Sex as a New Parent: The Real Reason I’m Turned off

In the movie-long letter to her baby, Keri Russell’s character in Waitress had just told her fetus, “I hope someday somebody wants to hold you for twenty minutes straight and that’s all they do. They don’t pull away. They don’t look at your face. They don’t try to kiss you. All they do is wrap you up in their arms and hold on tight, without an ounce of selfishness in it.”

Aaaaach!” I said. “That sounds awful!”

My husband reacted as if I’d slapped him. He pulled his arm from my shoulder and sank away across the couch. I should have felt bad. I just felt relief.

Oh, to not be touched. I rolled my aching neck to the left, to the right and back again and ran my fingers slowly across the red splotch on my thigh where my two-and-a-half-year-old had kicked me trying to climb out of her wagon. Soon, it would be black and blue.

We’d finally gotten Jillian to bed after just three readings of Llama, Llama, Red Pajama, and slipped in a DVD. I wanted to throw my legs out across the couch and burrow under a blanket, but Jonathan got there first. When I made for the recliner, he reached for me, pulled me onto the cushion beside him. And there I stayed, trapped until I insulted him.

I didn’t mean to. I just needed the break from physical contact.

My aunt calls it being “touched out.” Someone has their hands on us all day long when we’re new parents, she says. Our kids yank on our T-shirts, begging for another Danimals yogurt drink. They wiggle onto our laps. We curl our too-tall bodies into too-small toddler beds to cuddle frightened children at two a.m. We make dinner with Tonka trucks ramming our heels. We eat that dinner with children on our laps, our plates side-by-side.

The author of The Sex Starved Wife: What to Do When He Loses Desire, Michele Weiner Davis, expounded on all the women who told her their husbands always seem to “have a headache.” Fair enough. But a read-through of the first chapter of her book had me clenching my hands into little fists.

“A woman is expected to have dips in her desire for sex and she can talk about it without her femininity or sanity being called into question,” Weiner Davis says. “She can commiserate with her women friends about her annoyance with her husband’s one-track mind and how she can’t really hug him without his thinking sex is imminent. She can do this and be in really good company.”

She fingers the media for making an issue out of men who are just too darn horny for their own good, Why is crawling into bed after another day as a human jungle gym so hard? overshadowing the desires of women who “are absolutely craving a loving, passionate, juicy, sexual relationship with [their] man.”

If it were that simple, I could go to my girlfriends and moan about my husband. But Jonathan isn’t the problem. Not wanting sex isn’t the problem. The problem is that, after a long day as a human jungle gym, I can hardly stomach the idea of going to first base.

“The person with the lower sex drive controls the sexual relationship, not out of a need to manipulate or control, but because they have veto power. If they’re not in the mood, it doesn’t happen,” Weiner Davis told Time. “There’s an unspoken agreement: the person with the lower desire expects his or her spouse to accept it, not complain about it, and also to be monogamous. In my years in working with couples, that’s pretty much an unfair and unworkable arrangement.”

Unfair? Okay, I feel guilty sometimes. But it’s not unworkable. And it’s temporary. In giving birth, I gave up the rights to my body on my time. Jillian has a claim on me right now, but she won’t be climbing on me forever.

I’ve spoken with my doctor. He told me what the American Academy of Family Physicians says: “Up to seventy percent of couples have a problem with sex at some time. Most women sometimes have sex that doesn’t feel good. This doesn’t mean you have a sexual problem.”

And really, who said anything about it not feeling good . . . once you get there. Once you round third base. But to get there would involve snuggling, possibly even nuzzling and:Aaaaach!

There’s only one reason to have a second child that ever made me flinch: the fear that some day something will happen to Jillian, something I can’t control.

That possibility started whispering in my ear on the drive home from the hospital, Jonathan stomping on the brakes every time a car approached in the opposite lane. He felt it too – our baby’s frailty and our inability to protect her from future hurt and pain and the big, bad world.

The fear thumps in my heart on late nights when I pace her dark bedroom while she wails in my arms, while Jonathan measures out Tylenol in an eyedropper. It burns a trail up my throat when I sit down to write about a teenager lost in an automobile accident, when I cover a funeral for the newspaper.

For three years, the fear told me, “No, you cannot settle for one child.” It told me not to make any drastic decisions. It told me to keep open the door to bearing more children. “Please, just wait,” I told him when he wanted a vasectomy. “You just never know,” I told Jonathan, who had his mind made up the moment Jillian entered the world that he was done. “Please, just wait,” I told him when he said he wanted to get a vasectomy.

I heard the quaver in my voice that used to be part of everyday married life when we were trying for baby number one. Jonathan would look at me with his own brand of fear in his eyes. I could almost hear him asking, “Who are you, and what have you done with my wife?”

He was right. I didn’t recognize myself in the puddle on the floor.

And then one month I thought I might be pregnant again. And as I sat there waiting for the line or lines to appear, I realized I was hoping I wasn’t.

One line. Not pregnant. We were safe. Yes, that was my first thought: I was safe.

“I’m done,” I told Jonathan and gave him the thirtieth birthday present he’d asked for: a vasectomy.

Now the fear is quiet when Jillian laughs. It’s not there when we snuggle on the couch, Goodnight Moon splayed out on my lap, those curls resting against my chin. When she balances one foot on each of my thighs, wraps her arms around my neck and pats my back, I hear only her breath and the little hum she makes when she’s content.

And I think, Okay, no more. I have the one I always wanted.

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