Sorry But The Post-Baby Sex Drought Is Real
Welcome to Ask A MWLTF (yes, that’s Mother Who Likes to F*ck), a new, monthly anonymous advice column from Scary Mommy. Here we’ll dissect all your burning questions about motherhood, sex, romance, intimacy, and friendship, with the help of our columnist, Penelope, a writer and mental health practitioner in training. She’ll dish out her most sound advice for parents on the delicate dance of raising kids without sacrificing other important relationships. Submit questions here, send an email to email@example.com, and keep an eye on our Instagram stories for ways to ask questions, too.
My wife and I are about to become parents. This is something we’ve both wanted for a long time, and now that it’s finally happening (we’re due in less than a month) we couldn’t be more excited. That said, a few issues have come up in recent weeks. To be honest, I’m beginning to feel nervous that the first year of parenthood won’t be the smooth sailing I was expecting. A few months ago, we converted my wife’s office into a nursery, bought the crib and the mobile and the changing table and all the rest, so I just assumed that would be where the baby slept when we brought him home from the hospital. But last week, my wife came home with this whole other foam contraption which she explained would lay on the bed between us to allow for safe co-sleeping. Apparently, she’d read that sleeping with the baby was good for bonding and breastfeeding, and so now that’s what she plans to do. I asked her for how long she expected we’d have the baby in bed with us, and was shocked when she said, “Oh, not more than a year.” A year!?
Well, I wanted to keep an open mind. I did some research and saw that there are a good number of arguments in favor of co-sleeping, so I’m not opposed to it in principle. The two things I’m stuck on are: 1. Won’t this affect the quality of our sleep? And 2.) How are we ever going to have sex with a baby sleeping between us? My wife and I have been together for six years, and our lively sex life has been one of the many strengths of the relationship. The first couple years we were together, we basically couldn’t keep our hands off of each other, and even in the past few years as things have cooled off a little as they’re bound to do, we still have great sex at least three or four times each week. I’ve prepared myself for the possibility of a slight, temporary slow-down post-baby, but now I’m wondering… how slight and how temporary is it going to be? I couldn’t be happier that I’m about to become a father — but at the same time, I’m suddenly wondering if I need to readjust my expectations regarding sex and parenthood. What say you?
Confused and concerned
Dear Confused and Concerned,
Let me start by putting all of your uncertainty to rest. You and your wife will not be having much sex for a very long time. By “much,” I really mean “any.” And by “a very long time,” I mean longer than you would have thought possible. Oviously everyone's experience of parenthood is different, so I could be wrong about this, but I doubt it. The sex desert of early parenthood is one of the many secrets society keeps from the child-free in order to ensure the continuation of the species. There are other secrets, too, but let’s not worry about those right now. Instead, let’s focus on the sex you’re mostly not going to be having, why you’re not going to be having it, and how you can increase the chances that you and your wife will one day begin having it again… with each other.
You say that you and your wife have enjoyed a lively sex life up until now. By “lively,” I assume you’re referring to some combination of novel sex acts and positions, spontaneity, role-playing, perhaps a bit of kink, perhaps a frequent change in location and duration. All of this is great, it’s just not the kind of sex that’s possible for most people during the first year or five of parenthood. During these years, you can still have “lively” sex, but only if you redefine it to mean sex you'll have when both you and your partner are technically alive—physically if not spiritually. On the bright side, this new type of lively sex will be new to you. You can explore things like half-asleep sex, sex-that-turns-into-a-nap sex, prid-pro-quo sex (sex acts done in exchange for a middle of the night feeding or a diarrhea blow-out changing). Sure, the old kind of lively sex is great. But you’ve done that. Now you get to explore a whole new world of what I like to call “sort-of sex.” It gestures toward the sex act. It’s reminiscent of the sex act. It indicates that the reptilian part of your brain that can still operate under the most extreme conditions of stress and sleep deprivation remembers what sex is (the way I, at 44, still sort of remember how to do a back handspring). Imagine a not-so-fit 44 year old with shitty knees sort of attempting to do a back hand spring she hasn’t done in 25 years, and you’ll understand what I mean by sort-of sex. You’re going to be having a lot of it in the next couple years. Well, not a lot, but some. At least a little. Radically accept this unpleasant fact. Fighting it will only make things harder.
At this point, you may be thinking that the reason you’re not going to have a lively sex-life for at least for the next year is that your wife has settled on this co-sleeping arrangement, but that’s not actually the case. Blaming a lack of sex on co-sleeping with a child is a little like saying a that a plane crashed because the force of drag exceeded lift — it’s technically correct but not useful information. That foam contraption between you on the bed might be the final barrier that prevents coitus in the coming months, but the actual reason you’re not going to be having lively sex is that lively sex requires energy, and you and your wife, but especially your wife, is going to be expending every ounce of energy on supporting and nurturing the human life she just spent nine-and-a-half months gestating inside her body. After having expelled this large-skulled neonate through the narrow opening of her pelvis or a surgical opening in her uterus, she’ll enter the stage the pediatrician and psychiatrist Donald Winnicott referred to as “primary maternal preoccupation,” the stage in which every “good enough” mother becomes obsessed with her baby so that she can bond with it in a way that prevents it from becoming the next Netflix documentary-series sociopath. Unless you are wealthy enough to hire a round-the-clock baby nurse or happen to live with a doting grandparent, you and your wife are going to be devoting all that time and energy you spent on lively sex to feeding your new baby, changing it, rocking it, dressing it, feeding it some more, changing it some more, putting it in and out of cars for doctors appointments, sanitizing nipples, sanitizing, pacifiers, sanitizing sippy cups, a thousand times a day. You and your wife are going to be doing these things more than you have ever done anything in your life to this point, and you’ll be doing them on three or four hours of sleep each night, if you’re lucky, for god knows how long. So what I’m saying is, it’s not really about the co-sleeping. It’s more about the co-living with a baby you created and are now solely responsible for. Again, acceptance, gentleness with each other, and a sense of humor is going to be essential to your survival..
So how do you get through the inevitable sex drought that is coming, and increase the chances that eventually, you and your wife will once again take pleasure in each other’s bodies and look back on this challenging time the way soldiers who fought together look back on war-time, with a mixture of numb disbelief but also feelings of camaraderie and connection? Adopting an attitude of patience, gentleness, and a sense of humor is going to be key as you navigate the sexless months or years ahead. This attitude of gentleness and curiosity will help keep you from blaming your wife or yourself or your relationship or your baby when you realize that you can no longer recall the last time you were caressed by a hand that wasn’t sticky. Also, remember, we live in a culture that is obsessed with sex —naturally, since sex sells. But sex isn’t everything. There are a multitude of other, less-celebrated pleasures. For example, the pleasure of putting your own needs aside for a period of time to attend to the needs of others. It’s not a thing we celebrate the way we celebrate erotic abandon and romantic intimacy — but maybe it should be.