Distinguish between invitation and demand

Sex makes babies, so it’s ironic that, when they arrive, babies can deliver such a fatal erotic blow to a relationship. But there are ways to keep the spark alive, says Esther Perel


Distinguish between invitation and demand

Parenting means being dependable and responsible, while a good sex life thrives on spontaneity and unpredictability. With nappy changes and broken sleep, having sex can be a challenge. However, I believe that maintaining an erotic and emotional connection between you as a couple is the biggest gift you can give your child. On the long list of what children need, parents who have an erotic connection should definitely feature as one of them. And let’s face it, it’s not children who extinguish the flame in a relationship, it’s the parents who fail to keep the spark alive.

Clara, 31, and David, 32, came to see me recently because their sex life was dwindling. They have a son, who is nearly 2. They were only together six months before Clara got pregnant and now with a baby, their sex life is suffering. Like many new dads, David feels like Clara has a ‘new man’ in her life, while the demands of motherhood means making love isn’t a priority for Clara.

Motherhood is filled with selflessness and caretaking, and being a lustful mother can feel threatening and bring up feelings of guilt. But it’s important to find some sense of your own sensuality that is about you and not the baby. As a mother, you need to allow yourself some pleasures, like a relaxing long bath, a walk around town, plunging into a new book, a dinner with friends. These are not sexual activities, but they connect you to your erotic self; they make you feel alive and playful, not resentful and tired. You need to find ways of filling up your cup again.

Sex with your partner is far more than just intercourse. When you feel distant from your partner, it’s important you find ways to be close that have nothing to do with the actual sexual act. Lots of caresses, kisses, tender words and humour are part of the sexual relationship. If you measure sex only in terms of the sexual act, thinking that unless you go all the way, it isn’t sex, then you eliminate most of what is fun and important about sex. To resist your disinterest, broaden the possibilities. Talk to your partner, tell him that for you sex post-children is more sensual than genital. Touch is key; orgasm, not always.

See the person, not the function

Talk to each other, too. Communication is so important. When you come home, for example, do you only inquire about the children? Don’t forget to check in with each other as feeling that you matter as a person and not only as a function is crucial. Being erotic is leaving aside your roles
as partners of Family Management Inc and enjoying each other’s company for its own sake.

And, whatever you do, don’t leave sex till last thing at night. It doesn’t matter that all the toys need to be put away. Being a mother and being sexual is about giving yourself the permission to think about you, and know that doing this doesn’t make you a bad mother. The connection between mother and child is sensuous and sensual – touch, smell, gaze. The untold story is that often when you say that at the end of the day, you have nothing left to give, you in fact are saying that at the end of the day, there is nothing more you need. But the physical touch with the child should not replace the physical touch with each other.

As a mother, you are attuned to the needs and demands of your children. So when your husband or boyfriend invites you to be intimate and your gut response is: ‘I already have enough people asking me for something’, be careful not to confuse invitation with demand. This is an adult man inviting you to make love, not a child making more demands on you.

You don’t have to be in the mood, you have to be willing to be in the mood. That is a powerful point of departure. Sex does not need to start because you are excited, or desirous. Willingness to engage is what matters. You know it is a nice way to feel intimate, that you never regret it afterwards, that you’re happier together the next day – this should be sufficient motivation to experience ‘willingness, and openness’.

The common advice is surprise your partner. But why not surprise yourself? You seek novelty for your children – so don’t settle into downtrodden routines for yourselves as a couple. Take off your ‘mummy’ gear and wear something that makes you feel feminine and sexy. Not sexy lingerie meant to turn on your partner, but clothes that connect you to the woman in you. Pick a different restaurant, leave the bedroom if you can, maybe meet him for lunch when you are awake and dressed up, rather than waiting to connect with him as the last thing on your long to-do list.

Photograph: iStock