On The Pressure To Have Sex And Be Sexy After Motherhood

sex

Feeling sexy in a body my culture deems unsexy, while also believing that body should dutifully service someone else’s pleasure doesn’t make me want to slip on a silk teddy and give it the old college try.

In a small examination room at my doctor’s office, I sit on the narrow table wearing a papery gown with its back open, the way the intake nurse instructed. I have a breast exam coming later in the appointment. My breasts, softer and floppier after two years of nursing my daughter, roam around the inside of the gown while my doctor asks me questions about my health and medications.

It is a strange thing to occupy a changed body. I felt different when I was pregnant, but not unlike myself. I felt like myself, only pregnant, which was better. As my belly grew round and taut, it diminished the rest of me, made my arms and legs look thinner, my collarbones more pronounced, my jawline more shapely. Eventually, it hid the unkempt parts between my legs, and in the mirror, naked, I resembled the Venus on the half shell, all smooth skin and dark, curly hair cascading past my shoulders.

During the latter two-thirds of my pregnancy, after the nausea of the first trimester, I had a libido that matched my new shape, jutting out in front whenever my husband was near. It was as though my body, which had previously yearned with enormous force for a baby, now had a different, but equally urgent biological clock ticking—the one that counted down how long my husband, Jason, and I had left as a childfree couple. I initiated sex frequently, often daily, and delighted in watching my figure in the tall mirror of our bedroom. I thought I never looked better. I thought I could star in some sort of pregnant fetish porn.

Maybe that’s what makes my postpartum body so cruel to behold. In one fell swoop—labor and a c-section delivery—I was deflated of all that taut roundness, when my skin was filled to the brim with the life and hope (and increased blood volume) inside of me. A regular gym-goer before I had my daughter, I had sworn two things regarding my postpartum body: 1) That I’d resume working out as soon as I was cleared by my obstetrician, and 2) that I’d never hate my body again. Not after it had proved itself so capable, and yes, so beautiful. I even imagined holding on to part of that pregnant belly, a little drum on which my daughter would play.

But the reality of my postpartum body is one that I keep as covered as possible. Belly with faint, silvery stretch marks, seamed with a scar that makes my middle loose and puffy, not at all like a drum. More like a plastic bag half filled with water. Breasts that waggle like Chevy Chase when not contained by a properly fitting bra. Thighs mapped with tiny, purple spider veins.

Another reality is that it took me two years to get back to the gym, and working full-time as a college professor means I rarely have the hours or energy to go more than three times a week. Additionally, my busy life often turns food into a matter of convenience over nutrition, and I probably take in an extra 500 calories a day just from the scraps my toddler lovingly, insistently feeds me. Some days, my mouth is rarely devoid of some piece of food I didn’t want—limp, cold bacon, cucumber crescents that taste like my daughter’s salty fingers, torn pieces of bread slathered with oily natural peanut butter, separated from sitting out uneaten.

And have I mentioned the antidepressants? I started taking Pristiq when my daughter turned 1 to address the debilitating panic attacks that began after my maternity leave ended, and I returned to a demanding career that severely taxed my under-slept, milk-foggy brain. The medication tethered me, kept me from drifting away from my responsibilities on a current of overwhelm. But they also killed whatever was left of my sex drive.

Unwittingly, I’ve joined the many Millennials who, according to a new study released earlier this month, find themselves eschewing sex for a complicated set of reasons: pressure to succeed in a competitive market, a punishing emphasis on visual aesthetics in a dating world mediated by screens, and medications that save lives, but often at the cost of one’s libido. The study focuses primarily on younger Millennials, mostly ages 18-24, who grew up in the age of smartphones and their draconian dating apps. But I suspect older Millennials like me (born in 1982) are part of this trend, too, especially if they’ve recently had children. Between the physiological changes to our appearance and the demanding nature of life with young kids, new mothers get stripped of their sexuality, particularly in a culture that expects women to magically reproduce the human species without sacrificing their 26-inch waists.

And yet, as Sarah Hosseini points out here, women are generally cleared for sex after childbirth at their 6-week postpartum appointments. Hosseini is concerned that the pressure to “get back on the horse” (meaning: penis) can be borderline abusive to new mothers, especially when categorized as a responsibility to their husbands, whose sex drives have presumably been less affected by the birth of a child. She criticizes the doctrinal “love languages” approach to intimacy that lists physical touch as one of the ways partners can affirm their commitment to each other because of the inherent ways misogyny can warp that “need” into justification for spousal sexual abuse.

Jason would agree. I’m fortunate that my husband is a feminist who openly decries the “men need more sex” claim as insulting and dangerous to both genders. I’m fortunate that my partner doesn’t want to have sex with me unless I’m enthusiastically in. And I’m fortunate that he never expected my body to remain untouched by pregnancy and the birth of a child he adores. He embraces the more complex truth that our bodies are designed to absorb and reflect our experiences.

But at my doctor’s office, Jason’s sexual needs drive the conversation about switching medications. My doctor is a middle-aged Latina woman with the body of a yoga instructor and the bobbed, swept-away hairstyle of a motivational speaker. She is kind and helpful about my anxiety, but at first, only interested in increasing my dose of a medication I no longer find effective. It’s only when I mention the sexual side effects of the Pristiq that she immediately suggests I switch to a different drug, and I’d be grateful for her support if she didn’t frame the need for switching with this: “We’ve got to get you on something else. You have a husband!”

I mean, I also have a body. I also have desires, or at least, the desire for desires. I also don’t want to keep having panic attacks.

What we need is a more nuanced conversation between women and their doctors about sex. We need a greater recognition and holistic understanding of the effects of treating our mental health alongside our physical and sexual health. We need these conversations to focus first on the patient’s needs and desires, not her partner’s.

More importantly, we need to acknowledge how very fucked up we are about sex in a culture more focused on aesthetics than ever, and how this fucked-upness intersects with how fucked up we are about mothers, and how fucked up we are about women’s bodies. We need to acknowledge the damaging, sex-killing effects of a term like milf, which, by nature, excludes any mother that actually looks like she had kids. We need to stop expecting mothers to give their bodies entirely over to their children with things like breastfeeding mandates from the American Academy of Pediatrics that go unsupported by the American government and men like Donald Trump, while simultaneously expecting these same mothers to don a negligee and be game for their partners later on in the bedroom. We need to stop following celebrity moms out of the hospital after giving birth to assess their immediately-postpartum bodies. We need to stop treating the birth of children and its visible marks on the women who made them as antithetical to the sex that produced those children.

Here we are again, back to the problem of the Madonna and the whore. Always back here. God, it’s tiresome.

Feeling sexy in a body my culture deems unsexy, while also believing that body should dutifully service someone else’s pleasure doesn’t make me want to slip on a silk teddy and give it the old college try. It makes me want to increase the dosage on my new antidepressant.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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