One day my college-age sister was helping our mom rearrange her study, and to her abject horror, she found a book titled Sex after Fifty on top of a box of other books.
“Go ahead, have a look at it,” my mom urged, grinning strangely. My sister declined, but Mom insisted until finally Kelli flipped open the book and peered through one squinted eye at a completely blank page. All the pages were, in fact, blank. To her great relief, it was a gag gift book.
The point of this story will not be lost on any man whose partner has just had a baby. Over the next six weeks or so the story of his sex life will read like the back of a yellow sticky tab. Given his lack of control over her recovery and his own possible feelings of loss as the newborn takes center stage, the lack of sex can be tough for a guy to handle in a way that doesn’t drive the couple apart. This article discusses important physical and emotional considerations for this pivotal time in a couple’s relationship.
Because having babies is so natural and common, many guys have difficulty appreciating just how dramatically a woman’s body changes even after the birth and recovery. This lack of awareness may be due in part to the stereotypical male mentality of ignoring those problems we can’t fix, and also to a simple lack of physiological knowledge.
Jay from Toronto relates, “I think that during and after the pregnancy I was a good guy in understanding what her body was going through (I went through a couple years in med school before we married), so it was obvious to me that she wouldn’t be ready for vaginal sex the week after giving birth. Strangely enough this is not always obvious to guys. My big brother thought that with both his kids, once they were out everything should be back to normal.”
Although individual circumstances vary, the typical medical recommendation is for a six-week waiting period before sex after childbirth. Since that can seem like a terribly long time for a guy, here’s how to explain some of the physical reasons for the wait in ways that will help him cope.
Lochia. For several weeks after the delivery—even if it’s a C-section—the vagina will discharge lochia, a mix of residual blood, mucus, and tissue from inside the uterus. Lochia discharge generally lasts from two to six weeks, and its mere concept can be a powerful anti-aphrodisiac.
Be sure to educate your man about lochia, describing its composition and color changes, and using the completely unsexy word “discharge” in doing so. Simply reading the following passage on lochia from the popular guidebook What to Expect the First Year by Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi E. Murkoff, and Sandee E. Hathaway, could keep him squeamish for days: “Then, as the healing progresses and the bleeding slows, the discharge gradually turns to a watery pink, then to brown, and finally to a yellowish white.”
Vaginal soreness. To help your man appreciate that you can still be sore after six weeks, ask him to describe a time when he took a really hard shot in the crotch. Make him elaborate on the incident until he’s wincing at the memory, and then say, “Now, how long did that knee/elbow/soccer ball/chair back actually make contact with your groin? Mhmm. And you were doubled over for about how long afterwards? Mhmm. All right, honey, how long was I in labor? Mhmm . . .”
Because vaginal soreness and dryness are common when couples resume having sex, lubrication is advisable—and, unless they immediately want to start the whole baby-making process over again, so is contraception—even if she’s breastfeeding. It’s a myth that nursing women can’t get pregnant.
Cesarean/episiotomy, perineal tearing. With births involving surgery, women have to be careful to keep their stitches free from the risk of reopening or infection. The recommended waiting period is still six weeks, although some women have to delay resuming intercourse longer because of problems with the wounds. Another gender comparison may help your man be more understanding: have him talk to a guy who has had a vasectomy. As Dion, a father of four from Perth, Australia, recounts, “I was a bit sore and protective after my vasectomy. The thought of having sex didn’t even cross my mind for several days afterwards—and that was without any swelling or bleeding. It’s given me a lot more empathy for women and what they go through giving birth.”
Exhaustion. This usually needs no explanation from mothers, as most dads go through it too during those first few months. Tom, a new father from New York, says that he and his partner don’t get around to sex because they are “tired and have to deal with the baby a lot.” Kevin, also from New York City, tells the same story: he says that their six-week wait “has been tough, but we’ve been kinda tired and distracted with the baby anyway.”
Although the hard work of a newborn helps parents fall in love with their baby, it’s not usually the most romantic time for them as a couple. Here are some suggestions to help women work with their partners to stay emotionally close during the postpartum recovery period.
Understand the rejection he may be dealing with. As we all know—and yet, as some guys occasionally forget—sex requires emotional as well as physical readiness. What’s not as obvious, however, is that the empathy needed to reestablish emotional closeness must come from both partners. New mothers are subject to feeling overwhelmed with responsibility, not to mention ungainly and unappealing after the pregnancy. Yet it’s also vital for women to realize that guys too can feel unattractive once the baby is born: after all, sex is a very powerful form of reassurance for them, and its six-week unavailability may make them feel vulnerable—especially as the baby commands so much of their relationship’s resources.
These feelings of vulnerability and rejection are hard for guys to acknowledge—they’re real and powerful, and yet we feel immature and selfish for feeling them. Though this may sound juvenile, guys really can benefit in this difficulty by being reminded how important they are to their spouses. Obviously this entails special treatment of the favorite-meals and nice-notes variety rather than bedroom gymnastics, but it doesn’t hurt guys to be reminded that we’re still desirable. Having our new-mother partners say that they can’t wait to make love to us paradoxically makes it easier for us to wait until their bodies are ready. In other words, it helps guys to feel that we’re not waiting for our women, we’re waiting with them.
Tell your partner what you need to hear. As the husband of a mental-health therapist, every so often I get free coaching in how to express empathy. For example, during the first trimester of her first pregnancy, my wife Leah helped me learn to acknowledge the extent of her morning sickness. She felt nauseous and would gag occasionally, but because she didn’t throw up or become bedridden, I tended to underestimate her level of discomfort. After a few of my unintentionally dismissive comments, she half jokingly made me repeat the phrase, “Poor Leah. She’s sick.” Of course it felt silly, but hearing and repeating it every so often—even as something of a joke—was more effective in helping me empathize with Leah than merely listening to descriptions of how she had been feeling.
Realize that he may be initially apprehensive about reapproaching your vagina. After viewing the birth of their child, some guys are a bit traumatized by seeing the vagina in such a different shape and context. The following posted message from an online fatherhood forum sums up both the fear and its typical demise:
“Fact is, the vagina that your child emerges from will look nothing like the vagina that you’re accustomed to. Even if the sight of it during birth lingers enough to cause initial problems, and the presence of your amazing child doesn’t completely erase your sexual desire, take comfort in the fact that your wife probably isn’t going to let you near her for several months.”
As comforting as that thought may not be, challenges also bring opportunities, and the disruption in the couple’s intimacy gives guys a chance to admire their partners in a different light. For example, by the time I’d mostly come to terms with my wife’s postpartum recovery, I found I’d been developing a deep and simple affection for her that typical feelings of sexual attraction wouldn’t give room to grow.
Also, there’s the added dimension of seeing your wife in action as a mother and working alongside her as a dad, and of course, the entirely new relationship you’ll form with your child. Yes, your sexual calendar will be empty for a while, but embracing your new roles will keep you too busy, exhausted, and fulfilled to notice it that much.