How soon after the birth of your children did you and your partner have sex – and what does sex mean, in that new context?
Do you, or did you, start with cuddling, or with other intimate acts? Did oral sex come first, or penetration?
Those are some of the kinds of questions asked in research conducted by the University of Michigan and explored further by Catherine Saint Louis in the Health section of The New York Times.
For the most part, the focus of research in this area is on what others do – that elusive “normal” standard.
This new research, and Saint Louis, offered some of those numbers: Of 114 survey partners of birth mothers, “a third reported vaginal intercourse by six weeks after birth. Roughly the same percentage of birth mothers had received oral sex by then. Nearly 60 percent of their partners had received oral sex by six weeks.”
But this was research intended to go beyond the physical to the emotional, looking not just at whether parents resumed sex, but also why.
In the research, partners reported low desire, exhaustion and stress.
Birth mothers, speaking to Saint Louis, sounded themes that will be familiar to most women who have given birth: feeling “touched out,” pain after tearing in labor, painful breasts and fear that dehydration would “strip the act of pleasure.”
One mother laid out the new burden of guilt that arrived with her newborn:
“You don’t want to let go of that role as a parent,” she said, adding that she seesawed between two kinds of self-reproach. “You can feel guilty abandoning your child for base desires” or “not engaging with your partner.”
While most couples “get a green light for penetrative sex at an ob-gyn appointment at four to six weeks,” the emotional shift can take more time to abate, and the exhaustion that gets in the way of doing anything in bed other than sleeping may feel as if it will last a lifetime.
It took five years after the birth of my youngest child before I ever felt like I was going to bed in any condition other than utterly spent – which takes a toll on your life in many areas.
It’s that “seesaw of self-reproach” that I remember most from the years when my children were truly small.
The sense of being torn, first between the physical needs of baby and partner, then among baby, older child or children and partner, and so on, hung around long after the tears healed.
Our reproductive years were marked not just by birth and adoption, but also by miscarriage and stillbirth.
There was so much more going on “down there” than just sex, while up in our minds we were evolving into parents and a different, deeper partnership.
For me, it was a long time before I found my way back to someone closer to the sexual person I was before I had children.
The emotional journey was longer, and perhaps more arduous, than the physical (although I still say it would have helped on all fronts if they had just let me get more sleep).
If you could tell a new parent one honest thing about sex and intimacy after baby, what would it be? Did you feel pushed, by partner or ob-gyn, to think sex before you were ready?
Or as a partner, were you surprised to find that your own desires shifted and changed after the baby arrived?
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