How to Keep Sex in Marriage After Childbirth

Esther Perel on Maintaining the Romantic Spark After Children

Esther Perel

The transition from two to three is one of the most profound challenges a couple will ever face. It takes time---time measured in years, not weeks---to find our bearings in this brave new world. Having a baby is a psychological revolution that changes our relation to almost everything and everyone. Priorities shift, roles are redefined, and the balance between freedom and responsibility undergoes a massive overhaul.

Eventually, most of us come to recognize ourselves again within this new context of family. For some of us, this is when romance starts to work its way back into the fabric of our lives. We remember that sex is fun; it makes us feel good, and it makes us feel closer.

But while some couples gravitate toward each other again, others slowly wander off on a path of mutual estrangement. Reclaiming erotic intimacy is not always easy. The case is often made that American parents today, regardless of class, are overworked and overwhelmed.

Why is it that our erotic connection with our partner winds up so demoted? Does it really matter if the dishes aren't done, or is there something more beneath our mysterious willingness to forego sex? Perhaps eroticism in the context of family is simply too difficult for anyone to embrace.

Parenthood, Inc.

Family life flourishes in an atmosphere of comfort and consistency. Yet unpredictability, spontaneity, and risk are precisely where eroticism resides. Eros is a force that doesn't like to be constrained. When it settles into repetition, habit, or rules, it touches its death.

Before Jake was born, Stephanie worked as an office manager in an international shipping firm. She had always planned on returning to work after her maternity leave, but Jake's birth changed that. Five years passed and Sophia came along. "With a five year old and a two year old, I'm on mother duty 24/7. If I have any time left, I just want it for myself. When Warren approaches me it feels like one more person wanting something from me. I know that's not his intention, but it's how I feel. I don't have anything left to give."

"When did sexual intimacy become his need only? Do you miss the connection, too?" I ask her.

She shrugs. "Not really. I keep thinking that it will come back, but I can't say I miss it."

Eros Redirected

In the physicality between mother and child lies a multitude of sensuous experiences. We caress their silky skin, we kiss, we cradle, we rock. This blissful fusion bears a striking resemblance to the physical connection between lovers. In fact, when Stephanie describes the early rapture of her relationship with Warren---lingering gazes, weekends in bed, baby talk, toe-nibbling---the echoes are unmistakable. When she says, "At the end of the day, I have nothing left to give," I believe her. But I also have come to believe that, at the end of the day, there may be nothing more she needs.

The Cult Status of Children

The magnitude of childrearing, coupled with the scarcity of resources, affects mothers in particular, who carry the majority of the burden in heterosexual couples. And it doesn't end there. For this unprecedented child-centrality is unfolding against the backdrop of romanticism that underscores modern marriage. Not only do we want to be perfect parents, to give our children everything, we also want our marital relationships to be happy, fulfilled, sexually exciting, and emotionally intimate.

Looking for Stephanie

What I said to Stephanie was this, "You'll never hear me say that you should force yourself. Nothing is more deflating erotically than sex on demand. But I do believe that sex matters: for you, for your marriage, and for your kids.

Together we probe the elusiveness of her sexual agency. We explore her sexual history, how sexuality was expressed in her family growing up, and what her earliest experiences were like. We talk about how her sexual identity changed as the result of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and motherhood. Putting her personal experiences in a broader cultural context, we discuss how the politics of motherhood, the chastity myth, and the medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth all conspire to denude motherhood of its sexual elements.

Lifting the Erotic Embargo

If Warren and Stephanie are going to get their groove back, they need to free themselves from the disproportionate focus on their kids, both emotionally and practically. As much as spontaneity is desirable, the reality of family life demands planning. Couples without kids can initiate sex on a whim, but parents need to be more practical. Be it a regular date night, a weekend away every few months, or an extra half-hour in the car, what matters is that the couple cordons off erotic territory for themselves.

Not only do their rendezvous help maintain the emotional connection so critical for Stephanie, they also help her to make the transition from full-time mom to lover. "For so long, my thinking about sex was about how to avoid it. Knowing that Warren and I have a date has helped me to anticipate it instead. I pamper myself. I take a shower, shave my legs, put on make-up. I make a special effort to block the negativity and to give myself permission just to be sexual."

Escaping the Siege of Family Life

There are so many reasons to give up on sex that those who don't are champions in their own right. The brave and determined couple who maintains an erotic connection is, above all, the couple who values it. When they sense desire in crisis, they become industrious, and make intentional, diligent attempts to resuscitate. They know that it's not children who extinguish the flame of desire: it's adults who fail to keep the spark alive.

This blog is excerpted from “When Three Threatens Two."Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Couples | Children/Adolescents

Tags: childrearing | family | intimacy | kids | parenthood | parents | psychotherapy | relationships | sex | sexuality

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