Lift your libido

Help for harried parents who've lost that loving feeling

Think back, if you can, to life with your partner before sleepwalking tots invaded your bed on a nightly basis, and when grey was the shade of your favourite sweater instead of those stray hairs that keep sprouting out of your scalp.

A hallmark of that early-relationship period was likely the amazing (and frequent) sex that accompanied it. “Rutting like weasels,” my friends and I used to call it. But with children now in the picture, many of those same couples have gone from “weasel sex” to weaseling out of sex. Plug yourself into any conversation with a group of parents and the theme of “not getting any and, frankly, not wanting any” is a common one. “All the stars have to be aligned for me to even think about sex. Work has to be OK, no stresses regarding the kids, no school homework,” muses Kate,* a full-time student and mom of two boys.

It isn’t just women who watch their libidos take a nosedive. According to Ellen Starr, a marital and sexual therapist at the Canadian Men’s Clinic in Toronto, it is often the man who’s experiencing decreased sexual desire.

For couples experiencing such a downshift, the change can be puzzling: I still love my spouse, so why aren’t we “doing it” anymore? According to the experts, there are lots of reasons, both psychological and physical, for a dip in desire — and for those who want to reignite the passion in their marriage, there are solutions to just about every one of those reasons.

*Names withheld by request.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that stress and fatigue are the main reasons a couple’s sexual activity decreases once children are on the scene. “Essentially, sexual energy is excess energy,” says John Lamont, professor emeritus in the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at Hamilton’s McMaster University, and a specialist in sexual medicine. “If we put everything we’ve got into caring for a newborn, there isn’t any energy left for anything else.” The same is true for parents of older children, who can be just as intensely demanding of your time and attention.

Lamont believes in reassuring new parents that a lull in their sex lives is normal. (In fact, a minimum six-week hiatus is usually prescribed after a woman has given birth, to allow her body time to heal.) So don’t worry: At this stage of raising a family, intercourse may be less important than carving out some one-on-one couple time to ensure your relationship stays strong.

There could also be a medical reason why your libido is at low tide. In both women and men, the hormone testosterone is a big part of what fuels sex drive. When testosterone levels are too low, interest in sex may also be low. Your doctor can test to check if this is the cause in your case. And while you’re there, ask about any medications you’re currently taking. Some prescription antidepressants are linked to low sex drive, as are oral contraceptives (hormones in the pill can lower women’s testosterone levels).

With many couples nowadays choosing to have their children later in life, some women find themselves entering menopause while they still have active and demanding children at home. A dip in estrogen levels can result in vaginal dryness, which can make intercourse uncomfortable. (Some women find using a lubricant, such as K-Y Jelly or Astroglide, provides relief.) Symptoms such as hot flashes and sleep interruption lead to fatigue, which decreases a woman’s desire. As for their husbands: Some researchers believe that “male menopause,” or the reduced level of testosterone that comes with age, can also be linked to decreased sex drive.

The cause could also be psychological or emotional. For example, Lamont says a deep-down belief that sex is dirty may be suppressed before children enter the picture. However, when little ones arrive on the scene, it’s harder to suppress, as people with this buried belief “are afraid of being caught by the children,” Lamont notes. “Mommy and Daddy aren’t supposed to be having sex. They’re Mommy and Daddy.” (See Prime suspects for a list of common causes of low libido.)

Because sexual dysfunction is embarrassing to talk about, some men and women are tempted to “solve” the problem without medical help, for example by ordering Viagra over the Internet. Don’t do it. Make an appointment to see your doctor, and be prepared to discuss all of your concerns openly. He or she may refer you to a sexual health specialist.

Communication with your spouse is important too. “Men find it difficult to acknowledge that they have a different response to sex once they are fathers, and women are often ashamed to talk about this because it indicates that their husbands don’t find them desirable anymore,” says Starr.

If your health practitioner has ruled out medical reasons for your low sex drive, a solution may be found closer to home. Josey Vogels, a sex columnist based in Toronto and author of Bedside Manners, believes many women don’t want to have sex in part because they just don’t feel sexy. So, she suggests, “Without worrying about the sex, which might come later, get a new haircut, do some nice things for yourself to feel good — not for anyone else, but just for yourself.” This doesn’t have to involve a trip to the “naughty store” downtown; sex toys and skimpy lingerie are more about increasing pleasure during the act. All you want to do is start thinking of yourself as an attractive sexual being again.

Still, it’s a real challenge finding the time to feel sexy when the house is a mess, the kids are crying, there’s no food in the fridge and the laundry mountain has just toppled onto the family dog. If that’s the case, you might want to talk to your partner about picking up some of the domestic slack — a move that, according to Yummy Mummy Club founder Erica Ehm, will not only allow mom to spend a few minutes of me-time, but can also help dad feel more connected with the home and family, if he hasn’t been pitching in as much as he should.

For some, domestic issues go deeper than too many chores with not enough hands to get them done. Long-term relationship troubles, and even shorter-term disagreements, can chill things out in the bedroom. In situations like these, you need to work out your differences before you can think about reinvigorating your sex life, and couples counselling can help. Again, start with a visit to your family doctor, who can refer you to a counsellor in your area.

If exhaustion is what’s sapping your sexual impulses, consider the possibility of romance at unconventional times of day. Depending on your children’s ages and the flexibility of your schedules, Ehm suggests, “try an afternoon quickie when you’re not so tired.” Starr agrees, noting that your time as a new parent can be an excellent opportunity to get more creative and fun: “Have sex on the kitchen floor if the baby is sleeping upstairs or your bedroom is not child-free.”

Whatever strategy you and your partner decide on, take things slowly and keep your expectations realistic. “We are so hard on ourselves about what type of parents we are, let alone worrying about the sexual side,” says Starr. If you focus on the emotional side of your relationship, and carve out a bit of time to curl up with your partner and just relax, Lamont says, eventually the sexual impulse will return. Though you may never again experience the urgency and passion of your honeymoon period (did you really want to anyway?), you can find a level that’s pleasing and comfortable for both of you.

Sarah,* an author and mother of two, looks at long-married sex philosophically. While her desired frequency of nookie may be below the reported national average of two to three times a week, she says, “I can blame my lack of interest on fatigue, the fact that it’s been the same guy for 20-plus years, or the fact that, well, some things lose their thrill as you get older — and that’s OK. For example, dancing really close to the speakers and belting out the words to Go-Go’s songs. You did it a lot in its time, and now it’s time for other things, like choosing fabric for the new den chairs you’ve been craving for 14 years and can finally afford to buy and not see them ruined by spit-up.”

*Names withheld by request.

Four of the most common causes of low libido:

You’re on the pill The same hormone cocktail that’s supposed to help you enjoy sex more by eliminating the worry of becoming pregnant can actually make some women want to have sex less. Sheesh!

You’re taking antidepressants Low libido can be a side effect of some antidepressants. Talk to your doctor about possible alternatives (but don’t stop taking your meds without talking to your doctor).

You’re breastfeeding A nursing mom’s body releases prolactin, a hormone that is a big help with breastfeeding, but a hindrance to sexual function and interest. Don’t worry: You won’t be breastfeeding forever.

You’re exhausted or stressed Nuff said.

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