My baby stole my libido
One expert claims that after having children, at least a third of all parents experience serious sexual problems.
It's 5.30am. I can hear our son making rooster sounds. In sync, my husband and I groan. Toddlers can't be trusted. Resignedly, we rise to his cock-a-doodle-doos. On the way to the kitchen, we grab the baby and begin to catalogue our son's early-morning misdemeanours. Every light in the house is on, including lamps. The Rice Bubbles box lies on its side in his bedroom, its contents covering the floor like snow. And, God forbid, a chocolate bar, stolen from my secret stash, is found on the kitchen table, ripped open, as though nibbled on by some little rat.
"We're going to have to buy those locks for the doorknobs," my husband says.
The irony - that sex itself brings forth the ultimate anti-sex, the ultimate turn-off: children
I nod. This reminds me of that line about parenthood in the film Before Sunset : "I feel like I'm running a small nursery with someone I used to date."
Sunday mornings used to be about sleeping in. Waking up to flesh, to small, lazy kisses that might or might not lead to other things. Before children, we used to brunch and window-shop and hold hands, but now we are servants to the Domestic and its tyrannical, albeit short and absent-minded, leaders.
The irony. That sex itself brings forth the ultimate anti-sex, the ultimate turn-off: children. That these products of our original desire create the antithetical environment of adult passion: family life, routine, familiarity. And during this crossover, from two lovers to two parents, many, if not most, mothers switch the bulk of their affections from their partner to their children.
This doesn't happen suddenly. Our attention becomes gobbled up during the highs and lows of pregnancy. And then the baby is born, exists, needs us, now. Those tiny fingers and blinking eyes awe us. We offer our milk, and in doing so become lulled by the same body chemicals released during sex. We experience heightened intimacy with our children as the touching, kissing and tending involved in their everyday care can be sensual expressions of love. And over time, despite the sleepless nights and their relentless demands, we fall in love with our children.
This is manifested in our daily choices to put our child's needs before our partner's and our own. UK sociologist Tina Miller has gone so far as to suggest that children are replacing the father as the traditional head of the household. Indeed, a new mother's sensual focus turns to her offspring and can remain the spotlight of her desire for years to come. And although this may be as nature intended, our expectations of marriage and lust ever after mean this shift can lead to discord: to women feeling role-overload and to the men in our lives feeling displaced.
Studies reveal that parents have lower marital satisfaction than non-parents. And there is a negative correlation between marital satisfaction and number of children (a fact I like to reflect upon whenever I feel clucky).
Kirsten von Sydow, a German expert in the field, believes that after having children, at least a third of all couples experience serious sexual problems. We become sexually diluted to one another. Hence the common phenomenon of DINS - double income, no sex: couples who are cashed up but sex-poor.
If desire is something we wish to bring back to our partnership, what are we to do?
One step, I believe, is to simply kiss. Every day. Kissing with an open mouth says, "You are more than a companion to me. We are in this together." From these tiny X-rated kisses, other surprises may develop.
It may also be important to acknowledge that passion in our lives may not be lacking, but rather is being directed elsewhere: to passionate mothering, passionate careers, creating a passion-inducing appearance or passionate homemaking. Are there ways to redirect some of this vibrant, creative energy to the sensuality of our partnerships?
Sex therapists advise scheduling date nights. Forcibly removed from the reminder of chores, and with a glass of wine in hand, prioritising time alone helps us reacquaint ourselves with our sexual identity. Scheduling such time gives eros priority. And eros likes that.
To summon desire, we can manufacture distance. For New York marriage therapist Esther Perel, true emotional, psychological and physical differentiation is at the heart of keeping long-term relationships sexually dynamic. Distance can be achieved by spending quality time with our friends, following personal pursuits, and having other confidantes. Anything that creates a gap to bridge. Seeing our partner after a separation, or the connection we feel after resolving an argument, plays to this concept.
Another way to uproot romantic ennui is to stimulate chemical production. Novelty incites dopamine production, heightening feelings of attraction. Doing new or exciting things with our partner boosts adrenalin, providing us with thrill. Take dancing lessons. Go on a road trip. Remove yourself from the routine and explore together. The combination of risk and spontaneity helps set the mood.
It's up to us to decide what role sensuality has in our life and to discover what makes us feel passionate, excited ... and sexually alert.
Dr Bella Ellwood-Clayton is a sexual anthropologist and author of Sex Drive: In Pursuit of Female Desire (Allen & Unwin).
This article first appeared in Sunday Life.