Remember how we joked about our parents’ generation and Saturday night sex? Growing up, we swore that would never happen to us—we’d manage jobs and kids and the house and still have time for a passionate sex life.
Welcome to reality.
With three kids, two jobs and one messy house, scheduling sex for Saturday night is starting to sound pretty good to me. And from talking to other parents, I’m guessing that maintaining an intimate relationship with one’s spouse is a challenge most parents face, in spite of all the surveys we hear about couples having sex four times a week.
“My experience is that, in the first years after having a baby, the sex life drops off significantly,” says Millie Blankenburg, a licensed clinical social worker and relationship therapist in Oak Brook. “Mostly because of the overwhelming change in the relationship. The couple’s just not focused on their sex life—they’re focused on the child.”
And while those relationship changes—along with late-night feedings, hormone swings and a lack of time—might push your sex life onto the back burner, Blankenburg and other experts say sex is a vital part of marriage. It might take creativity, perseverance and possibly even professional help, they add. But it’s worth it.
A couple’s sex life is a sensitive subject and it’s often hard for couples to talk about it to each other, let alone the six-county Chicago area. Because of that, Chicago Parent is doing something we rarely do. The parents interviewed here are identified by their first names only. It seems the best way to have a frank discussion about intimacy.
No sleep, no sex
Francine, mother of a 3-year-old girl and pregnant with her second child, found that having a newborn with colic brought her sex life to a screeching halt.
“It was hard and you just don’t really have an interest,” says Francine, who lives in Darien. “It was the last thing on my mind. Allison had colic so we were up all night. And now, since I’ve been pregnant, it’s been even worse.”
Her husband, Victor, agrees. “When we had our daughter, it put a big strain on both of us. Sex was sometimes just not an option because you were so drained from the day,” he says.
For new parents, the whole nature of the marital relationship changes in ways most couples never anticipate.
“I knew having a child would change our lives and our relationship, but I was unprepared for how much being a mother would change my wife,” Victor says.
And while these relationship changes are occurring, the constant exhaustion both parents often feel make it all but impossible to step back and analyze how to deal with those changes.
“This baby is a 24-hour need machine. You don’t have the spontaneity and time and space that you had before kids,” explains Laura Berman, sex therapist and director of the Berman Center, a Chicago-based clinic specializing in female sexual health.
Physical changes affect desire
In the first year after giving birth, that lack of time is coupled with a host of physical and emotional changes affecting a woman’s body. Women face the sociological adjustment of being up and down all night caring for the baby, Berman explains. If the mother is nursing, oxytocin levels are elevated and sex hormone levels are decreased, Berman adds. This leads to low libido, decreased sexual response and vaginal dryness because of low estrogen levels. So a woman’s hormones are working against her.
“I tell women not to expect too much for six months after they stop breastfeeding,” Berman says. “For sex to really feel good, it can take this long.”
And if parents have a second child a year or two after the first, many couples suddenly find they’ve put their sex life on the shelf for years.
“Sex has certainly changed and the frequency of it has changed. And I can’t see that changing any time soon,” says Lynn, a Glen Ellyn resident and mother to three children under the age of 6. Add the fact that her 2-year-old frequently sleeps in her bed, and sex becomes a real challenge.
But having time as a couple is what keeps the whole family safe and secure, so parents need to make sure that children don’t become energy-drainers on their marriage, Blankenburg says.
“You need to put the focus back on the couple. The children need to know that the marriage is a priority and the children are under the umbrella of that protection,” Blankenburg says.
Find time for foreplay
Of course, no matter how much you might agree that the marriage is a priority and sex is crucial, every woman knows that sexual desire has to do with so much more than just hormone levels and exhaustion. That’s where some creative foreplay comes in.
“Men are pretty simple when it comes to sex,” says Frank Hannigan, director of the Family Ministries Office for the Archdiocese of Chicago. “But for women, sex happens when everything else is in order and the woman is feeling safe, secure and rested. A man who’s intimate with his wife knows what her needs are, and that might not always be sex—it might be doing the dishes or taking the kids out for a while. If those things happen, the wife might be more willing.” Or, in Berman’s words, “Men need to understand that helping with the kids is a form of foreplay.”
Francine recalls this past winter when her husband was scheduled to spend a weekend networking computers with friends. A blizzard was predicted and Francine jokingly told her husband maybe a neighbor would take pity on her in the morning and dig her out. She was surprised several hours later when her husband arrived with a pizza, saying he was staying home.
“Women have to have, not exactly the romance, but ... well, you have to be in the mood and that helps,” Francine says.
This is typical for women, who establish closeness and desire by being emotionally connected, Berman says.
But sometimes a stalemate ensues: A man establishes closeness through sex, and if his wife isn’t interested in having sex, he doesn’t feel connected to her. His lack of closeness often decreases his wife’s desire, creating an endless cycle of sexual problems.
“I don’t think women are solely responsible for a married couple’s sexual relationship,” Victor says. “All relationships are dependent on two people and both are responsible for its success or failure. However, it’s nice when women show some initiative,” he adds. “Men can show better compassion and attentiveness to our wives through touch. Usually that’s what’s lacking when the sexual relationship suffers.”
Schedule time alone
One way to end a sexual stalemate is for both partners to compromise and decide to have sex—whether they initially feel like it or not.
“I tell women that once you’ve recovered [from childbirth], it’s important to try to reinstigate this sexual relationship, because most of the time, once they get started, women enjoy it. It’s just hard to get started,” Berman says. “Women will find that if they make themselves sexually available, men will feel connected and women will enjoy the after-effects. He’ll be more attentive,” Berman continues. “It’s not that he’s manipulating you for sex, but that’s a large part of men’s investing in a relationship. Sex is a way to show men they’re still important.”
And getting back to the idea of Saturday night sex, intimacy has to be planned and intentional for most parents, Hannigan says. “It has to be a priority. You’re tired, but you put in time for a date night to connect together.”
Lynn and her husband started date nights about a year ago. While they’re out, she makes an effort to talk about something besides the kids and to focus on her husband and their marriage. “The amount of time to be together has diminished, and we need time for just him and me,” Lynn says.
And remember—when you’re planning intimacy, it doesn’t have to be a three-hour affair, Berman says. Most parents have developed the ability to fall right back to sleep if they wake up at night. So set the alarm for 3:30 or 4 a.m. and have a quickie.
“Have some sleepy sex and go back to bed and wake up at 6 with a smile,” Berman says. “Or get up early and shower together to spend some time together without kids throwing Cheerios at you.”
But sometimes, no matter what a couple might do, reconnecting sexually just isn’t working. While Berman says there’s no absolute number for how often a couple should have sex, she recommends parents don’t let more than two weeks go by without it.
Berman suggests that if one partner is dissatisfied with the frequency of sex, it’s time to figure out how your partner feels. Polly, a Downers Grove mom of two teens, will discuss sex with her husband if they seem to have gotten off track. “If it’s been a month, I start to think, OK, I’m not living with my brother here,” she says. “There are times it’s an issue for me because I think it should be a little more frequent.”
Lynn agrees: “We talk about it, which makes me feel better, but I do worry about it sometimes because I realize it’s been so long and I wonder if it’s normal.”
If problems persist, seek help
Sometimes couples, especially those with young children, have to accept that it may just be harder for awhile, Berman says. But if sex has turned into an ongoing battleground and the couple is feeling emotionally disconnected, or if women have low desire or pain during sex, Berman recommends a visit to the doctor to have hormone levels checked.
If medical reasons have been ruled out, short-term therapy can help most couples get back on track, Berman adds. And because living with a sexual stalemate can cause a cascade of other problems in a marriage, it’s worth the effort to reconnect.
“Some couples muddle through it; other couples are maybe the masters of marriage and can do a nice job of knowing each other’s needs, but other couples end up getting divorced,” Hannigan says. “So having a healthy relationship as a couple is crucial to parenting.”
For parents, the best gift they can give their children is a healthy marriage, and sex is a critical part, Blankenburg says. “It’s important to have that kind of physical closeness and to make it a priority,” Polly says.
“Having a sexual relationship opens us up to intimacy.”
Liz DeCarlo is a freelance writer who lives in Darien with her husband and three children.