One well-established reality of starting a family is that at least for a time, you will generally be having less sex. Various changes and stressors including sleep deprivation, physical changes, hormones and general stress and exhaustion mean that our libidos take a major hit in those first years of parenthood. This is something that is to be expected, and can be seen as a normal part of a relationship's trajectory—part of the ebb and flow of the connection between partners.
That said, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have had an additional impact on parents' sex lives, with Motherly's State of Motherhood survey finding that 41% of millennial mothers having less sex due to the pandemic. Again, this is a normal and understandable response. After all, stress and uncertainty are established libido-killers, and time is at an all-time premium, especially for working moms. But it still means that intimacy and closeness in a relationship are impacted even more now than in pre-COVID times.
We know that intimacy (sexual and emotional) plays a major role in relationship satisfaction, so here are some tips for reconnecting with your partner after babies, even in busy and stressful times.
1. Practice acceptance
Many couples worry excessively about how much their relationship has changed since having babies, and will try every single thing they can think of to get it back to how it was before. A more helpful way to think about this is that the relationship will likely not be the same, and that's okay. It's up to you and your partner to negotiate how you'd like your relationship to now be. We talk about radical acceptance as the practice of seeing reality as it is, which frees us up from the struggle of trying to change or fix things.
Once you've accepted that your relationship has changed fundamentally since kids and discussed this with your partner, this opens up the conversation of how you both might like to connect in your new world. What do you need now? What do they need? What matters to them now that didn't before? Talking through what has changed for you is important, since you are now both different people with different priorities and routines. It's likely that you are actually closer in many ways, and perhaps the love you share is even deeper and more complex than before—these are things to celebrate and nurture as you move forward in this new dynamic.
2. Understand contextual sesire
We've already talked about the impact of stress on libido (hint: it's not good), but it can be helpful to refer to the work of sex educator Emily Nagowski. We can all benefit from learning about contextual desire, and the fact that each of us has different things that accelerate our desire, and things that put the brakes on desire. For many women, things like stress or body image put the brakes on desire, meaning that an 'off' switch will be flicked on our libido and willingness to have sex. Nagowski talks about the importance of understanding how we are wired, and the things that are going to help us take our foot off the brake and towards the accelerator. It can also be great to share this knowledge with our partners, as they may not understand that body image, pain, fatigue or stress is having this impact on our libido since it is different for everyone.
Long story short: it is very normal to not feel like having sex when you're stressed, in pain or feeling self-conscious, and understanding contextual desire can be a game-changer. Even having time to reconnect with platonic touch can be a wonderful way of getting all those feel-good hormones and neurochemicals—so a foot massage or a night spent spooning on the couch can be a great way to feel close and intimate with your partner, even if you're not ready for sex.
We do need to remember that our physical boundaries change after having babies, so we may not like to be touched as we did before, or we might be 'touched out' and craving some personal space. Making sure we communicate this to our partners in a clear and respectful way is fundamental. They may be missing physical touch and affection, and not actually realize that your own needs for this contact have changed for the moment.
3. Ask for help
This may not be news to you, but time spent reconnecting can be tough if you're a) exhausted by bath time and preparing dinner, or b) getting up every few minutes to help the kids with something. This is where you may need to swallow your pride and ask a family member to babysit while you go on a night out with your partner, or arrange a kid-free-night swap with neighbors (with the promise of minding their kids the following week).
We get used to not having to ask for help or support when we are single or partnered, but when children come along, help is needed, and evidence tells us that having some time each week to reconnect and be adults together can help to keep your closeness and friendship. Some couples find that creating rituals for time together that doesn't involve parenting or child-minding is helpful, so this could be a biweekly date night, or even foot massages on the couch after the kids are asleep.
Our relationships need nurturing and care, even if they seem to be low maintenance. Having rituals is a good example and means that we don't need to put mental effort into scheduling or organizing, since they are just part of our routine. But a warning: These kinds of things can fall by the wayside, but research tells us that putting as much importance on these rituals as we do on other things (e.g., exercise, cleaning, holidays) can help a couple to maintain their connection and appreciation for each other. It is a worthwhile investment, even if you'd rather be watching Netflix solo on the couch—and the more you do these rituals together, the closer you'll be.
As you can see, the art of reconnecting after babies is both simple—and not-so-simple. At the core of all of these tips lies good communication, as well as the ability to be flexible in your approach to things and understand that change is completely normal during these times of transition. Parenting is challenging enough as it is, and add in the COVID-19 pandemic, and we can see challenges like never before. So even if you feel like you're not doing a good enough job, it's likely you're doing just fine.
Sharing some of these ideas with your partner and being able to ask for help means that you don't need to solve these issues by yourself; after all, reconnecting is a two-person job, and if you're feeling overwhelmed, stressed or unhappy, it may be that you need more support from those around you more than anything. Letting your network, and your partner, know what you need from them may be the most helpful thing of all.