There are arbitrary numbers out there when it comes to birth and the postpartum period. You get a 6 week check from your GP, which somewhat attempts to lump EVERYTHING into the one basket. Admittedly, 6 weeks has felt like a turning point for me in terms of recovery but when you attend the GP, it can be a tick of sorts for your whole life.
Now, you can exercise!
Now, you can get out there!
Now, you have healed! (but not really)
Now, you can have sex!
Wait…what? Yup, the 6 week mark is also the tick-the-box for sex. But even when you get that tick, you might not be ready. Maybe your partner is looking at you with eager eyes and their eyebrows doing a come hither motion. You don’t even need to ask yourself if you don’t want to have sex, you already know the answer…it’s a flat-out no. In fact, it’s even more than no. You feel afraid and scared about the whole sex thing. Daunted.
And for good reason. You have been through something HUGE. It isn’t to be understated. Please know that being afraid, anxious or scared isn’t a bad thing. It is simply data that we need to listen to - a message that we aren’t ready. Problem is, you might not know why you aren’t ready so I have written this piece to try and help you source what it is you need to feel and do so that you feel open to sex in future. Above all, take your time and keep the communication lines open.
Here are some reasons why you are afraid to have sex after birth…
+ You experienced birth trauma. Maybe your birth plan went out the window altogether. Maybe you didn’t feel safe in your birthing environment or with your care providers. Maybe it quickly switched to an emergency situation or you have been left with wounds and scaring that is painful on all levels – emotional, mental and physical. Please know that I use the word trauma to reference an experience that has stayed with you in a negative sense, that leaves you feeling distressed when you recall it or talk about it, that feels like it has left a mark on you.
I personally don’t categorise trauma because I think that is dangerous territory and can minimise our unique experiences. I don’t want you putting your birth experience up against another woman’s and trying to make yourself feel better about your own (when you just don’t). Your birth trauma could be that you are recounting everything that happened and you are doing your best to understand why it went the way it went and what everyone could have done differently. Feeling completely powerless about an experience is enough to leave a mark of trauma.
Now, what trauma does is it puts your body into hyper-arousal, meaning that you are on guard a lot of the time, defending yourself as you defend your mind and body – fighting an invisible fight. This mode, although necessary to keep us alive and to have us trying to work through trauma, is really incompatible with feeling sexual. Your body needs you to be in a more down-regulated state where you are receptive to being touched, caressed and enjoying the presence of connection. If your trauma still feels fresh, regardless of how long ago it was, you may need some extra support with a professional. You cannot walk through this alone. The Australian Birth Trauma Association is a great resource for helping you feel understood.
+ You feel like you need more time before sex can happen. This is all you know. Your body just doesn’t feel ready to open to sexual contact. Sometimes there is no further explanation. This is the way you feel and it needs to be honoured. Attempting to open your body up to sex when you feel afraid can work to hold you and your partner back from intimacy for an even longer time.
Having sex after having a baby is a big deal so what I propose to women is to wade back into the waters, don’t plunge straight into intercourse (regardless of how you gave birth). Use external touch first on your pussy/yoni/vulva to ascertain if you are dry, if you need more touch on other parts of your body and if you feel any pain. I really love coconut oil because it is long-lasting and really gentle and its really supportive of your partner giving you massage like touch from your pubic mound, all over your lips and down to your buttocks. Just be really careful about any suture sites that still feel sensitive or painful and to not attempt this until after the 6-week mark if you have had stitches. If your body just wants it to stop, make sure you honour that.
In the early weeks and months, your hormones are going through a full state of flux and oestrogen, which provides us with lubrication, is almost nowhere to be seen. If you are breastfeeding, know that prolactin dominates! Please trust me when I say that you will feel more of your libido when breastfeeding comes to a close, because even one or two feeds a day can still keep oestrogen low. It can take a few menstrual cycles in to feel more like you.
+ You feel touched out by your baby. Being touched and nurturing a little one all day is exhausting. Receiving touch all day and holding a baby, although beautiful and loving, can leave you feeling touched out. You sink into the bed or couch and then you see your partner needing touch from you and you feel like nnoooooo! I just want space! You have been in giving mode and you feel like you’ve got no more to give. It’s completely understandable. A good way to come back into touch with your partner is to ensure it feels different from the caressing touches from your baby (like really firm, kneading motions) and to ensure that you are receiving touch first without the expectation of giving it back.
+ New mamas are known to be depleted of vital stores when we have a baby. I have not only felt it (twice) but have witnessed it in other mamas too. When I read The Fourth Trimester by Kimberly Johnson recently, I felt like there was some healing to do for all the healing I didn’t allow myself when I was newly postpartum. Please read this book, allow yourself to recover in all the ways she recommends and prioritise feeling as nourished as you can.
Low energy levels makes for a low libido because the tank is empty. Your tank doesn’t just need food as fuel, it needs time with other women, a sense of community, rest and some space to nurture your identity.
+ You aren’t feeling supported by your partner or significant others. If you are feeling like you are alone with your little one, which could be a spell for resentment and bitterness. We are fragile when we are in the postpartum period (which still doesn’t have a definitive timeframe) but especially in the early months. We need support, even if we are strong and capable and not being able to be held by someone else emotionally can leave you with a lot of pent up tension. Emotional support by day will have you feeling more willing to give to your partner because you feel understood by them. If there are fractures in the relationship, that is going to have you running from them when sex is propositioned.
At a time where it is easy to feel powerless, sometimes not giving the last bit of your power away in the form of sex feels like the necessary thing to do. Try to feel the difference between not wanting to have sex to punish someone or send them a message and not wanting sex because you don’t feel supported. In my experience, the former keeps the relationship in a toxic space, the latter allows for a new dialogue to start.
+ Lastly, are you afraid that being sexual after birth will make you less of a mother? It may sound strange at first but if everything else feels like a yes in your body but you are being held back by an invisible force, it could be this. Does feeling the erotic or the sexual have you reeling and taking a few steps back because you want your identity 100% in mama mode? It’s easy to do. Sex becomes scary or feels incompatible with who we are – this is usually rooted in the good girl/bad girl dichotomy that we get fed growing up. One way I like to reframe it is: feeling and expressing myself sexually will make me a better mother. Being sexually connected to my partner will make for a more harmonious family. It is safe for me to be a mama and be sexual.
Feeling apprehensive, scared, nervous, afraid or anxious about having sex after birth is normal. It can feel and look really different to what it used to look like, at least at first. Knowing why you feel afraid will give you vital insight as to where to start and how you can wade into the waters. This part is key. Avoid forcing, pushing and dropping yourself in the deep end as it could re-activate some trauma or create a negative feedback loop.
This blog really just feels like the tip of the iceberg so I will come back to this very important topic in the near future. I would love to hear about your experience in the comments below or if you need privacy, write to me using the contact form on the site.
P.S. I am holding an online webinar on April 17th called Conversations: Hot Mamahood and I would love you to come. It's 90 minutes of learning how to navigate your libido through this very personal and challenging terrain. As a sexologist with 2 beautiful girls, I feel like I too have been through a lot and I would love to share my learnings with you. It's a safe space to listen, absorb, connect and even ask questions. Come join us and learn how to move your libido back into the light for more connection and less frustration in your intimate relationship. More details and ticket purchases are on the Conversations: Hot Mamahood page.