Sex clinic: Will our sex life ever be the same after children?

QUESTION: My wife and I have been married since our early 20s. I’ve always fancied her, but since the birth of our child our sex life has become less exciting. 

I knew this might happen, but I’m worried it’s permanent. I want to see her sexually again, rather than just as the mother of my child. Is it possible to reignite early lust?

ANSWER: You need to be patient. Having a child is a major life transition and you must adjust to the multiple changes. The physical changes of pregnancy and birth are visible, and hard to ignore, but there is also a psychological impact.

Post-natally, many women struggle with less easily identifiable changes: reduced social contact with other adults, an increase in domestic responsibility, decreased economic independence and, most significantly, a dramatic loss of personal freedom. A new mother can no longer behave spontaneously. Her infant’s needs are prioritised over time to herself, or time with her partner, and this has a deleterious effect on the couple’s sex life.

Often, the conflict between feeling responsible for the baby and feeling isolated by the confining aspects of motherhood translates into anger and jealousy at a partner who usually gets to leave the house and rejoin the ‘real’ world every day.

Anger crushes libido. So does negative body image and depression and exhaustion, all of which are commonly experienced by women who have recently had children.

The US psychologist, Dr John Gottmann, who is best known for his work on marital stability, estimates that 40% to 70% of couples experience “stress, profound conflict and drops in marital satisfaction” after the birth of a child. However, female marital satisfaction seems to decline earlier, and to a greater extent than male. Research shows that this decline is mediated to a greater, or lesser extent, by the amount of support a woman receives from her partner, and the more a husband attends to the marital relationship the happier a wife is with regard to both her marriage and her life.

It makes sense.

A new mother who is intensely focussed on caring for her baby has limited reserves of energy to put into caring for herself, or for her relationship.

Most new fathers say they feel marginalised by the mother-baby duo, but that deficit reverses for men who understand that their real role after childbirth is to nurture the nurturer.

If her partner is mature enough to recognise that what feels like ‘exclusion’ is just a time/energy deficit, he can look after the woman who is nurturing his child, without making additional demands on her.

When a woman is immersed in her ‘maternal’ self, the gear-change required to engage with her ‘sexual’ self can feel incongruous. Contemporary images portray mothers as loving their children, their husbands, their jobs and themselves all at once, but this ideal is not the reality. Getting used to putting someone else’s needs first, 24/7, is difficult and, for many women, sex simply stops being a priority while the baby is small.

For others, particularly those who have partners who actively lighten their load, sex maintains intimacy and sustains an adult connection in a child-centric environment.

In an Australian study (carried out by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute), on women’s experiences of sex and intimacy after childbirth, women spoke of sometimes having sex (when they were tired and did not necessarily feel like it) either for their own benefit, for their partner’s benefit, or for the benefit of the relationship. This was generally reported as having had ongoing benefits to the relationship, both sexually and emotionally.

All new parents struggle with the same problems, but they resolve them in different ways. The Murdoch study identified several factors that had helped couples to get their sex life back on track. Women appreciated feeling that their partner was working with them, that they were a team, and that they were able to communicate easily about the constraints of being parents.

It was also helpful when couples could agree on what was currently a priority, whether it be sex, sleep, or caring for their new child.

Fortunately, infancy is a finite period and couples gradually have the energy, and the privacy, to reclaim some of their pre-birth sexual spontaneity. Does it ever go back to the way it was? I can tell you that child-free weekends, lingerie, and alcohol help. But packing them off to college helps more.

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