Health & Wellness

Sex after baby: Getting busy ... or not

Sex matters ... a lot. But for parents of a baby, nights can be sleepless and sexless. In their book "Love in the Time of Colic," sex therapist Ian Kerner and author Heidi Raykeil write about the struggles new parents face when trying to be intimate with each other again. An excerpt.

Welcome to the jungle
Lights. Camera ... Action?

Picture this: Mom and dad crawl into bed after finally getting the baby to sleep. For the moment, the little one is in the crib, and as much as they’d like to believe he’ll stay that way, they know it’s only a matter of time. For mom’s part, she just wants to read a few sentences of the same paragraph of the same novel she’s been mulling over and over and then close her eyes and snatch a few moments of precious sleep.

Dad, meanwhile, has other plans: he sidles on over, gently pushes away the novel and presses his body (and hard-on) against her. You’ve got to be kidding me, she thinks to herself. How can he even think of sex? There’s no way this is going to happen.

But tonight he’s determined; he won’t take her subtle back-turn as an answer. He knows he has a tiny window of time and has to act fast: maybe, just maybe, he’ll get some action: charity-sex ... hell, at this point anything other than his own hand would do. So she kisses him back, at first out of a sense of obligation. But soon, as she starts to remember long lost grown-up sensations, she does it because (what’s this) she kind of wants to! The force of his hunger puts her in touch with appetites of her own. (Maybe this guy isn’t so bad after all.) For a few precious moments they are back to being a couple — not just co-parents — with no thoughts other than each other. There is no world outside of this bedroom, no world outside of their touch.

Until the crying begins.

Although Dad has purposefully turned down the baby-monitor (a cheap ploy, he knows), the wails reverberate through the walls. He continues to kiss and grope, urging her to let the baby cry — it’s okay if he cries a little, he tries to reason, knowing in his gut it’s already a lost cause. And then he prays: please, please, please go back to sleep. For Pete’s sake, sleep.

But it’s already a fait accompli for Mom. Her whole body pulls toward the baby, her whole being is affected by his tiny little cries. She rushes up, throws on some old sweats, and soon returns to bed, cooing over the breathless baby latched to her breast. Dad knows his chance is shot. He turns away and faces the wall. Whereas minutes ago they were deeply connected, they are now a million miles apart.

Don’t be angry, she wants to say: it won’t always be like this. She reaches out to him, but he recoils at the touch, springs from the bed, and leaves the room, silently. From the bedroom, she hears him pacing and muttering under his breath. She doesn’t know whether to cry or curse him out.

Welcome to the jungle. Welcome to love in the time of colic.

Thanks to Carrie Bradshaw and company, our generation is now comfortable laughing about the big O over cosmos — and thanks to our modern metrosexual husbands, we can equally share diaper duty and hair creme. But as swinging and savvy as new parents are today, there’s still one very old-fashioned topic we just don’t know how to talk about: Sex. After. Baby.

These three words are spoken in hushed voices over play-dates and at playgrounds by mothers and fathers everywhere, stumped and shocked by the state of their sex lives. For a generation inculcated with individualism and weaned on sexual empowerment, we’re as surprised as anyone when our sex lives end up stale. But while we may whisper about it to our closest girlfriends, or make jokes after one too many beers with the guys, when it comes to talking with our partners about what’s really going on (or not going on, as the case may be) in our baby-proofed bedrooms, more and more of us find ourselves tongue tied and tip-toeing.

Let me tell you: when even Dr. Seuss makes you think of sex, that’s when things have to change.

And this book is indeed about change: the changes that parenthood wreaks on your sex life, and how to adapt and master those changes without letting them masturbate, I mean master you. As you can see, I may be a sex therapist, but I’m first and foremost a guy and I’ve grappled, and continue to grapple, with these issues: interminable nights with all four of us squeezed into the bed; feeling sex-starved and pissed off; tuning out, turning off, and becoming prey to all the pitfalls that go along with that vulnerable state. As far as I’m concerned, there are no quick fixes, no 30-day plans for change, no clinical psychobabble — all I can promise is honesty, knowledge, experience, not to mention a guy’s perspective, as well as some tools and tricks to help you through the long day’s journey into night.

I’m ashamed to say it, but the truth is that on more than one night (way more than one night, actually) I’ve been that angry guy in the scene described earlier. The changes parenthood wrought on my sex life left me feeling rejected, dejected, angry, and spiteful. But instead of rising to the occasion and stepping up to the plate as a husband and father, I acted like an ass----, which is all the more ironic (and ass----y) since if anyone should know better it’s me!

Heidi and I have joked that we should have called this book What to Expect When He’s Expecting Sex, except that would have left us open to criticism of being one-sided, as well to a lawsuit. But it wasn’t that what I wanted from my wife — sex — was wrong. In fact, clinical experience has shown me that in “expecting sex” the new father is actually performing a vital relationship function, which is to bring his partner back into the relationship and restore the primacy of their couple-hood: a crucial necessity if they’re to flourish and succeed as a family.

What I wanted wasn’t wrong, but how I was going about it was beyond the pale. I guess it’s not always easy, especially when you’re in the thick of it.

In her book Confessions of a Naughty Mommy, Heidi writes, “No one warned me that having a baby was like the excitement of falling in love all over again, except with someone much younger and better smelling than my husband. No one told me that for all intents and purposes, having a baby was dangerously similar to having an affair.”

In retrospect, I can see that I was acting like a spurned lover and kicking up a sh-- storm along the way. I was not only competing at the same volume as the “other man” in my wife’s life (in this case an infant), but could one-up him with meanness and mind-f---s. In losing my wife to this little creature, I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. I wasn’t just “not getting it on,” I was angry as hell, too!

So what was I really expecting in expecting sex? Not just b---jobs and orgasms (although those are always nice), but the intimacy and sense of connection that is part and parcel of a healthy sex life.

Not too long ago I was on a plane with my kids, so I thought I better take some time to really listen to those pre-flight instructions about safety exits and flotation cushions that I normally ignore. And I was profoundly struck by a simple instruction: “In the event an oxygen masks drop down, put it on yourself first, then your children.” They instruct you to do this because you have to take care of yourself in order to take care of your kids. Well, in our marriages we’re constantly putting our children first, to the point where we allow our relationships to suffocate and ultimately impair our ability to parent well. Everyone ends up suffering for lack of air. This book is about getting the oxygen mask on and taking a deep breath. As an individual. As a couple. As a family.

Heidi’s story: It’s the end of the world as we know it ... and I feel fine
Ten years ago, before kids and mortgages and All That, my husband JB and I were experts in the language of love. If sex is a form communication, well back then we were on the unlimited calling plan. We may not have always talked explicitly about the details, but we never had trouble communicating, we never had trouble connecting, physically or emotionally. And then ... we had a baby. And while in some ways our daughter’s birth brought us closer together than ever, in other ways (like actually having sex or even talking about it) we grew apart.

Worse than trying to figure out the logistics of post baby sex was trying to figure out what had happened to my once level libido. Ian, true rockin’ animal that he is, confided to me that if his experience with sex after baby had a theme song it would be Guns n Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” That’s the truth. But in my “not getting it on” world after baby, I think my theme song would have been another ’80s hit — "It’s the End of the World (And I Feel Fine)." Because although I missed wanting sex, I didn’t actually miss having sex. I felt fine without it! And I had no idea how to explain that to my husband. How could I? I didn’t know what was happening myself. Before long, my husband and I created a whole new way of communicating about sex — one that used very few of those pesky, um, words — and instead used plenty of late night fights. Bye-bye language of love, bye-bye unlimited calling plan. Hello pre-paid calling cards with desperately low minutes.

Those early years after the birth of our daughter were tough; there were times I was afraid to accidentally brush against my husband’s foot at night because I thought it would give him the wrong message. There were times I saw his erect penis as a little drill sergeant: hup two three four/ I am just another chore. There were times I wanted nothing more than to be left alone with my beautiful baby and a clean house. But finally, after four years, another baby, and writing a book on the topic, I think I know a little more about what was really going on. I can now see the pitfalls and traps of the baby sex jungle. I know I get caught up into giving too much to others, I know I need regular exercise, I know I’ve got a funky thyroid. I know I tend to throw myself into motherhood as an excuse for not looking at my own life sometimes. I know I fall in love with babies, hard. My husband and I also now know how to explain our feelings about all this without attacking, blaming or denying.

People are always asking me what’s the number one thing they can do to (start wanting to) get it on again. I joke that they should write a book about it! But I’m only half joking, because it was through writing about it that JB and I starting talking about it: Really talking about sex and work and parenting and how hard it is to make it all function. As it turns out, talking about sex (or the lack of it) doesn’t take away the magic — it’s darn near the only thing that really makes it happen. Thanks to our (now endless) discussions, JB now also knows he’s my real number one, even when I am in the harpy-like throes of intimacy overload. He knows that eventually the baby who has displaced him will wean and sleep and one day even walk away from us. He also knows that, intimacy junkie that I am, I will turn once again to him to get it. I hope this book can do the same for you — I hope it can get you talking, and turning, once again to each other.

In this time of colic, it can feel like you’re headed for a lifetime of not getting it on. Our belief and experience says otherwise. We think you can get this jungle swinging once again. We think — no, we know — it really is possible to do the hokey pokey and keep up the hanky panky. Or to read Hop on Pop, and then actually want to hop on pop. While we may reach this conclusion from very different perspectives at times, what we both agree on is that sex matters ... a lot. Parents can give their children everything, but nothing is a substitute for parental happiness. And in our opinion, sex is the glue that holds couples together and keeps lovers from simply becoming roommates or co-parents. It’s also the good sticky stuff that dries up if left alone for too long. So here we are to help you keep things fluid out there, to take the charge out this once taboo issue, and put the charge back where it should be — in the bedroom.

Excerpted from "Love in the Time of Colic" by Ian Kerner, Ph.D., and Heidi Raykeil. Copyright (c) 2009 by Kerner-Rubisch, Inc., and Heidi Raykeil. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.