Doing Sex Differently After Birth: Opportunity, not Threat
Birth rearranges a woman on every level.
Clichéd as this sounds, the changes have to be experienced firsthand to be truly appreciated.
And these changes most certainly extend to the way in which the woman is able to connect sexually after having a baby.
– not just because she may feel exhausted from sleep deprivation and constantly giving out to another human
– not just because her body may have taken a battering through birth, or just feels different
– not just because birth may have been traumatic and her pelvic tissues trigger the memories
– not just because the hormones circulating in her bloodstream may dampen her libido and cause vaginal dryness and hyper-sensitivity
– not just because the cultural messages around sex and desirability are skewed in favour of narrow-hipped, flat-bellied women
– and not just because the Madonna-Versus-Whore view of mothers and sexuality has hung around for way too long.
A woman’s sexuality and sexual responses in the postpartum may be governed by all of these, and more.
Sadly, relationship breakdown is all too common in the first year after the birth of a baby.
If returning to any kind of sexual relating post-natally doesn’t happen easily for a couple, it can become the elephant in the room that leads to frustrations, resentments, resignation and feelings of rejection that can pile up time over time. These states weigh people down, create isolation, and in the end, no one benefits.
From the point of view of partners, the six-week post-natal check is typically used as the green light for resuming sex if the new mother’s physical recovery appears on track. In reality however, she may not be ready at all – physically, emotionally or psychologically – for a variety of reasons.
The scenario often playing out is that a touch or “that look” from a partner will be interpreted by the mother as an expression of their need for sex and yet another demand placed upon her body and her energy. And in her overwhelmed state, she begins to deflect these advances and avoid engaging. Her fear of penetrative sex in the postpartum while she continues to heal physically can lead to further shutdown and other self-protective responses in her body. These responses are hard-wired into her mammalian physiology and are not a conscious choice. When this pattern continues, she may find it difficult to break the link between her partner’s desire for sexual connection and her own shutdown reaction. When the time comes that she also desires to engage sexually, her body may remain in an entrenched reactive pattern as I have witnessed in working with perinatal women. It can take some delicate somatic therapy and education as well as a willing and committed couple to turn this situation around.
To my way of thinking, much of this heartache and turmoil can be avoided.
And it boils down to expectations, education, and some serious soul-searching about sexuality
by society as a whole.
Our primary sexual relationship is always with ourselves. It is pure and innocent, relating simply to pleasure in our bodies. If we don’t know what feels good in our own bodies, how then can we engage with others? How can we be clear about what feels like a Yes or a No? Sexually speaking, how do we discern between our ‘accelerators’ and our ‘brakes’?
Our sexuality evolves from babyhood and is shaped by the mixed messages we receive about sex in most cultures as children and adolescents. The male-centric notion of sex is perpetuated among other things by pornography and is often about PIV (penis-in-vagina) with the distinct goal of climax. This does not take into account that male arousal takes an average of thirty seconds whereas most women require a lot more time and specific kinds of stimulation to become fully aroused. Or that for many women, direct focus on genitals, orgasm or any kind of goal can be a turn off.
Sexual arousal can be enjoyed by itself and for itself as a way of feeling our aliveness without needing to expend the energy in peak orgasm. It can also be a direct pathway to states of transcendence as taught in some spiritual traditions. It does not have to include climax, orgasm or ejaculation. And that is not to minimize the exhilaration those options can bring. They are but choices in a vast erotic playground, from tuning in to our sensuality and the feelings in our own body to engaging sexually with another, PIV sex or not. The range of interactions may include making eye contact, touch, massage, hugging, kissing, spooning, self-pleasuring together, and a whole lot more. Or they may just be a shared playfulness, a knowing smile and the twinkle in a partner’s eye.
When partners expect that they will take up where they left off with pre-baby ways of interacting sexually, they often end up with yet another challenge to add to the postpartum soup and the already massive adjustments for all concerned. Confusion, not-good-enoughness, shame, self-blame and guilt often emerge in the mix when something that may have been easy and natural in the past turns into a ‘problem’. This primal and slowed-down time in the couple’s life can also bring up their own childhood attachment wounds of feeling abandoned or not fully understood. And this can then create a spiralling situation of distance and disconnection between them.
But if a couple were to turn all of this on its head and see it as a huge opportunity for exploring new ways of relating with one another, it could well become the most enriching time of their lives. When the definition of intimacy, sensual and sexual relating are broadened to include all kinds of pleasure and connection, then the possibilities become endless – and exciting!
– The postpartum would be a prime time to have a deep and meaningful conversation about what sex has meant to them before and after birth, and where they see their true desires versus their cultural conditioning around sex – not because they are in some way inadequate, but because they crave a more transparent, courageous and mature way of relating and growing together.
– It may mean being brave and honest enough to share their personal turn-ons and turn-offs, without shaming the other.
– It would mean learning to own and express their fears and vulnerabilities, to communicate their feelings more clearly, and to not take things so personally.
– It may include a conversation about what makes them each feel seen, heard, felt, and adored by the other. They may already be aware of their key ‘love language’ – acts of service such as cooking the meal or tending to their baby, loving touch with not an ounce of pressure to engage sexually, words of appreciation, time spent together in uplifting ways, or perhaps an unexpected gift from the other.
– It may involve an intention to punctuate their days with small but regular moments to connect with one another in loving ways.
– It may be ten minutes set aside for each to take a turn receiving non-sexual touch or massage from the other with explicit requests as to how they would like to be touched. When done with no other agenda than to be present and fully giving or receiving, this can powerfully restore trust and create a depth of communication that will only be a win-win when the couple does engage sexually (see The 3-minute Game & The Wheel of Consent by Betty Martin).
Placing a woman’s pleasure at the centre of sexual relating in slow, gentle steps is far more likely to fulfill both of their desires than simply chasing orgasms. If her body does not respond with a full Yes, then her No or Maybe must be honoured with zero pressure. This in itself will promote relaxation and trust which for most are precursors to fuller and more satisfying sex, no matter the finer details.
This kind of sexual relating that involves more of a ‘being-with’ and less of a’ doing-to’ can support a couple’s wellbeing and deepen their connection like no vitamin pill could ever do. And when parents are feeling connected, nurtured and at ease, their entire family can expect to thrive.
Nisha Gill works at the intersection of women’s sexual embodiment, birth, trauma and bodywork.
She helps couples navigate the delicate territory of sexual reconnection in the postpartum through 1:1 and 2:1 somatic sessions, bodywork & embodiment practices for women (Embody Woman Series).
- Science For Sexual Happiness – Caffyn Jesse
- The Fourth Trimester – Kimberly Ann Johnson
- Come As You Are – Emily Nagoski
- Woman’s Anatomy Of Arousal – Sheri Winston
- Erotic Massage For Healing And Pleasure – Caffyn Jesse
- Urban Tantra – Barbara Carellas & Annie Sprinkle
- The Heart Of Tantric Sex – Diana Richardson
- Love, Sex & Awakening – Margot Anand
- Wired For Love – Stan Tatkin
- The Erotic Mind – Jack Morin
- The Five Love Languages – Gary Chapman
- The Art And Science Of Female Arousal – Laura-Doe (DVD)
- Passionate Marriage – David Schnarch
- Mating In Captivity – Esther Perel