By Ann Douglas
Dads may clock a bit more sleep than moms do during the early weeks of caring for a new baby, but when it comes to overall feelings of exhaustion, moms and dads are pretty much on par. That’s one of the key reasons why sex falls off the radar screen for many parents of newborns: no one can stay awake long enough to get the deed done.
Even on those nights when there’s interest, energy, and opportunity (the ultimate bedroom hat trick at this time in your life), your sexual fortunes can turn on a dime. The in-laws drop by to sneak another peek at the little one — at 10 pm. Your wife’s best friend calls to talk babies and breastfeeding. Baby wants a bonus-bonus-bonus feeding. And then the ultimate insult: your neighbor’s car alarm startling Junior into wakefulness just as you and his mom are getting nice and cozy. Moron.
And even if your baby does settle back down to sleep after a quick nurse and cuddle, the libido may have left the building. (Your wife’s, that is.) That’s because the Maternal Emergency Response System (MERS) has been put on full alert as a result of the baby’s panicked cry, causing the woman of your dreams to switch from sex kitten setting to mom mode in two seconds flat. It’s as if a gigantic Boy Scout poured a huge bucket of ice water on the campfire that was her sex drive. You can try to get things started again, but you have 50/50 odds of looking like an ultra-attentive lover and 50/50 odds of looking like a pushy jerk who won’t let a tired mom get the sleep she so desperately craves. It’s up to you if you want to want to play sex life roulette. If you win, you win. If you lose, you lose big-time.
And while we’re talking mother meta-text (the things that moms think but simply won’t say), here’s something else that might be conspiring against your sex life: basic biology combined with a common maternal misunderstanding. It has been scientifically proven that moms are hard-wired to be more responsive to their babies in the night than dads (they hear their babies better and they’re more tuned into their babies’ movements, even when both mom and baby are asleep). This means that moms tend to respond instinctively to their babies’ murmurs and stirs while dads are still somewhere off in dreamland. What a mom may interpret as laziness or mean-spiritedness or rotten parenting on the part of that slumbering dad may be basic biology at work. So you get in trouble for being a guy.
But don’t use your guyness as an excuse. She’ll be on to you in a flash. If you even think about using the aforementioned biological fact as a license to play Rip Van Winkle for the next 18 years, you can kiss your sex life goodbye for at least as long. (Let her know that she’s welcome to wake you up if she hears the baby in the night and it’s your turn to get up. Crisis averted.) While your evil friend Barney might be tempted to try to con his wife, he will pay dearly for his stupidity. If a mom feels that her partner isn’t helping out enough with night-time parenting, she’s likely to start feeling angry and resentful, and anger is anything but libido enhancing, as every guy knows.
Here’s what one of the moms that I interviewed for Sleep Solutions for Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler had to say: “There were nights with my first child when I would be hit with this overwhelming urge to kill my husband,” confesses one mother of two. “I was so resentful of the fact that he was lying there sleeping while I was getting up for the third time that night to breastfeed. When I’d come back to bed, I’d get in bed as noisily as possible in the hope that I’d manage to wake him up. I practically used the bed as a trampoline as I bounded back into it at 4:00 am. If he didn’t wake up, I’d lie in bed feeling incredibly angry at him for not waking up, and that resentment would build in me until I felt like I was going to explode. And all the while, he would be having a good night’s sleep without a care in the world.” (Note: In my book I talk about each couple’s needs to figure out what kind of split of night-time parenting duties makes the most sense for them: sometimes 50/50 isn’t equal or fair.)
When I talk to new moms who are feeling this angry and desperate, I try to give them a Dad’s eye view of the situation — to remind them that everything isn’t perfectly rosy on his side of the bed either. In fact, he may be experiencing a smorgasbord of emotions that he may be reluctant to express for fear of upsetting his partner further. So it’s not a cakewalk for dads, either, despite the stereotypical image of the well-rested dad sauntering off to his perfect job to “get a break” all day long.
So what does it take to keep your sex life on track when neither of you are getting much sleep during those weeks and months after baby arrives on the scene? Those three magic ingredients I mentioned earlier (interest, energy, and opportunity) plus a few more: persistence, a sense of humor, a connection as a couple, and a feeling that you’re playing for the same parenting team. As one of the moms that I interviewed put it, “We were tired, and that was a fact of life. Sort of, ‘If I wasn’t so tired I’d jump you’ and ‘If I wasn’t so tired, I’d like it.’”
Ann Douglas is an author, magazine writer, andnewspaper columnist who specializes in writing about parenting. A popular speaker, Ann leads workshops and delivers keynote addresses on a variety of topics of interest to writers, parents, and others who share her passions for education, health, social justice, and civic engagement. She is the host and producer of theTrent Radio shows Citizen Parent and This is Your Writing Life. She lives and works in Peterborough, Ontario, and volunteers her time with various projects and causes.