Our son was six months old. I had not slept for more than four hours a night that entire time. I lived in yoga pants and had never done yoga. My breasts, which were now on active duty feeding my son (and eating being a job he took disturbingly seriously) ranged from "porn star huge" in the morning and settled to merely "alarming" by midday.
Our recent quality time together had included my husband looking at me blankly while I communicated in expressive grunts and swishy hand movements. I could smell baby vomit and was pretty sure some of it was in my hair. Still.
"Want to have sex?"
He said yes. Then he did the dishes while I napped. Bless. Our five-day challenge had begun.
The five-day challenge is a concept based on other challenges such as the 30 day sex challenge but, you know, achievable. (*Crosses legs.*) It’s simple: Have a conversation with your partner about the challenge, get their agreement, and then together, engage in some type of sexual activity for five days in a row.
The benefits of sex are many – ranging from lowering blood pressure, increasing capacity for critical thinking, improving immune system function, and boosting bonding in relationships (Palmer, 2015). These are all good things, and we all want them, so why do we stop having sex once we become parents?
Tiredness is often cited as a reason for lack of sex, with many parents reporting that sleep is a higher priority. One study captured this concept with: "Often both parties wanted to have sex, but they did not always have the strength to do it" (Olssen, Robertson, Bjorkland & Nissen, 2010). Also, adapting to parenthood can be complex. Fathers can struggle with taking on a housekeeping role and mothers report stress from time constraints as well as the emotional toll of nurturing (Reynolds & Knudson-Martin, 2015).
Women may also find navigating sexuality as a mother to be quite different to how they expressed sexuality pre-children (Montemurro & Seifken, 2012). Parenting can be intensely joyful, it can also chew you up and spit you out again. If you want to work as a team with your partner then you need to maintain a connection, you need to be soul mates, friends, and lovers. Sex can be a way to achieve that.
It had been a few years since I’d completed the challenge, and for an additional point of view I asked friends to participate, too. This made for better research and more interesting conversations at playgroup. Responses ranged from a shrug as my friend flicked her hair over her shoulder and gave me what may be the definition of a satisfied smile as she said, "No problem," to another’s clarification on the "five days ... do they have to be in a row? Not like, over a year?" Discussions were had with partners and agreements put into place. It was on.
Intimacy. Romance. Passion. Everything raising children is not. It’s easy to let parts of a relationship stagnate; we might want connection but not quite know how to get it. Often parents want more romance in their lives, but they don’t know how to prioritize it.
Everyone involved in the challenge expressed the same wants and the same fears – they wanted to feel more connected to their partner, and they were worried about time restrictions. One participant summed this up with wanting "sex like we were 21 and childless."
Having a child takes its toll on people’s relationships, no matter how prepared you think you are. Once that baby arrives it will take more time, more care, and more of everything than you could possible anticipate. Research overwhelmingly reports that sex is not a priority during the first year postpartum. This is not a surprise. No one is surprised by this. However once you’ve surfaced from the fog that is a baby’s first year, you might want to reconnect with that other person who lives in your house and uses all the hot water – you know, your partner.
All the participants in my limited study had concerns about they could fit sexual intimacy into their schedule. They have young children with the ability to open doors and an unerring sense of timing. They were exhausted and touched-out. But before they became parents these couples were lovers, and they wanted some of that action back. So how can the challenge help?
Not just by shagging (a bit by shagging), but by talking. Communication is a key part of any relationship. The interesting thing about fathers and sexuality is that just talking about having sex makes men happier and more involved (Olssen et al., 2010). Through increased communication, couples can begin to explore their own – and each other’s – needs and wants. I don’t know how people can create time, but I do know that when both partners prioritize time together, everyone is more contented. At the end of the challenge everyone involved said they felt more connected and in tune. Happier. Being intimate is energizing for a relationship. Science and my friends who I made have sex both agree on that.
Many studies have found a link between men completing household chores and sex. As in, if you do it then you get it. Excellent foreplay skills may get you somewhere, but it’s the men engaging in chore-play that are really getting the action.
At the end of the challenge I asked the male participants if they’d helped out more around the house – they said no. I also asked the women if the men had helped out more – they said yes, their partners had been more involved. Women reported less conflict in their relationship, less bickering, and they’d noticed more proactive fathering. Men reported more happiness and more sex. Maybe the men were helping out more and just not realizing? Maybe the women were blinded by love and post-orgasm bliss?
One thing is for sure though; dads who participate in childcare (the messy stuff, not just the fun stuff) have more sex and describe a more fulfilling emotional relationship with their partner. Mothers may expect their sexuality to take a back seat after having children, but fathers are often taken aback by this change in circumstance.
A study regarding a father’s expectations of sex once children had arrived found that they were ill-prepared for the impact having children would have on their sexual relationship (Olssen et al., 2010). The fathers often focused on their relationship with their children – the fun stuff, leaving the bulk of household duties to their partner in addition to the boring daily care of children. The study reported that having a lot of chores left undone and sole care of children "seemed to diminish the women’s sexual desire."
The solution? Men needed to be more involved (Olssen et al., 2010). There are fathers who want to be included in running the household but don’t feel invited to participate, and there are father’s who are unwilling; both of these situations result in parents having less sex (Olssen et al., 2010). A father’s involvement in childcare is invaluable. Relationship satisfaction and amount of sex both increase when Dad is changing nappies and vacuuming (Borreson, 2016). The take home message here is: Get involved. Your relationship and your sex life will improve. Or have such amazing sex that your partner will think you’re involved anyway.
While men might look forward to resuming a sexual relationship, women’s feelings regarding sexuality tend to be more complicated. There may be pain or discomfort during sex, a loss of libido, and a confabulation of identity that often occurs when a woman becomes a mother. All of these factors can have an effect leading to a general questioning of sexuality (Woolhouse, McDonald & Brown, 2012).
Personally, I joined with a lot of other women in feeling that the changes/ravages that had occurred in my body during pregnancy and birth had left me less desirable. Research has found that women are aware that their physical appearance is valued at least as highly as their achievements, perhaps even more so (Montemurro & Seifken, 2012). To my own detriment I ignored the wonders that were occurring daily – I was feeding my son, I had made him and brought him into the world. Those ridiculously long eyelashes he had? I’d jolly well grown them. Me. That had to be worth something.
I was so concerned with society’s expectations of women being gorgeous, well-slept, and overwhelmingly Not Mothers that it was difficult to reconcile this new role of nurturing my son with being sexy and having sex. Even the term MILF is still expressing surprise that there is a mother who is desirable, as opposed to all those other mothers in minivans shouting at their children (Montemurro & Seifken, 2012).
Mothers are sexy though; they are grounded and beautiful. The sex challenge helped me accept my new identity as a woman who was capable of nurturing her children as well as herself; it helped me figure out what made my heart race in this new chapter of my life. I recaptured a bit of myself and dragged it into the light, and it was fun.
This was also the experience of my friends who participated in the challenge – it was fun. There were reports of learning new things, trying new things, and a renewed interest in flirting throughout the day. That mother smiling at her phone in the park? She’s probably not playing Candy Crush. If you’re willing to give it a shot then you really can find passion everywhere. In short: Mothers stop having sex because society tells them that their role is not meant to be sexy, a clear untruth. The challenge opens up a space to remember that sex is fun and to discover that you can have sex as someone who is nurturing, loving, and incredibly sexy – a goddess.
While the five-day challenge can be fun, once it's over it's important to find your own way forward with sex. The last thing parents need is another job to tick off the list. Sex is meant to foster connection and feel rejuvenating. And enjoyable. If it's not, don't do it.
The challenge is about adding something back into your life, not a means of control or discomfort. You might be in the right zone to hurl yourself into five days of groundbreaking sex, or you might realize that once a week is just perfect and anything more than that feels like work. Or you might feel like you'd rather stick forks in your eyes than shag someone. That's cool.
Please don't do anything you'd rather not do, I'm not advocating swapping a blow job for cleaning the bathroom (cleaning the bathroom takes way longer) but more working out how both of those things can happen in a way that makes everyone happy. The point is to open up space for you – as a couple – to remember the part of yourselves that thought sex was amazing and to figure out how to get that feeling back again.
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