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Ask Malyshka: Sex after Baby

Dear Malyshka,

Okay, I’m not sure how forward or revealing people have been in writing you for advice, but I’m about to get really personal here. I hope that’s okay. I know you’re not necessarily a sex advice columnist, but maybe you can help me out here anyway.

About a year ago, I had a kid. She did some acrobatics as she entered the world, which left me with some pretty impressive ladyparts damage. I am so glad that when I saw my nurse-midwife nine weeks after my daughter was born, I gathered up the courage to tell her about the pain I was still experiencing while standing and walking, but especially when attempting to have sex. She was able to hook me up with a doctor in the practice who specializes in treating painful post-childbirth sex, which actually has a very scientific name that I can’t recall. I was able to receive effective (and only slightly traumatic) treatment, and I now experience a lot less pain when my husband and I have sex. We still have to be a little careful with certain positions, but it’s not like sex is uncomfortable like it was for several months.

I thought once I stopped having pain, I would be more interested in returning to our previous levels of sex-having. But that’s just not the case. I don’t think it’s just the fact that my vagina now feels totally different to me (husband says it’s fine) or that I’m exhausted. I don’t think it’s just the fact that my daughter is breastfeeding, which makes me feel like my body doesn’t belong to me. I don’t think it’s just weirdness with my body – I’ve always been reasonably heavy, and that’s never been a problem for my husband and me. Maybe it’s a combination of those things, but for some reason my libido is just POOF. GONE. And now that we’re getting close to our kid’s first birthday, I’m left wondering if it’s ever going to come back.

I’m writing for advice because I feel like an asshole. I know that my husband wants to have sex, and he is NEVER pushy or demanding or anything…but I feel like I shoot him down all the time. I hate that I cringe when he rolls over in bed to hold me, because part of me worries he might want to turn it into foreplay, and I’m going to have to tell him no again. We used to make out every once in a while and not go any further, but now I don’t even want to do that because I worry what it will turn into.

UGH. I feel like such a jerk. We have a really strong relationship, and I don’t think this is ruining us or anything. I just wish I could want to have sex again.

Oh, dear.  I am so sorry you are going through this ““ sex is everything, and nothing, and everything and nothing in a relationship. There are so many emotions wrapped up in what should/could be just a physical act that everything is complicated and nothing is clear.

First, the fact that you can articulate all of this is huge. Laying it out in an objective and well-defined way is, in and of itself, a step in the right direction. You know what the main problem is (lack of libido), you know potential causes of it (mental and emotional trauma from childbirth, breastfeeding, body changes, exhaustion), you know that it’s not the end-all-be-all of the relationship, but that it is important.

The fact of the matter is that childbirth, especially a difficult one, is traumatic. You know the phrase, “ripping you a new asshole”? You know how it’s supposed to be the worst thing that you can do to somebody? Well, it regularly happens to women in labor, for real, and that is something that one does not easily forget. The fact that the actual pain is gone (and good for you for being proactive about that) does not mean that the memory has been wiped clean. Bebeh ripped you open. Introducing a thrusting phallus back in there is not necessarily going to be your top priority.

The breastfeeding, too, plays into this, and not just because you feel like your body isn’t your own (although that is certainly important). When your body is producing milk, it is also releasing the hormone prolactin. According to insciences.org,

“Prolactin plays important roles in reproduction and fertility, one of which is reduction of sexual libido… It is believed that prolactin is significant for metabolism, since patients with elevated levels of prolactin can become overweight. Levels of prolactin often rise in patients who are treated with dopamine inhibitors for psychotic disorders, and these patients often experience loss of libido and sometimes the production of breast milk as undesired effects.”

Basically, while you are continuing to breastfeed, you are making a larger sacrifice than just turning your boobs over to your baby every few hours ““ you are inundating your body with this hormone that is pushing you to turn away from sex.

Your body has changed, but it seems like you are doing a good job of being body-positive in general, and I would wager a guess that the other factors are more important. As far as exhaustion goes ““ is the baby sleeping through the night? Do you have any downtime, or are you constantly pulled in different directions? How active of a role does your husband play in the child-rearing?  The first year of child-raising, no matter how you look at it, is exhausting. As the little one starts becoming more independent, your sleep schedule will certainly even out. In the meantime, setting aside time for you is important. If you are anything like the average household, you are taking care of many more of the duties around the house, especially when it comes to food, cleaning, and child-rearing. Asking your husband to take over some of these chores may help with the exhaustion.

The thing is, though, regardless of the little things you may be able to do to fix some of the causes, you created life. And that puts an enormous amount of strain on your body. You may simply need to give yourself more time (and to wean the baby when the time is right) for your libido to return.

In the meantime, what can you do? Physically, you can turn to other kinds of sex ““ hand jobs and oral sex, mostly. For some people, penis-in-vagina sex is the only thing that comes to mind when it comes to pleasuring your partner, but it just isn’t true. If your vagina is feeling shy (and PTSD-y), your husband can orgasm in other ways. This should help you to maintain the feeling of closeness with him while also relieving some of your guilt for always saying no.

Also, be open to sexiness in a variety of ways. Romance novels, sexy movies, mood music ““ they may all seem silly if you aren’t in the mood, but they also can help to get you in the mood.  Sometimes you have to push yourself to get aroused, even if you think it won’t work. Along the same lines, deciding that you are going to have sex, and doing it, can get you into it, even if you aren’t feeling it at first.

And remember, most of these feelings are coming from you. You have been socialized to believe that women please men, and on a more surface level, you believe that sex is important in your relationship and you just aren’t bringing it to the table. But your husband has said that it isn’t his number one priority, and he is giving you a pass to recover. Give yourself the same pass. Your libido should return as the kiddo stops breastfeeding, your vagina starts believing in the good kind of touch again, and you get to have some downtime.

And above all, don’t forget – there are many different definitions of sex, and many ways to be close to your partner.

Ask Malyshka is a weekly advice column by the baddest badass around.  Need some advice?  Ask away!

By Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

One reply on “Ask Malyshka: Sex after Baby”

Malyshka’s answer was awesome and I’ve nothing to add on the impact of pregnancy birth and mothering on sex (not having experienced any of them).

But something I’ve found really useful generially is acknowledging that there can be (at least) two kinds of sex drive: spontaneous and responsive. One of my favourite sex educators, Emily Nagoski, explains it thusly:

Responsive desire is when motivation to have sex begins AFTER sexual behavior has started. As in, you’re doing something else when your partner comes over and starts kissin’ on ya, and you go, “Oh yeah! That’s a good idea!” Or you and your partner set aside Friday night as Sex Night, and then Sex Night gets here and you’re like, “Oh, Sex Night. But I’m so tired…” But you made a deal, so you get started… and before long you’ve forgotten you were tired.

This is contrasted with “spontaneous” desire, more typical of male sexuality, which works more like this: you’re walking down the street and for no immediately obvious reason you think, “Hm. I’d like to have sex!” Or you’re taking a shower getting ready for bed and you think, “Hm. I’d like to have sex!”

….The idea that functional sexual desire requires wanting sex out of the blue is bullshit – pervasive and intractable bullshit, but bullshit nonetheless.

It may not feel like it applies to you, but: if you like the idea of sex, but your body just doesn’t seem to be wanting it, try allowing for responsive desire: give yourself e.g.: ten minutes to kiss+touch+be naked with your husband and see how you feel then. If you still don’t feel like (some kind of) sex? No worries. If you do? Hurray all round.

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