As an avid researcher, and mom of two kids, I read a lot about the impact of children on relationships, including this tidbit:
A baby’s birth reduces couple-time by two-thirds. The remaining third dwindles further, as we now devote precious moments to discussing kids.
Is it any wonder that, in the first year or two or seventeen after children arrive, finding time for sex feels like searching for The Holy Grail? Want it. Can’t get it.
Despite the challenges parents face, connecting with spouses—sexually and otherwise—sustains us. For some, sex begets sex; for others, closeness inspires passion. Either way, unless sexual satisfaction is the price we agree to pay for parenthood, nurturing intimacy—even when exhausted or disconnected—contributes abundantly to personal and relationship fulfillment.
Here are 10 ways to ignite love between, and beyond, the sheets:
(1) Invite passion through compassion: Some (new) parents compare sex to a battlefield. Contrasting desires spark conflict and trigger shame, e.g., moms feel overwhelmed and judge their partners for sexual urges, while partners feel rejected and shame moms for their decreased desires. When this battle surges, intimacy disappears.
What to do? Turn on compassion. Ask each other to share sexual feelings, or lack thereof, without finger-pointing, and listen empathically. Try to understand your differing—no better, no worse—desires, and acknowledge the pain and frustration those differences generate.
How can you listen dispassionately when passion is what you yearn for? Imagine you’re listening to a close friend share their feelings, someone whose wellbeing is important to you and whose expression of their innermost yearnings, fears and struggles is something you invite because you care deeply about that person.
In other words, remember your friendship with your spouse, and call forth the parts of you that understand both of you are right about what you feel, because feelings (and thoughts, beliefs and opinions for that matter) aren’t up for debate. They just are. In that way, you’re both right about what you feel. This isn’t a contest about whose perspective is superior; it’s a conversation designed to inspire mutual trust by deepening mutual understanding.
Then, do your best to:
(2) Nurture twosomes: In the transition from couplehood to parenthood, babies often override romance. Yet celebrating your relationship remains important. The National Survey of Marital Strengths (2000) discovered that parents in happy (versus unhappy) relationships are much likelier to declare:
“My partner focuses as much on our marriage as our children.”
To support your twosome, consider these questions:
What’s important to me about feeling close to my partner?
How would feeling closer enhance our relationship and our family?
In addition to sex, what other shared experiences encourage connection?
If intimacy depends on teamwork, how do we cultivate teamwork together?
(3) Role-play in a new way: We all assume roles and responsibilities based on skill, personality, social expectations, comfort-zone, temperament, e.g., introvert/extrovert, sexual initiator/responder. Reversing our sexual roles supports innovation and prevents role-resentment, e.g., “I’m sick of always asking for sex!”
Trying new things together—sexual or otherwise—inspires closeness. In addition to shifting sexual roles, what other new experiences beckon you as a couple?
(4) Make small gestures: When sex evades us, we presume we need a big remedy: hours together, weekends away. Yet small gestures deliver results. Kiss each other as each day starts and ends. Send your spouse an email about what turns you on about her. Slip a note into his pocket detailing a steamy memory from before having kids.
What small gestures get you hot and bothered? Jot down three or four ideas, including at least one that’s not overtly sexual, and share them with each other. Choose one together that you agree to try out.
(5) Cultivate time alone: If you’re a mom acclimating to your post-birth body, or navigating sleep deprivation, take time to revisit your sensuality. Get a manicure or massage, take a candlelit bath, do something that reconnects you to your body, including self-love. Too often we try to unite sexually with spouses while disconnected from ourselves. Nurturing your sensuality is foreplay to intimacy with your beloved.
What grounds you in your body? What sensual delights will you try in the next few days?
(6) Kick up dust: Despite changing gender roles, moms still perform at least twice the housework and childcare as dads, while research on same-sex couples suggest greater parity in these areas. The 2008 National Survey of Marital Strengths reported that the #1 factor differentiating happy from unhappy couples-with-kids is their satisfaction with how childrearing is shared. A 2009 study in The Journal of Family Issues found that couples that labor together, including on household tasks, enjoy more sex.
Approaching housework and childcare with teamwork in mind, and building consensus about your respective roles, not only brings partners closer, it inspires intimacy.
Dissatisfied with the division of labor at home? Share this info with your spouse and, together, explore how a new approach to teamwork offers more intimate rewards.
(7) Get naked: Portland-based parents, Sue and Mike,** decided months ago to wear birthday suits to bed twice a week. They took sex off the table on those nights. Without sexual “pressure,” skin-on-skin cuddling reconnected them. Within a few weeks, they stripped down more frequently and ditched the “no sex” rule.
When considering intimacy strategies, one size doesn’t fit all. What sparks intimacy for you and your beloved? What weekly or nightly agreement do you want to make?
(8) Cultivate gifts: Sally, mom to a 20-month old in Phoenix, admits that while she misses sexual spontaneity, she enjoys sex with her husband more now. For her, motherhood inspires greater sexual freedom and sex feels more precious.
Liz and Mike, parents to a 15-month old in San Diego, consider reduced time together a challenge. They one-up each other with creative ways to get intimate. In other words, parenthood offers sexual opportunities if we look for them.
How can you rise to the challenge, and devise fun, sexy things to do or say in 10 (or 5 or 2) minutes to spark connection? Set your timer and go!
(9) Schedule Intimacy: One of the biggest losses of parenthood is spontaneity, sexual and otherwise. Yet with so few moments together, unless we schedule connection, we defer sex and expand distance between us. Karen and Susan, parents to a 2 year old in San Francisco, responded to this dilemma with Intimacy-Time, evenings when they unplug from media and focus on each other.
In her experience with new parents, Mari Oxenberg, MS, CNM, a Birth and Postpartum Doula and Certified Nurse Midwife based in Los Angeles, suggests:
“Schedule time for intimacy, even of it doesn’t involve having sex, just time to be together and have grown-up conversation.”
What kind of Intimacy Time works for you and your spouse?
(10) Go for it: Too tired to talk about connecting? Too over-scheduled to calendar intimacy? Then, jump each other’s bones. Never underrate the power of kissing deeply and touching suggestively, the value of a quickie, to reignite your sex life or, at the very least, remind you of what you miss about each other and yourself.
No matter what strategy or technique you try, honor yourself, your relationship and your family by reconnecting with your spouse. Children learn about relationships from the adults around them, so unless you model the importance of relationship fulfillment, your kids will likely grow up devaluing it. Brings a whole new meaning to “doing it for your kids,” doesn’t it?😏
* An older version of this post was originally published in ParentMap magazine in 2013.
** Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.