Three weeks before the birth of my first daughter, when I was swollen, uncomfortable and horrified by my bloated body, distended fingers and inability to see my toes, my midwife suggested I have more sex.
"Seriously," she told me. "If you want her to come sooner, try having more sex."
If only it were that easy. I have always been comfortable with sex. I learned early to please myself and took that with me into relationships, often acting the part of the "male" who just wanted to get off as opposed to the "female," looking for love and transcendence through sex.
But since discovering that sex had a function beyond fun and feeling good, my mojo had lessened considerably. Every time my husband came near me, I worried about the baby — would all that jostling hurt her? I worried about the way my body looked — could I really seem attractive to anyone? And most of all, I worried about discomfort. What positions might work for someone who could not lay on her stomach, back, side or pretty much in any position that did not involve three propped pillows? My husband had similar concerns but was more inclined to go for it.
In spite of my reservations, I took my midwife's advice, contorting my unfamiliar body into positions it was not meant to access, sitting on my husband's lap, the fear — "death by crushing" — humming in my ears. The sex was good, albeit bizarre, but awkward as they were, those encounters achieved the desired results. We had an early birth. Our daughter emerged from my womb two weeks early, her birth a product of the same process that created her.
‘Sex was never going to be the same’
After she was out, we held her between us — our twosome suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a third. We admired the blending of our features: his forehead, my eyes, his lips, my nose. She was mine, his, ours — the personification of our union.
In the early weeks, this connection did not translate to the bedroom. I wanted to hug my husband, hold him, stroke his hair. But I had no interest in engaging in an act that now seemed so fraught with consequences.
When we first married we were like children, discovering each other's bodies, chasing one another around the house, canceling plans so we could stay home in bed kissing, touching, learning to find the spots that would become like home, but at the time were foreign and unexplored. The miracles of modern birth control guaranteed consequence-free pleasure.
As we changed, so did sex. Immersed in graduate school, in our careers and in the business of marriage — the house buying, decorating, merging of finances and caring for our pets — we let our sex life drift into low tide, the passion slowly slipping back from the shore, revealing the rocks that had been hidden from view, ignored beneath the surf.
We had sex, of course, but what was once new and exciting became almost rote, boring at times. A sense of obligation pervaded our encounters, and I longed for the time when things were new, fresh and exciting. Our trips to the sex toy shop — once frequent, fun little diversions — dwindled to almost none. My husband never admitted it, but I think he felt the same.
After three years of this, the pregnancy came as a welcome surprise — not planned, but not maligned either. Sex was never going to be the same, something I realized almost immediately. It seemed my organs had shifted and suddenly no position was comfortable and my body felt foreign, invaded.
Two months after the birth, I saw my midwife again. My body was still swollen, I had 20 pounds left to lose and had not managed to change out of sweat pants for three days. "If you feel up to it, you could start having sex again," she cheerfully told me after checking my stitches.
The idea of anything going into the place where something so large just exited was not only unappealing, it was downright absurd. I could scarcely sit down for weeks after the birth and was still taking sitz baths almost a month later.
Sex, it seemed, was for young people. And I — at 30 — was officially no longer young. I realized this in a series of moments: paying the babysitter, buying my first Volvo, holding my infant daughter while she threw up. My time had passed, my fire now burned in the child who sucked at my breast, screamed at my feet and pulled on my hair. "How did we get so old?" I asked my husband, who reminded me that 30 was actually quite young.
In these desperate moments, my husband would pull me close, kiss my neck. But when his hands wandered, I grabbed them, directing them away from my swollen, milk-filled breasts.
And so he waited, waited until I ran out of excuses and hormonally charged diatribes against the act. He was patient, but would also remind me every few hours that there were "other sexual things we could do besides sex." I became resentful, but I also felt guilty. And so I agreed to try it.
Discovering a deeper connection
It was like high school sex all over again. True, there was no gear shift in my back, but he was so scared to hurt me, his movements tepid and cautious, each touch punctuated with questions. "Is this OK?" "Does that hurt?" Meanwhile I was the quintessential 15-year-old, hoping the act would keep us together, cement our new relationship as parents as well as lovers.
We continued in this fashion for a few weeks. I believed I was now a stereotype, the wife who stops trying after she has her child, whose idea of Saturday night attire includes sweat pants and a fleece sweater. But I refused to give in; to remind myself that I was still young and vital, I gritted my teeth and endured.
Until something started to shift and I realized I was not just enduring.
Before giving birth, I'd always had the vague notion that sex was fun and worth pursuing, kind of like cheesecake. Sex was a fashion show, a one-dimensional party. I always had orgasms, but I figured all those people who talk about transcendence and multiple orgasms were lying.
But then transcendence found me. It found me in the strangest moments, in watching my husband hold our infant daughter, his hands cupping her tiny head. It found me as he cradled her to give a bottle or as he read "Good Night Moon" in the nursery glider, her tiny fingers pulling apart the pages. It found me in the memory of his hands during 11 hours of labor, his tears falling on my shoulders.
Instead of thinking about when it would be over or my flaws, I thought about what the act had created — our child. My body was scarred with irrevocable truths of motherhood: two silver streaks covering a fleshy pocket of skin on my stomach. And yet, I no longer cared.
And my husband, surprisingly, was more than abs and shoulders, more than biceps and strong pectoral muscles. Objectification, once the way we related, intentionally or not, had become passé in the face of such a miracle. We had joined the ranks of so many mothers and fathers before us, united through more than just a piece of paper or a ceremony. We had created life together.
And the result? Hot sex — lots of it. I finally understand what all those bodice rippers and sex columns have been touting. Every touch, every move, everything that once seemed so routine was now charged with this new knowledge. It was one thing to hear him say he wanted me to mother his children. It was another to do it, to spend all day passionately loving something created from both of us and to then love each other in bed at night.
The childbirth books speak of diminished desire post-birth and suggest lubrication, but nobody talks about the other possibility. What if sex were better? What if all of the inhibitions and disparaging thoughts that once filled our heads fled? What if the very act of childbirth forced them out?
My husband felt it, too. We used to get up immediately after sex, always somewhere to be, something else to do. Now we would lie, tangled for hours, discussing our daughter, drifting off to sleep in the moments that felt stolen while she slept in the next room.
I mentioned it to a couple of friends who were also more than a few months past the birth. "I have more orgasms now," one mom told me while another giggled and admitted that she, too, was enjoying sex more post-baby. But no one spoke of the connection I felt.
And not all moms experience it this way. "No," said one mom as her nine-month-old clawed at her chest. "There are too many things that want a piece of my body each day," she said. Then she laughed. "Maybe you are just a freak."
Maybe I am. But if I am, there is at least I know one person who appreciates it.