The strangest thing happened the other night: For one brief moment, I felt lucky to be single. I was shooting pool at Max Fish with my friend Lucy, a young mother of two, telling her how jealous I was of her perfect married life. “I think I want to have a kid soon,” I said.
“Don’t be so eager,” she warned. “Your whole life changes. Do you know about the Curse of the Breast-feeding Mother?”
“All the literature tells you to breast-feed as long as possible because it’s best for the baby, but a lot of nursing moms stop wanting sex as long as they’re nursing.”
“No, of course not. But for a lot of women, nursing becomes their entire sensual life. They just don’t need anything else.”
I stared down, imagining my entire sensual future resting on my rack. I was a fox; I didn’t want to be a cow. As I lined up for my next shot, I stopped feeling so gloomy. I didn’t have a husband, but maybe I had something better: a sex life.
A couple days later, I sit down with Kathy and Susan, two new moms, and their peacefully sleeping babies. I met them at the New Mothers Luncheon, a twice-weekly support group held at Hi-Life on the Upper East Side. Kathy, a vivacious 37-year-old brunette with a 41⁄2-month-old son, is an attorney and plans to return to work part-time soon. Susan, a 36-year-old knockout blonde with twin 6-month-old girls, works part-time in advertising sales. Neither has had sex for about a year.
Susan says the shift began before she got pregnant. She and her husband did in vitro fertilization, which was harrowing: “You’re blaming your husband, and he’s blaming you. It’s very stressful to your relationship.”
Once she conceived, they had sex a few times, but stopped when he began to worry he would hurt the babies. “Then I went into the hospital at 26 weeks and we didn’t have sex because I was on bed rest.”
Kathy was able to get pregnant relatively quickly but was anxious about it, given her age: “After the sex, I would say, ‘Good night, I’m not moving, I’m lying here so the little spermies will swim,’ when all I wanted to do was take a shower and scuzz off.”
aÂ´o?her husband had sex once, a few months into the pregnancy, but stopped because both felt strange. “He said, ‘Was that weird?’ I said, ‘That was so weird that we’re not doing it again. How’s that?’ I felt the same way about him giving me oral sex.”
Both women tried to make up for their diminished drives by gratifying their husbands in other ways, but, as Kathy points out, “You’re uncomfortable on your knees, your back hurts, and your stomach’s in the way.”
“I gave him more oral sex,” says Susan. “But I’d rather have sex, because when you’re married, it’s ‘What’s in it for me?’ “
When she gave birth, she expected her sex life to return to normal – she’d had a cesarean and had no concerns about pain or loss of sensation – but in the past six months, her husband has shown no interest. “He makes excuses because he’s freaked out. I think he has performance anxiety because there was so much pressure on him before, the question of ‘Is there a problem with your sperm?’ “
Now when she initiates sex, he says he’s tired. “I’ll say, ‘What’s the matter with me? Am I ugly?’ He’ll say, ‘You’re beautiful. I love you.’ I’ll say, ‘Then okay. Let’s work on it.’ There are issues. I want to work on it because this is horrible.”
One night, she was kissing him on the living-room sofa, telling him to come to bed. He said he wasn’t ready, so she went into the bedroom and came out a few minutes later to find him masturbating. “I liked that he was doing it,” she says. “It was good that something was going on. I asked him to come to bed, and he said it was too late.”
Kathy’s husband suggests sex often, but she’s convinced it’s only when he knows she’s going to say no: “He’ll ask in the morning when I’m in my nursing bra and underwear and I have Sammy at the changing table. He’ll rub up and say, ‘Let’s go, Mommy.’ I’ll say, ‘Get away from me. I’m changing the baby.’ Or he’ll ask when the nanny’s here.” Recently, she gave it some thought and finally told him she was ready. His response? “I’m really tired now.”
Part of the problem, she says, is that he hasn’t been very helpful with the child-rearing. He has changed their son once and fed him twice. “I would feel more inclined to have sex if he helped more. I have a lot of resentment. I go to physical therapy because my back is so bad from holding the baby, and he’s watching ESPN, clicking the remote. I’m thinking, He thinks he’s going to get a blow job? Ha!”
I ask whether, given the change in their relationships, they’re worried their husbands might cheat or go to strip clubs. They say they’ve thought about it but aren’t too concerned. “My husband thinks I’m a stripper now,” Kathy says. “I tell him, ‘Look but don’t touch.’ “
I mention the breast-feeding curse and ask whether they think that might have anything to do with it. “Breast-feeding decreases your hormones,” says Kathy.
“I don’t think that’s what it is,” says Susan. “If I had sex, I’d want it. The less you have it, the less you want it.”
Kathy thinks her sex life will change – because she and her husband want to try to conceive again in the spring. “I will have sex,” she says, as though she were vowing to work out more often. “I will. And it’ll be soon, because I don’t want to wait until we’re trying to have a baby again. That could create an issue.”
Susan gets a faraway look and murmurs, “I was talking to my mom the other day and she said, ‘Are you having fun?’ I said no. I’m not unhappy, but I’m not happy.”
The next day, I make a mental note never to have children. But then I have lunch with Tina, a sweet-faced 30-year-old attorney who’s taking time off to be with her 3-month-old son. She had approached me at the luncheon and told me in a hushed tone that her experience of sex after childbirth was dramatically different from that of most moms. We meet at Eli’s on Third Avenue, not far from her apartment. With her son sitting in her lap, she tells me, “The combination of feeling more appreciative of my body and falling in love with my husband again made me really want to have sex after I gave birth.”
She and her husband made love the day after her six-week checkup with her OB/GYN, when the doctor tells the mother whether it’s okay to resume intercourse. “I was nervous, but I was also excited. It was fine. It was pleasurable.”
Before the baby, she and her husband had sex about twice a week, and now they do it four or five times. Tina says the change was completely unexpected: “I thought having a baby was going to change my sex life for the worse. I think my husband was surprised as well – that I was not just willing but somewhat aggressive about it.”
She asked him whether he noticed any physical differences, and he said no. “I’m not sure I believe him,” she says, “but I did do my Kegels.” She thinks one factor was her fast delivery – two hours and forceps-assisted. And she’s not nursing – she stopped after getting mastitis and says she feels better, like her body is more her own.
In the past, she struggled with body-image problems, but she’s changed her perspective, despite the fact that she gained 45 pounds while pregnant. “I never appreciated what it’s like to be a woman until after I had a baby,” she says. “And I wanted to share that with my husband. My inhibitions have changed. When you’re pregnant, you go to the doctor every week toward the end. I became more free with my body. I look at myself now and say, ‘I had a child. How amazing is that? So what if I’m ten pounds overweight?’ “
As for the renewal of love, she says, “Watching my husband with my son is very emotional. It made me want to please him, make him happy, be close to him. I’m attracted to him in a different way.”
It doesn’t hurt that he’s been an involved father. “We were watching Sex and the City,” she recalls, “the one where Miranda’s nursing, and my husband said, ‘That’s not a proper latch,’ which means the baby wasn’t grabbed onto the whole areola. I said, ‘Would you have ever thought you would even know that, let alone know that term?’ “
Though she’s heard about mothers who feel less sexual because they think of themselves as mothers more than wives, she has no problem integrating her two roles: “The first time we had sex, my son was in the room in his bouncy chair, sleeping. My husband said, ‘Is this going to scar him for life?’ I said, ‘He’s 6 weeks old. I don’t think so.’ Remember, it wasn’t something that lasted three hours.”
She admits they’ve had to make some compromises – like having more quickies (luckily, she’s always been fast) – but she doesn’t mind. “We don’t have the luxury of two hours of foreplay anymore. If you want to come twice every time, maybe it’s not going to happen. But if I want a good sex life with my husband, we have to make some changes. If we want to enjoy each other, that’s the way it is.”