, and sometimes in therapy you find out all sorts of things you didn’t know.
It often feels like there’s a fine line between being honest and being hurtful
The difference comes in your reasons for telling them, and your intent. Another way to look at it is that sometimes if we’re not able to express what we’re really feeling then in some ways we’re not giving our partner a chance. Our partners don’t intuitively know what’s going on for us. Sometimes we don’t even know what’s going on for us. So how are our partners ever meant to know? But there are ways that things can be said that can be gentler and kinder, which is why it’s sometimes useful, in couples’ therapy, to have a session or two individually. The therapist can help find a way of being able to say what it is that you need to say, but gently. We call it “reframing.”
I have close friendships, but some of this is hard to talk about even with friends.
Friendships are amazing. But when we talk to friends, they will often share their experiences, and they will offer advice. What a therapist will do, ideally, is really, really listen. Then, within the room, you all work together to try and work out the solutions. The therapist might have lots of ideas up their sleeve around useful things they might want to try. But they’re never going to tell someone what they should and shouldn’t do.
Is talking about sex in a relationship always difficult?
Oh yes, really difficult. Some people will come into therapy and not mention sex at all. So they might come along and say, “We’re just not getting on, we’re arguing all the time.” One of the questions that a psychosexual therapists is always going to ask is: How’s your sex life? Quite often there will be this real silence in the room, and then they look at each other, and then one will go: “Well, actually not so good.”
Asking about sex is a good indicator of what’s going on in the rest of the relationship. I always find that when you give people permission to talk about their sex life, they’re really happy to. Even though it might be difficult, there can often be this big sense of relief: Ah, I can talk about it! I always admire the people that do.