No one talks about it, but everyone goes through it: Most couples experience a radical decline in the frequency and quality of their sex life during their first few years with kids. But, where there is no sex, or where there is sex that is desperately asked for and grudgingly given, a marriage can be reduced to a dull domestic partnership. Without sex and real intimacy, you can feel, as Ethan Hawke put it in the movie Before Sunset, "like you are running a small nursery with someone you used to date."
The three of us are average women with normal, healthy sexual appetites. Before we became moms, we enjoyed sex. We were earnest students of the "how to drive your man wild" type articles in Cosmopolitan. We wanted sex almost as much as our husbands did, and were usually happy to oblige even when we didn't. But as mothers of small children, sex became less and less of a priority for us. Even after we had celebrated our babies' first birthdays, sex, once a weekly affair, felt like a monthly chore, right up there with rearranging our sock drawers. We gave so much to our kids that there was nothing left to give to our husbands. It wasn't deliberate. It just happened. We still think our husbands are damned attractive men, but we don't want to rip their clothes off at the end of a long day. Since becoming mothers, not one of us has ever said to our husband: "Darling, the kids wore me out today. What I really need is for you to shag me senseless this evening..."
Our husbands were left behind, still wanting that emotional and physical connection with us and feeling deeply hurt by our repeated rejections. Only as we began working on our book [Babyproofing Your Marriage, out February 2007] and talking to other guys who weren't our husbands (i.e., those without a stake in the outcome of the discussion), did we realize that this festering lack of intimacy was at the root of much of the discord in our marriages.
Two of our friends pretty much summed up the different male and female points of view on sex in separate conversations with us. George, married 12 years with two kids, had this to say: "Since we had kids, my wife and I have sex about once every three months, and even then it feels like she's doing me a favor. I've tried to tell her so many times how much this is hurting me, but she always turns it around and makes it sound like I'm some kind of hound dog. I'm not a dog! I'm a normal guy. I do want and need sex with her. Why is that so terrible? I've pretty much given up.
I don't want to cheat on her, but I sometimes wonder, if I had the chance, what would I do?"
Our friend Alicia, married eight years with two kids, shared her take: "The truth is, I couldn't care less about sex these days. I don't feel sexy, I feel fat. I don't want sex—I'm too damn tired. Spending the day with young children is about the least sexy thing there can be. I know deep down I should pay more attention to it, but I am physically and emotionally depleted at the end of the day. His demands for it feel almost childlike because he doesn't seem to care about my needs. I wish there was a female Viagra—a pill I could pop that would just get me in the mood."
So how do you start to get back on the same page? Here's what we learned after talking to hundreds of couples, and to each other, about postbaby sex (or the lack thereof):
When sex diminishes, small gestures of intimacy (SGIs) like hugging and kissing do, too. Why? As a woman begins to lose interest in sex, she becomes very reluctant to kiss and hug her husband in case those gestures are interpreted as a sign that she wants to have sex. To her, a kiss and hug hello at the end of the workday may give him the impression that they are "on" for later. Many women also commented that being touched by their children satisfied their basic need for contact, so physical attention from their husbands was not something they craved. When your kids are mauling you at every opportunity, you want your husband to keep his hands to himself at night.
For men, when sex diminishes, they get more desperate for physical affection, so they jump into action at the slightest show of interest. When the hugs and kisses don't lead them to their goal, over time, they resent the rejection and cut back on these small physical intimacies as well.
And so starts a dangerous cycle. Men feel close and connected to their wives after they have sex, but for women, the connection has to precede the act. If there are no SGIs throughout the day, you're not likely to be up for making love at night. The longer you go without sex, the less likely your husband is to initiate those SGIs.
Once they understood the reasons SGIs—and therefore, affection—had dissipated in their own relationship, our own Stacie and her husband, Ross, simply decided to hug and kiss every day. These hugs and kisses are given and received without any expectation for sex later on. We've all now adopted this strategy with great results. It's a simple, no-cost thing you can both do to demonstrate your affection for each other, and possibly help you get your groove back.
Date night: Just do it
How many times have you heard this advice? How often do you actually do it? You gotta do it! Couples who reported higher satisfaction with their postbaby sex lives were unanimous in their opinion that regular date nights kept them connected in an intimate, adult way more than anything else they did. As one mom told us: "The point is not which movie you see or where you go to eat. All that matters is that you have some 'alone time' together." If sitters are too expensive, alternate nights with some friends who can watch your kids. We even heard of date nights that have occurred in the couple's own home. Two candles, one table cloth, one bottle of wine, zero electronic gadgets turned on, and zero children awake officially add up to a date night. (Note: Dinner itself can be takeout.)
Escape when you can
The greater the physical and mental distance between you and the kids, the better the sex. Getting away is not always easy, but it's worth the effort. Take a couple of vacations a year alone together. Get a hotel room just for the night every once in a while. It's the best way for a woman to get out of Mommy Mode and remember her other self. It's also the only way to avoid the "ick" factor of motherhood. Women are, for most of the years that our children are small, awash in a sea of bodily fluids and slimy baby food. We're exposed, daily, to the full battery of nature's most disgusting gross-out tricks that would give any good horror flick a run for its money: vomit, drool, poop, breast milk, snot, pee, you name it. God forbid you also own a pet.
After dealing with all that slop, we usually want to avoid the general messiness of sex. But away from the kids and the dog and all their bodily fluids, we may not mind getting a little dirty with him.
Put it in your planner
Let's face it: The days of spontaneous "take me now on the kitchen table" sex are over. Those carefree Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon sessions are a thing of the past. If you want to have quality sex (i.e., where both people are in the mood and in the right place at the same time) you have to plan for it. After all, there's nothing worse than that unexpected 10 p.m. shoulder tap from your husband when you're just about to drift off into sleep.
Cathy has been scheduling "spontaneous" sex with her husband for the last year and a half. He thinks it's a spur of the moment thing (well, he did up until now) when in fact it's a carefully timed affair. Other women we talked to have had luck with the same strategy, whether they plan it in secret or in cahoots with their hubbies. "I've finally started planning sex. It's not particularly exciting, but it's better than the alternative, which is not having it at all," says Joanne, married for six years with two kids. "What guys don't understand is that when a woman has sex, she's inviting someone into her body. We like having time to get ready, just like we would if we were having someone over for dinner."
It's true. It's nice for us girls to have a little time to get ourselves "in the zone." We can plan to give the kids leftovers so we won't have to cook dinner. And, guys, you can plan to get home a little early to help get the kids to bed and allow us some time to take a shower.
Initiate sex yourself
How often have you initiated sex in the last six months? The last six years? Most of us never do. But when you take the initiative, you have sex on your terms, when you want it. You feel less like a rabbit in a cage waiting for your guy to make his move. You feel more in control, less taken advantage of, and your husband, of course, will feel terrific. It can have a hugely positive impact on your marriage.
It takes some practice when you've been out of the habit for a while. Capitalize on a stray thought in the middle of the day, and hang on to it for later. Call your husband to tell him you're suddenly feeling amorous. Take an extra sneak peek at that good-looking guy at the gym. Needless to say, your husband will be thrilled that you want him (your hubby, not the guy in the gym) and wonder what he did to spark your interest. Just by thinking about sex differently—as an activity you once enjoyed and might again one day as opposed to one more demand that's made on your time and your body—you might start to get more interested. "If I feel even the slightest inkling, I've learned to act on it," says Harriet, married for five years and mother of one.
Nighttime may not be the right time
Don't underestimate the importance of timing. The end of the day may be perfect for some women. For most, it isn't. We're spent, in every way, and the thought of revving up when all you want to do is settle down is part of the reason we get turned off. Some women told us they are much more interested in sex first thing in the morning, before intrusive thoughts about the number of bananas in the house and emptying the diaper disposal start making their way into their heads. They might even be coming out of a particularly interesting dream. Try setting the alarm a half hour early. Others like a little Saturday afternoon delight when the kids are hanging out with the electronic babysitter. One friend even reported she likes her husband to wake her up in the middle of the night. (To each her own, but a warning to men: Ask your wife before you attempt this last approach. Interrupt-ing her precious sleep may get you nothing but a fat lip.)
Damn you, Martha Stewart! One of the reasons we have less time and energy for sex is because we let household minutiae and our kids' social calendars drain us. Lazy moms have more sex. They've got more energy for it. We can spend too much time creating the perfect Christmas card in July (with everyone dressed in matching reindeer sweaters for the photo) or organizing our cupboards by smallest-to-largest containers and neglect our relationships. We can get more concerned with the details than with keeping our marriages humming.
So we've concluded that dull women have immaculate lives. And really, who wants to be a dull woman? Given the choice between making a casserole and having sex, perhaps there are times when we could choose sex. We can't be a domestic diva in the kitchen and a lioness in the bedroom. We've learned that intimacy with our partners generally trumps a clean kitchen floor. So when it comes to housekeeping, go for the grade of "Gentlewoman's C." If you feel wiped out at the end of the day, try leaving the house in chaos and just sit beside your husband and watch TV or go take a bath. Because if you're already feeling tired, with each toy you pick up and T-shirt you fold, your annoyance with your husband will grow. By the time you get into bed, you'll want to kick him, not kiss him. A few times a month, be a slacker housewife. If your husband complains, tell him why. We've yet to hear of a man who would choose an immaculate bathroom over sex.
From the forthcoming book Babyproofing Your Marriage (2007) by Stacie Cockrell, Cathy O'Neill, and Julia Stone. Published by arrangement with Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.