The unsexiest day of my life came three days after I became a mom, when my husband caught me trying to express milk out of my newly engorged breasts with a manual pump.
I hadn't slept in three days. I hadn't showered in four. My eyes were too puffy for my contacts, and my hair was shoved back in a scrunchie. Milk dripped down my stomach and pooled on the bedspread. Every ten minutes or so I'd start weeping again.
I looked up to see my husband, Luke, watching me. He held our newborn daughter in his arms, looking as handsome as I'd ever seen him. He smiled.
"Don't look at me!" I shrieked, and scurried to hide myself in the bathroom. Motherhood is many things, but sexy it ain't. This doesn't matter in the early days, since your baby wants you and your body for the comfort and nourishment it provides her -- and let's face it, she's the only one who matters in the beginning.
At some point, however, the woman you used to be before you became a mother will peek out of her hiding place and demand some time. Once you're getting some regular, uninterrupted sleep every night, the way is paved for the return of your sensual side. You might find yourself enjoying the view as your husband dresses for work in the morning. Or maybe you'll simply linger a bit too long on Colin Farrell's handsome mug on the cover of a magazine.
Either way, the return of these amorous impulses usually heralds an assessment of your current state. Hair? Body? Wardrobe? Yikes! New moms, bleary of eye and soggy of T-shirt, all ask the very same question: "Will I ever feel desirable again?"
The answer is yes. But you've got to take the steps to reclaim your inner babe. The first one: Banish any guilt for taking away time from the kids. After all, paying attention to the non-mom side of you lets you be a better mother, says Valerie Raskin, M.D., author of Great Sex for Moms, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago, and a mom of three kids. So whether that means a regular night out with your girlfriends or buying some new clothes to show off your extra-round body, do it without a second's thought. A happy mom means a happy family.
What can you do to feel like your old attractive self again? Some ideas that moms say worked wonders for them:
Splurge on a new outfit (or two).
The best post-pregnancy advice I got came on the heels of my son's birth three years ago. I was complaining to my friend Julia about how bad all of my clothes looked on me. "That's because your clothes are for a skinny, flat-chested woman," she said. "You have to show off your new attributes." Realizing she was right, I picked up a few cute dresses that played up my newfound cleavage while hiding my larger tummy and hips. Bingo! I have to admit my feminine ego appreciated the admiring glances I got as I pushed my two kids in the stroller.
"Buy some clothes that look good on you now," says Dr. Raskin. "And never think that by buying size fourteen pants you're saying you won't get back into size tens."
Even if you've lost weight, your body won't return to its exact proportions, so work with what you have. Lori Woehrle, a mom of two in Washington, DC, uses her much smaller bust size as a good reason to wear tight or low-cut shirts. "Making the most of what I've got helps me feel more like the young woman I once was," she says.
Be good to yourself. With her second child, Deb Widner of Columbus, Ohio, gained back all the weight she'd lost, plus some. But she realized it was a waste of energy trying to live up to society's idea of what's hot. "I wanted my mom identity, but I wanted my sexual identity as well," she says. "I don't think the two are separate."
So she treated herself well: sexy new nighties; long, frothy baths after the kids were down; massages -- all helped her feel like her old luscious self. "I look in the mirror and I'm not perfect," she says. "But I feel better about who I am now than I did at eighteen, because I'm more in tune with myself."
Reclaim Your Body
Take a class.
Many mothers say that just the simple act of spending some time to exercise was the key to feeling attractive again. Kellie Coulson-Davis of Wasilla, Alaska, swears by yoga. "During those sessions, I think of nothing but how powerful and strong my body is," she says. "I feel as good now as I did in college."
Holly Shaw, a single mom in Oakland, California, resumed her flamenco dancing soon after her son's birth. "This is the one thing I have to look forward to all week that's just about me," she says. While she stomps away, her 9-month-old kicks to the beat from his car seat on the sidelines.
Find some motivation. For Kerri Langbehn of El Cerrito, California, it's the size-8 bikini that she bought and tacked on her wall. "I'm looking forward to wearing that bikini and being one hot momma with my little girls!" she says, so she walks at least a mile a day and exercises while her daughters are at preschool or at the park with her husband on weekends. Another perk: "I feel fantastic -- I have way more energy than I used to," she says.
Turn Your Brain Back On
Try a hobby.
Feeling sensual means different things to different women -- for some it's a body thing, for others it's all in the mind. But any activity that takes you away from the all-consuming task of caring for a small child can open the door to other aspects of your old self, including the sexual one.
Linda Benning of Raleigh, North Carolina, recently took up quilting. "I try to do it for two to three hours at a stretch," she says. "I'm still learning to let go and concentrate on something other than the kids for that period, but it's going great."
Lose yourself in a novel.
"It's hard to find time to read a book with a four-year-old and a two-year-old," says Leanne Lindelof of Cupertino, California. "But carving out time when I could was really important; being sexy for me is about being smart -- particularly when I talk with my husband."
Catch a flick.
"My husband was a film major in college, so we saw a lot of movies before the kids were born," says Lori Woehrle. "Going out to a movie occasionally, even a matinee, helps us reconnect and rekindle the flame: It gives us a chance to talk about something other than our two kids or our jobs."
Buy a new tote.
At some point you'll realize that you don't need to lug that ugly diaper bag all over the place. Amy West, a mom in Santa Cruz, California, really coveted a red triangle purse, so her husband bought it for her. "It's silly, but when I carry this bag, it makes me feel as if everyone is saying, 'That girl is way too cute and hip to be hiding teething biscuits and a That's Not My Tractor book in that purse.'"
Spring for footwear.
"There are mommy shoes, and there are non-mommy shoes," proclaims Rilka Kelli Feugh of Palm Court, Florida. "Whenever I'm feeling a little too frumpy, I go to the discount shoe store and buy some strappy sandals with bright flowers on them. My husband actually notices the difference in my attitude, and that helps us as a couple."
Go Out Alone
Dine with friends.
Laura-Kate Rurka of Berkeley first ate out when her daughter was a few months old. "It was a good way to catch up with friends," she says. Now her night out with the girls is a regular thing. "I get dressed up and feel for a couple of hours that I'm just another girl out at a great restaurant sipping a cocktail."
Trish Czajak of Cohasset, Massachusetts, finds that her evenings off make her more appreciative of her husband. "No matter how mad I am at him, somebody else can always top my story -- and he ends up looking pretty good by comparison," she says. "Which makes me more open to his advances when I come home."
Play some games.
For a few hours every month, Stacy Day Burst of New Orleans and her pals get together for card games. "I'm very protective of these nights -- they give me just enough of a break that I can return to being a mother and wife again with vigor. And I think it's good for my two daughters to see that I value my friends and friendships," says Burst.
When Kellie Gaines of Murrieta, California, got an opportunity to travel to New York City, she decided to leave her 3-year-old at home with her husband. "It was glorious to visit a place I'd always wanted to see without constantly worrying whether my daughter was being entertained or not," she says. Another bonus: "It gave me something new to talk to my husband about -- and that felt like the conversations we used to have in the old days."
Chat up your mate.
I don't know about other men, but Luke becomes extra charming and sexy in e-mails. Sometimes in the course of our daily online banter about work and kids and bills, he goes off on a tangent and I find myself giggling like a girl. Imagine, a crush on my own husband! Another mom I know goes out on "guy" dates with her mate -- beer and a game of pool at the neighborhood bar. Flirting with your husband (or even the cute guy behind you in the checkout line) is simply a matter of remembering what you used to do, before kids made you practical.
Pick a method to tap into your sensual side. Because "anything that helps build a solid marriage is good for your kids," says Dr. Raskin. I'll vouch for that.
Contributing editor Julie Tilsner is the author of three books.