Most women see their birth care provider six weeks after delivery to see how things are going down there, and many people (and doctors) view this visit as the “sex clearance” checkup. If your vagina or incision look sufficiently healed, then you and your partner are free to go about having all the wild sex you have spent the last six weeks daydreaming about. And, to be fair, if you have, and your provider gives you the A-okay, who am I to stand in your way? But on the off chance that getting down is the last thing on your mind right now, I am here to offer some reassuring perspective and baby steps forward.
“Everyone’s recovery is totally different,” says Michigan sex therapist Sarah Watson. “Your body has been through the most enormous change in your life. So, to only give yourself six weeks to return to your pre-pregnancy sex life is a little unreasonable.”
“At six weeks, you’re probably up every two to three hours. You’re not taking a shower every day, and you’re probably feeling overwhelmed,” says Watson. “You may not have had any time to think about feeling sexy, and that’s okay, because your whole focus has been keeping this baby alive.” Also, if you are breastfeeding, the hormones helping with your milk supply have a dampening effect on your libido. Many of the moms I surveyed for my book, Strong as a Mother, said their sex drive did not really come back until after they weaned.
New babies are so dang cuddly, but they are also on you. All. The. Time. If you are breastfeeding, then they are attached to your breasts a good number of their waking hours. All that intimacy can be wonderful and cozy and delicious. It can also be stifling, hot, sweaty, and even claustrophobic at times.
If that’s the case, the idea of another human sidling up to you may be unappealing at best or abhorrent at worst. You may feel like you just don’t want one more person touching you, which is perfectly understandable.
This is something I often felt in the early years of both of my daughters’ lives. I got such satisfaction from cuddling them that I felt very little—really no—need for intimacy from my husband at times. “You are getting all this dopamine from the baby, and it makes sense that you wouldn’t want to get that elsewhere if you are getting it from nursing or cuddling with your baby,” says Erin Martinez, a couples’ therapist in Dearborn, Michigan, who specializes in sex therapy. (Phew! It’s normal!)
I’m lucky that my husband didn’t take this personally, even though he wished it were different. But it’s understandable if a partner does, says Martinez. “Your partner can feel left out of the process, that they’ve been replaced or are not needed,” says Martinez. “If you are having that sort of sexless feeling, I would remind your partner, ‘We decided to do this together, and we’re just making it through this time period. It’s not forever.’” Then talk about how you want to reconnect as your baby gets older.
“Some women feel they are completely mommies now and that they are not sexual people,” says Watson. “I usually tell them they need space where you are not being a mommy in order to think about yourself in a sexual way again. Before I even get into talking about date nights, I like to give moms space to be adults, to talk to other adults about adult topics, to enjoy taking care of parts of their body. I think the first haircut you get after having a baby goes a long way to feeling a little bit like, ‘I am able to take care of myself.’ Giving women the space to do those things before they feel a responsibility to feel hot and sexy.”
“I encourage women not to feel like it is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to intimacy,” says Martinez. “Think about what might feel good to you. What kind of touch you would like. What will help you feel connected, loved, and attractive.” Martinez sees this as an easier way to warm up to intimacy again and gives you something to build on in conversation with your partner. “Rather than saying, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ you can say, ‘I would love to do this.’”
If you’re too aggressively tending to your sexual connection out of fear, then sex becomes just one more thing you have to do,” says Dan Savage, author of the long-running Savage Love column and creator of the Savage Lovecast. And we all know the to-do list of new parents is long enough. On the other hand, Savage says, if you are not sustaining some level of sexual connection, it can be hard to get it back.
His solution? “Adjust your expectations of what’s possible. Keep it on a low simmer for a while. Neither my husband nor I had to give birth,” says Savage. “But we did have the exhaustion of having an infant in the house and the relay race of that. So we masturbated together for a while. It was a way to keep the flame alive. Our approach was, ‘This is all we can do for now, and this is pretty good.’”
If vaginal penetration is your end goal, then there’s a pretty good chance one or both of you is going to be disappointed in the weeks and months (year?) following the birth of a baby. But if you can expand your idea of what sex is, it becomes easier to incorporate it into your life more readily (especially because some of the alternatives are much quicker!).
“A hand job is sex, and it can be really great sex,” says Savage. “Someone holding you while you masturbate and saying a few dirty things to you is sex.” Looked at this way, you can have a pretty active sex life—if you want to—not too far into new parenthood.
“Rather than trying to fit into your partner’s needs, think about what turns you on and invite him or her into it,” says Mara Acel-Green, MSW, psychotherapist and owner of Strong Roots Counseling in Watertown, Massachusetts. “Don’t rally for your spouse. Rally for yourself! Get naked, touch yourself a little, then let him or her do it.”
I have been resistant to this idea forever, but my husband finally convinced me this past January that we should make a resolution to schedule the right conditions for sex. It doesn’t mean we have to just do it because it’s Friday, but it means we schedule the time to be together on Friday that leads to the relaxation and reconnection that makes it more likely that we (okay, me) will want to do it.
“The reason why scheduling time together works,” says Savage, “is that there’s no burden to perform. If sex happens, great. If not, hold each other, watch TV, talk. It’s the pressure that kills sex, so schedule intimacy.”
“It’s going to feel different the first time you have intercourse,” says Martinez. And if you have any pain, listen to it. “It might be your body’s way of saying, ‘I’m not healed enough.’” In that case, Martinez recommends checking in with your doctor to make sure everything is physically okay.
Also, low estrogen (which can result from breastfeeding) can decrease your level of natural lubrication, making sex difficult or painful. This can be effectively treated by your doctor and/or ameliorated by lots of lube.
You have your whole relationship ahead of you. “If things change in your sex life right now, it doesn’t mean it’s going away forever,” says Martinez.
From Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood by Kate Rope, copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.