Sex After Children

Sex After Children

“Our baby just had her first birthday, and my husband and I are getting along OK, but the problem is he’s really frustrated that we almost never make love because I usually feel too tired and ‘touched-out’ when we finally get to bed.”

This is a BIG topic, so please consider this column a summary of the summary of what could be said about it, and for much more information, please see chapter 8 of our book, Mother Nurture. Here are the headlines:

  • Understand your differences – In most couples, the man is interested in more frequent lovemaking than the woman is, and this difference usually increases dramatically after children arrive. The hormonal perturbations and physical issues of pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing combined with fatigue, being pulled on all day by children, stress, and physical depletion all tend to lower a mother’s libido, and if she also feels let down by or emotionally distant from her partner, sex is at the bottom of her list of preferred ways to spend the next half hour.

On the other hand, a father is usually still quite interested in his wife as a lover (though some men also experience a drop in sexual interest after becoming a parent). While he misses sex itself, the principal loss for a man is typically that it starts to feel that his partner doesn’t care enough about him as a person to approach him as a lover or stretch herself to engage him for a little while – especially when he sees her stretching herself much more for the children or even for a friend who calls on the phone.

The solution is to not take these differences personally, but to recognize them as normal and rooted in utterly impersonal biological imperatives of men and women. Try to have empathy and compassion for each other, which will help you feel better and get closer, and will be the basis for addressing your differences in practical ways.

  • Take care of your personal well-being, teamwork, and emotional intimacy – Many fathers can shift into lover mode even if they don’t feel that well, and even if things are somewhat tense with their partner. But in order to be comfortable with lovemaking, most mothers need to have a basic amount of energy and wellness, a sense of not being let down by their mate, and feelings of being cared about and connected. We’ve written about these extensively in our book and previous columns, so ’nuff said here, other than we REALLY encourage you to make sure these pieces are in place.
  • Make fondness and affection a part of daily life – Look for opportunities to acknowledge each other for everything you do. Whenever you can, deliberately express your liking, warmth, caring, and concern for your partner – even if it’s just a look or a smile. Try to touch each other, non-sexually, several times a day. Carve out times, from merely a few minutes to a date night or a weekend away, that are for just the two of you, with no interruptions from children. Try to go to bed at the same time, even if one of you gets up to watch some TV after the other one drifts off. Hold hands, hug, kiss, snuggle on the couch or in bed – all the sweet things you used to do before kids.

On this foundation, come to an understanding that works for both of you as to about how often you’ll make love – For some couples, especially during the first few months postpartum, they’ll agree to no lovemaking. But for many others, they’ll come to something closer to once a week or so.

Yes, that frequency is probably closer to the natural preference of many dads with young children (two to three times a week) than it is to that of many moms (once every month or so). But to be frank, for many fathers the prospect of indefinitely, with no end in sight, meeting their wife as a lover just once a month would be quite troubling, and could ultimately be a major factor eroding the marriage. A loose analogy is conversation: it would also be troubling to many mothers to be told that they can expect their partner to talk with them in any depth only once a month.

The truth is that there is a middle ground in sex between hot-to-trot (ahh, those were the days . . . . !) and are-you-crazy?! (And there is probably an equivalent middle ground for many men when it comes to sitting down on the couch to talk with their wife about something that’s upsetting her.) We consciously reach down inside to find an authentic willingness to do something even if it is not our first preference. And as we engage the process, a natural interest or presence with the activity is usually kindled, and when it’s over, we are usually glad we took the time, and there’s a nice glow in the relationship.

Whether it’s sex – or a deep and meaningful conversation – we’re talking about taking half an hour or so a week to keep re-knitting the ties that bind a couple together and create a solid family framework in which to raise precious children. (And of course it’s wise to have more than one good conversation a week!)

If there is clarity about a fairly predictable frequency of lovemaking, that also eliminates many upsets. If they’ve agreed to make love once a week or so and it’s been about that long, if she says no tonight because she had a hard day with the kids or at work, he probably won’t feel helplessly frustrated, but will figure there’s a good chance he’ll get lucky tomorrow night. If they’ve recently made love and he puts his hand on her hip, she doesn’t have to stiffen to make sure he doesn’t get the wrong idea that sex is in the offing. They can kiss passionately or fondle each other for a few minutes before rolling over to go to sleep – sweet pleasures for many men and some women that are one more way to evoke loving feelings – without fearing that now they have to go all the way.

In our experience, if you take care of the basics above, you can always work out the practical details – like you’ve gotten out of the habit, the baby’s in the bedroom, setting up a time for sex seems unromantic, lovemaking has grown routine or even boring, and so on. And more than anything, try to let lovemaking deepen your love for each other, touching with a cherishing in your lips and fingertips, the giving of your bodies opening your hearts.

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

Get the Just One Thing
Weekly Newsletter

A simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

You can unsubscribe at any time and your email address will never be shared.