Focht Family Practice is now offering a unique opportunity to couples and families at a significant sliding scale fee! There is currently limited availability being offered with Rachel D. Miller, who is a doctoral student at Adler University. These sessions are required to be video recorded solely for the focus of educational purposes and are completely confidential and HIPPA compliant. To learn more, please complete the form on our Contact Page and add a note of interest in the message section.
Part IV: Sex after baby.
Most of us have heard the age-old narrative that your sex life disappears after you have children. You are exhausted and sleep feels substantially more important than sex; perhaps your focus and intimacy is on the baby – not on each other; or, perhaps your body no longer feels desire or arousal the way it once did. No matter the reasons (and there are countless more), for some, it is a terrifying prospect that your once beloved sex life may be one of the casualties in the transition to parenthood.
There is good news: Your sex life does not have to disappear when you become a parent. It does, however, have to change and evolve for your new life and the new (very significant) constraints of having a baby. The key is to approach this change with care, curiosity and flexibility for yourself and your partner.
Let’s visit some of the significant constraints that new parents face in rebuilding their sexual relationship and therapeutic strategies you can use to address them:
1. Sleep Deprivation; This is perhaps the biggest reason that parents name when they discuss the difficulty in reigniting their sexual relationship, post baby. Especially if your child hasn’t begun to sleep in longer stretches, the idea of trading in precious sleep for sex is hard to imagine.
It’s also important to note that sleep deprivation and exhaustion can impact your hormone levels, increase anxiety and irritability, and has been associated with greater conflict between partners. It’s hard to imagine wanting to have sex or any type of physical intimacy when your sole focus is trying to maintain enough energy for a baby whose needs are continuous.
Strategy: Take turns with the night time feedings and early wake ups (if you can) so each of you can get some longer stretches. Offer support if you know your partner is especially tired. If you are breastfeeding, your partner can sit with you during a middle of the night feeding - even if he can’t “do” anything, his presence is important and signifies that you are a team. You may be sleep deprived, but you are exhausted together, and can see the experience as a bonding one. Sex might not be on the table at this point (it is likely you will want to wait until you have more energy) but building the foundation of your new co-parenting role can be incredibly intimate, and knowing you are a united front will ultimately translate into an easier transition towards physical intimacy when the time is right. (There is nothing that will put you in the mood less than fighting with your partner about who is more tired. So, try to stay on the same team and avoid the rabbit hole of sleep resentment.)
2. Hormonal impact; the hormonal impact on your postpartum body can be very significant. Many women report feeling like they’re on an emotional roller coaster in the first few weeks and months after giving birth. (Read more about the signs and impact of postpartum depression and anxiety here.)
Breastfeeding mothers are producing a hormone called prolactin, while necessary for lactation, it is also responsible for lowering libido. Breastfeeding mothers bodies often suppress ovulation and their lower estrogen levels impact cervical mucus. Vaginal dryness may be an issue – causing sexual intercourse to be less enjoyable and even painful. If that wasn’t enough, breastfeeding also lowers female testosterone, which contributes to overall decreased libido. Source
Strategy: Talk to your doctor or therapist about concerns if you notice signs of postpartum depression or anxiety in yourself or your partner. If you are ready to have sex but it feels unpleasant, you can use a water-based lubricant to help with vaginal dryness and consult with your doctor for other alternatives. Most of all, remember what your body went through; give it time, and communicate if you are in pain. Share with your partner what you know about the shift in your hormones and the potential impact that may have on your libido. This will help create an environment of openness and help him or her understand that your lack of arousal may not be about them at all (they will likely have their own beliefs and reasons for why this is happening.)
3. Mismatched needs & expectations; This bullet point could be the topic of an entire book. Childbirth in couples (both heterosexual and homosexual) is entirely one-sided for a period of time. The parent who gives birth will inherently bear the burden in a different way, and if she breastfeeds, that one sidedness can continue for months (or years) postpartum. All this to say, that especially in heterosexual couples, fathers may have a difficult time understanding the multitude of changes happening in his partner’s mind and body. These factors impact desire and arousal, and it may cause frustration and confusion between partners that there has been a significant change in the couples’ sex life and perceived desire for one another.
Strategy: Talk about expectations with one another; so much of this chapter requires an open, honest dialogue about what is happening for each of you. Many partners may make assumptions about the reason for the changes in their sex lives; without asking your partner what they are feeling, both emotionally and physically, you may be completely missing the mark (and missing an opportunity to help.)
If this topic feels particularly fraught or scary, I’ve listed a number of resources at the bottom of the post that you and your partner can look to and, you can always schedule an appointment with a couples therapist or sex therapist to better understand and process the new sexual dynamics in your relationship.
4. Body insecurity, low self-esteem and not feeling sexy; Women – you just did something miraculous: you grew a human life inside of you for the better part of a year, and then went through a significant medical event in order to deliver the child. Your body went through a trauma and you may not be feeling your best, or look the way you did prior to your pregnancy.
In our current medical model, women have a 6 week postpartum check up (after a vaginal birth) in which, if everything is ok, they can be “cleared” to have sex with their partner. OBGYNs often hear their patients begging for more time, asking for a medical excuse to postpone this event, while many fathers are waiting anxiously for the green light.
Strategy: There is absolutely nothing wrong with not feeling ready at that point to jump back in the saddle; be gentle with your body and yourself. You may need more time to heal than a 6-week window. Take it slow and do what you need to do in order to feel your best. That can be anything from making sure you take a shower each morning, to putting on some makeup, to making sure you go for a walk outside and feel the fresh air, and drinking enough water each day. Self care looks different for each of us.
5. Overwhelmed by the new workload & lack of time; There are only so many hours in a day. Those hours are significantly decreased when you take on a newborn feeding schedule, or are chasing a baby around. Your free time feels virtually non-existent, and it can feel like there is a never-ending mountain of work (both domestic and professional) that builds. These stressors can act as a “brake” to halt sexual arousal and desire (Nagowski). If our minds are always thinking about what needs to get done or how stressed we are, we will likely have a much more difficult time transitioning to a sexy mindset.
Strategy: If we know our sexual drive and desire is negatively correlated with stress levels, this can be an opportunity to our partners not to complain about the lack of sex, but to ask – “what do you need help with?”
Parents need to practice self-care in order to be able to think about accessing desire for their partner. Often, this means lightening the load for your partner so they can have time to get back to themselves, and momentarily step out of mommy or daddy mode. Give them some time to see their friends (and get out of the house), to exercise (increased blood flow increases libido), and make sure you both are hydrated and fed (you need energy to have sex.)
Another helpful strategy for some is to schedule sex. For the partners who would like to increase the frequency in their sex lives but struggle to find the time in their schedules, try planning ahead. Either create a sexy calendar invite for your partner to let them know you are thinking about them, or have a standing date/time that you can connect physically. This requires a regular check in to make sure expectations are clear and flexibility with changing schedules. (For example, sending a text mid-day for your weekday “sexy time” to ask if your partner is still interested and committed to the plan for the evening. This not only helps avoid disappointment if things change, but can also help to build anticipation as the day goes on.)
6. Relying on baby for intimacy; This is a common trap for many new parents, especially new moms. As mentioned above, there is an evolutionary “one sidedness” to childbirth that is much more pronounced in the first months and year of a child’s life. Mothers often find themselves with longer parental leave to bond with the baby, and may choose to breastfeed, which requires nearly constant touch and necessary attunement with a baby’s feeding schedule.
This bonding is incredibly special, and it can be all consuming. This connection can feel so intense and magical that it begins to replace your partner’s intimacy. This quote from Esther Perel, in her book, Mating in Captivity, describes this phenomenon beautifully:
“Children are indeed a source of nurturance for adults. Their unconditional love infuses our lives with a heightened sense of meaning. The problem arises when we turn to them for what we no longer get from each other: a sense that we’re special, that we matter, that we’re not alone. When we transfer these adult emotional needs onto our children, we are placing too big a burden on them” (Perel; Kerner & Raykeil, p. 50)
Strategy: Make time for your connection outside of baby. As a couple, you need to build your reservoirs of connection physically, but also emotionally and intellectually. Sometimes date night can be just for that – for connecting, talking, laughing, eating. You can even try a “no baby” rule on date night - talk about anything but the baby. Remember how and why you connected before you became parents. Another favorite tip about date night from Esther Perel!
(Side note about date night: It can be hard to feel sexy and in the mood after a full meal, late at night. Be clear about how you’re feeling and help to differentiate between date nights and sex. If you wait for sex only on date night, it may be a while, and it can heighten the pressure around the evening.)
This list of constraints and strategies is obviously not exhaustive, and quite honestly just scratches the surface of this topic. I focused mostly on parents who are transitioning to parenthood for the first time, with one child and many of the strategies are “mother-centric”. Below are additional resources that I’ve found incredibly helpful and normalizing for couples in this stage of their transition to parenthood.
- Love in the Time of Colic, Ian Kerner & Heidi Raykeil
- How not to Hate your Husband After Kids, Jancee Dunn
- And Baby Makes Three, John & Julie Gottman
- Becoming Us, Elly Taylor
- Come As You Are, Emily Nagowski
If social media postings, the array of parenting books, and the countless blogs and newspaper articles available are any indication, little is more mystifying, frustrating, or sanity threatening to parents than raising teenagers. Only the terrible twos and dreaded threenagers can rival teens in attitude, unprovoked outbursts, and confounding behaviors. And while at times talking to your teen may feel like you have reverted to speaking with a toddler, as a parent of teens myself, I can relate, there are a few key things that can aid you in having productive, meaningful, and relationship enhancing conversations with your teen.
1) Leave your ego at the door.
Dr. Fred Hanna, a wise professor and therapist I know, specializes in working with some of the most challenging teenagers around. He and I share this belief that unless you can set your ego aside, there is almost no room for empathy which is key to being in any relationship, but particularly with teenagers (Hanna, 2016). While his work talks about the therapeutic relationship, I believe it is applicable to the parent/child one as well. When ego is involved a power struggle likely follows, and they rarely end positively for anyone involved. In the book, The Awakened Family, Shefali Tsabary, PhD, talks about how parenting challenges tend to stem from our ego, the blindly reactive piece of us that comes from a place of fear and a need to protect ourselves, our identity, and our desires and expectations for our children. When parents can learn to recognize when their ego is involved, the skills needed to be able to set it aside can be learned as well. Setting aside our ego allows us to take things less personally, and step into a place of empathy for the experiences of the teenagers in our lives. Teenagers often just need to be heard, and have their thoughts, experiences and feelings validated so they can reduce their own defensiveness and have space to hear you. I encourage you to watch Brené Brown’s video on empathy for a clearer understanding of the importance of empathy and consider how you might apply it in future conversations with your teen.
2) Live your values; practice what you preach
It may seem that your teenager never listens to a word you say, but I promise they are watching everything you do. They can smell hypocrisy a mile away, and almost nothing turns them off faster. When teens in my office are the angriest at the adults in their lives, it tends to be around things they see as unjust or hypocritical. Are you setting rules and consequences based on the values you hold, and you are trying to instill in your child, or are they based the rules you grew up with, or what you have seen other set? Are they set up in a family meeting or given from the top down without any explanation other than “because I said so?”
People rarely like to be told what to do; teenagers are no different. But, when rules, or restrictions, or chores are given in context, with an explanation and discussion where there is potential for input, even teenagers can be convinced to go along. Where I have seen teenagers rebel the most is when they believe that certain rules only apply to them, or that their parents do not live by the standards and values they try to place on their children. One of the ways I have found to assist around this is to do a values exercise with parents and their teens. This can open discussions around the differing values of each member of the family, as well as opportunities to talk about how the family rules line up with its values. When you are clear about your own values, it is easier to remain consistent around the rules that you do set, providing the structure that teenagers need to thrive. As a bonus these exercises can enlighten you about both yourself and your teen. If you would give this a try here are a couple links:
3) You were a teenager once too.
Do you remember yourself as a teenager? If not, I am sure your own parents would love to enlighten you about your attitude, rule breaking, talking back, and every other thing you did that made them nuts. This goes back to the empathy piece. You have an opportunity here to empathize with both your teen and your parents. Now might be a great time for that apology. You know they’re relishing that you have a teenager just like you. Take a moment to try and remember how you felt as a teenager. Put yourself back in that place where you felt unheard, unimportant, maybe even unloved. Can you remember how it felt to have your body seemingly go haywire on you? Do you recall how it felt to be left out, or have your first heartbreak, and to believe that nobody could really understand?
If you’re struggling with this, or maybe have some grandiose memories about your teenage years, or a belief that today’s teenagers are so much worse than the teens of our generation, you might want to be suspicious of your memories, as Ken Hardy discusses in Teens who Hurt. Memory becomes softer and more generous with the passage of time. In addition to its selective nature, memory also has a tendency to embellish. Few of us were as good, or respectful, or obedient, as we might like to recall. Find an old yearbook or a journal to see if you can refresh your memory a bit. Try if you can to put yourself back in that place, in those feelings. Consider what you would have liked from the adults in your life back then. See what pieces of that you can provide for you own child. Talk to your teenager, and ask overtly what they need from you, what you can do that would be helpful, and then listen to hear them, rather than listen to respond.
4) Behaviors usually serve a purpose.
Too often it is teenage attitude and negative behaviors that get a parent’s attention. Too seldom is the question “What is the purpose of this?” asked. One of the quickest ways to determine what the potential purpose of any particular behavior might be it to check in with your own reaction to it. For example, if your child’s behavior leaves you with feelings of being provoked, challenged, or defeated, Jane Nelson, Ed.D. author of the book Positive Discipline, would suggest that the underlying goal of the behavior is around power, and a belief that one belongs only when they are in charge or at least not being bossed around. This scenario seems to resonate with many of my teens and parents. While this book is geared more towards those parenting younger children, I think it still has value for parents of teenagers. It has the potential to offer insight into what is going on for you as well as them, aiding in setting aside ego and increasing curiosity and empathy about what your teenager’s behaviors are trying to tell you. There is a quick reference chart from the book available here to get you started.
5) Maintaining the relationship matters most.
If you want to continue having a positive influence over your teen and have them turn to you for counsel and support, maintaining your relationship will need to take priority over being right, having control, pride, ego, or your own emotions. This one can be tough. You will often find yourself walking the fence between maintaining structure and consistency, with maintaining the relationship. Flexibility and adaptability will be key to stage in parenting. The plus side is that even when you screw up, teenagers can be some of the most forgiving people I have ever met. When you as a parent can own your mistakes, apologize, and change your behaviors accordingly, teenagers can and do forgive even some of the worst transgressions. They want to be connected to you as much as you want to be connected to them, it just looks different now.
Raising teenagers is not always easy, but it can be the most rewarding time you ever have as a parent. There is incredible growth potential for you and for them despite its many ups and down. Remember too, you don’t have to do this alone. Family therapy can help with the challenges of transitioning into this new stage of life and parenting. A therapist can assist with a strained relationship, or support for those difficult conversations so many parents dread. We are here to help you navigate this sometimes daunting journey called parenthood.
Hanna, F. J., (2016). Ten powerful techniques for helping difficult adolescents to change.
PART III: Couple & Co-Parent Conflict
In conversations with new parents, one of the topics that often gets overlooked (and hidden) is the shock that the transition to parenthood can have on the couple. Some couples do transition to co-parents seamlessly, but more often than not, there is an enormous amount of stress associated with this shift, and growing pains to navigate.
[Before diving in, I want to acknowledge and honor that people (individuals and couples) enter into parenthood in a myriad of ways; for the purposes of this post, I am focusing on couples that have been together as romantic partners prior to becoming parents.]
As if the addition of a tiny human wasn’t stressful enough, the transition from partners to co-parents can be one of the most fraught, and often deprioritized. Suddenly, you now have two relationships to foster – your romantic one, and your co-parent one. (There is an upcoming post on the romantic relationship post-baby, stay tuned!)
Often, in times of transition we experience a spike in stress, depression, anxiety and conflict. This applies to everything from moving to a new city to losing a job, and even losing a loved one. Transitions are some of the hardest things we go through as humans – and frequently, we have trouble navigating the new environment we find ourselves in. Couples can have it particularly hard – as each parent attempts to navigate the demands of parenthood for themselves, they also have to simultaneously make that adjustment as a team. As you can imagine, or you have already experienced, this new territory (plus sleep deprivation) can create the perfect storm for couple conflict.
Why is it important to minimize couple conflict?
While I think most of us can agree that fighting with our spouse is generally unpleasant (and unwanted), we may not have enormous incentive to change our behavior and curb our conflict. Conflict doesn’t just impact our marital satisfaction and mental health, it also impacts our physical wellbeing. There is research linking hostile couple conflict with heart disease, and a slower rate of healing. (Dunn, 55). If that isn’t incentive enough, we have learned that children, even our babies, react negatively to conflict.
Researchers at the University of Oregon were able to conclude that infants as young as six months old react negatively to angry argumentative voices (Dunn, 23). According to Julie and John Gottman, children three to six years old believe that they are the cause of their parents fighting, and children ages six to eight tend to pick sides between parents during conflict (Gottman). In fact, psychologists have found that the day after a conflict, mothers are better able to compartmentalize and return to normal parenting mode with their children, whereas fathers had a much harder time returning to family life, therefore impacting their relationship with their children. They found that the conflict between parents often spilled over for the father, and resulted in friction between him and the children even days after the fight (Dunn, 24).
So, what does this mean for childhood development? Researchers from Notre Dame found that kindergarteners whose parents fought frequently were more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and struggle with behavioral issues by the time they reached seventh grade (Dunn, 24). Babies raised in unhappy marriages have shown a plethora of developmental problems, from delayed speech and potty training to inability to self-soothe (Gottman).
It is unrealistic to assume that you and your partner will never fight. In fact, it would be a disservice to your children if you never showed them conflict at all. Think about it as an opportunity to be on your best behavior to show your children that people can be mad and still love each other. Those two things can certainly co-exist, but the important part is to model fair fighting.
Tips for fair fighting & Reducing Conflict:
1. Active Listening Techniques (Dunn, 72-76)
1. Emotion Labeling – helping to name your partner’s emotions (if you see frustration, you might say – “you seem frustrated”); naming and validating these emotions can take the person from a purely emotional state to a more reflective, rational state (Dunn, 73).
2. Paraphrasing – simply restating your partner’s message in your own words; this tells them that you are listening and absorbing what they are sharing with you.
3. Offering minimal encouragement – this is offering either non-verbal nods, or verbal “mhms” and “yeahs” in order to convey to your partner that you are still tracking them while they speak.
4. Asking open-ended questions – The goal is to avoid yes or no questions but to give your partner more space to share; you can do this by saying “can you tell me more about that?” or “I didn’t understand what you meant by that, but I’d like to. Can you help me by explaining further?” (Dunn, 75).
5. Using “I” Messages – The “I” message allows you to share your feelings in a less provocative manner. Rather than saying “You are always late!” you could try “I feel so frustrated when you’re late because …”
2. What NOT to do – Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Gottman, )
1. Criticism – insults, using phrases like “you always…” or “you never…”
2. Defensiveness – counterattacking, whining, denying responsibility
3. Stonewalling – freezing out your partner and shutting down mid conversation; 85% of stonewallers are men because they tend to become so overwhelmed by conflict that their limbic system shuts them down, unable to take in new information (and leaves their partner in the lurch.)
4. Contempt – cynicism, attacking your partner’s character, eye-rolling, mocking, and sarcasm(!)
3. Take a time out
Sometimes, conflicts can just become too overwhelming and out of control. If you are “deadlocked” – take a break. Gottman found that it takes approximately 30 minutes for the chemicals released during a conflict to exit the body. After this time, come back together and try discussing the topic with some of the included tools (Gottman).
4. If all else fails: here is a helpful script (courtesy of Julie & John Gottman and Jancee Dunn)
[Share hidden soft emotion, like hurt/sad/betrayed/isolated] when [describe what happened without blame]. Then, [State your need clearly]. [admit your role in the conflict] and [accept influence]. Finally, [repair.]
For example -
[share soft emotion] I felt hurt when [what happened without blame] our childcare plans fell through last minute and I was left to figure it out by myself since you were out of town. [ask for what you need] I need you to help me set up childcare and backup options so that the burden isn’t entirely on me. [admit your role] I was already stressed when this happened, so I totally acknowledge that I lost my cool with you. [accept influence] I trust your ability to help choose babysitters so I would love your input. [repair] I’m sorry I lost my temper when we discussed this before and I’m hopeful we can get through this together.
Sources & Resources:
Dunn, Jancee. How not to hate your husband after kids. Little, Brown and Company, 2018
Gottman, John M., and Julie Schwartz. Gottman. And Baby Makes Three: the Six-Step for Preserving Martial Intimacy and Rekindling Romance after Baby Arrives. Three Rivers Press, 2007.
Gottman, John M. and Silver, Nan. The seven principles for making marriage work. Cassell Illustrated, 2018.
By Karen Focht, MA, LMFT
Creating family balance can be challenging in today’s world and it often leaves us feeling as if we don’t have much time to really invest in the quality things that we love. Creating experiences within our relationships is a valuable and powerful force. If you find yourself struggling with pressure of lacking time, try to focus less on quantity and more on quality.
As summer is quickly approaching an end, there are still many events and activities remaining in Chicago. One of our favorite things to do as a family is to attend the Jay Pritzker Pavilion summer concert series. There is nothing better than starting your week with a picnic in the park together as a family. Not only is there amazing music preformed with a stunning background view of the city, but it’s also free! In the midst of busy schedules, I have always found it to be so worthwhile to invest this time together as a family. So get out there and have some fun with these last remaining summer nights in Chicago! Here are a few remaining concerts presented by Millennium Park.
Millennium Park Summer Music Series
- August 18th at 6:30pm Elephant Revival + Mandolin Orange
- August 25th at 6:30pm Tortoise + Homme
Millennium Park Presents
- August 27th at 7:30pm Chicago Dancing Festival: Dancing Under the Stars
- August 28th at 6:30pm Lang Lang International Music Foundation
- September 9th at 7:30pm Stars of Lyric Opera presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago
For additional information go to: http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/millennium_park_-upcomingevents.html