Where’s the Sex?

In a conversation inspired by Charlie Capen, Joanna and Julie ponder the problems and promise of sex after parenthood.

Joanna Schroeder and Julie Gillis are both married, though not to each other. They have kids. They still like sex.

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.”

(takes breath)

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!

JULIE: Hooray!!!

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

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Comments

  1. Julie Gillis says:

    Joanna. Rrrow.

    • I must say that I regret not mentioning how important it is for new moms to work out after their doctor gives them the go-ahead. Not to get skinny or to hit some beauty ideal, but to start feeling alive, human, strong, powerful, and in-your-body once again. That, for me, was a HUGE part of feeling hot again.

  2. Marcus Williams says:

    Thank you both. That was great.

  3. I can assure you that it is very much the same in the LGBT community. My partner and I (both women) have a different level in sex drives…mine being probably 2-3x higher than hers (I grew up with a very sex-positive outlook and I think hers is more conservative/reserved). We do not have children, but we are going through another type of those “all consuming” experiences with her attending law school full time in another city (we see each other somewhat regularly though). She’s in her 2nd year now and it seemed like near the end of her 1L year and beginning of 2L year her sex drive just nose-dived and ceased to exist, which was frustrating for me because we only had so much time together before I’d have to go back home. Working in the legal system myself I understand the rigors of law school and the fact that it will consume 100% of her attention, time, energy, etc., but that didn’t make it any easier on me when my sex drive is all like “um, hello? Aren’t your forgetting something??”

    Open, honest communication was/is definitely necessary to navigate through those feelings (she had the same feelings of guilt, worries that I would leave her when it was the last thing on my mind…in fact, we got engaged after she went to law school!, etc.). I had to work on making sure I didn’t start growing resentful, and she had to work on recognizing that even though I understood why it was happening, it wasn’t easy for me to go weeks without sex. I even thought that she might be falling out of love with me or wasn’t really attracted to me anymore even though she would say that wasn’t true. Really, just a lot of what you talked about resonated with me even though our situation is entirely different but has parallels with one partner having been “taken over” by something. Interestingly enough, our sex life just went wild recently after she told me one night that she had masturbated the previous night because she was missing me, which sent me from zero to turned on in about three seconds, which then turned her on because of my reaction, and presto. That was the best 4-day weekend and she cannot stop talking about sex. :) I guess the point behind this long(ish) comment is “yes! It happens to us too!!” ;)

    • Good to know, and that does give people hope. Sometimes you do just need a kickstart, unfortunately it seems like the horny one can’t be the one to decide how/when that kickstart happens. Glad you guys are back on track a bit.

      Sexuality is a wild, wild ride filed with lots of peaks and valleys. Congrats on your engagement!

  4. Thank you, Joanna and Julie!
    Your article has been both revealing and comforting: for a male (like me) it’s almost impossible imagining what women go thru during those times. We really need all these infos.
    And your positive, open, compassionate and loving attitude towards your husbands warms up my heart.

    People like you make me feel hopeful about the future of mankind. :)

  5. NickMostly says:

    Thank you for the dialog, it was quite enlightening. Reading this gives me hope that my wife’s libido will also one day come roaring back. Even if it takes another seven years to return, this article reminds me that there are other parts of our relationship that have grown stronger, and can sustain us.

  6. “These things need discussion. [...] What if someone had cancer? What if someone just flat out lost interest? Do you divorce?”

    I’m watching for TGMP’s smart writers to take this on. I love my wife ever so much, and we’re happy being grandparents together, but we’re barely closer to fixing our low-or-no-libido dilemma than when were new parents together. More “discussion” in the culture around us would have helped—at least we wouldn’t have felt so desperately freakish and alone. In my long, mostly futile, effort to understand and cope, I even looked into the discussions of the Asexual movement. Now there’s a topic ripe for the TGMP treatment!

  7. “These things need discussion. [...] What if someone just flat out lost interest? Do you divorce?”

    I’m watching for TGMP’s smart writers to take this on. I love my wife ever so much, and we’re happy being grandparents together, but we’re barely closer to fixing our low-or-no-libido dilemma than when we were new parents together. More “discussion” in the culture around us would have helped—at least we wouldn’t have felt so desperately freakish and alone. In my long, mostly futile, effort to understand and cope, I even looked into the discussions of the Asexual movement. Now there’s a topic ripe for the TGMP treatment!

    • I’m not entirely sure how to broach asexuality. I’d love to be able to go back in time to determine how issues such as this were dealt with in the past. Or if they were issues. Maybe this is a thoroughly modern problem. If marriages back in the day (100 years past) were completely DADT kind of deals (with mistresses and brothels to serve needs of men), maybe there was no worry about marital sex at all. Maybe she got herself a new fangled vibrator from the victorian doctor and he saw ladies of the night. No one felt terrible?

      In today’s world not only are we to commit to each other for the family, to each other for perfect love, but also never stray. It seems like we are all strangling ourselves somehow. I don’t know the answer, but it’s clear from talking to many long term married men the lack of sex is not good. And also from talking to many long term married women, the lack of sex is not good.

      When people first get together and are in the throes of lust/love-there are physiological changes in the brain-adreneline, norepinephrine, increased dopamine. We are hyper horny pleasure seekers. It’s kind of like sex-crack.

      That wears off and endorphins (soothing hormones) are produced. Maybe it’s just plain impossible to recapture the sex crack with an “old” partner, not only for the cultural reasons (we stop truly seeing them as separate, as “the lover” and start seeing them as an extension of the self) and the brain numbs you out with bio-morphine.

      New lovers hike the sex crack back up. There are some anecdotal indicators showing that if you get the sex crack going with one person, it can layer itself back over the old one.

      We place wild and possibly impossible expectations on each other to be perfect for each other for all time. Also, the worse the economy gets, the harder it is to feel unstressed, to have money for sitters, or to have family to take kids for a weekend. We as couples, as you pointed out, are isolated and isolation only enhances a sense of desperation.

      Is non monogamy the answer, as Dan Savage and others posit? I don’t know. I do know we don’t have a good cultural narrative for sharing, compersion, lack of jealousy that would help build a culture of safe and ethical non monogamy. We have a TRUE LOVE FOR LIFE narrative. The stories we tell ourselves are find the man and happily ever after, but as we can see, that’s not always the case, at least not sexually.

      The stories a culture tells itself are important to note. The ability to tell new stories is often difficult, it’s fraught with cognitive dissonance. Often new story tellers adopt old stories (LGBT communities seeking heteronormative marriage rather than queer partnership structures) because the fight is so hard.

      Not because the forms are abnormal, but because creating a cultural “truth” is hard work.

      I don’t know, Daniel. I do know there is sex out there. It’s just not the sex I think most people have built a powerful fantasy about.

      • I love your comment. :)
        @Julie G: “We have a TRUE LOVE FOR LIFE narrative.”
        How true. And how misleading is that narrative… how delusional and far from real life (in most cases, at least).

        It looks like Nature has programmed us to fall in love and being hopelessly attracted just for a limited time; 2-3 years tops. Science tells this, and we see it all around…
        But everybody likes to think it happens to somebody else, but they… oh no, they will be SPECIAL instead. ;)

        So, what to do instead?
        Dropping the old romantic delusion? Stop fooling ourselves? Finding new ways to live relationships, accepting our limitations?

        Who knows… I agree with you, we need a new paradigm, a new sentimental culture.

        • I think the same thing happens with kids. They say that the oxytocin high from a new relationship lasts a couple of years, and that’s true in my experience. I imagine the “terrible twos” come from that fading love thing that happens in couples.

        • Crescendo63 – I have a theory that there should be a 10 year renewal deal on marriages. Every 10 years you both get to opt whether to continue with monogamy or not. By then your kids are often big enough to be managed outside the nuclear family. Of course there would be hurt, but it wouldn’t be considered this massive travesty if people decided a different course such as polyamory, “don’t ask don’t tell”, or even a breakup. Or even continuing the monogamy!

          This is my fantasy, at least. I realize it’s a long-shot. ;)

          • @Joanna Schroeder: “there should be a 10 year renewal deal on marriages”.

            Nice one! :D
            I had the same idea years ago, but I opted for a 5 years period.
            I change quickly; in 5 years I could become a different person (and my partner as well).
            That kind of agreement would be much more honest; but people – on average – cannot handle that level of reality.

            I think promising “I will love you forever” is quite silly and even deceitful; it’s something we cannot control and cannot foretell. It’s mostly beyond our own will.
            Besides, we now know even scientifically that “falling in love” is designed to last 2-3 years tops. Yet, no couple want to consider this (well, maybe a couple of neurobiologists ;) ).
            Instead, since most people choose security over truth, they tell each other fairy tales and believe them.
            Oh well. :)

  8. MODERATOR: Please delete my first post. The second is improved. And don’t post this meta comment, of course. Thanks!

  9. wellokaythen says:

    For monogamy to work with children or without, both partners have to recognize and accept their differences (up to a certain point). If you’re the lower-libido partner, it’s important for you to recognize that the higher-libido one is making a sacrifice because of you. This is not about keeping score about who has made the bigger sacrifices in the relationship. You don’t owe the higher-libido partner more sex, but some validation of how difficult monogamy can be for him/her would go a long way. It’s very rare for two partners to find monogamy equally difficult. Usually one is giving up more than the other.

    And, let’s recognize that there are periods in which asking your partner to be monogamous is essentially asking that person to be celibate.

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