Hoo boy! I started this post in October 2009, based off a different post I was writing about "How to have sex when you're cosleeping". The point in that post came up that "the difference is greater between pre-kids sex and post-kids sex vs. cosleeping sex and separate-bedrooms sex."
So I started writing about the differences between pre-kids sex and post-kids sex, intending for it to be a quick write followed by a speedy publish before I thought about it too hard.
Mm-hmm. So here we are in March 2011, and I'm pregnant with baby #2 and anticipating my next postpartum sex experience. I figured I'd better publish this as a sort of refresher for myself, and I can update sometime after the birth (like, in one and a half years?) if needed.
Without further ado, this is my own take, from my hetero/married perspective after a low-trauma vaginal birth. Your sexual experience may vary.
I wrote before about how to have sex when you're cosleeping and promised that I would write again in a more general fashion. I had come to the conclusion then that it wasn't so much cosleeping affecting our sex lives as it was just having had kids at all, so I want to explore that further.
I am writing under a fierce deadline here, so I refuse to do any research or talk to anyone about this. I am just going to post this off the top of my head, and you'll have to deal with whatever fluff therein resides.
Got you intrigued, don't I?
I dig this topic, though. I think the more we talk honestly about sex, the less that expectations will be raised foolishly high, and the less people will be disappointed with themselves or their partners (or their kids) when having kids changes things, sex-wise.
Um, it strikes me that I need to put some sort of warning flag on this post that it will be TMI and NSFW and all that. I think that should be fairly obvious, from just the title, but I'm trying to intentionally head you off if talking sex will discomfit you.
All right. Here are the barriers to sex post-kids, as I see them:
You need time to recover physically from birthAs Jessica pointed out eloquently in a guest post about the gentle lying-in period that should follow birth, women's bodies need time to recover from birth.
I had heard that six weeks was the minimum to wait after a vaginal birth before resuming penetrative vaginal intercourse. (I think it's similar for after a c-section, but I'm not doing research, remember?)
Let me go on record here as a scoffer. Six weeks? Six weeks? Really.
What sounded so...very...long to Sam and me before I pushed a 12-pound baby out of my vaginal canal started to seem woefully inadequate when I was faced with vaginal intercourse at the famous six-week mark. To be perfectly honest, I think we gave it a try around 5 weeks, so yes, I suppose I was breaking rules and maybe that voids my warranty here.
But...ouch. Just, ouch. I was not ready. My vagina was not ready. There, I said it.
I had had a "normal" — in the sense of uncomplicated and vaginal — birth. I had a couple small tears in my hymen tissue (no, seriously — pseudo-virgin birth right here, folks!), with a few stitches that had since dissolved. There was no medical reason I wasn't physically ready to have intercourse. I just...wasn't.
It hurt. Everything was still stretched out and sore. I needed more time.
What surprised me was that, even after the ouchy pain went away, intercourse didn't feel good for a long time. About nine months is what I recall, give or take. I was kind of too depressed about the experience to journal it at the time. Intercourse stopped feeling bad and moved to feeling...like nothing. Well, if it went on for too long, I felt chafing. Use one hand to rub the back of the other back and forth for awhile. Does it hurt? No. Does it feel good? Not especially. Would it hurt if you did it long enough? Yup. That was sex for me, for about nine months. It was a total bummer. There was some excitement from just the idea of intercourse, my memory that it used to feel good, but I had no physical sensation of pleasure from it, and I was so sad about it. I didn't tell Sam, because I didn't want him to know I wasn't enjoying it. If he asked for sex, I agreed, most of the time, but only if I couldn't distract him from forgetting that he'd asked that night. If he didn't ask, I didn't offer. Why would I?
I was even having trouble achieving orgasm for the first time in my life. (I told you this post was TMI — if you don't listen, you deserve to be shocked!) It's not that I couldn't. It's more like I couldn't be bothered. I would tell Sam to never mind, to just go ahead with the intercourse and get it over with. I wouldn't use those terms out loud, but in my mind I was totally the stereotypical Victorian woman, raising her nightgown, lying back on her pillow, and thinking of England. It just wasn't interesting to me, because it didn't feel good.
The good news? It came back. The sensations came back, the pleasure. I almost wept with joy. I think I surprised Sam by saying something like, "Hey, that actually felt good!" Since, you know, I hadn't told him it hadn't been feeling good for a long time. I was never so happy in my life to feel sexual.
You need time to recover mentally and emotionally from birthWhat I was mentioning above intersects with this, because it's kind of hard to separate the two. Far from our Greek dualist idea of body below and mind above, of course we're all one holistic being. Our bodies are ourselves, and what we experience physically affects what we experience emotionally and vice versa.
Particularly when hormones come into play.
Your body is awash in hormones following a birth. You're crashing from intense chemicals. You'll notice it physically in the blood that won't stop seeping out of your crotch. Some women have lochia for six weeks or more after birth. It's messy, and constant. It doesn't mean anything bad, but for me it was a vivid red reminder of a traumatizing miscarriage I'd had before getting pregnant with Mikko. I knew it wasn't the same at all, but it played out identically.
I also had this weird reaction to touching my vulva or seeing the stitches down there. I was tender physically from all the stretching that had happened, but I was even more tender emotionally.
I had an intense squeamishness at the thought of looking at the damage. I had a horror of touching the stitches, which I imagined to be black and stabbing into my skin in several sensitive places. Several weeks later, at a time the stitches were supposed to have dissolved, I gathered my courage and had a peek with a hand mirror. I couldn't tell much, but I did see something long and stringy that I thought was a line of mucus. I pulled at it to brush it away, and it tugged the skin with it. I squealed and dropped the strand. I had touched one of my stitches. They were clear, not black, and I had been tricked into touching one!
Every day for the first couple weeks I took a sitz bath, which I grew to believe was something akin to magic. Mikko and I would relax together in a warm, shallow bath. Sometimes I would pour in a handful of steeped herbs from my home-birth package. Sometimes I decided the warm water was enough. I felt the water swirling around the privates I was too afraid to touch and healing them, gently. I imagined the blood flowing to the area, attracted by the warmth of the water, and restoring it gradually.
Remember, again, that my pushing was not traumatic, and my scars not extensive. Still, every time I stretched my legs apart too far, I was rewarded with a twinge of pain to remind me to keep them together. If that's not enough to put a girl off sex, what is?
Besides the emotions attached to the physical symptoms, there are emotions caused by the swirling hormones. You're going through a chemical crash after birth. Remember how all that lovely retained hair started falling out in clumps a few months postpartum? It's because the body transitions, fast, from nurturing life through a placenta to nurturing life through breastfeeding (or not, in which case you'll also be going through the emotional and physical toll of weaning).
You might notice also that as the mother you're not getting nearly as much attention as when you were pregnant. Pregnant ladies are fawned over, their bellies worshiped. Once the baby's out, all the attention diverts to the newborn. And who even knows how shuffled aside your partner is feeling! Even if you're not as immature as I am as to have mourned the loss of that special pregnancy attention, there are a myriad of these big, emotional shifts you have to deal with, right away, while caring for a newborn. Sex can seem like one emotional hurdle too many.
You are caring for a childThis one is pretty self-explanatory, but sometimes partners in particular don't realize quite how obsessed your mind is with the tiny bundle in your arms. It might be a survival thing, the way mothers can be less impressed even with their own, older children once a helpless newborn is in the picture.
But, even as your newborn grows, you're still all day and every day, the mother. It can be hard to break out of that role, and sometimes you don't want to.
You are being touched all day longAnother reason sex can be challenging is that you can start feeling like you're getting all the physical touch you need from your child, and then some. I don't know that this is particular to breastfeeding, cosleeping, babywearing parents — I imagine most babies end up being held quite a bit — but I could see that attachment parents might have a special insight into going from touching when the adult wishes, to being touched all day long, whether the adult wishes or not.
There might be times when your partner reaches out to do something innocuous and pleasant, like give you a backrub, and you shrug off the invading hands. You're not allowed to deny your baby's needs, but you figure your partner can understand and show some patience.
That can be true, and then again, it can end up extending unhealthily. At some point, the type of touch I was receiving from Mikko and the type Sam was offering finally diverged in my mind, and I could welcome both. But it took awhile for my sensors to reset.
I found also, that with breastfeeding, the sensation in my nipples is completely different now. It doesn't bother me to have them suckled — whew! It does bother me to have them twiddled. It really, really does. And it doesn't matter a bit whether it's Mikko or Sam doing the twiddling. I'm hoping they go back to normal after I wean, but till then, they're just not the same breasts anymore, sexually speaking.
Your body looks differentI never had a bikini body. I thought it would therefore be relatively easy to go to really not having a bikini body. But my postpartum body hurt even my low sensibilities. My stomach, with its stretch marks and lopsided flabbiness, looks like something out of a special effects shop. My breasts got huge. Not necessarily a bad thing there, but another difference that makes you realize just how much your body has been through — and how it will never again look the same as it did before.
You might or might not enjoy visiting The Shape of a Mother, a site where women can send in pictures of their changing bodies. In my weaker pregnant moments, it horrified me to see what I could (and would) become. In my more forgiving, expansive moments, I feel a spiritual connection to all these women's bodies, to the beauty of birth stretching and scarring and marking us forever as mothers.
But, regardless if you're feeling sanguine or spooked, your body is a new one — to you, and to your partner. I never felt Sam recoil at what I perceived as its ugliness (thank you, dear!), but I had to take time to accept the changes and not make the altered bits off limits for touching or loving. Speaking of which...
You and your partner need to adapt to the changes in your body and your livesAs you are going through changes, so your partner is going through the changes with you, but from the outside.
One odd thing to bring up here is that, if you're breastfeeding, your partner will have to get used to the possibility of breastmilk entering into your sex lives, either through leakage or through an inadvertent mouthful. I preferred not to go topless during sex during the early months, because a cami would put some pressure against my nipples and stop the downpour of milk that, in my mind, interfered with the sexy atmosphere.
I don't know what to say about the perceived tightness or otherwise of the vaginal canal post-sex. I did once ask Sam about it, and he told me he couldn't tell a difference. Whether he was protecting my feelings, or whether my Kegels were worthy of celebration, I do not know. Suffice it to say that it is still possible for both partners to enjoy sexual pleasure post-birth, whether vaginal or C-section, but it might take time. A lot of time.
One of the biggest reasons I had sex before I was ready was fear of displeasing Sam. This is not a coercive relationship we're talking about here. If I had refused, he would have accepted it graciously. But the fact is, he had not been through the physicality of birth. His sexual bits were functioning just fine, thank you, and his hormones weren't rampaging, except in normal fashion. I know that, even when six weeks off was sounding way too short to me, it still sounded way too long to Sam! I understand that, mentally — in any other situation, if you told me in advance that sex was verboten for six weeks, I'd be chafing at the bit, too. So I felt I owed it to him to try. This is a delicate balance: pleasing your partner without harming yourself. I can't tell you what's exactly right in your situation. In mine, were I to do things over again, I don't think I'd do much differently, except that I might be more insistent about stopping if things sharply hurt. I did stop us a couple times, but of course, I felt bad for Sam in those instances.
After it felt neutral, I think I would still let Sam lead the way in requesting sex and try to "give in" most times even when I didn't feel like it. It's not like I think that was great sex or anything, but when it wasn't actually hurting me, it wasn't a bad thing to give that to my partner. Fortunately, now I know that eventually the good sensations will come back for me, too, so I'll have that to look forward to instead of wallowing in the fear that it will always feel bad. In the meantime, I think it's reasonable for Sam to expect some sexual attention even in the early months when I don't much feel like it.
My partner's point of viewI was talking with Sam about this article, because I have a habit of publishing posts about our marriage without, you know, getting his input ahead of time. He'll just read them and go, Huh, well, here's what I would have said...
But, this time, you have lucked out. I was supposed to have posted this eons ago (or a week or something equally appalling), but I didn't, and I therefore chanced into mentioning it to Sam, and he gave me some insightful aspects to add. I should do this more often.
Sam was pointing out that, once you have a baby (or once we had a baby), there's not as much time just to cuddle. We used to always sit next to each other on the couch. With breastfeeding, I preferred sitting in the glider, leaving Sam by his lonesome. We actually did make an effort after awhile to correct this and sit next to each other more.
However, we usually are not sitting next to each other alone. Usually there is a very wiggly toddler either wedged between us or squirming on one of our laps.
And when he's asleep, that's not our cuddle time — that's our holy-crap-I-have-to-get-so-much-done time. We are usually lost in our own mental worlds of concentration, making up for time that's been lost to parenting.
And if you have interests outside of parenting (!), something might suffer — well, it almost certainly will, at least in the early days. You have to choose between following your interests, sleep, time to decompress, and time with your partner. The good news is, it's not a permanent situation — or doesn't have to be. You might just need to make allowances that you won't be able to do absolutely everything when you have a newborn or even older kids, and be gentle with yourself and your partner as you try to prioritize time together.
Some links I came across while waiting and waiting and waiting to publish
- "VII - Happily Ever After The End Part, or LUCKY" at Honest to Betsy, wrapping up her experiences with having a hysterectomy soon after the birth of her third child:
"In three more weeks I will visit my doctor and surely he will tell me that I've healed spectacularly and that I may now resume my daily activities including vacuuming and also sexual intercourse. I have some pamphlets on this -- about when you can "resume" vacuuming and sexual intercourse.
And it's precisely the thought of "RESUMING" that has me freaked out just now. I don't mean I'm afraid of vaccuming. I'm not even sure what that is. But I'm a little afraid of having sex. …
… I'm afraid I might not want to, like ever again. … I'm afraid that when I invariably do want to I'll find that everything will be different. Because I'm different. Because this experience has changed me. Because it is a trauma -- a sexual trauma. Kind of like having a baby is, although having a baby is also wonderful. And oh right, I just had a baby. And, well, you know, resuming can be kinda hard.
There's something about making love for the first time after having a baby that is TERRIFYING. It's not really the physicality of it. I think it's the realization that there is just no going back to the people you were. If you haven't been utterly changed by the process of childbirth, you've done something terribly wrong. Quite suddenly there are two strangers in your bedroom -- one is your husband and the other is YOU! And there's just no getting back at it in the bedroom, because we aren't the same people. And so there's no RESUMING SEXUAL INTERCOURSE after these events, there is only starting again."
I'm probably quoting way too much, but isn't that awesome? Go read her whole series for more good stuff.
- I had a good link to give you about sex after a cesarean, but it's gone dead now. Sigh. Such is the internet.
- Finally, for more of a balanced view, here are several takes on the subject compiled by Luschka at Diary of a First Child: "Natural Childbirth: Changes In Sex Life." If you haven't yet had your first child, maybe you won't be as scared after reading that there is actually a range of postpartum experiences…
I will end with a true story.
One night, Sam and I were whispering to each other as we prepared to go to sleep in our family bed.
"We forgot to do it," one of us said.
"Oh, that's right," said the other, "we were going to do it."
Mikko, in quintessential toddlerhood, sleepily spoke up from the bed: "My turn to do it."
And this is how children kill the mood quite effectively.
If you're inclined to share, what has been your postpartum sexperience?