It was a Wednesday around seven or eight. Stepping out of the shower, my eyes were heavy, my mind was distracted by the perils of latching and proper body positioning – breastfeeding is basically impossible to start – when my husband came up behind me and wrapped both arms around my waist. Water dripped from my hair, I was confused and then I wasn’t. The first thing I thought was: oh, wait – I haven’t Googled this yet.
I had given birth to our first child five weeks before and the thought of anything relating to me, my needs – or my husband’s – was about as far from my mind as packing up and hitchhiking cross-country with our newborn strapped to my back. As many pregnant women of a certain generation do, I had developed an uncomfortable attachment to the world’s favorite search engine. Discovering how to swaddle a baby and suit up a sling, which toys were worth registering for and that every bump, rash or cry is “normal” if you browse long enough. Crucially, it had not even occurred to me to check when I would be cleared to have sex again.
Part of me assumed that my doctor – who had become an e-mail penpal of sorts – would give me the green light – “by the way, feel free to have sex starting now,” but my Inbox was powerless to help. Would it be worse than before, I wondered, or perhaps – somewhat optimistically – better after spending a year on intimate terms with my changing body. In any case, the sun was setting, veiling our Brooklyn apartment in shadows. Now was as good a time as any, I thought, following him down the hall.
While my husband focused on restoring our pre-baby connection, my only concern was that everything worked right. With an infant in the next room, even the best intentions are sped up, straight to the point. Surely, I could handle a quickie? Or not. Unexpected pain threatened to crush the moment, it was time to invoke the recent female rally: nevertheless, she persisted. I would, we did, left breathless, relieved that another ‘first’ was over. But now I needed to know: would it always be like this?
At the risk of stumbling into a downward spiral of mummy forums (a truly scary corner of the Internet), I turned to my girls on both sides of the pond to find out if, how and when things would ever return to normal in the bedroom.
“With my first child, I expected [sex] to hurt like a bitch,” admitted Tegan*, a mother of a boy and a girl. A born and bred New Yorker, Tegan and I met in a communications class in uni, I had no doubt she would tell it to me straight. “I couldn't fathom anything going in me down there ever again.” She’d had a tough recovery after her first child, but found that after the second, the anticipation of painful sex was “much worse” than reality and by the time her body had healed, she said they were both “more eager” to experiment.
In our early twenties, my former roommate Meghan had served as house mum, teaching us recipes, taking us to the best bars, showing us how to do a kegstand. A handful of years later, she had two daughters of her own. What was the biggest hurdle she faced getting back into bed after baby? “Keeping the romantic aspect of our relationship in tact [after kids].” It is definitely much harder now. When do you find time for [sex], or ever have privacy for it?” Faced with a future of scheduled ‘dates’ and routine sex, Meghan discovered another uncomfortable truth: “You’re naturally drier, especially while breastfeeding.”
On the spectrum between a newfound appreciation for the body and dismay over one’s changing figure, is the way in which we carve out a new normal. While I’d imagined sweating out any and all insecurities in the gym, I was missing the full picture.
“Breastfeeding affected my view of my body in a way I hadn't anticipated,” Tegan said. “I saw my breasts as a means of nourishment for my children, and it kind of seemed gross when my husband touched them during sex. I was also always nervous that milk would leak out which would definitely be a mood killer for me!” Agreed. Can one simply wait out the awkwardness, or, like an unshared secret, will it grow over time?
“Honestly? [Sex] was the last thing on my mind,” admitted Emma, a former colleague-turned-bestie who lived in South London. Emma and her husband had lead a jet-set life pre-baby before settling down in zone two. “I had zero desire therefore zero expectation!” After waiting a couple months, Emma explained, “your mind puts the trauma of birth into the compartment labelled 'forget about it,’ and you soon move on and return to normal... or the new normal.”
The first three to four weeks after giving birth I had been blind to everyone (and thing) that I wasn’t personally responsible for keeping alive. As we slowly started to shape new routines, I had to come terms with the fact that though our sex life would be different, it was important not just to turn the lights off and close the door.
“It takes time to heal,” Emma explained. “To process and to rebuild, but you – the whole you: body and soul – are so much stronger for it. Afterwards: “I was me again, and having sex/returning to normal 'activities' was all part of the journey!”
For extra advice, I turned to Dr. Roger Kierce, Chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in New Jersey for his top tips on sex after birth:
1. A woman should wait four weeks or whenever she feels comfortable – whichever comes last.
2. Check your expectations at the bedroom door: “Sleep deprivation is a means of torture. Expect frustration, some pain and that it’s not going to be as what one would hope for."
3. Realize after about three months post partum life will return towards normal.
4. Be patient.
5. Use lubricants.
6. Keep talking to your partner.
*Some names have been changed to protect – and promote – the sex lives of our interviewees.