What You'll Learn
- The Historical and Cultural Relationship Between Sex and Motherhood
- The Impact Modern Motherhood Has on Sexuality
- How Desire and Arousal Change After Motherhood
- Ways to Reclaim and Embrace Our Sexuality After Becoming Mothers
- How Playfulness Can Open the Door for Intimacy and Desire
Modern moms often have a difficult time navigating sex and motherhood. Sleep deprivation, body changes, the mental load, and even our own internal beliefs and expectations impact the way we experience sexual desire and arousal.
Sarah Forbes, sexual culturalist, author, and former curator of New York’s Museum of Sex, joins us to discuss how sex and motherhood interweave and how we can reignite and embrace sexuality as mothers.
“Motherhood Is Where Sex Goes to Die”
One of the most common things clients want to talk to me about is sex. My DMs are full of questions about sex and motherhood.
How often should couples have sex after having kids?
Is it normal to not have sexual desires anymore?
How can I reconnect with my partner?
What if I want more sex and my partner doesn’t?
So many moms struggle with sexuality, and it’s easy to understand why. From the time we are children, we’re given a rulebook about sex. How different genders should react and respond to sex, the roles we should play, when and how we should have sex—we’re prescribed rules for sex before we even understand what it is.
As we become mothers, we’re given a new rulebook. We’re supposed to fulfill our partner’s desires and needs, bounce back to our pre-pregnancy bodies, and be able to put aside the invisible responsibilities weighing on our minds with the snap of a finger.
Reality usually looks different. Some moms lack sexual desire and satisfaction after having babies. Others struggle with different sex drives from their partners. And some want to initiate sex or experience intimacy but aren’t sure how to approach it.
Our bodies, our brains, and our new role as mothers change the way we view ourselves and the way we experience sexuality. From what I hear from others, it sometimes seems like motherhood is where sex goes to die.
It sometimes seems like motherhood is where sex goes to die.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can relearn sexuality, and discover new desire and arousal, even in motherhood.
When I heard about Sarah Forbes and her experience as the curator of New York’s Museum of Sex, I was fascinated. I couldn’t wait to dive in and hear her thoughts about sex and motherhood.
The Historical and Cultural Relationship Between Sex and Motherhood
Sarah pointed out that the history of sex has always been complicated for women and mothers. In past centuries, sex was largely about legitimacy, heritage, and inheritance—all interwoven into a patriarchal system.
But the control of female sexuality has persisted, finding a place in modern medicine and in the way women and mothers experience sex. Pregnancy, childbirth, and the experience of mothering all affect sex.
Pregnancy, childbirth, and the experience of mothering all affect sex.
After we become mothers, we are held to the same virgin/whore dichotomy that existed before, but with new expectations around putting our own needs behind everybody else’s.
Sexuality and motherhood become two worlds that are wrapped up, but that we are supposed to view as separate. It can be confusing and difficult to reconcile our expectations with reality.
The Impact Modern Motherhood Has on Sexuality
Motherhood has changed drastically throughout history. Instead of a village, we now have isolation, added pressures, intensive mothering ideals, and the perfect mother myth to contend with.
We also have a newfound relationship with technology and education, leaving mothers with more information than ever, but without guidance on their own sexuality. We now have opportunities for sexuality that previous generations couldn’t even imagine. But we don’t always have the tools to navigate them, especially as mothers.
As Sarah pointed out, the modern view of motherhood is about martyrdom, putting your spouse’s and children’s needs above your own, and being invisible. Our identity completely changes when we become mothers.
So sexual desire is just one of the many things that gets zapped out of our identities in motherhood—just one part of the way we are pressured in this chapter of our lives.
Many of my clients express difficulty accepting that their bodies have become a utility. When they wrap that up with their own childhood experiences and pressures around sex, it can leave them feeling confused, frustrated, and unsure of the role sex plays in their lives.
How Desire and Arousal Change After Motherhood
Sarah said that historically, many researchers believed that there was a stark difference in how men and women experience sexuality and arousal. Now, most anthropologists and researchers realize that the differences in female and male sexuality are more cultural than natural.
Women and mothers have often been told how they should experience sex, what type of sex they should desire, and the role that sex should play in their lives. These old-fashioned ideas of sexuality can hinder our communication, expression, and our relationship with our own bodies.
But motherhood can impact our sexual desire. Mothers often don’t have the time and space to ignite arousal. Sleep deprivation, invisible responsibilities, and pressures to be the perfect mom can keep us from entering the right headspace to become aroused.
It’s not unusual or unreasonable to need time to build up desire. As Sarah pointed out, the idea of spontaneous, instant sexuality is a porn expectation—not rooted in reality. Sexual arousal requires time.
We also experience changes to our bodies that can be hard to accept. We live in a “bounce back” culture that expects our bodies to look like we aren’t mothers. Sometimes moms experience medical issues like pain during sex or incontinence, but they don’t know that these issues are not normal and that we shouldn’t have to accept them.
We’ve been taught to minimize our own needs and discount our own experiences.
But because we’ve been taught to minimize our own needs and discount our own experiences, we sometimes don’t seek the help we need. We struggle with our own expectations, our partner’s expectations, and even society’s expectations, and reality can leave us feeling defeated in regard to sexuality.
We can enter into negative sexual patterns—we don’t make the time to experience arousal, so we don’t feel desire. As a result, we might shut down sexual attempts from our partner, or engage in transactional, functional sexual experiences. Neither of those help us break out of that pattern and rediscover our sexual desires.
But there are ways we can rediscover our sexual side and find a path to a new relationship with sex.
Ways to Reclaim and Embrace Our Sexuality After Becoming Mothers
First and foremost, Sarah said that if we want to reignite sexuality we need to create time and space to build up arousal. That can be tough as a new mom.
But we can dig into what is stopping us individually from experiencing sexual arousal and desire—whether that’s unequal partnerships or your feelings about your own body. In Sarah’s research, the pressure to be perfect, exhaustion, and a lack of support are the main factors affecting maternal sexuality.
Sometimes, we need to rebuild trust and security with our partners. If there’s a break in trust, we aren’t going to want to be vulnerable or put ourselves out there.
When we discover our own obstacles and barriers to sexuality, we can work to remove them.
There is value in taking care of your mental health and relationship with sex.
Sarah pointed out that, although self-care can often be another thing on your plate, there is value in taking care of your mental health and relationship with sex. Having a positive relationship with sexuality, a positive relationship with yourself, and bringing pleasure into your life is a potent form of self-care.
We can’t change the patriarchy, battle cultural expectations, increase support for mothers, and fix the overarching societal issues that impact sexuality. But we can take control of our own experiences. We can own our own desires.
How Playfulness Can Open the Door for Intimacy and Desire
Sometimes, we have to get creative with sexuality and work to bring a sense of playfulness into the mix.
One way to do this is to remove some of the pressure and expectation around sex. Penetration doesn’t have to be the goal. Fun, playfulness, discovery, and intimacy can open the door for sexual desire.
I have seen other moms mention lighting a “sex candle” or leaving a visual clue—such as underwear or whipped cream near the bed—as a sign that you want to engage in exploration that night.
Find ways to relieve some of the pressures about sex.
This can help relieve some of the pressures about sex and bring a sense of fun into the bedroom. Sarah also recommends exploring your fantasies—bringing in play, costumes, toys, or props. Fantasy can be a welcome mental departure from the load of parenting.
When you discover what feels good to you and learn to communicate it with your partner, there is a lightening, a reconnection that occurs.
Being playful, opening the lines of communication, and rediscovering your new body, new sexuality, and new relationship with your partner can be the goal—with or without sex.
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