Greg Bruce is a weekend magazines writer for NZME.

Sex after babies: The male perspective

While there’s a lot of discussion from the female point of view about sex after babies, men are more reticent on the matter, writes Greg Bruce.
Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

Men, so brash and full of sex talk in the pub when young and virile, so braggadocious after a few beers at a 1970s-style gender-segregated barbecue, actually know very little about each other's sex lives. We have two main ways of talking about sex: drunkenly and dishonestly.

There is nothing to brag about though, and little energy for lying, in the long days and endless nights after the birth of your baby. For a good long while, there's usually nothing to talk about at all, and after that there's only a little more, none of it particularly positive.

So, when confronted with probing questions about their sex lives, new fathers are
typically sad, rueful, confused.

I asked one dad for his thoughts on what his sex life has been like in the two years since becoming a father. His straight-faced reply to me, a father of two children under 4: "Are you having sex?" I didn't reply.

Some other dad comments: "Babies are a powerful impotence tool." "A rare way to ruin lubrication." "Watching your child greedily guzzle from the breasts you had cherished and admired for so long is strangely deflating in every sense of the word."

Another man, smart and educated, with a good career, who had originally agreed with his wife that he would have a vasectomy after she gave birth to their third child, reversed that
decision based entirely on a friend's comment: "You never snip a stallion."

Another conversation between two dads went like this:

"The sexiest thing in the world is love," the first father said. "And the most pure love you feel for your partner is watching them soothe and cradle your baby. However, when the tears stop, you still don't have sex."

The other father replied, "But the sexiest thing in the world is a sixty-niner."

Sometime shortly before my first child was born, a friend told me that watching your wife give birth was like "watching your favourite pub burn down", which, I later learned, was a joke he had plagiarised from Robbie Williams, who had in turn plagiarised it from someone else.

I wasn't concerned so much with the joke's originality, but the question of its accuracy. Is it true that things will never be the same again?

Psychotherapist Frank Hayes is one of only a handful of New Zealand mental health professionals with a focus on expectant and new fathers and he says, basically, "Yes." Men often have completely unrealistic expectations of sex after children, and they have to get used to a new way of thinking about - and doing - it.

In one group Hayes held for expectant fathers, one man said he thought it would be six months after birth before he and his wife got back into it, which caused another man jumped up and yell out, "That's pathological!"

In one group Hayes held for expectant fathers, one man said he thought it would be six months after birth before he and his wife got back into it, which caused another man jumped up and yell out, "That's pathological!"

Sex disappears, post-birth, for myriad reasons, and from both sides, Hayes says. There are many reasons mothers might not be into it, but fathers can also find their sex drive vanishes. They can be traumatised by watching the birth, they fear that they might hurt their partners, they might be depressed. Nobody has much time or energy.

"Your sex life is not going to be as it was," Hayes says. "It's going to probably have to create a new normal in terms of sex and intimacy and it's going to take time, and it's going to take years rather than months, at least a year, and you're creating something new over that time."

One father of two preschoolers, who requested that he be referred to in this article as Walter Scoffing, said: "If the relationship is strong and you keep your perspective, sanity and sense of humour, then it will be all good. The romance returns."

I asked Scoffing how long it was before he and his wife returned to action.

"It was more than six weeks," he said.

"Has your sex schedule changed?" I asked.

"I don't know what this mythical sex schedule is," he replied, "we have never had one."

"But," I said, "did you use to do it any time and suddenly it could only be Saturday nights after the house was tidy and you'd had an opportunity to unwind with a Netflix comedy?"

"Nope," he said.

There was an awkward silence.

Now that I've watched my two daughters being born, I can see that the joke about childbirth being like watching your favourite pub burn down is not funny. While I was standing in the respective delivery suites, feeling overwhelmed and a little frightened, watching my babies' heads emerge from my wife, I didn't once conceive of the the action zone as a pub, nor any sort of hospitality establishment.

I don't want to be accused of being humourless - I get the joke's point - but the idea of thinking in such terms like seems deeply unhelpful for somebody pursuing the goal of creating a new, fulfilling, sex life that is unlikely - for at least a long while - to include either spontaneity or frequency.

Sex is just one part of a wider issue, which is about intimacy and the rebuilding of your relationship around the endless needs and demands of a tiny being who doesn't care about that relationship.

One dad of preschoolers I spoke to - I'll call him Alfonse - told me: "You suddenly have this thing in your life that is the centre of your world and absolutely the centre of your world in a way that you can't even imagine before he's born. With the pregnancy, that became the centre of our world and every conversation was about it and every thought and decision had that in mind, but you could still sit down and watch a movie."

When I asked if he felt his relationship was back to normal now, he said: "I don't think there is such a thing as normal. I was talking to a guy this week whose youngest child was just going off to university. He said one of the things he's most looking forward to this year is getting to know his wife again. He said, 'It's not like we don't talk. We get on and we still love each other, having been married for 25 years and having kids for 20, but it's just literally that, getting to know each other again'."

Photo / 123RF.com
Photo / 123RF.com

Hayes says there's a "silent epidemic" of sexlessness for parents in their 30s and 40s, their children growing up, frequently awake in the night and/or sleeping in their parents' beds or having their parents sleep in their beds. Parents, if they're sleeping at all, are increasingly not sleeping together.

"It doesn't mean that it's necessarily bad, it's just different," Hayes says, "And how do you make that difference better rather than worse? I think that's the process of becoming a parent in the first place. It's all a process of grief and loss. An enormous change and stress. And there's a lot talked about the gains but not as much talked about in a real meaningful sense about the losses and the changes, with a level of seriousness and maturity.

"The guys at the pub will say, 'You'll never have sex again' or something like that. It's that type of flippant stuff but how do you start to talk about that stuff in a deeper way?"

Grief? Loss? These are hard and often unfamiliar ways to think about parenthood, because television advertising and forgetful older parents overwhelmingly mislead us to believe that the process of bringing up children is one of pure, unbroken joy.

When we realise that's not necessarily the case, we suddenly have to reconcile our knowledge with our feelings about how we should act.

Alfonse says: "If I'm finding it hard, then I feel such pressure to be stable and positive because I feel like I need to be there for [his wife] so that she can be there for the kids. I feel a huge pressure to be stable and positive and consistent with that and that probably makes it harder to talk about that."

Life can't always be all about wild, uninhibited sex, or the stories you make up about it - eventually there comes a point where life is about desperation, commiseration and, probably, masturbation.

Life can't always be all about wild, uninhibited sex, or the stories you make up about it - eventually there comes a point where life is about desperation, commiseration and, probably, masturbation.

Singer Ronan Keating once said "Life is a roller coaster, just gotta ride it." If you stay strong, the roller coaster will rise again.

"What I see," Hayes says, "is that once the kids get to school, one by one, it really alleviates some of that pressure, because somebody is taking care, and the child is less dependent, more mature, and the school system is involved and you become part of the community there, which can really support parents, and that can be really great."

Then, of course, they become teenagers, and the roller coaster dips again. Not only do they start staying up later than you but there is nothing more horrifying to them than the thought of their parents having intimate contact. Never mind. That's an issue for another day.

Just as there are multiple sexual issues facing new parents, there are multiple ways of dealing with them.

One issue is being able to identify how you're feeling, and why you're feeling that way: Are you being dragged down, for example, by the thought of a long and unpleasant future in which sex happens rarely and unsatisfactorily?

A number of organisations run groups where you can share these and other thoughts and feelings with other men in your situation. Hayes runs one such group, but there are many others.

It's also important to be open with your partner, to be aware that if you're feeling anxious and trying to hide it from them rather than dealing with it, they'll almost certainly realise something's wrong, which will probably make things worse.

There are practical, physical steps you can take too. "One of the things is creating space for yourselves, like you and your wife have with the Saturday nights," Hayes told me, in a quite shameful breach of patient-therapist confidentiality.

He suggests finding time to be together, maybe going out for lunch, making sure there's the occasional opportunity to get away, for whatever reason.

When you first met your partner in a sleazy bar or internet chat room, you probably didn't look forward to the day you discussed your sex life in men's groups, or scheduled a 45-minute couples lunch a month in advance, but if you ever start to feel regretful or nostalgic for the old days, just remember how much richer and more joyful your life is now you have children than it was when you were doing it three times a day, and four on weekends.

- Canvas

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