Sex Life? What Sex Life? Part II

SexLifePartII

As mentioned in an earlier post, Sex Life? What Sex LIfe? Part I, there are many factors that can conspire to make postpartum sex a little bit tricky to initiate. But the good news is there’s only one thing necessary to have a lasting and healthy sexual relationship: direct, open and honest communication.

When you see your provider for that standard six-week postpartum visit, be prepared to talk with them about your sexuality. Nothing should be off-limits. This can feel awkward at first, but remember, your provider has studied for years about pregnancy, birth and postpartum. They’re considered experts in the care of women during this transition. Anything you feel might be of concern to you, bring it up. Don’t be shy. They’ve heard it all before, I promise.

Whatever your concerns, they’re most likely to be temporary and will resolve over time. But the anxiety of not knowing this can become a bigger deal than it needs to be. I’m a huge fan of paying to hear these experts say the three little words that can make you feel so much better: “That’s completely normal.”

If, at the end of this six-week appointment with your provider, you’ve stopped bleeding and your physical healing is complete, you’re probably going to get the green light for having sex. You’ve been examined and it’s been determined that you are physically ready for sex. But now you need to weigh that information with whether or not you’re feeling emotionally ready for sex.

Have you ever heard this joke? “Sex is like pizza. Even bad pizza is still pretty good pizza.”

I don’t think it’s very funny, either.

Sex, good sex, rarely just involves the physical. I mean, there is something to be said about just going at it! But if you think about it, the best sex of your life might have involved, but was not dependent upon: a gorgeous and romantic location, a crazy position, or the addition of some kinky sex toys.

Good sex usually occurs when there’s a trusting, loving relationship established between you and your partner. Better sex happens when you feel safe and accepted for who you are. Great sex happens when you’re able to see and be seen by your beloved.

Good sex involves a level of intimacy and vulnerability that allows the two of you to become one, physically and emotionally. It can’t happen if one of you isn’t feeling emotionally ready. It can’t happen when you’re feeling guilted into it. It can’t happen when you’re just trying to soothe someone else’s sexual frustration. It can’t happen when one of you feels resentment – sex being one more thing on your to-do list of how you serve others and not yourself.

Sex postpartum has the potential to be so much better than it ever was before your baby arrived! The reason is because you’re about to reveal to one another a level of tenderness and vulnerability that you don’t even know about yourself. It’s through that window of openness that you can begin to cultivate a new, more intimate and connected relationship with your partner inside – and outside – of the bedroom.

But communication is the key.

If you’re not feeling ready (either one of you!), you need to express this to your partner while reassuring that it has nothing to do with your desire for them as a person. Too many partners take the new Momma’s lack of desire for sex as a lack of desire for them – as if the baby has somehow taken their place.

Now Mommas, initially you might respond, “That’s ridiculous!” Before you start telling your partner to “Grow up! The baby needs me!” think about how you might feel if you were in their shoes.

If your partner was the sole source of food and most often the source of comfort for your newborn, you might feel more than just a little bit left out. So it’s possible (and I would add normal) that your partner might be feeling a bit on the outside of this new little Momma-baby dyad. It can get lonely out there sometimes.

As the partner, it’s important to remember that Momma might be “all touched out” by the end of the day. She might want her body to be hers and hers alone. She’s likely to feel overwhelmed by trying to meet her newborn’s needs and get showered before four pm. The thought of adding some sexy time into the day may not even be on her radar.

It’s helpful to take stock of one another’s perspective to understand where the other is coming from when it comes to sex – or anything else, for that matter. Perspective taking is challenging, but it makes you a much more thoughtful person. And this alone is a very big turn-on! Thoughtfulness can go a long way toward creating a much more mutually satisfying relationship.

But here’s the real-deal. For most women postpartum, it takes awhile longer than it did before the baby was born for their body to feel desire. This can be a big mismatch from where partners are.

Your partner might catch a glimpse of you before you jump into the shower and think, “Let’s do this!” But your mind is already on the hamster wheel calculating all the things that need to get done today – and sex is the last thing you’d ever think about.

Partners hear this: if you’re willing to wait until the timing is right (and it might end up being early morning now instead of nighttime – Mommas are battling end-of-the-day exhaustion levels, remember?) and if you’re willing to engage the biggest sex organ in a woman’s body you just might get somewhere. This mismatch in your sex drive can be minimized.

(Here’s the part that applies to all couples, not just those who are new to parenting!)

The biggest sex organ for a woman, in my opinion, is her brain. It’s that whole brain-body connection that I can’t stop writing about! In order for a woman to be able to truly let go, she needs to feel safe, she needs to be able to trust and allow herself to be vulnerable. It’s best if she’s not feeling too anxious or stressed out.

And even if you’re the love of her life, that doesn’t happen just because you’re lying next to one another in bed. It’s a rare woman whose feelings of desire can be turned on like the switch on a lightbulb. She might require a little more prep-work. Instead, try thinking about lighting a fire and the care that’s needed to get that spark to a full flame.

Engage her in conversation. It doesn’t have to be about profound or romantic things. Discussing with each other how the day has gone and really listening to one another (no electronic devices nearby to distract you from each other!) goes a lot farther than you’d think in terms of creating connection.

If you notice that she’s had a particularly rough day, offer to take charge of the bedtime routine, or do the dishes so she can sit down with a glass of wine and relax a little bit. If she can ease out of Momma-mode, and let some of the day’s stressors go, she’ll be much more responsive to you.

Even after all of these positive steps toward setting the mood for some loving, she might not want to go there – but she just might. How do you know?

Ask her!

I think when it comes to sex, partners are too often silent: groping and hoping that if you touch her in just the right way under the sheets she might be ready to go. Instead of this blind attempt with the potential of rejection without explanation, ask her if she’s up for messing around. Most women can gauge whether or not they can be persuaded.

If it’s defintely, “No.” Then, it’s not going to happen. Mommas it will help your partner, and your relationship, if you can articulate why you’re not into it at this time: “I don’t think it’s happening tonight. I’m _________________ (too tired, too worked up about my day tomorrow, still upset about the conversation I had with my Mom, angry about the comment you made to me last night.) This isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do, but direct, open and honest communication has to happen for real connection to occur.

If she is in the mood, she’ll let you know – with or without words (hubba! hubba!) And she’ll appreciate that you asked!

But here’s the clincher that might lead to better (and more!) sex for you both: Mommas if you’re on the fence about whether or not you feel up for having some sexy time, let your partner know that too by saying, “I might be able to be persuaded.” And then partners, do your best to persuade her!

Extra time spent catching her body and brain up to one another can make all the difference in terms of having good sex, more often. She might really want, she might really need, to have an orgasm. But unless her desire is able to fully manifest, the sex you do have might end up being one-sided, not mutually beneficial and therefore, won’t happen nearly as often as you’d like.

If you take these considerations into account however, you might find that your sex life post baby can be even stronger and more satisfying than it ever was before the baby arrived.

Last comment to all new or experienced Mommas out there: Make orgasms your new best friend! Every time you have one, it’s like going to the spa for a mini-massage. It’s one of the best ways to release tension throughout your entire body plus your brain gets flooded with that love and bonding hormone, oxytocin. Ultimately, with a healthy and satisfying sex life, you’ll experience less stress and more connection with your partner.

Your sex life postpartum may not be the most important aspect of your relationship, but it does deserve a lot of attention! You need to take care of it, and nurture it – with at least as much attention as you shower on your baby. When that happens, both your baby and your relationship will thrive.

How have you nurtured and cared for your relationship postpartum? Are there areas which deserve more of your attention? Do you need to focus more on using direct and honest communication with one another?

Sex Life? What Sex Life? PART I

SexLIfeI

I looked through all of my old posts thinking I must have written about postpartum sex on my blog, and even though the search term “sex” yielded 10 posts (!), none of them was specifically about postpartum sex. How can this be? It’s one of my all-time favorite topics to cover in my classes because 1) my soon-to-be-parents don’t realize they’ve already set expectations about it and 2) even though all of them are curious, they won’t ask about it in front of a group.

So without further ado, here’s my take on sex after the baby arrives. (But even if you’re not pregnant or newly parenting, read both Parts I & II – later this week. I swear there will at least one tip in here you can take away to improve your sex life no matter if you’re babies are all grown up, or even if you’ve never had a baby!)

It seems that all of the books written so far about pregnancy, birth and babies (mine will be the exception!) say new Mommas should wait until six weeks postpartum before having sex again. So, why six weeks?

This usually coincides with a new Momma’s clinic appointment with her provider where they’ll check to make sure postpartum bleeding has stopped and that any stitches in the perineum have healed nicely. When the provider gives the green light for sex to resume at this six week checkup, they’re only addressing physical readiness – not emotional readiness.

But this gets overlooked so often that it’s been translated to mean: All new Mommas should be ready to have sex again at six weeks postpartum. It’s become a set expectation for many couples. How do I know? Because, I ask them.

“How long do you have to wait to have sex again after your baby is born?”

What follows is a chorus of male and female voices echoing throughout the classroom: “Six weeks! Six weeks! Six weeks!” In all my years of teaching, I’ve never heard anything else. I feel compelled to address this issue and help them set realistic expectations about what their reality might be when it comes to postpartum sex.

To be sure, there are some women for whom the six week waiting period is actually a trial – they’ve been feeling pretty randy, riding the waves of those Oxytocin hormones and ready to get back at it even before that first postpartum visit with their provider. But not everyone feels that way.

During pregnancy, a lot of women read about the six week waiting period and think, “A month and a half? I’m sure I’ll be ready for sex by then.” But there are lots of factors that she can neither predict nor control that might delay her readiness for postpartum sex. That six week mark might come and go and she might be surprised by how not ready she is for sex.

But if the only information these new parents have heard is “Six weeks! Six weeks!” this can become the expectation about when they’re supposed to get back at it – ready or not. 

Sexual desire postpartum varies from woman to woman, but I find that new Mommas have lots of outlets to talk about this topic with other new Mommas. Partners? Not so much. And if we’re talking specifically about new Dads, maybe not at all.

For a lot of men, when they find someone they’re wanting to spend the rest of their life with, what they do in the bedroom stops being a topic of conversation with their buddies. And so, if their sex life has not resumed by six weeks postpartum (the only information they have on this subject), they might start to think there’s something wrong with their relationship. They might feel like the baby has gotten between them as a couple, that the baby has changed everything.

The vast majority of the time this is simply not true. In fact, watching her partner be tender and vulnerable in this new role of parenting their baby can actually be a real turn-on for a lot of new Mommas! But that doesn’t mean they’re ready to have sex just yet.

Why?

A whole bunch of reasons, like:

  • She might not feel all that sexy as a new Momma. No matter how much weight she put on during pregnancy, when she leaves the hospital, a new Momma is likely to look about six months pregnant. Only now, her belly isn’t tight and firm, it’s super jiggly. And her breasts? While impressively larger than they were before, are now being used for a completely different purpose. They might be off-limits in terms of her sexuality – at least for a little while.
  • She is exhausted. She is soooooooooo exhausted. And when weighed on a scale, “Sex vs Sleep” sleep will always win. Always.
  • She might be terrified that having sex will hurt like hell. And for a lot of women, it might. For those that don’t feel pain with sex, it still might take awhile for it to feel good again. Breastfeeding can cause vaginal dryness, so some sort of lubrication will be necessary for most women. Remember –  she just pushed a pretty large something out of her vagina. Putting anything back inside her vagina can be a really scary thought for new Mommas. And fear is a pretty big turn-off.
  • She might be worried about getting pregnant again. Note: breastfeeding is not a form of birth control and you’re always fertile before you know you’re fertile. So don’t mess around with this one – make sure that you have an idea about how you plan on preventing a pregnancy if you’re not ready to have your babies super close together!
  • She might be having a hard time reconciling her sex-kitten self, with her new Momma self. Can those two roles even coincide with one another? Do parents still have sex? Do my parents still have sex? Why did you make me think about that???? You can see the dilemma that some women have with reconciling these two ideas.
  • She’s having a harder time concentrating and might find it difficult to let go. The stress of being fully responsible for another human being’s life weighs heavy on a new Momma. While she might be able to rely on you as her partner and co-parent, it’s her body that’s in full recovery mode and trying to make the food that’s necessary for her baby to live. It’s kind of a big deal. And she worries about this stuff a lot more than you think she does.
  • Maybe her sense of self-esteem and self-worth has taken a hit now that she’s “just” a full-time Momma. She’s grappling with this new identity that conflicts with what the world says a successful woman looks like. Does the work she’s doing now as the primary caregiver have as much value as the work she did in her office just weeks before?
  • She might have no libido – zero, zilch, nada. And while this has to do with shifting hormones, and usually resolves itself after some time, this can be a tremendous blow to the woman who used to have a healthy sex appetite before her baby was born.

Stick with me for Part II of this post, because it ends on a much more positive note, I swear it! It also includes some thoughts about how to make your sex life better in the short and long-term.

Are there any other issues I’ve missed that might make a woman hesitant to have sex soon after having her baby? How long before you had sex post-baby, and how long before you enjoyed sex post-baby? I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments.

The Eyes Have It

Eyes

There’s an article that I just read from the BBC about a project called “One Day Young” from London photographer, Jenny Lewis, who for the past seven years has been capturing a stolen moment in time in the lives of new mother/baby pairs within 24 hours of birth. I encourage you to look at all of the photos she’s taken for this project. Then come back and read the article and see if you agree with what I’m about to say.

All of her photos are mesmerizing to me and I recognize my own self as new Momma in the disheveled hair, the still pregnant looking bellies, the exhaustion visible in every pore. I love that the photos are not retouched and appreciate that the photographer has really attempted to show a more realistic image of new motherhood.

But to be sure, I see myself more in the faces of the women who have a slight smile on their lips, maybe a bit of a gleam in their eyes – those women who seem to be thinking, “I can’t believe I just did that! I’ve got a secret… I totally kick ass, and this baby is my proof!” At least that’s how I felt after the birth of my first baby and I’m pretty sure a picture taken at that time would have reflected my inner rock star.

Eyes2

(Photo by Jenny Lewis)

But the images that linger in my memory, are ones like this:

EyesHaveIt

(Photo by Jenny Lewis)

“I am not entirely sure who is to blame for the rose-tinted vision of motherhood. It doesn’t matter how many times someone tells you how tough it is to have a baby. Before you have one, you never quite get it. I often think about vulnerable mothers in tough circumstances and how they manage.”

Gitta Gschwendtner, mother of Til

There are photos in this collection where there are no Mona Lisa smiles. These are the ones that show a different set of emotions: “I have no idea what I’m supposed to think of you, let alone how to take care of you.” Or, “My birth was traumatic and I feel ripped off!”

You can sense the fear, anxiety or anger behind those eyes that are averted or avoiding direct eye contact with their baby. And while there are only a few pictures from the entire collection that have connected narratives in the original article from the BBC, they seem to complete one another perfectly. The image and words just fit for that baby’s first day of life, that woman’s first day of mothering.

But this leads me to ask a question… Oftentimes, new Mommas suffer from PMADs (Postpartum Mood and Anxiety Disorders) in complete silence, their outside demeanor belying what hell they’re going through on the inside. How does this happen? If during those first 24 hours a photographer can capture these images, what are we missing? Because I’m sure you’ve seen the photos of women who’ve been struggling with a PMAD months after their baby’s birth and in all the pictures from that time, you’d have a hard time knowing it: they look joyful, happy, as though everything is wonderful – while inside they’re falling apart.

But in these One Day Young photos, the difference between the women who are suffering and unsure, versus those who look eager and excited to take on their new roles is obvious.

It’s purely speculation on my part, because I haven’t interviewed any of these women and have no idea about their medical history or how their births turned out, but I would be willing to guess that unmet expectations definitely played a part and contributed to their looks of disillusionment and overwhelm.

This is not their fault. Like Gitta says above, there’s a rose-tinted vision of motherhood that is pervasive in our culture and this doesn’t do anybody any favors.

Parenting is hard. It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my life on every possible level. And we need to be sharing this message with more people and more often.

There might be naysayers who cry out, “You don’t want to scare them!” But realistic expectations are not scare tactics. Different aspects of parenting will be more or less challenging for each individual (as an example, for me,  it was the entire year each of my children turned three…) Knowing that it’s not all rainbows and unicorns allows women to understand what they’re getting themselves and their partners into.

Even though I’m just supposed to be talking about getting a baby born in my classes, I throw in some info now and again about the realities of life with a newborn, so that they’ve at least heard it from one person before the baby arrives.

This is going to be hard. There will be days that you hate it. There will also be days that you can’t believe how much you love it. You’ll be stretched to your absolute limit – multiple times. You’ll have a mirror held up before your face every.single.damn.day and even though you try your hardest to be the best version of yourself, oftentimes you’ll fail and be a version of yourself that you really don’t like that much. You’ll compare yourself to others, but why? You, your partner and your baby are unique and the only “right” way to parent your baby is the way that’s working for your family – today. Because, it’s not going to work a month from now. You will never “arrive” as a parent. Because it never ends. There will always be a new challenge to learn from.

The photos of these women in their first 24 hours with their babies are raw, they’re real, and these women have just gone through the most intense transformative experience of their lives and they’re not able to mask their true emotions and vulnerabilities.

And I think we need more of that. All of us. We need to put down our armor and share openly, first with ourselves, and then with those people we love, about what’s really going on inside. But then, that circle needs to expand.

We need to be willing to share with other new parents our highs and our lows of parenting. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Find your tribe now. Find that tribe of people who will celebrate your parenting successes, and listen to your parenting fails – followed up by sharing a few of their own.

Knowing just how challenging this parenting job can be and having realistic expectations about what’s to come, is empowering to new families. When they feel prepared and armed with realistic expectations about their roles, unfettered by rose-tinted visions, they’ll end up feeling less isolated, alone and incapable and more able to partner and parent with confidence: all the things we should want for our new families.

How can you bring more realistic expectations into the work you do with new families? If you are a parent already, how could you help expectant parents have more realistic expectations about this time in their life? If you are a new parent, how could you reach out to other parents to find your tribe?

Letting Go

Driver's Ed

I just got back from taking my “baby” to get her driver’s permit. She passed! And now I have to decide what emotion I’m feeling after paying the $32.50 that was required for her to smile for a photo that allows her to legally get behind the wheel of an automobile. Is it pride? Fear? Sadness?

Wistfulness might be the closest to what I’m feeling, but not in a melancholy or regretful way – wistful, as in reflective.

I have raised my “baby” to grow up to be an independent, young woman. And to be honest, I was shocked that she’d waited this long to take the test – an accurate picture of how different it is growing up in Portland, Oregon rather than Indianapolis, Indiana. Portland, as you may have heard in any number of magazines, is one of the easiest places in the world to get around without ever needing to know how to drive. We have several ways of getting from point A to point B. Our Tri-met system includes busses with routes all over the city and beyond, The Streetcar, The Max, and more bike lanes than almost anywhere else in the country. Indianapolis, on the other hand, was a place where to take a bus from where I lived, I’d have to drive to find a bus stop several miles away, first. Things might be different today, but the day I turned 16, I made my parents take me directly to the DMV so I could pick up my license and drive us all home – and I never looked back.

It just seems that now that it’s my girl’s turn to be in the driver’s seat, that the time has passed too quickly. Now, I promise all the newish parents reading this that I have not forgotten how rough it was at first. When I was doing it myself, I felt like the 4th Trimester was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life! For the record, I still feel this way! But despite these feelings, I did it again three more times! What is wrong with me?!

Well, it gets better from there (I promise!) And while I’ll admit that there are moments in that newborn period that are so full of wonder and awe it’s almost magical, I think those same babies become so much more interesting as they get older.

Half of my children are teenagers right now, and I’m going to share something with those of you still stuck in diaper and breastfeeding mode: Do not buy into the myth that teenagers are terrible people that you will hate having in your life almost as much as they will hate having you for their parents.

I think this narrow expectation is at the root of a lot of the issues that can crop of between parents and their teens, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Broaden your expectations about this time, and try to remember what it was like to have your hormones in control of your body, your mind and your soul  – and you’ll do okay. I’m not saying it’s a cakewalk, I’m just not sure that reality always fits the myth. So true for most of the stories you hear about parenting – at any age.

One thing that I’ve been told (by my own mother, nonetheless) that has proven to be absolutely true about parenting is this: “The days go by slowly, but the years go by too fast.”

I am reminded of this today, as my girl takes that next necessary, anticipated and completely supported step toward her full independence from me. I remember our first Christmas together as a new little family and marvel at all that has transpired since. This act of parenting never ends, and in ways even though it’s so much easier now, in others it’s even harder.

Not the parenting, per se, but the act of letting go.

It’s been happening since the moment she left my body, even before the umbilical cord was cut, she was already leaving me – this one being suddenly made two – and I am preparing myself for her full leave-taking which will be happening soon. The next two and half years will be chock full of days that go by at a snail’s pace, but I will blink and the years will have flown away.

So, in this season of gifts, recognize the gifts of your family as they are, in real-time, in all its messiness. Try your hardest to not wish it to move forward too soon. Time is already taking care of that for you.

Look at your baby in your arms once again. Memorize the contours of her sleeping face, feel the weight of her warm and trusting body nestled against you. Give thanks to the ones that made you a parent. And begin the wistful process of letting them go.

The secret beauty of it all is that they never really leave you – they are forever imprinted upon your heart.

Are you still in that phase of, “When will this challenge ever end?” Is it possible to pause to be in these moments with your little one(s) – even if this moment is not pretty and moving in slow motion – and savor them?

Ready or Not?

Ready

As the couples file out of the classroom at the end of my Childbirth Preparation series, I usually ask them something: “Are you ready?” This might seem like a loaded question, and it is. I’m hoping that I’ll hear something along the lines of, “I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” or “I’m not sure you can ever feel completely ready.” If that’s the response I’m getting, then I feel like I’ve done my job.

That might surprise you. Shouldn’t they walk out of the room feeling like they’re completely ready to give birth and become parents? I don’t think so.

I hope they feel a sense of increased confidence in their ability to meet the challenges of birth head on. I hope they feel more prepared for what might or might not happen. I hope they’re broadening their expectations of what a positive birth story looks like. I hope they’ve come closer together as a couple during their de facto date nights with me. But do I want them to feel completely ready? No, I don’t.

I spend a lot of time encouraging my families to lean into their feelings of vulnerability, to explore what it feels like to have the earth shifting below their feet, to be okay with not feeling ready. Because, there’s no way any one of us has every truly been ready for the transition to parenthood. I taught classes for two years before I had my first baby, was I completely ready? I may have had more information than most, but no way did I feel completely ready.

I think all of us who work in this field of prenatal and parenting education need to take our jobs seriously and try our hardest to prepare our families for the realities of birth, breastfeeding, and new parenting.

I think we need to remember that it’s okay to help them set realistic expectations of themselves, their partners and their babies.

I definitely wish there was more time devoted to adequately address the postpartum period (I’m hatching some new ideas and curriculum to address the ever-widening gap that exists between what expectant parents are willing and able to take in prenatally about that 4th trimester and what they will actually be experiencing in those first days, weeks and months after their baby arrives. Stay tuned).

But I’m okay with their honest assessment after my classes end that, no, they are not completely ready for this life change. This doesn’t worry me at all. Quite the opposite – it makes me feel as if they were really taking it all in and coming to their own conclusions that they’ll probably never feel completely ready.

That’s life, yes? Always changing, always evolving, always keeping us a little off-guard.

And just when we think we’ve discovered the pattern to perfect parenting, our babies will remind us that they are not automatons that prescribe to one and only method. They’re forever changing and evolving as well. We all are.

Are you ready for that?

How ready did you feel to become a parent? What could we as professionals in this field have done to help you feel more ready? Do you think it’s okay to not feel completely ready for this life transformation?