Sex After Children: Rekindling Sexual Intimacy

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Mating in Captivity" by Esther Perel. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does having a baby kill your sex life? Why do you think that is? More importantly, how can we prevent parenthood from impinging on sexual intimacy?

For many couples, once they have a child, almost everything about their lives changes: their relationships with themselves and the people they know, their bodies, roles, and amount of resources (finances, time, energy, and so on). Many of these changes affect the erotic life as well, usually in a suppressive way.

In this article, we’ll discuss why parenthood often kills sexual intimacy and ways to rekindle your desire to have sex after children.

Why Does Parenthood Sometimes Kill Sex?

There are many reasons why parenthood can have such a strong effect on our erotic lives: it creates a renewed need for security and expectations of full-on parenting, and it can desexualize the mother.

Renewed Need for Security

Once we have children, we increasingly value security and routine. This is partly for the kids, so they have a secure base and therefore the confidence to explore the world. This is also partly for us⁠—parenthood is inherently uncontrollable, so we look for things we can control. We take serious jobs and plan for college funds and don’t go out partying. Even if we hate every chore on our to-do lists, ticking off all the items gives us a sense of achievement and control. Children are chaotic, and you can’t tame them, but you can make sure the vacuuming gets done.

Family life does best in this secure, predictable environment, but as discussed in Chapter 1, erotic life does best among unpredictability and risk. Once we’re parents, we have far less tolerance for unwieldy emotion, and eroticism doesn’t do well in a controlled environment. Controlled environments are boring. Sometimes, boredom can even morph into repulsion.

Expectations of Full-On Parenting

There has always been a bond between parents and their children⁠—from an evolutionary point of view, parents are the best chance a child has for survival. However, the expectations around this bond have changed. In previous generations, children were free labor. Now, they give us meaning instead.

Parents are expected to prioritize their children’s happiness over their own. This can mean that resources parents might normally put towards eroticism—time, imagination, and so on—are entirely used up by their kids.

The individualism of American culture makes full-on parenting even harder. We don’t have the same community we used to, such as close extended family we can ask to babysit. Additionally, services such as daycare and medicine are expensive, and individualism makes some people consider the inability to afford daycare as a personal failing rather than a broken system. This adds an emotional burden to an already existing financial one.

Desexualization of Mothers

Everyone benefited when sexuality separated from reproduction. Having sex no longer comes with such a risk of unplanned pregnancy. However, the benefits are different and unequal for men and women.

A man with a baby is sexy. He demonstrates nurturing and stability.

A woman with a baby is sacred, moral, and selfless. The women’s movement hasn’t reached motherhood yet, and desexualization of the mother is very common in patriarchal cultures. This could be for several reasons:

  • Some men struggle with the Madonna-whore complex. They can only view their partners as mothers or lovers, not both.
  • Some people think maternal duty overpowers lust. 
  • Some people can’t get past Puritan legacy in American culture. In other parts of the world, mothers are sexy. 
    • For example, when Susanna goes to Madrid, she’s sexy because she has a three-year-old. In America, she’s sexy because of her body or her accent, and having a child is unsexy.

For example, after Carla had children, her husband Leo saw her differently. He watched her give birth and thought it was weird and gross. Once Carla had a baby, she changed from being a lover to a mother in Leo’s eyes. He became more cautious and respectful, and less aggressive. Carla got him to change his perception by asking him to pay her for a blow job. A mother or wife wouldn’t ask for payment, so it put her in a different role.

While some mothers experience desexualization, plenty of women come into their sexuality in motherhood. For example, Renee found self-acceptance in pregnancy. As a child, she was sexually abused and was so worried about looking womanly that she developed an eating disorder. But when she became pregnant, it became acceptable to look womanly because she’d need a powerful, well-equipped body when it came time to give birth.

Same-Sex Couples

Gay and lesbian relationships aren’t constrained by traditional gender roles, but they do seem to slip into two roles similar to those you’d find in a heterosexual couple. Whichever parent takes charge of the kids tends to focus on the children, has trouble getting away from chores, and loses their sense of self. The other parent steps into a reminder role. They help the caregiving parent refocus on the couple and separate from the kids.

Your Attitude Towards Eroticism Will Affect Your Kids

Full-on parenting is more than a lifestyle; it’s emotional too. We can fall in love with our kids. Children can give us the same things we get (or used to get) from our partners⁠—meaning, love, and devotion. However, expecting this kind of fulfillment from our children is a huge burden.

Additionally, when we try to hide sex to protect our children, they’ll learn that sex is something dangerous or bad. (our childhoods shape our feelings about desire.) Kids who learn to appropriately and easily express their affection are going to have a healthier relationship with sexuality when they grow up.

How to Rekindle Desire Once You Have a Family

Some of the possibilities to help rekindle your interest in sex after children are:

  • Possibility #1: Schedule time with your partner. If you don’t make time, some other aspect of your life, probably to do with your kids, will take over your schedule. If you think scheduled dates or intercourse are unromantic or obligatory, consider:
    • You’re not making time to check sex off your to-do list; you’re making time to experiment with eroticism. You don’t need to plan what will actually happen during the time you’ve set aside.
    • Spontaneity is a myth. Even when you first met your partner, you both made advance preparations before seeing each other—what time to meet for a date, what to wear, where to go, and so on.
    • Think of the time leading up to your scheduled time together as extended foreplay. Anticipation is an ingredient of desire.
    • Some people don’t like planning because they feel it’s work they shouldn’t have to do any more now that they have their partner locked down, or because they want to be loved exactly the way they are without putting in any effort. If you refuse to plan, your partner will probably still love you⁠—but loving you is different from wanting to have hot sex with you.
  • Possibility #2: Regain your sense of self and independence. When some people have kids, they give up everything for them. Sometimes, choose to be selfish, for example, get a babysitter and go do whatever you want.
  • Possibility #3: Get in the right headspace. You and your partner probably won’t experience spontaneous desire at the same time. If you’re in the mood, create an environment conducive to desire to help your partner disengage from caretaker mode. For example, you might tease or compliment your partner.
  • Possibility #4: Resexualize the mother. The mother may be a mother, but she’s not her partner’s mother; she’s her partner’s partner. Remember that her relationship to the kids is different from her relationship to her partner.

Extended Example: Warren and Stephanie

For example, Warren and Stephanie have two kids. Stephanie’s life revolves around the kids, and she’s given up her freedom and independence for them (remember that freedom and independence are important for desire). She feels like she’s a bad mother if she does anything selfish. This leads to her feeling like she’s on call all the time, and if she ever gets a free moment, she wants it for herself. Her husband Warren is just another person who needs something from her, because she’s no longer very interested in sex. She’s stuck in caretaking mode⁠—she can’t see that sex would be about her too.

Warren is lonely and frustrated. For him, sex is a way to express emotion and connect. Every time Stephanie rejects him, he’s hurt. He takes her lack of desire personally. 

If you think of eroticism as creative energy and playfulness, Stephanie still has plenty. She’s simply redirected it towards her kids. She’s always thinking of fun new things to do with the kids, and her life is full of novelty. She also gets a lot of touch from her children. (Not in a sexual way. Sensuality with children is totally different from adult sexuality.) Female eroticism isn’t localized in the genitals the way men’s is. Women feel it all over their body and through all senses. So though Stephanie and Warren don’t have the same connection they used to, Stephanie may not even need it⁠—she’s getting very similar things to what she used to get from him elsewhere.
With the help of therapy, Warren and Stephanie have found a few ways to move toward rekindling their desire for each other. First, they schedule dates. Second, Stephanie practices being selfish. She leaves Warren with the kids and goes away for a weekend with her sister. Third, Warren and Stephanie try to create an environment where desire can flourish. Even before Stephanie had children, Warren was always the one to approach her. He’s still the initiator, and her main agency is in refusal. Now, however, sometimes Stephanie says “Maybe” or “Convince me” instead of “No.”

Sex After Children: Rekindling Sexual Intimacy

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Here's what you'll find in our full Mating in Captivity summary :

  • Why it's difficult to have a good, erotic life within a long-term relationship
  • What makes up our individual sense of desire and our desire for our partners
  • Tips on how to retain desire in a committed relationship

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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