I recently had the honour of interviewing Tanaya, a 32 year old mother, about her experiences of early motherhood and sexuality. Her partner is Jon, 34 years old, and their son Sean is currently 10 months old.
This is the full interview. To read an abbreviated version of the interview – go here.
ALICE: To start, maybe you can give a bit of an overview of how things have changed in your sex life, or your thoughts and feelings around sex, before pregnancy, during pregnancy and now that you’re in the phase of breastfeeding.
TANAYA: So, what I can remember about pre-conception – when we had started trying to actually conceive – that was pretty stressful, because I knew it wouldn’t necessarily happen straight away. Things changed from just having sex when you felt like it, to having this other purpose.
I know for a while I felt guilty if I was wanting to have sex just to have a baby, I felt like maybe I was lying or something.
ALICE: And that felt quite different from your previous motivation around sex?
TANAYA: Yeah, previously we weren’t trying to conceive a baby so you have sex when you’re feeling sexy, and when your partner wants to. It took me about six months to get pregnant, so I think for a good few months in there I was dealing with those [guilty] feelings. And then it came to the point where I felt it was ok to feel sexy or just to want to have sex to try to conceive a baby – that all of those things are ok.
ALICE: You ended up feeling ok about having different motivations for sex at different times?
TANAYA: Yeah, totally.
ALICE: And did you and Jon talk about that as it was happening or did you more just mull it over in your own mind?
TANAYA: We talked about it, but I’d say the majority of it happened in my head. There’d be bits that I’d talk to Jon about and generally he’d be super cool with it so it wouldn’t be a super long conversation like it is in my head.
ALICE: What about moving into pregnancy?
TANAYA: For the first bit of pregnancy I was just exhausted and feeling gross, and I didn’t have the time or head space to have sex. I think I just didn’t really want to.
ALICE: What kind of things led to feeling gross?
TANAYA: For me – especially at the beginning of pregnancy – you get a bit bloated, so your tummy feels funny. And it’s just a bit chubby-looking when you’re not quite at the stage of “Oh that’s definitely a baby bump in your belly”. People could just think I’m chubby today or something.
ALICE: A bit of an impact on your body image before the actual baby bump sets in?
TANAYA: Totally. I had nausea until 14 weeks so that hit me as well, all-day long. I couldn’t even make dinner. Jon had to make dinner every night, I just didn’t have the energy.
ALICE: So a big lifestyle change in general?
TANAYA: Definitely. And then definitely mood changes. Because of all the hormones and stuff, I had a way shorter fuse. So just being patient and loving was hard, and with the nausea on top of that, just meant not feeling great.
ALICE: So what about moving in to second trimester and third trimester?
TANAYA: So I started feeling better, and definitely started wanting more sex. And then in third trimester it was a bit more like “Oh, I really want sex!”
ALICE: So your desire to have sex really came back around second/third trimester then?
TANAYA: Yes, increased immensely. You’re feeling better and you’re feeling better about your body too, because it’s apparent that there’s a baby there so you’re not just feeling chubby. I was like “Ah people can really tell that I’m pregnant”.
I had more energy actually, so I was doing more exercise as well – swimming once a week, walking and doing yoga as well – so those all helped me feel better about my body too. Maybe every single night we’d have sex.
And I guess previous to that in our relationship, I didn’t really initiate during the night, even if I was feeling like I wanted to have sex and Jon was already asleep. I’d think about it and I’d feel really bad and be like “He probably needs to sleep because he’s got work the next day and I don’t want to wake him up, so I’ll just leave it”. Or I’ll masturbate or something.
But when I was pregnant, I didn’t care. So I’d wake him up and every single time it was totally fine. There’d be times when he’d be a little bit tired but he was totally fine with it.
He even said the other day when we were talking about it that when I was towards the end of the pregnancy he’d be like “Wow, really, again? Cool, okay”.
ALICE: When you talk about your need for sex was that just a feeling of horniness or was it other things?
TANAYA: Yeah, I guess it was just horniness and libido. It was just way easier to get turned on. I could be lying in bed and thinking about something – you know, like giving him a hand job or something – and that would just be like “Woah, that would be so hot! I need to do that now or I cannot go to sleep! We are having sex!” And it wasn’t even necessarily that we had to have sex, I could just play with him and that would be hot. But then as soon as things got going I was like “No, need sex now!”
It was just way more easy to get excited – one little thought and I was like “I don’t think I can go to sleep until I do something about it!” So that was fun.
ALICE: And then did that carry on in to the third trimester, leading up to the birth?
TANAYA: That was the third trimester. Second wasn’t as much, it was the third that was definitely “I must!”
ALICE: And then there was the birth, which is an epic experience. How was that, in terms of your sex life? And healing up after the birth?
TANAYA: It was pretty good actually. I did have a tear, so I was sutured, and my vagina was sore definitely, so that was a factor. I think a lot of midwives generally say to wait six weeks…
ALICE: To have penetration?
TANAYA: Yea, but to obviously just go with your body. If you’re feeling like it beforehand then use lots of lubrication and go slowly. If you’re on top you can guide how far in he goes and how fast and all that kind of stuff, which can make it a bit easier.
I think pretty soon after… it was only maybe just a few weeks we had some mutual masturbation, just some different kinds of sex. I didn’t expect it that early – before we had the baby I was actually a bit worried that I wasn’t going to want sex for a long time and that was going to be disappointing for Jon, and how long would he have to wait… but we had conversations around that so I didn’t feel as guilty about it.
ALICE: But it played on your mind a bit?
TANAYA: Yeah. But I think maybe a factor in how early we did start getting sexy again was my mum was over to help and do a lot of other stuff around the house. So that took away a lot of the stress of being new parents and having to cook and clean as she was doing all of that stuff.
I remember the first time we did have sex, I think it was maybe around the four or five week mark, Sean was asleep in the lounge room and I was like, ‘Hey Mum, can you just take care of the baby for a second’ so we could go to the bedroom and have sex. And it was good.
It was a little bit scary the first time because I was just thinking about how intense it was having a baby pushed out of there, and is it going to be ok? And is it going to feel the same for Jon? What’s it going to feel like for him? But then it ended up being quite lovely, a nice experience.
ALICE: And now you’re in the phase of breastfeeding, what kind of experiences around sex have come up?
TANAYA: At first, just after the birth we had a bit of sex. I felt like it, I still had normal libido for me I guess – couple of times a week or something like that. And I didn’t even really find it hard to think ‘Oh my breasts are being used for breastfeeding, and then they’re being used for sex’. It felt alright, that’s just what they were and they could do multiple things. I didn’t mind if Jon stroked my breasts at other times and was just saying how lovely they were, whatever.
ALICE: So at the beginning it was easier to go between the two contexts – breastfeeding and intimacy?
TANAYA: Yeah, and then as breastfeeding has gone on a bit longer and Sean needs to be physically attached to me all day, I’ve put in a boundary. I don’t remember when, maybe it was a couple of months after he was born. Because Sean’s on my breasts all day it was just feeling too much to have Jon touch them other times of the day without me saying it was ok first.
It was just giving me a heebie-jeebie feeling, and I didn’t want to feel that and resent Jon for touching my breasts when he was just appreciating them.
ALICE: And have that negative feeling associated with sex?
TANAYA: Yeah, I just had to say ‘I’m just not feeling good about that any more, so I’ll just let you know when it’s ok for you to touch my breasts. But they’re just doing something else right now and they have to keep going with that’.
ALICE: And how has your interest in sex varied over the breastfeeding months?
TANAYA: For me, it’s definitely a lower libido. I don’t want it as often. But I started menstruating again not long ago – maybe at eight months – and I found with that, that it kind of kicked up [my interest] a bit. I think over the time I wasn’t bleeding I didn’t have much desire for sex.
But the thing that kind of helped with it was that I’d be happy if Jon was interested in having sex – or just something – I’d be happy for him to touch me and then often that would lead to me being turned on and then I’d be happy to do it.
ALICE: So letting sex be a bit of a ‘maybe’ rather than a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – and sometimes that would then lead to arousal and desire?
TANAYA: Yeah. So it was kind of the opposite of third trimester where it was really easy to get turned on just thinking about something. [During breast feeding] I could think about stuff but I really wasn’t… I was like ‘I don’t feel like it right now’. But I knew if I just slowly led myself there that maybe I might feel like it and I could just be honest with Jon and say, ‘I still don’t feel like it now’, or ‘I do feel like it now’. That was nice just being able to go with the flow.
ALICE: Rather than having to be a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – for there to be space for more options.
TANAYA: Yes. Since menstruating again, especially around ovulation, I’ve noticed that my libido will pick up, and I’ll be like ‘Yeah, let’s fuck!’. Then back towards menstruating again it’ll go back down.
ALICE: Apart from interest and desire in sex, I guess there are a lot of other factors that are different now. What other kinds of challenges over the breastfeeding months have there been about actually being able to have sex or having the time?
TANAYA: Yeah, so we bed share – Sean sleeps in the bed with us. And that definitely has something to do with it. And I breastfeed him to sleep and in the middle of the night, so he’s next to us. So we can’t really make heaps of noise as we don’t want to wake him up.
I think I generally feel more like sex at night time, and I’ve noticed with Jon he’s generally more into it in the morning or during the day. And I guess now – now that Sean is older – the only time that I’m happy to have sex is when he’s asleep at night, because for me to actually get into sex (and for it to be a pleasurable experience) I have to turn my brain off. And it’s really hard when your mum-instincts are constantly like ’Where’s the baby, what’s he doing, is everything ok?’. There’s just less to think about when he’s asleep.
ALICE: So there’s just less opportunity than when you’re a couple without a baby.
TANAYA: And also when it’s at night-time, that’s when I feel more interest in having sex, but that’s not necessarily when Jon feels like having sex.
And there have been times… there was one time when Sean was having a nap in the car because we’d driven somewhere and got home and he was still asleep. And then we ended up having sex in the car, reclining the chairs. It was kind of cool, I think we ended up giggling afterwards, being like ‘Oh becoming parents has made us a bit more creative’ – so that was fun and we realised there was just that extra added hotness of doing it somewhere outside.
ALICE: Which isn’t necessarily what you associate with new parenthood is it?
TANAYA: No, you associate ‘Ah boring sex whenever we can and there’s vomit everywhere’, you know what I mean.
ALICE: Well this has been a really nice overview of your experiences around sexuality from conception to your current breast feeding. Maybe I’ll just ask one final question. For couples that are just starting on the journey of either trying to conceive or going through pregnancy or breastfeeding, what would be some advice that you would pass on to them about managing the changes and fluctuations in sexuality?
TANAYA: I guess important things for us were just being really honest and open and communicative with your partner about what’s going on. When you let things build up in your head and you’re worried that you’re going to be letting them down or you’re not having enough sex with them (or whatever your things are – because I guess those are just some of my insecurities that come up), just being really honest with your partner and bringing them up because often then they don’t really mind as much. And they know what page you’re on. And it ends up diffusing the situation so much more than if you just led it build in your head.
And just going with how you feel. If you’re feeling guilty about sex and you’re having sex when you don’t want to, then it’s just feeling gross and you’re not feeling that connection. So just being honest with yourself and being like ‘I really don’t want to have sex right now, and that’s ok, and this isn’t going to last forever’.
That’s a good one just generally for parenthood – the idea of seasons. It really helps you kind of picture that this is what’s happening right now – and that’s ok and that’s how I feel – but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to last forever and it might change soon.
ALICE: Sounds like it helps to contain the worries, rather than catastrophising that they’ll be there forever.
TANAYA: Yeah totally. And the other thing I found really helpful is when, if I’m not feeling super interested in sex, but I’m happy to be touched, that can often help. I’ve heard other women talk about it too, they said ‘Fake it til you make it’, but just allowing that little bit of fun, kind of foreplay, and not saying ‘Yes I want to or no I don’t…’
ALICE: Just being open to what emerges?
TANAYA: Yeah, and that can help you get back into it – ‘Oh I do actually want to have sex now, now that I’ve been touched’.
And there’s so much going on during the day, with being a parent and everything, it can be hard to feel aroused or even want to think about sex. Just changing the way you do things can help if you want to be having more sex and you just don’t feel like it.
And then also, just being honest with your partner again. If they’re touching you and you’re still not feeling you want anything, just being honest and saying ‘Sorry I don’t really feel like that’.
ALICE: There’s no condition that you have to follow through.
TANAYA: Yeah. And just chilling out around your child. Everyone’s got their own stuff, but some people are like ‘Oh I can’t have sex around the baby’. But when are you going to have a chance if you don’t?
And that’s how the baby got here – I’m sure he’s ok. I mean we were having sex when he was still inside me and orgasms are supposed to be great for babies [in utero] – all the lovely oxytocins.
ALICE: Well thank you so much Tanaya for sharing such personal and insightful details about your experiences of early motherhood and sexuality. It’s so interesting to hear how you’ve navigated this new phase in your life and your relationship.
TANAYA: My pleasure.