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How to Talk About Sex

Ten years ago, before kids and mortgages and All That, my husband and I were experts in the language of love. If sex is a form of communication, well, back then we were on the unlimited calling plan. We may not have always verbally expressed ourselves, but we always conveyed what we meant, physically or emotionally.

Then we had a baby.

Suddenly, I was not only uninterested in sex, I was also strangely confused about how to tell my husband. So while in some ways our daughter's birth brought us closer than ever, in other ways we started to grow apart.

I just didn't know how to explain to J.B. how tired I was, how my body hurt from being pinched and pulled by our baby, and how by the end of the day I couldn't imagine sharing it with anyone else. We both became prickly and defensive: I was sure that when J.B. wrapped his leg over mine at night it meant he was coming on to me (again); when I turned my back and pretended to be asleep, he assumed I no longer found him attractive.

Bye-bye, language of love.

Whether it's right after the birth of a baby or a few years down the line, it seems like lots of happily married couples hit the sexual skids when they become parents. And most of them have heard sex therapists on TV and read articles and books, and know they should talk it out.

But there's the rub. Sex is a socially charged and highly personal issue that remains a bit taboo despite our seeming openness. And talking about not having sex? Chances are, the subject comes up when one of you wants it and the other doesn't. Bad time to talk. And who wants to crack open that can of worms later on when it's over? Besides, isn't sex supposed to be fun and spontaneous  -- like it used to be? Won't talking about it spoil the magic?

"Where's the magic if you're not having sex?" says Valerie Raskin, M.D., author of Great Sex for Moms: Ten Steps to Nurturing Passion While Raising Kids. But how do you start talking? What do you say? And how do you say it so you don't end up bruising egos or booting one of you to the couch? My husband and I started by paying attention to the distinction between how we talked about sex and the details of what we were talking about. To begin:

Heidi Raykeil's book about her and her husband's romantic life as parents, Confessions of a Naughty Mommy: How I Found My Lost Libido, was just published by Seal Press.

How to talk

Just leap in
Nichole Cook, of Pittsburgh, mom of Eleanor, 8, Odessa, 7, and Izabelle, 6, was embarrassed into silence not long after Eleanor was born: One time during sex she squirted breast milk all over her husband. "I was mortified. I thought it was gross  -- and totally not normal." Rather than telling him how she felt, though, Cook simply avoided sex altogether for the next couple of weeks.
While talking about sex can be awkward, no one yet has actually died of embarrassment. Dr. Raskin suggests breaking the ice simply by acknowledging how hard it is.
That's what Cook did, a few weeks later. "I was really nervous, but I finally just said, 'That was really embarrassing for me.'" As it turned out, her husband hadn't even noticed and didn't think it was a big deal anyway. "After that, we just made sure we had a towel handy. Now it's something we laugh about."
Rather than letting things build up, talking about it now makes room for more openness later.

Choose the right place and tone
One of the worst fights J.B. and I had about sex was right after a failed attempt at it. I really wanted to be in the mood  -- even though I wasn't at all  -- so we got partway into the act before I admitted that things weren't working. We lay in bed trying to "talk" about what had happened. But we were so upset that we ended up blaming, and J.B. stormed angrily out of the room.
Thus, we discovered the importance of environment for having a fruitful discussion of our sex life. Choose a night when nothing else is planned and wait until the kids are asleep. Turn off the TV and the phone. This isn't an inquisition. It's an opportunity to reconnect with each other, to steal an intimate moment in a chaotic life. It's about how you show and share love, about something that should be fun and pleasurable.
J.B. and I have had some of our best talks late at night on our front stoop. We turn off the porch light, pour some wine, and sit side by side. There's something about not looking directly at each other (and the wine, maybe) that lets things flow. It may cut awkwardness to merge your heart-to-heart with an activity  -- try talking while hiking, or walking, or sorting through your penny jar.

Acknowledge the problem
This is not the same as agreeing on the cause of the problem. It's just a way to get the conversation rolling. Dr. Raskin calls this "outing the secret  -- even though it's not really a secret." Begin by stating the obvious: "I know things aren't like they used to be," or "I know we haven't been having sex very much lately." Often, acknowledging this reality, without judgment, can bring a couple closer.
After that big fight, I realized that my husband and I had let things go far too long. While Ramona was napping the next day, I simply said: "I'm having a hard time with sex these days. I hate the way it's come between us, and it must really suck for you, too." The fact that I wasn't trying to deny or make excuses helped J.B. feel comfortable.
After listening to J.B., I realized he wasn't as angry about the situation as I'd thought. It annoyed him that I'd initiated sex when I didn't really want it, but he'd needed to leave the room to cool down because he simply couldn't change gears and talk rationally while he was still aroused. This not only helped me understand why he became so agitated but also made it easier for me to talk about what I was experiencing physically.
Asking and listening without getting defensive is an important part of this process. Repeat what your partner's saying and ask if you're understanding correctly. Ask, "Is there more you want me to know?"

Look forward, not back
Agree to make a fresh start. Don't pull out old fights; avoid generalizing or labeling. Saying things like "You never want sex" or "You're a sex fiend!" is just talking negatively about the past. We all say dumb things; don't waste time fighting about whether they're true.
It's also a bad idea to compare yourself to other couples. What's right for them isn't necessarily what's right for you. When Holly Wing's husband saw a poll in a magazine that claimed most of its readers had sex a lot more often than they did each month, he kept referring to it  -- comparing their own not-nearly-so-much stats. Wing, a Berkeley mom of 2-year-old Clio, then started to counter with her own statistics, and before long they were locked in battle. "Instead of solving any problems, we were just getting really good at fighting!"
So stick to what you're feeling ("I feel sad that we're having trouble finding the time to make love") rather than accusations about how you measure up to others.

Stay positive
"I don't want to talk about sex we haven't had anymore," Wing told her husband after another fight. "If you want to have sex seventeen times a month, well, then, let's go for it!" she said, naming his wildly optimistic ideal. Of course they didn't meet the goal, but the effort did help. Wing felt that her husband realized how hard it is to make time for (and want) frequent sex rather than just complaining about it. And he appreciated her willingness to give it a try.
Shooting for high numbers may not be your solution, but the attitude is admirable. Remind each other that you'll get through this and that you both want to work it out. Instead of saying, "You never woo me anymore," try "Remember that poem you wrote me on our honeymoon? That got me hot!" And if your conversation falls apart and you revert to blaming  -- stop. Don't try to win. Just end it and try again later when you've both cooled down.

What to talk about

That there's love behind your lovemaking
If you state explicitly, right up front, that you love and respect each other, and that in talking about this you're only talking about the way you show your love, you're both likely to feel more comfortable expressing your feelings. And keep reminding each other of your love and your mutual desire for each other's happiness  -- that should be the backdrop to your conversation.

The meaning of sex
You can't figure out how to fix your love life if you don't know what you want it to be. So discuss what physical intimacy represents to yourselves and in your relationship. Women, for instance, often misunderstand the ways in which sex is important for many men. It's not just a matter of stereotypical gotta-have-it male urges but can be a critical form of emotional expression. For whatever combination of reasons, many men feel and express love physically, so they may experience a lack of sex as rejecting not only them but their offering of love as well.

The definition of sex
It's a good idea to talk openly about what actually constitutes "sex" to each of you. Is it only intercourse, or does it include other kinds of touching? A husband whose sex drive is at low ebb may be delighted to find that his wife will think him no less a man if he gives her a massage  -- with or without "extras"  -- instead of a more "demanding" service.
For Cook and her husband, sharing an understanding that she no longer felt sexual about her breasts was a breakthrough. "I felt like they were just for my kids, not him," she says. With that off the table, they were able to talk about what did still work for both of them.

That it's not him. Or you
Many factors mess with parents' love life, only rarely sexual skills or prowess. The list includes exhaustion, a light-sleeping child, hormones, embarrassment about weight gain, lack of time, difficulty shifting gears from parent to lover.
When Heidi Johnecheck, of Petosky, Michigan, mother of Max, 4, and Jaxon, 2, found a magazine article that listed ten reasons it's physically hard for moms to have sex  -- everything from vaginal dryness to sheer exhaustion  -- she tore it out and gave it to her husband. "As much as I'd tried to tell him, he just couldn't comprehend what 'I don't feel like it' meant," she says, and he took it personally. "But the article showed that it wasn't just me or just him."

Specific ways to make things better
Johnecheck and her husband decided to tackle one simple problem head-on: They made a kid-free visit to a local sex shop to buy some lubricants. "We actually made a date together," Johnecheck says, "and decided to just be silly and have fun with it."
Brainstorming about what might help you get back in the swing of things is a great way to move things forward. At the top of the list for most couples? "More private time," says Dr. Raskin. And while scheduling "date night" can help, think about it broadly. If nights out are expensive and infrequent, what about finding time in the mornings (when women's testosterone levels are highest, resulting in higher libido)? What about Saturday-afternoon naptime (when you'll both be less tired than at night)?

This is not the time to be shy or coy. Be specific about yourself ("I'm finding that it takes me a lot longer to get excited lately"). If you want more mood setting than "Okay, the baby's asleep. Let's do this," ask for it: "First I'd like you to sit through a chick flick with me and hold my hand."
Your body and your life have changed since you had a child. Maybe there's something in particular that you do want that you never did before. Just say it: harder, softer, faster, slower, touch me here. And if you say what you do want your husband to do instead of just what you don't, he'll likely be turned on, too.
For me and J.B., when I finally could say "Not tonight" without worrying it would turn into a fight, a funny thing happened. It became easier for me to say yes. Because once I knew he understood my feelings, we started to address some of the underlying issues: I needed more time for myself, more romance, and more help with our daughter.
Those first years after the birth of Ramona were tough. But four years later I now see talking about sex as just another opportunity for expanding our intimacy  -- in and out of the bedroom.