I can still picture it: an eyebrow arched to perfection, raised in incredulous disbelief. “Wait… what?” my midwife had asked, her pen hovering above the clipboard on her knees. “Your preferred method of birth control is… um. Can you repeat that?”
In her defense, I had just told her, rather matter-of-factly, that I was choosing abstinence—all while cradling my 6-week baby in my arms. Was I kidding? I can’t remember. But the hours of labor, the physical toll pregnancy and birth had taken, and the colic that was our new life had made the very idea of sex seem superfluous at best, horrific at worst.
Postpartum sex is a thing. For many new parents, it’s a source of joy and pleasure. But for many others, it’s weird, awkward, and fraught with anxiety, dread, and a whole host of complicated emotions.
So when The Everymom polled readers on sex after baby, the results were mostly unsurprising: some women eagerly got back into the swing of things; some women took their time. But what struck me were those who confessed to having sex before they felt ready, jumping back into bed with their partners out of guilt or a sense of obligation.
“Our society thinks of sex as a thing owed to men by women,” said Dr. Liz Powell, a licensed psychologist and sex educator. “So a lot of women feel like sex is something they should endure so their partner isn’t deprived.”
Prioritize Your Own Pleasure—Here’s How
Postpartum sex, like sex at any point in your life, should be pleasurable for everyone involved. If the very thought of it sends you running from your partner, you can rest assured you’re not ready. Paying attention to the feelings that arise when you consider sex will help determine your course of action. But Dr. Powell cautioned against thinking in absolutes. They suggested that feeling emotionally prepared can not only feel different for everyone, but also exist on a spectrum. With this philosophy, you may feel ‘ready enough,’ instead of 100 percent.
If you’d like to inch closer to that 100 percent mark, there are ways to be intentional about easing yourself into postpartum sex. Azaria Davis of Joanne Bagshaw & Associates, a therapist specializing in couples counseling and sex therapy, explained that it all comes down to being open and honest with ourselves about the way we feel. To start, she recommended that new parents make time each day for a simple mindfulness practice. She described this as a way to “reacquaint” the mind with the body.
“When you make time to focus on the sensations in your body—physical issues, emotions, and spiritual health—you’re more likely to feel more connected to yourself and your partner when having sex,” said Davis.
Pleasure begets pleasure—even when it’s not directly tied to your sex life.
With so much of that freshly postpartum period spent devoted to a new family member, it makes sense that moms, in particular, would feel out of touch with their own bodies. The physical transformations of pregnancy, potential trauma of childbirth, and the exhaustion and overwhelm of new parenthood all beg the question, whose body is this anyway?
To combat this, Davis prescribed a simple practice: to seek out one small delight every day, whether that’s from dancing, cooking, purchasing fresh flowers, or masturbating. As she explained, pleasure begets pleasure—even when it’s not directly tied to your sex life.
“When you feel good about yourself and the activities you’re participating in, you will want more of that,” Davis said. “You will start to seek out pleasure and joy, and that desire can ignite the flame needed to [regain] control of your sex life.”
Find the Flame
In between sleepless nights and endless diaper-changing, the last thing a new mom needs is pressure from her partner. And feelings of guilt? No, thank you. Dr. Powell and Davis reminded me that there are plenty of ways to strengthen your bond and build intimacy—and many of them may even help ease you back toward some semblance of a sex life.
Dr. Powell recommended engaging in pressure-free play, taking the time to make out without the expectation of orgasm, and exploring with your partner what it means to touch and be touched. In addition, Davis stressed that open and honest communication is key to finding a strong, healthy connection that “does not involve you sacrificing your wants and body.”
“I would encourage women, and their partners, to engage frequently in conversation about sex and intimacy,” she said. “Just like people change, desire and sex drive change as well.”
‘You Get to Not Want to Have Sex’
Just like parenthood is not one-size-fits-all, everyone’s postpartum sexual journey will be unique to them. You may be ready for sex as soon as you have the green light from your health care provider, or like me, you may take the scenic route. Our desire for sex waxes and wanes, and it may not always match up with our partner’s. To this, Dr. Powell issued an important reminder.
“You get to not want to have sex. You don’t get to decide how your partner feels about it. Your reasons for not wanting sex can be totally valid and have nothing to do with your partner, and they may still be hurt and rejected. This isn’t an either/or,” they said. “Remember that your feelings are valid and your partner’s are too, and their hurt doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do something different.”
Davis added,”I think it’s important to distinguish between engaging in undesired sex and being forced into undesired sex. If you are being forced or coerced into sex by your partner, get to a safe place, tell someone you trust to support and assist you, contact RAINN (1-800-656-4673) or call 911 for immediate protection and assistance.”
Read More: After Giving Birth, My Husband and I Didn’t Have Sex for an Entire Year—Here’s What I Would Have Done Differently