For months after my daughter was born, I’d joke that abstinence was my preferred method of birth control. New motherhood was turbulent, to put it pleasantly, and I had no space for anyone but my screaming, colicky newborn. When it came to my partner and sex, I simply couldn’t be bothered. Now, even two years later, I still find my sexual desire wanes on a whim.
According to Dr. Liz Powell, a sex therapist based in California, my attitudes about postpartum intimacy are totally normal. “Many people experience a fluctuation or loss of sex drive after giving birth,” she says. “Pregnancy and childbirth significantly affect the structure, use, and feeling of your body.”
That makes sense, right? And yet, this phase—which lasted nearly the whole first year of my child’s life—often left me feeling broken, guilty, and panicked about my wholly absent sex drive. For his part, my husband felt inadequate and rejected, which in turn, only made me feel worse.
To be honest, I wanted to want sex—but no matter what I did, a part of me felt permanently turned off. Knowing how integral intimacy is to a healthy relationship, I worried I may damage my marriage beyond repair. Of course, the stress of that pressure hardly helped matters in my bedroom.
As Dr. Liz explains, “If we think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs here, those who just gave birth are experiencing significant impacts in sleep, food, grooming, and physical fitness/comfort. Of course sex drive would then change or disappear… And the more we judge and shame ourselves for low desire, the worse the problem tends to get.”
So, then how should couples deal with the mismatched sex drives new parenthood so often brings? Recognizing you’re normal helps. In fact, Dr. Liz recommended I flip through Emily Nagoski’s “Come As You Are,” the cis-woman’s sex-positive manual for navigating desire issues and understanding our complex sexuality. A few chapters in and Emily’s de facto motto was clear: You’re normal. I’m normal. We’re all normal.
Once we understand that what we’re experiencing is hardly extraordinary, we can begin to chip away at the problem. When I ask Dr. Liz for a simple tip for revving up my sex drive, she encourages me to masturbate. “It’s a great way to get back in touch with your body and learn what it wants now in this new physical reality post-baby,” she explains.
Dr. Liz also doesn’t understand the negative talk surrounding scheduled sex. In her view, couples begin their relationships with schedules in mind, planning romantic dates that they often expect to end in intimacy. “At some point when couples get serious about one another, we [label] scheduled sex as ‘harmful,’ when before it was the key to building a relationship,” she says.
I love the idea of adding a sex date to my calendar—but I also find it incredibly intimidating. If you’re like me in this regard, Dr. Liz suggests exploring intimacy in more creative ways. She encourages me to keep that date on my calendar, but to use the time to reconnect and explore touch with my partner in ways that are both non-sexual and sensual. Because I’m the one who struggles with low desire from time-to-time, Dr. Liz also issues me a special homework assignment: Take the reins, she says. “Have a date where your job is to tell your partner exactly what to do with you. If you have fantasies you haven’t explored yet, use this scheduled time to talk about them or act them out.”
Above all else, Dr. Liz advises me—and new parents also struggling in their sex lives—to allow space for low desire. Don’t judge yourself and don’t feel ashamed. There’s power in recognizing your feelings as normal. When I ask for a last piece of advice, Dr. Liz says, “have fun!” With her words of wisdom in my mind, I think I can finally begin to do that again.