Postpartum care

Postpartum sex: Why you don't want it—and why that's OK

A baby changes everything—including, oftentimes, your interest in sex. Still, the goal isn't to get the "old you" back. It's to figure out who you are now.

Of all the alarming and deeply inexplicable aspects of becoming a new mother, the one I found most unnerving was the way strangers began suddenly asking about my sex life. For 35 blissful years, no one but me (and, to varying degrees, my partners) seemed remotely interested in the state of my libido. And then suddenly, only a few months after I’d gained a third of my body weight and experienced the joy of a small human driving a Mack truck through my pelvic floor, everyone was suddenly going on about it—doctors, midwives, friends, family members and the media (news outlets in general, but women’s magazines and mom bloggers in particular). Looking back, the questions started in late pregnancy: Did I want it more? Did I want it less? Was I dreaming about it? Was my vulva swollen like a grapefruit? Had I watched the YouTube video of that woman having an orgasm water birth?

I assumed everyone would lose interest after the aforementioned incident with the Mack truck, but if anything, people brought it up more, not less. Almost four years after giving birth (for what I am delighted to say is most definitely the last time ever), I’m finally beginning to understand why people are so interested in whether or not new moms are getting laid. It’s because—hold the front page—having a baby often massively and irrevocably messes with a woman’s sex drive. Not just our sexual appetite, but also our bodies and every aspect of the way we think of sex.

This should be obvious. Having a baby changes a woman’s relationship to almost everything. My own experience of matrescence (the identity shift into motherhood) was as powerfully disorienting as Kafka’s Metamorphosis. And yet, it’s often not spoken of as a transformation so much as a yoke to be cast off. Most of us still talk about “getting our bodies back” or “restoring” our sex lives, as though what’s required to have great sex post-kids is a time machine.

A whole new normal

“There is no going back—not after kids,” says Kelly Swartz, a Toronto-based erotic expert, sex coach and mother of three who offers counselling and workshops for women struggling with sexuality and libido loss in the wake of motherhood. The first thing she does with clients is explode the myth that they need to revert to an idealized, carefree, pre-kids sexual self. That’s impossible, because so much will have changed. “After having a baby, it’s just a different kind of sex and connection,” she says. Many clients come to her looking to re-establish their sex lives, but what they actually need is “a complete reacquaintance” with their body and themselves. It’s all intertwined.

Swartz’s words rang true for me. After I had kids, every major relationship in my life (professional, social, romantic, familial) had to be renegotiated, boundaries redrawn. It was such a disorienting time that the question of sex began to seem almost beside the point. If I ever thought of it, which I did more and more rarely, it seemed a trivial pleasure from a previous life stage—something I might do if I had the time and strong inclination, like getting a massage. But it’s not irrelevant. Why? Because for women, the subjects of sex and sexual desire are often much more complicated and potentially transformative than we believe at first. Having a baby makes it possible to ignore this for a while until, quite suddenly, it isn’t.

Before I continue, a disclaimer: It’s not entirely fair to generalize about any experience as wildly diverse as birth, sex and motherhood. Not all new parents are hetero-normative, cis-gendered couples in which the mother experiences a dulled libido after birth and the father is present, accounted for and generally well up for it. And yet for the purposes of this article, I’m going to generalize as if this were true, because the experts I spoke to say it’s a common situation. If you are, in fact, a new mom experiencing the thrill of polyamorous anal sex six times a day, I apologize. Enjoy!

As for the rest of us, the sex thing after kids is complicated because, as Swartz explains, “for many women, sex drive doesn’t just magically re-establish itself after birth. It often requires care and attention.” This in itself is a key to understanding that something much deeper is going on than a temporary loss of mojo. But what exactly?

In her critically acclaimed 2018 memoir And Now We Have Everything, author Meaghan O’Connell writes with bracing candour about the experience of accidentally becoming pregnant in her late 20s and, with the support of her long-term boyfriend, deciding to take the plunge. The chapter on sex blew me away. O’Connell writes movingly about how she lost all interest in it for the first year or so after she had her baby. “I not only didn’t want to have sex,” she writes, “I would have preferred it did not exist.”

To me, this summed up the cruel irony of postpartum libido loss. At first you don’t notice it’s happening because your focus is so squarely on your baby. But before you know it, having not much sex has become the new normal.

When my kids were small, I remember having lunch with a wise older woman who, when I made a wisecrack about my low post-baby libido, cautioned me to “be careful about that.” I struggled to contain my indignance. Was this woman actually suggesting I needed to “put out” whether I wanted to or not in order to keep my marriage intact? What a pathetic, retrograde assumption. I was livid.

It was only much later I realized this woman may have been trying to convey something far more nuanced: Intimacy and sexual desire are necessarily altered by the experience of motherhood and, while that’s entirely expected, it’s also important not to wall off that part of yourself completely. The fact is, desire and intimacy, once lost, can be difficult to re-establish, says Arantxa De Dios, a UK-based counsellor and hypnotherapist who works with new moms. Being aware of negative thought patterns about sex, says De Dios, is key to changing them before they become habit.

empty bed with rumpled sheets

Photo: Stocksy United

Wanting to want it

Is there anything more depressing to contemplate than wanting to want to have sex? And yet this is precisely how so many new mothers feel. It’s not so much that they miss sex but they miss missing it. And yet, in the fraught, exhausting “fourth trimester,” the idea of not needing something, anything, is somewhat of a relief. In the postpartum months, libido loss is a physiological reality. After birth, new mothers experience a sharp drop in estrogen, the hormone that makes us feel sexually inclined and helps to lube up our nether regions when we do. Women who breastfeed also experience a sharp rise in a hormone called prolactin, which stimulates milk production and further drives down estrogen. Add to this the fact that the brains of many new moms are flooded with oxytocin, the so-called “cuddle hormone,” which promotes infant bonding in a way that makes us more interested in snuggling our newborn than getting down and dirty with our partners. Basically, evolution doesn’t want us to have sex when we have a newborn to care for, so it created a hormonal antidote to horniness. The tricky part comes when those hormones subside and a mom still doesn’t want it, or at least wants to want it but doesn’t.

Beyond hormones

Your sex drive can stay depressed post-baby for all sorts of reasons, most of which are situational rather than hormonal. New moms report feeling “touched out” at the end of a day with their baby, not to mention feeling flat-out exhausted. Add to this the lingering effects of pregnancy and birth-related body changes, plus the attendant body-image issues experienced by many women, as well as stress and anxiety, and it’s no wonder sex becomes an afterthought.

More rare, though not uncommon, are post-birth medical issues. I had surgery for prolapse of the bladder after the traumatic birth of my second son. At the time, my gynaecological surgeon told me that many moms are so ashamed they simply live with the condition for life. A girlfriend of mine experienced excruciating and persistent pain during sex after her first birth and eventually underwent a surgical repair of her original episiotomy to fix the problem. Issues like these don’t exactly make women feel sexy.

The most commonly ignored factors of all when it comes to post-birth sex are the emotional and psychological factors. Not just postpartum depression—which has decent awareness these days, finally—but birth trauma and maternal anxiety, both of which clearly have a dampening effect on desire.

Moving forward

Therapy is often recommended for new moms wanting to want to have sex, because it can uncover issues that may have pre-dated your baby’s birth, as well as deal with new ones. De Dios, for one, recommends hypnotherapy since it works on the sub-conscious mind—ground zero for human desire. Hypnotherapy is controversial, but there is also evidence it works (if only in a suggestive way). In sessions with moms, De Dios works on shifting subtle patterns. For example, with a new mom dealing with poor body image, she might work on encouraging the mind to reframe self-perception. “Instead of always focusing on your postpartum belly, you learn to focus on something you like about yourself—your gorgeous boobs or your glowing skin,” she says. It sounds simplistic but De Dios swears it can work.

When the underlying psychological issues are more benign, Swartz recommends that her clients start taking that much maligned term “self-care” seriously. After a baby, even the most basic pleasures can seem like a huge indulgence, so she instructs her clients to clear the time and make a fixed date with themselves. Go to a café, say, and read a book alone while savouring a hot drink. She asks women to explicitly ask their partners to assist in this project.

Many women wisecrack about how “hot” they find it if their husband does the dishes or vacuums the stairs, but according to Swartz, it’s no joke. Resentment can build against a partner who isn’t shouldering their share of household responsibilities, and resentment doesn’t usually lead to sexy time.

Many new moms put everyone else’s needs first. “They can no longer access their desire because they’ve gone so long not feeling entitled to it, they’ve almost forgotten how,” she says. A good portion of her clients even feel like it would be wrong to masturbate since they’re not having sex with their husbands.

Evolving identities

For many women, the whole notion of sexual desire changes after having a kid. So much of what turns us on as young women is crudely performative and socially conditioned. Even without being explicitly told, we learn that we are only entitled to feel hot if we’re hot in the eyes of men (or women who have been conditioned to view the world as the eyes of men).

After babies, I felt free from this crap, and was able to see how undeveloped and backward my pre-birth sexual identity had been. I came of age in the 2000s—a time when vajazzling, Brazilian waxes and leaked celebrity sex tapes were seen as integral components of a kind of pop-feminism we’d convinced ourselves to embrace. What the hell was all that about?

Like many women, after having kids, I discovered I was no longer interested in the performance of sex—the arousal that comes with being an object, rather than an agent, of desire. I was done pretending. No, not in the orgasm department (I’ve always been a bad liar). I mean, in every other aspect of physical intimacy. I was done with acquiescence, done with waxing and plucking and exercising myself into submission just so I could be allowed to “feel sexy.” I was done with the feeling that the only pleasure I truly deserved was the pleasure of pleasing a man and that anything else was shameful and dangerous. If I was going to enjoy sex again, I needed to figure out how to enjoy it selfishly, greedily, on my own terms. The irony of all female desire, of course, is that it often dovetails neatly with the neglected partner’s wants and needs. What husband doesn’t long for his wife to want sex as much as he does? It’s that basic.

Instead of neutralizing my sexual self, motherhood eventually led me to access and understand my desire more deeply— but only after a period of reflection. As Swartz says, it’s important for women to see the post-baby period as a time of transition rather than rush to go back. “The true sexual journey,” she puts it, “is about a woman’s intimacy with herself.”

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