In a conversation inspired by Charlie Capen, Joanna and Julie ponder the problems and promise of sex after parenthood.
JULIE: When I read Charlie’s piece, “Why Won’t My Wife Have Sex With Me?” I was immediately struck by two things. One? Damn, Charlie and his wife were really really good looking. Two, I felt this immediate sense of empathy for both him and his wife. Parenthood can really do a freakin’ number on your sex life, for men and women alike. Between the astounding physical changes labor and delivery wreaks on your body, breastfeeding, being touched constantly and the insane hormonal changes that can sap your sexual libido, you can feel a wreck as a woman. Also? There is this crazy deconstructing of “WHO AM I NOW???” business that can mind-trip even the most sextastic of us gals.
JOANNA: I absolutely agree with you, Julie. Baby-birthing can totally jack up a couple’s mojo! I went from feeling like a sex goddess to this miserable ball of hormones with giant boobs. You’d think giant boobs would make me feel more like a sex goddess, but to me they felt alien. I had to wear this giant bra and my cleavage was so pronounced that I would find corn chip fragments and sandwich crumbs in my bra. Gross, I know! I felt gross! Meanwhile, my long-suffering husband, Ivan, was like Charlie: totally turned on by my robust femininity. I was grateful to be pregnant and to have my sons, but my sex drive had been turned off like a switch.
JULIE: Right, and that’s a terrible feeling. You had a sex drive, and then it disappeared! But there your husband is, and he’s still turned on. An unfair conundrum: whose needs get met? How do you avoid sex turning into a chore? Is it possible to turn around the crushing spiral of guilt and avoidance, suspicion that he’s getting his needs met in some other way? Can you get back on the bicycle for his sake, for yours, in a culture that tells women sex is always supposed to be spontaneous, passionate, and meaningful?
I think so. I think it takes long hard conversations and a willingness on the part of both the man and woman (frankly, I think there must be parallels in gay and lesbian relationships after parenting starts) to own their own issues, to make sex and romance a priority.
JOANNA: The cycle of rejection-denial-guilt that happens in a marriage when either partner’s sex drive suddenly tanks is really destructive. And this seemed to be the underlying cause of the misery in our marriage. And it lasted way too long, as there were about four years there where I was either pregnant or nursing.
I believe strongly that the change in my sex drive came initially from hormones. I was still so into Ivan, but my desire was a flat line. I didn’t have any lust for him, but I also didn’t daydream about anyone else, and I didn’t masturbate or fantasize at all. It was such a sudden and stark reversal that I felt confident my body was in control, not my psychology, and certainly not my heart.
After my husband was rejected by me over and over, even when I looked exactly the same (I didn’t really show until about five months) he started to get frustrated. I got pregnant after dating Ivan for only three months, and so we didn’t have a very solid foundation upon which to rely when it came to communicating tough feelings. I knew he was sad, and it was crushing to me. I worried about him being unfaithful, despite him being the most faithful man I know. Thankfully, he was always true to me. Because I knew he had a high sex drive and I knew I wasn’t satisfying him I felt I had failed. And he felt deeply unloved by me.
JULIE: That’s a terrible feeling, both for him, and for you. Your sex life was totally changed. Let’s talk about the term “sex life.” In the past, I thought of the sex life as if it was bracketed by how many times per week I got laid. Laid meaning standard hetero sex (penis-in-vagina/intercourse, or P.I.V., as I like to call it). That’s pretty easy to accomplish prior to kids. Also, in a standard western hetero-model, monogamy is the norm. It’s the expectation (and it may be an unconscious agreement) that couple, upon selecting each other, will look solely to the other for sexual and romantic fulfillment. Things work well while there aren’t kids in the house.
Enter Parenthood! This pretty much ruins everything since that your schedule and life are completely controlled by a small demanding entity. Her body, once his, belongs to baby. The man is shut out, he hates this. She hates it too, though that first six months she’s deep in a overwhelming chemical and cultural romance with the baby.
JOANNA: After you give birth, bonding chemicals flood your brain and nursing only makes this more so. Your every waking thought is of your baby. Your body is so cued into the baby that even before the baby wakes up hungry, your breasts “let down” milk in preparation. I can still remember that feeling of milk letting down—it’s like pins and needles in your boobs—and then within minutes the baby wakes up hungry. It’s an amazing miracle of nature that protects our species and helps it thrive. But it leaves room for almost nothing else. This is a part of what’s called The Motherhood Constellation.
This Motherhood Constellation is so strong that it feels nearly impossible for most new moms to openly hear and accept their partner’s feelings of rejection or need. It’s sort of like, “Are you kidding me?! I have this new baby and am not sleeping and my nipples are cracked and bleeding and YOU want me to feel bad for YOU because YOU’RE not getting enough sex?! I just had stitches in my vagina!”
JULIE: Ouch! I know I felt that way, completely wrapped up, not only from the romance, but also the sheer obligation and responsibility of it. The pie chart of my brain which previous had three wedges: “Work,” “Play,” and “Me Time” suddenly turned into one huge “KEEP THE BABY ALIVE AND THRIVING” wedge, with a couple of tiny slivers for “showering,” “grocery store,” and maybe, if I was lucky, “sleep.”
My sex life, which was once a very sexy dance, filled with easy cues and shortcuts and familiar moves, was now a mangled mess. I missed sex. Mostly, I missed missing it. Missed “me.”
Damn, Joanna, we are making everything sound like Doom And Gloom. That’s not the case though, is it?
JOANNA: It’s so far from doom and gloom! In fact the future of sex is bright for Charlie!
JOANNA: Here is how everything changed for Ivan and me. My girlfriend Kerri told me she felt exactly the same way. She had nursed Jack for 18 months and kept hoping over time she would feel lust again for Mike. But she didn’t. I was so relieved not to be alone! I was being eaten up by guilt and even these lingering doubts that perhaps I didn’t love Ivan anymore, since I didn’t have any desire. But I knew, I mean I really knew that Kerri loved Mike with all her heart and that they had an awesome marriage.
I had a blood test drawn and a hormone report came back unsurprising: low progesterone and other little hormone irregularities. The doctor said these things were totally normal. She prescribed a cream that would “fix” my progesterone levels.
Here’s the funny thing: I never even filled the prescription! It was like a sudden release from the burden of thinking something was wrong with my soul or my heart. I wasn’t a failure. I was normal. And it was wrong for me to think Ivan should just forget about his desire just because I was in The Mommy Constellation.
Sex for us looked different, of course, than when we were brand-new and I was a nubile little 110-pound 26-year-old. But it was improvement, and that was enough to help us start to untie the tangled web of guilt and shame and rejection and pain that had built up in those new-baby years.
JULIE: There has to be honesty. There has to be a willingness for women to understand and accept that the men in their lives are telling the truth about their sex drives and to not pathologize them. There also has to be willingness from men to get that the first year of parenting is not at all conducive to ladies feeling the sexytime. In the middle? Should be, as Dan Savage puts it, being Good, Giving, and Game.
These things need discussion. There are all kinds of things that go wrong in a life. What if someone had cancer? What if someone just flat out lost interest? Do you divorce? Our culture says divorcing over sex is shallow. Do you step out, Don’t Ask Don’t tell? Risk the inevitable fall out from getting caught?
Or do you find a way to make the “sex life” into mine (which I need to be responsible for), his (which he needs to be responsible for), and ours, placing a priority on the ours. Do you seek, find, and enjoy sexual imagery together? Do you explore kink, fetish, or polyamory? Do you read and write erotica to each other during the down periods? Catch a show like Bedpost Confessions to listen to sexy stories? Can you handle that in a 10-year relationship you might average actual intercourse or P.I.V. three times a month but a whole lot of other stuff? Ethical non-monogamy isn’t necessarily the answer, but widening the range of sexual experience can’t hurt.
If we want those two sex lives to merge and connect, we have to be willing to share, to find innovative ways to talk, play, and get in the mood (if we aren’t), to be willing to be patient through depression, exhaustion, hard work schedules, and yes, kids.
JOANNA: I strongly believe that a lot of what can help a woman’s sex drive get better is an exploration into new ways of becoming aroused. Those rituals you establish when you first meet may have to change. Women, it is partly your burden to bear. Your husband’s desire is as important as your lack of desire. You must both find a way to bridge that chasm.
Some ways to bridge that chasm are non-P.I.V. sex. Mutual masturbation can be awesome at this stage. Watch the other pleasure themselves, and let that be your shared sexual experience. It can be really bonding just to watch the other person’s face and body, and it’s quick, which is crucial when you never know if that baby monitor is about to light up!
Women may need to open up their minds to things like erotic literature or erotic images. There are super sexy black and white photographs that don’t feel like pornography, if a woman isn’t into porn. We have some good ones on our blog, SheSaidHeSaid, When I look for those pics I come upon some really super hot ones that are much more graphic and still artistic and lovely.
Guys, try to be flexible, try new things, offer to read her a dirty story or whatever else she wants. As easy-on-the-eyes as Charlie may be, walking around pants-less might not be enough. I know when my babies were small, one penis just looked like another penis. The last penis I’d seen before my husband walked in pants-less was my son’s and it was covered in baby diarrhea, and then it peed all over my shirt. It’s just an organ, like any other, at some point. It’s the soul, the lust, the manliness of my husband that makes his body hot to me.
And now our sex life is rocking! I think my husband is a little shocked by exactly how rocking it is … but he’s relieved. Recently he admitted to me that he thought I just didn’t love him in those bad days. That made me regret how I’d handled his lust, I wish I’d been more compassionate.
That isn’t to say it’s always going to be great, but struggling through this time in an open and respectful way—and coming out the other end of the craziness in one piece—is going to set a foundation for you guys to have a happier future, no matter what you choose to do with your sex life.
JULIE: For us, we both decided that we wanted more sex, better sex, different sex, and we just took to it like deciding to go to the gym. We knew we had to take more risks, be prepared for difficult conversations, and do stuff when we’d rather watch TV on the couch. And I think our marriage and sex life (ours, his, and mine) are both the better for it.
I suppose it’s the expectations I keep coming back to. You both have to set, examine, and agree to your expectations, and be prepared to have conversations when those expectations change. Cause they will likely change.
And wives? Believe your husbands. They love and want you. They miss sex. They want it with you and that’s a good thing. You get to have pleasure. He wants to give you pleasure and you deserve pleasure. That’s one thing I think women forget. That sex should be something you GET to do, not HAVE to do.
(Pro tip? Hire lots of sitters. Get a car you can make out in.)
JOANNA: What’s so awesome, Julie, is that you guys found your own way back to happiness and sexual fulfillment, and so did we, even though they were along different paths. There is hope in your future, Charlie, and there is SEX in your future, too! Great sex with the woman you love, as long as you guys are open, explorative, and respectful (and it sounds like you are).
As a last thought, as much as Julie and I both appreciated the awesome American Apparel blue briefs shot of Charlie, I couldn’t help but marvel that nobody made a comment about Charlie using his sex or body in his article in that way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for showing off the body and being proud of ourselves, but would the comments have been the same had, say, Julie or I posted a picture of ourselves scantily clad along with this piece? I gotta admit, I want to try it.
Do you feel differently about me now that you’ve seen my belly button? Are you able to take me as seriously as a thinker? There is a double standard as far as expecting men to repress the sexual desire for their wives, but not expecting the man to be wounded by it. Is this another double standard? Charlie’s allowed to show off his bod and be taken seriously, but are we allowed to as well?
JULIE: Didn’t I make an objectifying comment? I think I did. I admit it. Damn lady! You’ve got a good body! FWIW I take you and Charlie very seriously, I think. I can’t remember because I’m all distracted now. I’m going to wait on sharing bikini pics, as I don’t have any at the moment. Maybe I’ll post one next year after my half-marathon! I’ll be an Amazon!
JOANNA: Can’t wait!
—Photo Cia de Foto/Flickr