Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Motherhood Diaries: Sex & Intimacy After Giving Birth – A Sex Therapist’s Top Tips For Postpartum

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Welcome to our new series, The Motherhood Diaries – a safe space for you to share your experiences, advice, hopes and heartbreaks. We’ll be hearing from industry experts giving practical advice alongside Capsule readers (You!) sharing your firsthand experiences. We’re looking at everything from fertility, trying to conceive, pregnancy, the fourth trimester, newborns, toddlers, raising children and teenagers and everything in between!

If you have a topic you’d like to discuss, share your thoughts, experience or advice about, drop a line to [email protected].

This week we’re talking about sex and intimacy after childbirth. We have a chat to Capsule reader who has been there and had her ups and downs, plus we talk to Jo Robertson, a sex therapist who has loads of advice for everyone about improving intimacy in your relationship, but particularly in postpartum

After two hours of fussing and coaxing, Rachel’s 12-week-old son was finally asleep. She was in the midst of doing the mental calculations and gymnastics of figuring out what was essential that she get done and how much rest she could get before her son was likely to be awake again when the cellphone that was in her hands vibrated. It was a message from her partner, which was weird, because he was just downstairs.

“As soon as I opened it, I knew it wasn’t meant for me,” says Rachel. “It said something like, ‘For real?! I’m on a 6-month dry spell man. Losing. My. Mind. How long does this take???”

A couple of seconds later she heard her partner swear pretty darn loudly and then bound up the stairs. She quietly left the room as he rounded the stairs. “Don’t look at your phone!” he said.

“Weirdly – because who knows how you’re going to react with baby hormones – I burst out laughing,” tells Rachel. “He just looked at me like he was waiting for me to change my mind and start screaming at him or hysterically cry. Which did eventually happen…”

It had been about six months since they’d had sex – something that occasionally occurred to her and gave her a strange pit in her stomach – but there was so much else to occupy her exhausted mind that she didn’t dwell on it or talk to Blair about it.

“About an hour later, I’d got into bed and Blair bought in a tea and lactation cookie and I went from fine to being a snotty, crying mess about it.” Overtired Blair had apologised profusely – that it was a text meant for his brother and he hadn’t mean it like that.

“But, well, baby hormones,” tells Rachel. “I started sobbing that he was going to leave me because we weren’t having sex and that my body was insane and I didn’t even recognise it so how could he find it attractive again and I’d probably be too tired to have sex again anyway!”

That stray text ended up being one of the best things that could have happened because it opened up an honest conversation between the new parents. “We certainly didn’t end up sleeping together, but it felt like we were closer and more intimate than before,” she says.

Over the coming weeks, Rachel felt a shift in things – as Blair started complimenting her new body, with all its changes, bumps, lumps and scars, she stopped going to such lengths to hide it and started leaving the bathroom door unlocked when she had a shower, like she used to. “We were able to have so many conversations about it, so that when I did finally feel ready, it wasn’t as scary, weird or painful as I thought it would be. It was actually pretty damn good!”

Sex therapist Jo Robertson says communication is key when it comes to intimacy after having a baby.

“When it comes to sex and intimacy, there are so many things going on!” she says. “But communicating what we need, what we like and what we don’t like is important. Knowing our own body, as a starting point, is really important in knowing what we like and being able to communicate that is key.”

Her recommendation is to actually begin those conversations before you have a baby and talk about what you’re expecting to happen.

“What do each of you want? Does one person want to be having sex every day and the other once a month? Okay well, how do we negotiate that? How are we going to stay intimate even when we’re tired? Maybe that’s not about having penetrative sex but what are the things we could do to really build intimacy in our relationship?”

Jo also recommends a tool that she’s seen help many couples who are new parents – and that’s putting one evening aside every week for intimacy.

“I know some people make that night sex night, but for other couples they just need that night once a week to reconnect in order to feel like they want to have intimacy. So, it’s a night to actually go, ‘who are you as a person?’ and ‘who am I as a person?’ and ‘how’s work going?’ ‘How are you?’ – to have a proper date night at home.”

Jo says it’s those conversations about really asking how the other partner is doing that are really crucial for intimacy. That might not sound like it’s related to sex, she says, but it always is, because when someone feels cared about they’re more likely to want to be vulnerable and intimate.

“Another suggestion I have is to take the hard work out of talking about sex by introducing a third party,” she says. “Not a person! An app!! There’s the Gottman Card Deck by the Gottman Institute and it’s such a good thing for couples to do on their at-home date night. It basically has all these different questions on subjects related to work to childhood memories, to what’s your favourite movie or colour – all really normal things, but good to know! And then they have this deck that’s all about sex, so you ask your partner the question like, what does an orgasm feel like for you? How do you feel when you don’t orgasm etc. So it’s not you asking each other, because that can be quite intense. But you can have a fun night where you get Uber Eats, do this card game and have a good, rich conversation.”

Body image is also another huge part of the picture when regaining intimacy after birth – and, like Rachel experienced, it can be a big hurdle to overcome as you get used to your new body.

Jo says she focuses less on learning to love the new changes to your body and instead focus on accepting those differences.

“I’m really careful to say you don’t have to love everything about your body,” she says. “I don’t think that comfort comes from loving everything, I think it comes from accepting everything. Some people can go, ‘Yeah, my thighs are awesome now!’ but not everybody can and I don’t think we should all feel we have to. I think we can say, ‘these aren’t the thighs I would personally choose, but that’s okay!’ It’s about self-acceptance.”

She says one tool that can help shift the way you perceive your body and the hang-ups you may have about it is to instead see your body through the eyes of your partner.

“It’s amazing how often we think we look a certain way, but our partner is like, ‘I don’t care about that thing, I don’t even notice that thing. When we’re having sex I’m just totally in the moment and it doesn’t even cross my mind.’ Our partners are often so much more into us that we are into ourselves.”

She encourages couples to focus on telling each other what it is they like about the other person’s body and focus on physical affirmations to get an understanding of how their partner sees them.  

It can take time to feel ready to be in a space where you’re ready to have sex after giving birth – and it’s not something that should be rushed.

There’s lots to talk about on the topic – and if you would like to hear more from Jo, she is speaking about the topic at Empowher – an event put on by Tearfund.

Jo will be talking about ‘Interruptions to Intimacy’ – talking about the impact of hormones on our sex life and intimacy, body image and how we see ourselves as well as what to do if you’re having painful or uncomfortable sex. There are two other speakers at the event – Petra Bagust and Pip Smyth and all proceeds from the $10 entry fee go to support Tearfund’s work with vulnerable mums and their babies in Indonesia.

DATES: Empowher is on in The Upper Room, Newmarket on Thursday 24th June at 7pm and Eastgate Christian Centre on Friday 16 July at 7pm. More information is available here.

The Motherhood Diaries
Over the coming weeks and months we’ll be covering many different aspects of the journey of motherhood. If you’d like to share your stories, thoughts, ideas or advice, drop an email to [email protected]

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