Sex? No thanks, we might wake the baby
Does having children change sexual desire? In the fourth part of our series on the five ages of women, two mothers discuss their experiences of post-natal sex. Interviews by Ruth Picardie
Monday 30 September 1996
I got pregnant by accident, a few months after meeting Brian, and felt lousy the whole time. I was so tired, I felt ill, perhaps because I was 40, when my body was getting geared for the menopause rather than having babies. I used to put my head on the desk at lunchtime and drop off to sleep.
It wasn't an emotionally close time for us. Feeling bad affected everything. Plus I went from 71/2 to just over 10 stone, which I hated. We had sex until I was seven months' pregnant because he put pressure on me. I felt guilty so I used to see it through, but I felt resentful afterwards.
The labour took 23 hours and was very traumatic. She was very, very slow in coming. I tore and had half a dozen stitches. After the birth I felt horrendous. It was such an invasion. I felt really bullied in hospital about breast-feeding, which I found difficult. I ended up crying for a whole day - the normal baby blues. But I was left with postnatal depression, like a black cloud was over me. Everything was an effort and Candy was a difficult baby - she cried for 20 minutes, slept for 20 minutes and needed stimulation all the time.
I had no back-up at all. My mum's useless and Brian's parents didn't approve of me, because he's eight years younger than me. When I was pregnant everybody was so pleased for me because I was 40 and getting what I wanted. But once it's born you're on your own, there's no back-up at all - all the more so in my case because as soon as I left work I went to live in my partner's house which was in a different part of the country. I was completely lost. And I was living with a man who had never lived with anyone before, never been married before, so hadn't a clue.
At first my body didn't feel normal or nice or clean. Because of the labour and the aftermath of having a baby, the blood and everything, I never felt relaxed or clean as I had before. And I couldn't believe this stomach I was left with; I'd been so tiny before. I was so lacking in energy I couldn't even think about doing exercises. My husband didn't mind about my new shape at all: I had massive boobs.
We first had sex about eight weeks after the baby was born. Again, there was pressure: he made it very plain he was looking for sex from about six weeks. I did sometimes push him away but I realised there was going to come a time when I had to get over this, and I had to try. Sometimes I gave in to him, sometimes I masturbated him. We had sex every week, but I was going through the motions, which he sensed.
I think it was resentment that I had got no back-up at all with this baby, no support from anybody, including him. He wasn't even willing to tidy a few toys away. That was my job. Sometimes I'd get up seven times a night and it was me every time. And then you know you've got a full day ahead of you the following day. I couldn't rest, I couldn't catch up. I was absolutely shattered. At the time I was very vulnerable and wanted to be looked after. He wasn't interested at all.
My husband felt that all my energies had gone into my child but I didn't feel that, because I was still trying to cope with everything else, the cooking, the cleaning, the washing, the whole bit, which women do anyway. Nothing special, I know, but pretty difficult at the time when you don't have help.
We didn't row about sex, but it simmered away. I used to blame myself. A couple of times I said to him, if you leave me alone it will come right, but I never blew my top. I should have done, told him for God's sake, leave me alone, but I felt too guilty.
I would have liked to have gone away for a weekend but we had nowhere for Candy to go. And, of course, if we went away together it was me who was doing all the work, all the arranging, all the packing and, when we got there, looking after the child. There was absolutely no back-up at all. We went on holiday when Candy was 18 months, a week in Spain in a really nice hotel but it was terrible - I ended up being a full-time mum on holiday as well. Whereas before I'd just sunbathed and turned over every 10 minutes, basting myself, and had a wander down to the village. It was a culture shock, completely and utterly.
Our sex life has never been the same. Three years ago, my husband had an affair with someone he'd been seeing before he met me. It was to do with my lack of sex drive, yes: that's usually what does drive a man to an affair, isn't it? He had to tell me in the end because he got an infection and I got it as well. I blamed myself, in a way. He said non-penetrative sex was too mechanical. It is mechanical, but I felt it was better doing something rather than nothing. We decided to get married to try to patch things up.
Did I consider sex therapy? He would have done anything to get our sex life back to normal. But I don't think any amount of talking is going to make it better. They ask you to do this therapy, where you do everything but have sex. Well, if you don't want sex, how could that make it better?
We're still struggling with the affair. It was a one-off mistake as far as he's concerned, and I should erase it from my brain, but I can't. You never do, ever. I misjudged him completely, and that is very hard when you think you know someone, when you've even married them because you know they'll never let you down, and they damn well do. It's made our sex life even worse.
I don't know whether I'm going to keep working at the marriage. If I didn't have a child, I wouldn't be here. I would be off like a shot, because I'm pretty ruthless in relationships. But Candy needs a father. We did split up for a little while this year: I wanted six months on my own, but he walked back in after two and said I'm not having any more of this, this is our house, I don't need you to tell me what I can or can't do, so I'm really backed into a corner in this relationship.
For him, the crux of it is sex. For me, it's about the relationship generally. For him, if the sex was right, if he got his leg over very regularly - every night - he'd be happy. He used to try it on every night. Sometimes six or seven times a night he'd try it on. Now we're in separate rooms, so it's a lot easier. He fought it a bit, but he accepts it now because if the relationship is to go on, he's got to accept those terms. Sometimes he sits on the end of the bed and says, can I come in for a cuddle? And I say no.
Now we have sex when I want to. The last time was December.
All names in this article have been changed.
Penelope Shuttle, 49, is a poet, novelist and co-author (with her husband Peter Redgrove, 64) of two books celebrating the menstrual cycle, `The Wise Wound' and `The Alchemy of Women' (published by Rider). The couple live in Falmouth, Cornwall, with their 19-year-old daughter, Zoe.
I found pregnancy very aphrodisiac - I really did want a child, which is the first step to having lovely sex. It's physically better, too, because you get more blood flowing through the pelvis. We just had a wonderful time.
The birth was like being in a road accident. I was induced because I was overdue and then had an unproductive labour - I'm quite a small person and she was a large baby, lying transverse. After 18 hours with a lot of drugs - Pethidine and an epidural - I had an emergency Caesarian, under general anaesthetic. Zoe needed resuscitation and was taken away to an incubator. Afterwards, it was difficult to breastfeed because of my scar. I was in hospital for nearly a fortnight.
For three months I didn't have any interest in sex at all. I could make love to Peter, but for me it was still very painful. Plus there was this fear of pregnancy. I just wanted to sleep.
But we immediately got sensual pleasure in breast-feeding - not a genital, sexual, orgasmic pleasure, but still wonderful. Peter took a lot of photographs of me feeding Zoe, with a Madonna-ish golden light over us. It was a very strong emotional field. The lactation was also powerfully erotic for Peter: breast-feeding is very ejaculatory, and he found the taste very arousing. That was a way back into physical closeness for us.
When the first child is born, the man can become confused in his identification: there's often a feeling that making love to a mother is making love to the mother that brought the man into the world. Then he might feel as a sibling would feel when a new baby comes along. Those feelings may be deeply buried but active in the relationship and affecting every area of communication. Peter was helped in having a very positive relationship with his mother.
There is a section in Alchemy For Women called "Sex Yoga", which goes into exercises to strengthen the pelvis after birth - a Chinese yoga exercise called the Dear or, in Hindi, Asvina Mudra. You pull up the vagina and the anus as far as you can go towards the navel and try and get them to meet. The Kegel exercises are also useful - finding the muscle that stops you peeing.
When sexual energy came back, Zoe was embedded in the relationship between us. Peter had almost completed me, then Zoe completed me and us. In the long term, sex has more meaning both on the erotic and on the spiritual and creative level because we are going back in sex to the place that's created our child, where the tiny seed of life began. My dream of conception - a space ship with a mother space ship and little space ships joining on to it - irradiates sex with feelings going back 20 years.
In Alchemy For Women we discuss the tension, reflected in dreams, between the ovulation mode and the menstrual mode, between the mother side and the non-maternal side ... That is the continual challenge. If you can get the two in balance, it gives you energy. When they are out of balance it's like driving a car with three wheels - bumping about all over the place.
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