“I don’t know how to put it exactly. I guess I just don’t feel like a sex kitten anymore, you know? I think something about this having a baby process has made me grow up. All of a sudden it’s like I want real intimacy.” I was chatting with a friend whose son was born two days before mine. Now both a year old, we watched them dump toys and toddle around while we were catching up. Somehow we found ourselves on a topic that felt hard to talk about, both because of its taboo nature but also because whatever it was seemed difficult to put to words.
“No one ever tells you about that part of things,” she continued. “No one ever tells you how it impacts your sexual relationship after you have a kid. I mean, people joke all the time about how you never have sex again. But that’s just really unhelpful. It’s more that my priorities are different and what I want out of my romantic relationship feels different.”
What my friend was describing is the profound shift in priorities felt by all new moms. Dr. Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain (2006), tells us that motherhood literally alters a woman’s brain—structurally, functionally, and irreversibly. The close and constant contact with her child becomes an all-consuming reality. “A woman’s innate brain wiring, like that of other mammals, responds to basic cues—the growing fetus in her womb; her baby’s birth; its suckling, touch, and smell; and frequent skin-to-skin closeness with her child. Even fathers, adoptive parents, and women who have never been pregnant can respond maternally after close, daily contact with an infant. These physical cues from the infant forge new neurochemical pathways in the brain that create and reinforce maternal brain circuits aided by chemical imprinting and huge increases of oxytocin. These changes result in a motivated, highly attentive, and aggressively protective brain that forces the mother to alter her responses and priorities in life. She is relating to this person in a way she has never related to anyone else in her life” (p. 96).
This internal shift matches the demanding external reality she now finds herself in. During the first years of parenthood, there is a lot stacked up against a couple seeking to maintain positive romantic and sexual connections. Whether it’s the myriad of physical symptoms felt during pregnancy (morning sickness, fatigue, swollen feet, or heartburn just to name a few) or the in-the-trenches reality of tending to a newborn (lack of sleep torture, cleaning up every bodily fluid known to mankind, and trying to hold sanity when your infant appears to be screaming for no reason), or later on as your toddler tests every limit you have, a couple’s time, attention, energy are now primarily focused on keeping the baby alive and the family system afloat.
I asked my friend, “When you say you want real intimacy, what do you mean? What does it mean to you to have real intimacy now?” She thought about it for a few minutes. “I guess it’s not that we didn’t have good sexual connection before, but I guess when I think about what I want now, what I had before seems to pale in comparison. Before it was just like, I’ll go throw on something sexy and play this part. Now I want something gentler and more in tune with me. I want eye contact. I want to feel like our sexual connection is somehow more integrated with the rest of our life together. I mean, show me that you have sexual or romantic feelings for me outside of the bedroom. Show me that you can be on the same team as me, that together we’re creating the life and family we want.”
My friend’s words were honest and vulnerable. They felt like an important reframing of what sex could be: perhaps even with all of its stressors and challenges, new parenthood can invite a couple to deeper levels of engagement and intimacy. With the limited time and energy to be found, it takes an immense amount of determination to find the new equilibrium where each partner gets a break, the couple gets time together, and all the other pieces of life find their place.
As impossible as it might seem, a new mom’s best chance at establishing a deeper level of intimacy and connection with her partner comes out of first taking care of herself. Being constantly dialed in to the demanding needs of her little one(s) while also tending to competing needs of career, household chores, life partner, and other significant relationships is a lot for anyone to balance. In this situation, a mom’s anxiety and stress levels can naturally tend to be high. Not only does this impact the way she can function, it is also a hurdle to being able to experience sexual pleasure. Sexual turn-ons can only happen when the fear and anxiety centers of the brain have been shut down (Brizendine, 2006, p. 77). It is by stepping away or by asking for particular care, by taking a few moments to breathe, and tending to her own needs, that a mom can re-center, re-focus, and feel relaxed enough to engage her partner intimately.
So, new moms … what little piece of goodness can you reach for? What way can you retreat and reclaim a little piece of you? Partners, you want to have more ‘sexy time’? Offer to take the kids to the park for a couple hours or do the dishes or encourage her to go take a long bubble bath. As the Gottman’s point out in their book And Baby Makes Three, even the smallest chore can become an act of foreplay.
On a larger scale, couples who have the most success finding each other will be the ones held by a larger community. The huge shifts that occur in this transition are ones that are often too big for the couple to hold all by themselves. Extended family, friends and other significant groups can go a long way for a couple by offering listening ears, babysitting, and encouragement.
Ultimately, new parenthood can be an invitation to a more integrated understanding of “making love.” Each bid for connection can become a way to offer pleasure, reassurance, understanding, and comfort. And now you have this new little person to marvel in: the creation of your love and connection manifest before you. As your infant grows, so do the two of you.
Jessica Szymas is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Certified Integrated Intimacy Practitioner with Northwest Institute on Intimacy. You can find out more about her practice at jessicaszymas.com