Dad Next Door: Let's Talk Sex
Yes, the intimacy of creating and raising a child together is rewarding, beautiful and deeply connecting. But not always sexy.
A little encouragement from across the fence
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
I know — it’s not a subject you expect in a parenting column. After all, what could be less sexy than parenting?
My point exactly.
Let’s just lay it out there for everyone to see: having kids is really bad for your sex life. Ironic, isn’t it? That the very outcome of which sex may bring about was apparently invented should be its downfall, and sometimes its demise? On the other hand, it sort of makes sense. Mother Nature is only interested in perpetuation of the species. Once that baby pops out, she couldn’t care less if we’re having sex or not. But of course, we care. We just don’t always know what to do about it.
Let’s consider the diverse and many ways that having kids can ruin your sex life, starting with the mother’s perspective. When the baby arrives, your hormones and emotions plunge and surge like the giant waves off Waikiki. Your child’s health and well-being become your obsession, pushing all other priorities aside. Your breasts, heretofore symbols of sensuality and womanly allure, are now spigots. You’re chronically sleep deprived, your belly is a loose bag of stretch-marked flab, and every piece of clothing you own is suddenly too loose or still too tight. You’re glued to an adorable, ravenous, unappeasable parasite who clings to you day and night until all you long for is a good night’s sleep and a moment when your body is completely your own. Oh yeah, and you just passed a bowling ball through your vagina.
And how about you, Dad? You, too, are sleep deprived and stressed about your new role and your new responsibilities. You aren’t sure when sex is even allowed again (six weeks), or when it won’t be painful (not that much fun the first time). Your child and partner are joined together so tightly that you couldn’t separate them with a crowbar and a can of WD-40, and you feel about as useful as the third wheel on a toaster oven. Oh yeah, and your partner just passed a bowling ball through her vagina.
Of course, much of this is only temporary, but it’s not an auspicious start for this new phase of your relationship. Often, it sets up a trajectory that’s hard to change. “I just had a baby” becomes “I’m still breastfeeding,” which slips into “I’m just too exhausted.” Eventually, the end result for everyone is “I’m just going to stop trying.” And even for couples who desperately want to rekindle their flame, how to accomplish that is far from clear. Beyond the challenges of childbirth and infancy, there is something about parenting itself that deadens desire.
In her fascinating book Mating in Captivity, relationship expert Esther Perel lays out the hypothesis that sexuality and desire require some degree of separation and “otherness.” It is the mystery of another autonomous human being that electrifies our connection to them, and creates their allure. Seen in that light, it’s easy to understand why parenting puts such a damper on romance. Yes, the intimacy of creating and raising a child together is rewarding, beautiful and deeply connecting. But it requires a melding together of lives that is more complete and consuming than any we have experienced up to that point. It’s so easy to lose our individual identity in that arrangement — to merge into a single family unit with no separation or “otherness” to serve as romantic fuel.
So what’s the solution? Unfortunately, there’s no one reliable answer. Dealing with stress and anxiety is important — reassuring our caveman (and cavewoman) brains that the fire is lit and the cave is secure, the dishes are done and the bills are paid. Addressing sleep deprivation and exhaustion is also crucial. And simply carving out some time and intention for romance, amidst our ridiculously busy lives, can help put sex back on the menu. All of these things help, but they may not be enough.
Perel makes the case that we need more than a decent night’s sleep and a reminder on our calendars to reclaim our sex lives. We must also carve out some separation. We must remain individuals, with our own thoughts, passions and selfish needs, even as we build the closeness and unity that loving families require.
Is that a tall order? Perhaps. But the strength of our families depends on our relationship with our partners. That is the pillar that holds up the sky, and it’s the model of love that our kids will take with them into their own adult lives. We want them to know that they can ask more of life than just comfort, security and predictability — they can demand mystery, and desire.
And so can we.
Jeff Lee does the dishes and defends his cave in Seattle.