You have a baby, it takes over your life, and there is less time for YOU individually and for YOU as a couple. End of story. Right?
Well, yes and no.
Having a baby is a beautiful, empowering, stressful, exhausting, life altering thing. Your life as you know it will literally never be the same after you bring a baby home. For a new couple about to become parents, it is difficult to wrap your head around how an experience can be both transcendent and soul crushing at the same time. It is frightening to think of of making an unalterable foundational shift. To make matters worst, parents -to-be hear other couples complaining how their baby was the deathblow to intimacy in their marriage. It makes one wonder:
Is it possible for a couple to not only survive the transition to parenthood, but to thrive from it?
Here is the secret. It takes time. It takes acceptance. It takes growth.
The first step is an understanding and awareness of how bringing a baby home transforms your body and your psyche early postpartum. NORMAL physiologic changes women experience postpartum can take a toll on sexual desire. The problem arises not from a woman’s body but from her inability to give herself time to recover from having a baby. For many women, their bodies and minds need to gain footing and equilibrium in the new role as mother. There is no space for anything else. With balance, there becomes room for a mother to remember there is more to her than her role as nurturer to her offspring. She is a person with interests, dreams, needs, and desires.
The most important piece of recovery for postpartum women is permission to be an individual again. The need to sacrifice for our young is strong and perpetuated by a society that values selflessness to the point of desecration from mothers.
This is not healthy.
It is not healthy for women.
It is not healthy for couples.
It is not healthy for families.
A woman with balance has more to offer herself and her family than a women who gives until she is nothing but a shell of her former self. Finding that balance begins early postpartum by understanding what your body is going through and giving yourself the time and support to build a new foundation.
So what is going on with our bodies postpartum and how does it muck up our sex life?
Hormones and Sex
Your hormones undergo a massive shift postpartum. Estrogen and progesterone are elevated during pregnancy and fall precipitously with the delivery of your placenta. A subsequent rise in prolactin and oxytocin herald the onset of lactation. What does all this look like outside of an endocrinology textbook?
The sudden drop of estrogen and progesterone are responsible for the mood instability many women experience early postpartum. Unexpected and unprompted crying, emotional sensitivity, and anxiety are all common. For most this period is transient and passes within a few weeks. For others it can lead to further depressive symptoms or anxiety.
Effects on your body
Low estrogen levels can cause vaginal dryness for many women. Lack of lubrication can make sex uncomfortable or even painful. Some women feel self-conscious about their inability to become lubricated with sexual arousal. It is normal. Estrogen is to blame. With time, hormones will equilibrate and your vagina will function as before. In the meantime, buy some lubricant.
Oxytocin~ A Tale of Milk and Love
Oxytocin wears many hats. As you most of you know, oxytocin is the hormone responsible for labor contractions. When women get inductions, we give them oxytocin. Postpartum, oxytocin is responsible for milk letdown during breastfeeding.
Less well known, oxytocin plays an important role in bonding and love. During sex and orgasim, oxytocin is released to create feelings of safety, bonding, and love. Inconveniently, our body doesn’t delineate when oxytocin should be preforming specific roles. During sex, many women will leak or spray breastmilk. Whoops. For some, it is just an inconvenience but others find it to be an embarrassing side effect during postpartum intercourse. For most, this will resolve with time as your body streamlines its milk supply. To help keep the spray at bay, wear a bra during intercourse. Nursing pads can also be used to help staunch the flow.
Oxytocin has another important role that can create a sexual barrier postpartum. Just as oxytocin is responsible for feelings of love and closeness during intercourse, it fosters similar feelings for mothers while breastfeeding and nurturing their infants. These are not sexual feelings but feelings of bonding and closeness. The problem for some women is that they become completely consumed by their need and desire to nurture and love their newborn. Their needs to bond are already being met… just not by their partner. This is just as nature intended. Infants need a mother’s undivided attention and care to survive. If we were not madly in love with our babies we would not put in all the hard work required to raise them.
This does not mean you will never have space for your partner again. Raising a newborn is all consuming. Give yourself the time and space to embrace this transition with your baby and permission to step back and broaden the scope of your life when it is time.
This disconnect can often leave partners with the feeling that their needs are unmet. Open candid conversations are important. An expression of, “I hear you. I see you. I haven’t forgot you,” can be helpful to a partner that feels left out. Ester Perell’s book Mating in Captivity has an awesome chapter diving into the effects of parenthood on a couple’s sex life and how to reconnect after a baby has entered the picture.
Pelvic Flood Disfunction
The idea of sex immediately following a vaginal delivery makes most women want to curl up into a ball and die. It feels all tender, gapey, and foreign down there. Even the thought of penetration is frightening. For some women it remains painful long after everything should be “back to normal.” These women are left turned off by the idea of sex because it HURTS. They are labeled with low libido like it is a choice they are making to no longer want sex.
Women need time to heal not just physically but emotionally from their birth experience. They need time to process their birth and separate from the experience. Emotional scars left from birth trauma can taint sexual relationships for woman. If this is the case, you need to seek help and resolution to help grapple with these complex feelings surrounding your birth.
Even once the perineum is healed, many times the muscles surrounding that scar tissue are tense. Sex can cause spasming of the pelvic floor making intercourse painful. Did you know that even c-section mothers can experience pelvic floor disfunction post delivery? It is true. Once we are physically healed, it is not normal for sex to be painful. It is not normal for penetration to hurt. If this is the case you need to seek out a pelvic floor physical therapist and/or a scar tissue remediation practitioner. You do not need to accept sex is painful for the rest of our life.
Many women feel self conscious about their bodies postpartum. Sex for women is just as much psychological as it is physical and these feelings of inadequacy or loathing toward their postpartum body can taint libido.
There are movements, such as the 4th Trimester Body Project, with the mission of normalizing postpartum bodies. Expectations of “getting our body back” and pressures to get to the gym 6 weeks after delivering a baby are harmful. This is not the norm. Our bodies change with pregnancy. Your body just grew and expelled a tiny human… it is kinda amazing. We need to help women embrace their bodies and wear them with pride.
Normalizing will help women gain perspective and confidence to love their bodies. Check out The 4th Trimester Body page for some awesome photo inspiration.
Life with a newborn is hard.
Like, REALLY HARD.
Living with sleepless nights, sore nipples, a cramping uterus, and a bleeding aching vagina does not make anyone feel particularly sexy. We all vow that we are not going to be that woman who greets our husband as a bleary eyed shell of a woman walking around un-showered in milk stained PJ with a screaming infant in our arms… but then we have a baby and realize it is an inevitability.
Caring for small children can feel like a surrender of your body. They are ever present with their little hands grasping, clinging, snatching, holding. There is no privacy. There is no personal space. Children require an openness that no other relationship matches. The nature of their need can be exhausting leaving many women feeling “touched out” by the end of a long day.
This is precisely the moment when a partner comes home looking to reconnect with his loved one only to be rebuffed and turned away. The mother feels she has nothing left to give and the husband feels like his wife has nothing to give him. Without clear communication between a couple, it creates a pressure from both parties as they have feelings that their needs are unmet. As children age and they become less demanding, there is a lessening of this strain. The problem arises when damage has already been done to a relationship and there is no desire to reconnect.
Speak to your partner. Tell them “I missed you too but I just need some time by myself to unwind before I am ready to connect with you.” Husbands too need to express their feelings of hurt after being away from their family all day only to feel rejected when they comes home. It is a dance of miscommunication that can be avoided by expressing your feelings and needs.
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The Center was established to provide a better understanding and comprehensive clinical intervention for any woman who suffers from the range of prenatal and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders.
Our objective is to provide support and treatment for the pregnant or postpartum woman and her family as well as guidance for her treating physician or therapist.
Touched Out Photo Credit
Karen Kleinman, Molly McIntyre
Magamama is a community and resource hub for new moms who want natural empowering solutions to the physical pain + emotional madness that can accompany childbirth, as well as a home for progressive conversations and professional development.
4th Trimester Bodies Project is a movement dedicated to educating, embracing and empowering humans through photographs and story telling.
You can also follow them on Instagram!
Mating in Captivity
By Esther Perel
Drawing on more than twenty years of experience as a couples therapist, Perel examines the complexities of sustaining desire. Through case studies and lively discussion, Perel demonstrates how more exciting, playful, and even poetic sex is possible in long-term relationships. Wise, witty, and as revelatory as it is straightforward, Mating in Captivity is a sensational book that will transform the way you live and love.