Getting Back in the Saddle
Under any circumstances the road back to having a sex life after having a baby is tough. The OB’s standard advice is to wait six weeks after giving birth to have sex. This is not a number created to drive men crazy. After six weeks is it safe to assume that the cervix has completely closed up and can maintain a sterile environment for the uterus. This also accommodates the average time it takes for the body to recover. First off, the uterus (which has morphed from a change purse to a large knapsack) and the vagina (which now resembles an udder) need time to recover and recede. It takes time for the bleeding to stop, the episiotomies and tears to heal, and the insides to resettle into their former digs. Add in cracked nipples, spurting breasts, a belly that feels like sponge cake, no sleep, and no time to shower, and you can glimpse the birth and post-birth factors that conspire against a woman’s sex drive. When there are extenuating medical situations for the baby or the mother, a sex life is not even on the radar at six weeks postpartum. Even if you are blessed with a fast recovery and a baby who sleeps a lot, it is still difficult to get back in the sex saddle. As one mother and nurse describes it vividly: “Too many people mistake six weeks as the jumping off point for returning to a ‘normal’ sex life. You now have a non-sleeping infant, milk everywhere, a house full of in-laws, and a hole in your ass the size of Texas. ‘Normal’ as anyone knows it is a thing of the past.” Once you have physically healed, feeling mentally ready is a personal thing, complicated by rampant hormones and emotions, not to mention a perpetual borderline psycho state induced by sleep deprivation.
Giving birth is such a total turn-yourselfinside- out effort that a woman often wants to retract and retain any morsel of energy for herself. As a 54-year-old woman who still freshly recalls being postpartum exclaimed, “Erogenous zones? Forget it! Sex? Forget it! The thought of someone else needing my body put me over the edge. I had nothing left to give.” Feeling like a beast of burden, constantly toting not only a helpless infant but also his twin-barreled, chest-mounted, life-support system, does not allow much room to take on anyone else’s needs. A 50-year-old mother of grown children recalls, “After nursing, diapering, laundry, and figuring out motherhood all day, I finally find myself in bed cozy with a book and then one more person needs something from me? Give me a break!!”
What do we know?
Cindy: “Our baby was 10 days old. I was perched on the edge of our bed trying to gather strength for the day ahead after nursing all night. Having drained the nursing jugs, the baby was sprawled out in a drunken slumber, but the breasts were still unmanageable. This was especially true during the transition into a nursing bra from the loose sleeping bra that merely acts as a hammock to keep the absorbent nursing pads in place as well as a safety net to keep the breasts from escaping down the side of the bed, snuffing out my baby, and rolling into the neighbour’s yard. As I began the contortionist climb into the thick-strapped, quadruple-hooked nursing bra, and inserted fresh nursing pads under the Dumbo-like flaps that hooked below the shoulder, I caught sight of my pasty white triple-rolled belly hanging over a giant pair of granny panties specially acquired to hold my tremendous sanitary napkin in place. At that moment, Bruce walked in the door from the bathroom and stopped in his tracks, his eyes alight at the sight of my partially naked body. His was the face of pure desperation. Clearly his standards had shifted during the postpartum drought, which had only just begun.”
Edie: “I was so focused on my panicked fear of labour that I was blindsided by all the postpartum issues of the childbirth process. For some dumb reason I decided to get on a bike after three weeks because I’d heard of a friend who bounced right back. Bad mistake. It hurt like hell and set me back. You must listen to your own body on this.”
Advice from the Midwife
Sex can be likened to labour in that the main task for many women in our culture is to get their brain out of the way of their body, and surrender to the force of the experience. “I would say about 50 percent of women have some discomfort as they get back into the swing of things after they have a baby. My advice is that they should:
- Use lots of artificial lubricant;
- Continue with gentle intercourse;
- Stop if it is painful and wait a week and try again. Very occasionally (and this is more likely with a significant amount of perineal stitches) a woman will need to do perineal massage – or rather have her partner do it – to desensitize.
Emotional issues are common in postpartum as well. It can be a bit scary to think about anything going in and out of there after birth. Obviously tension will inhibit sexual response, lubrication, etc. As the saying goes, the primary erogenous organ is the brain. I feel it’s my responsibility to convince women that birth is a normal natural function, and that women’s bodies are not only meant to do it, but meant to return to normal afterward. If one approaches sex as a chore, it will be a chore. If one approaches it as an opportunity for positive sensual exchange, hopefully it will be just that. Practice does not always make perfect, but no practice will definitely affect your game.” —Laurie Foster, CNM, CPM, MS
Making the Leap
A return to sex is at the back of the woman’s mind, while the six-week countdown is the beacon of salvation for the man. He deserves it after all. He’s been patient and kind and loving and he’s the father of this miraculous baby. Of course, you love him even if it pisses you off that he is anticipating sex like a starving coyote. Persuasive as they sometimes seem when it comes to wanting sex, men say it is no fun to have sex with a woman who is doing him a favor. Men want the desire to be mutual. Furthermore, after the basic healing has occurred they are less discriminating about physical appearance than women in their foreign, postpartum bodies assume.
Even if you can’t imagine wanting anything more than Pop Tarts, dry breast pads, water, and sleep, eventually the time comes to get back in the saddle. Sooner or later you have to take that leap. The key at this point is to try to recall the pleasures of sex. Once you can recall even one pleasurable encounter, there is hope of returning to that feeling of connection. This is a dicey time, because as the husband’s patience starts running out he may drop a libidocrushing bomb that will agitate you so completely you could almost cry. It might be sulking for sex, whining about how tough it is to wait, commenting on how your body has changed, or workout tips on how to get your body back. His desperation blinds him to the fact that one misplaced comment could shatter his progress and add months to the sex drought. Ideally, we would all be stable enough to converse reasonably about these matters, but it rarely pans out that way. We wouldn’t recommend this kind of chat unless you have at least a threehour stretch of sleep between feedings under your belt.
Staying on Course Studies say the most common time for male infidelity is within the first six months of his wife giving birth. Men, this is no excuse for sleeping around, and women, this is a friendly FYI. Rather than being discouraged or threatened by his masturbation, think of it as buying time until you get yourself to a saner and more well-rested state. Be thankful for small favours, and be happy he is cheating on you with his own hand.
There is no magic number of days or weeks it takes to get back to normal after birth. Six weeks is a best-case scenario, six months may put your relationship in the red zone. Men, help your cause by helping out, and trying to lick your chops discreetly. Women, you have to start somewhere, so saddle up.
Why you should care
Men: You care because six weeks is long enough, but you don’t want to put her health or your future sex life at risk. You may feel that you’ve been patient, with little or no acknowledgment, and that you’re long overdue for some good lovin’. Your patience during this journey is an investment that will pay off in the hopefully, not-so-long run.
Women: This may be the first time your sexual desire has waned or come into question. Physically reconnecting with your husband is a priority for the health of your marriage. Finding your way back to your sexual self will help you start feeling human again. Look at these first experiences as an investment in your own libido-recharge program.
What you can do
Men: Nothing delays the libido-recharge program more than pressure, sulking, whining, watching the game with a full sink of dishes, or dispensing diet tips. Forget the old trusted tricks for getting her into the sack and understand that the new turn-ons are help and sleep. Change diapers, rock the baby to sleep, do the dishes, and help organize the family life to ease the bitterness. Women don’t intend to create a barter-based sex situation, but when a man helps with the general list of to-dos, it speeds her trip back to herself, which ultimately leads to more sex for you. Have we mentioned yet to be supportive of her body? Not every man has to sincerely tell his wife she is at her most beautiful when pregnant, nursing, toting pasty jugs, whatever. But do not make her feel worse about her post-science-experiment body, or dwell on the sketchy details about what she looks and feels like down under.
Women: Be aware that even when your mind and body feel ready, the first entry can be brutal, thanks to scar tissue and the Sahara-like dryness in your former oasis. Take the advice of many wise women: grab a handful of K-Y jelly, slap it on there, and give it a go. It still has to be slow and gentle, but it will be the beginning of something. Even if it’s comfortable, sex the first few times may not be that excellent. If you feel some pleasure, count yourself lucky and cling to that life raft all the way back to a healthy sex life. If you don’t feel much pleasure, keep at it until you do. Enjoying sex again happens when you can start associating positive feelings with sex, and it takes repeated experiences until the pleasure outweighs the sacrifices.
Excerpted from Finding the Doorbell: Sexual Satisfaction for the Long Haul by Cindy Pierce and Edie Thys Morgan, published by Nomad Press, available everywhere books are sold and at www.ipgbook.com.