“It goes in cycles. I mean, sometimes Pam and I will have sex, like, once a month…”
“Once a month? Jesus!”
“…then, other times, we’ll go through a cycle where we don’t have it nearly so often.”
Another friend of mine, a father, says that when you have kids, you “blast off from Planet Sex and land on Planet Parent,” crashing your vehicle in the process. Thenceforth, you may admire Planet Sex through your telescope, gaze upon it longingly, but you lack the technology to get a man on it.
Does it have to be this way? Will it stay that way? I mean, we give up so much for our children: sleep, career advancement, the ability to wear dry-clean-only clothes. Surely God isn’t also asking us to give up sex forever?
I asked a number of parents across Canada, with kids ranging from newborn to teen, to describe their sex lives (or lack thereof). Some refused to talk about it. But those who did were insightful and candid. That’s the thing about interviewing parents: they’re too exhausted to put up a false front. So, here’s a completely unscientific but I think accurate portrait of “sex through the stages“ as told by those who know.
Dawn of the living dead
When you have a baby, your whole life changes. Turns upside down. Inside out. You are bouleverse, as the French say, which, roughly translated, means: “knocked on your ass.”
No one can prepare you for the heinous changes your life undergoes “especially the sleep deprivation. Incredibly, men are still up for sex during this era. But, of course, men are men: we’re up for sex even if the house is on fire (a quickie, obviously, and only if the kids were already out—at a neighbour’s, say, and the fire was contained). Whereas a mother would want to put out the fire first, or call the fire department, or both— which would ruin the whole mood.
Mood killer: your new-found zombie status
As we’ve seen in numerous horror movies—Night of the Living Dead, etc.—freshly created zombies often find it hard to adjust to their new, undead status. They’ll look down at their sucking chest wound and think, This can’t have happened to me! I can’t be undead! But it has, and you are. Now you have to learn to stretch your arms out in front of you and take those first few stiff-legged steps in your new role….
“No one can prepare you for how tired you are after your child is born,” says Julie*, a stay-at-home mom and volunteer worker in Nova Scotia. And obviously, when you’re a zombie, when you’re cranky, when everything’s bothering you and you’re so tired you want to throw yourself out the window, sex is the last thing on your mind—a chore way down the list after laundry, washing the windows, mowing the lawn….
Sex Rx: book an adult play date
The challenges of this phase call for a little strategy. To keep her sex life alive, writer Rebecca Eckler admits she used a decidedly unsexy technique: scheduling. The Calgary-based author of Knocked Up: Confessions of a Hip Mother-to-Be (Doubleday) and its forthcoming sequel, tentatively titled Knocked Down, says, “It wasn’t like, ‘We’ll have sex every Thursday.’ But if I was really tired I’d make an appointment for the next night.” Usually, for right after their kid was in bed since her fiancé is an early riser. She says it was a little weird, at first, to have sex at 7 or 8 p.m., “but it worked.”
Mood killer: the lump in the mirror
Meanwhile, you’re feeling fat, bloated, saggy, stretched out. The other night you tried on those pre-pregnancy jeans and, well, you knew they probably wouldn’t fit, but they weren’t even close.
And your wife’s having a lot of the same problems….
This is the era in which body image issues surface. And it’s hard to heat things up when you’re not feeling so hot. “I lied to my fiancé about how soon the doctor said we could have sex again,” says Eckler. “I just didn’t feel sexy. I mean, a pregnant body is pretty sexy. It’s tight. But afterwards you’re loose and stretched out.” (See Post Pregnancy Body Changes)
Sex Rx: adjust your attitude
It helps, many find, to rethink your attitude toward sex and what makes a person sexy. “The things I used to find attractive about my fiancé have changed,” Eckler says. “Now he’ll be reading a book to our baby, and I’ll be thinking, Omigod—he’s such a good father.”
Fred*, Toronto-based dad of a preschooler and a five-month-old, has a great way of looking at things. “When you’re a bachelor you can have sex whenever you want—which is great but it also removes the exoticism. Just like you can have dinner or see a movie whenever you want. But when you have a kid, it’s kind of like having a mistress. You’ve got to plan it; you meet clandestinely; it’s a highly charged situation. You don’t have a lot of time. It’s kind of like you’re cheating on someone, even though you aren’t, which adds an extra rush of adrenalin,” he says.
Also, ladies, note that most men (the ones I know, anyway) don’t care or even notice an extra five or 10 pounds. During this stage, they’re usually so grateful for whatever they get. To be blunt, starving dogs do not criticize the fat content of the bones they’re tossed.
And men have their body issues, too. We pretend not to care about what fat slobs we’ve become; but deep down, we do. “My sexual prowess is inversely correlated to my corpulence,” observes Bill*, a high-school teacher in Victoria. “Sometimes I’ll just feel too fat for sex. And it’ll take a couple of days of celery and soda water before I feel like it again.”
It might be worth pointing out that in this phase, you may find intimacy and familiarity—so often maligned as boring—may actually work in your favour. “I’d be lying if I didn’t sometimes fantasize about someone new,” says Melanie*, a grad student and Bill’s wife. “But I also realize it would be awkward sharing my 44-year-old body with them. I feel comfortable sharing it with my husband.”
The good news is in this stage many women report they’re starting to get their bodies—and their sexual selves—back. “When your body starts to come back, you really appreciate it,” Eckler says. “In a way you feel almost more sexy than you did before the baby. You’re like, “Omigod—I’m sexy again.” But there’s trouble looming on the sexual horizon….
Mood killer: Mom’s feeling resentful
I tell people: “Before you have kids, no matter how hard you think you work, your life is basically leisure-based.” Once you have a kid, or two, or especially three, it becomes all work and crushing drudgery: dishes at 2 a.m., diapers around the clock. And if one partner’s doing more than the other—well, that can be a problem. It can lead to resentment, which can be deadly—in fact, I would go so far as to say effective resentment management is probably the key to a long and healthy marriage.
Julie’s husband, for example, comes from a family where “the women cleared the plates after dinner and the men smoked cigars.” Breaking hubby of his old-school habits has been tough, and it’s definitely affected their sex life. Julie still gets upset, she says, when he doesn’t put the paper down when the baby cries. “Even when we’re sitting in the same room, and the baby cries, he’ll hesitate, because he knows if he waits, I’ll get up.”
Sex Rx: Dad, put down the vanilla massage oil, pick up a broom
So guys, this advice is for you: do more stuff. Put down the paper. Help out around the house.
Just in case there’s a poor bastard out there still confused on this issue, I’ll state the obvious: what happens in the bedroom at night is intimately related to what you’ve done in the rest of the house during the day. If your wife is pissed at you, no amount of sex expert-proscribed scented candles is going to get her in the mood.
When male friends about to have their first child ask me what to do ” will they need any special equipment, etc. “I tell them: “Get a tray. Become the Baby Butler. Run up and down the stairs fetching your wife drinks, snacks, and so on. It’s good exercise for you, and the brownie points you accrue can be cashed in later for sex.”
Starting to get your life back
If women get their bodies back in the toddler years, perhaps it’s fair to say that when kids start spending a good chunk of the day in school, moms—especially the ones who stay at home—start getting their lives back. And that’s good for everyone. But other problems can start developing….
Mood killer: forgetting yourself
Jennifer Robinson Kelly, 38, quit a high-pressure job as a sales manager for Canadian Pacific Hotels in Halifax to look after her children, now eight and six. She says she poured a lot of the energy she used to put into her job into mothering—to the point where some people actually told her to slow down. An unforeseen side effect of wanting to be a good mother was that her sex life suffered. “You lose yourself in mothering,” she says. “I didn’t feel sexually alive at all.”
A lot of people I spoke to reported similar sentiments for this stage. Personally, I’ve never “lost myself” in fathering. But as a stay-at-home dad and writer who’s capable of spending whole days (let’s be honest, weeks even) in sweats, while my wife, a TV reporter, charges off to mix it up with glamorous people in dry-clean-only clothes, and flirt with them, too, for all I know (I don’t want to know), I see what Robinson Kelly means. After a day of being spit up upon, climbing the walls, losing it and screaming at your kids—you just don’t feel sexy.
Sex Rx: pencil in some “me” time
With the kid or kids spending some time in school it’s possible to take some time to get back to work, back in shape, read a book.
Robinson Kelly reports that now that her kids are in school, she’s started an exercise program and a low-carb diet. But she’s also now regarding herself as much a partner as a mother. “After all, it’s important we remain together for the kids,” she says. “And sex has something to do with that.”
Glimmers of hope
The upside of this era: your kids are old enough to babysit themselves. You can “date” your spouse again. “It’s hard to overstate the difference it makes when you’re not scrambling to find a sitter,” says Melanie*, who’s got a 13- and a nine-year-old. But your kids are getting smarter….
Mood killer: lack of privacy
Now that your kids are in their tweens, like it or not, they’re learning about sex—and one of the most horrifying things they learn is that you, their parents, may actually (shudder) be having it. Melanie’s eldest is taking sex ed. at school now, and she says, “We can no longer just say, “Mom and Dad are going upstairs for a nap. That’s over.”
Sex Rx: morning glories and afternoon delights
Take advantage of fleeting moments—seize the day, whether first thing in the morning or later in the day. Some couples deny themselves the pleasure of a “quickie,” but just remember: good sex doesn’t have to take a long time. (In our relationship, code for “How about a quickie?” is “Got a minute?” which is, sadly, about all the situation seems to require—for me, anyway—especially if it’s been a while.)
Mood killer: the no-sex sandwich
Another issue for many is being part of the so-called sandwich generation, responsible for caring for not only kids, but elderly parents, too. Melanie’s father-in-law, for example, lives with her family, and while she says she loves him, it can make it difficult, above all, to argue with her husband, Bill. And heated, loud, angry arguments, as we all know, are the cornerstone of a healthy relationship. Clear the air, blow off steam; later, in tears, apologize and make up, then make out.
Sex Rx: go on naughty weekends
Melanie first conceived of the idea when the children were young. “I arranged a getaway to a cottage in January or February. We had caregivers look after our kids…. It was really romantic, and I felt, this is important,” so she’s made getaways a regular event.
Melanie and husband try to get away as often as possible—ideally, once every month or two. And it’s not all fun and games on these getaways. Sometimes they go away just to hash out the arguments they can’t have in front of their kids and Bill’s father. She sees the disagreements as part of a healthy relationship: “We’ve worked out a lot of the kinks. We’ve had a nice return to our sex life.” Bill wholeheartedly endorses week-end getaways: “Going to any new place makes me horny.”
Sex, dancing and powder-skiing
Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far, you’ve done your job. You can relax, shake it off, and reacquaint yourself with whatever it was about your partner that attracted you in the first place.
Mood killer: turning invisible
These days, we’re having kids later, so if you have teens you’re probably hitting the meaty years of middle age. And many report that here is where you have to deal with an adjustment even harder than turning into a zombie: turning into a ghost.
Gloria Steinem famously said that women become invisible after the age of 50. But it happens to men, too. I’m in my 40s now, and young women, who once adored me, can now, it seems, actually read a menu I’m standing in front of in the window of a restaurant. “Oooh, look at their specials today,” they’ll say, staring right through me. But maybe it’s just me. I talked to one couple who’s experiencing the opposite.
Sex Rx: shake yer booty
Vicky* and George*, fiftysomething Vancouver parents of teens, have got their groove back. “We’ve rediscovered a debauched lifestyle,” George says. “We’re acting like we’re 25 again, going to rock concerts, dancing,” agrees Vicky. “Most people in their 50s don’t have fun—they go home early.”
“But that’s not us,” George interjects. “Going out, drinking, dancing and powder-skiing really help our sex life.” What’s powder-skiing got to do with it, I ask. “The rhythm!” they reply in unison.
Going out to clubs has reinvigorated their sex life because it puts to rest the irksome question: Have I still got it? “With the right lighting I could still pull in someone under 30,” says Vicky. George agrees. “It’s sexually arousing when people look at you,” she adds. While Vicky admits that raising teens is “a lot of work,” she says her and George’s sex life “is better than it’s ever been.”
So! Light at the end of the tunnel! I’m nervous about generalizing, but it does seem that if you can weather the exhaustion, self-doubt, crushing worry and privacy issues of parenthood with good humour and attitude intact, and maintain the belief that sex is, in fact, important, you may be ready to blast off again. And discover that, yes, sometimes Planet Sex and Planet Parent’s orbits do align after all.
* Some names have been changed upon request.