August 25, 2003
When I was pregnant with my first child I had a maternity outfit consisting of a bright scarlet knit top and matching slacks. When I wore it in the late stages my husband joked affectionately that I was his “big red tomato,” and I very much enjoyed that image of myself as ripe, glowing and full of juices.
Twenty-four hours after my daughter was born I was weeping in the bathroom (so my husband and the other new mothers in the 4-bed hospital room wouldn’t know) about how fat and hideous I was and how hard it was going to be to lose all the fecund weight I’d put on during the pregnancy.
I was SUPPOSED to be happy and thrilled about being a mother. The pregnancy had gone swimmingly, the labor was intense but amazingly brief for a first, and my daughter was healthy and exquisite. So why was I such an embarrassing emotional wreck all of a sudden?
I’d heard about post-partum depression, of course, but I assumed *I* was going to be immune. *I* was emotionally strong, I was sensible enough to know that things would not be perfect after the baby arrived and that I had to be flexible and mature enough to face and deal with reality as it evolved. Intellectually and mentally I felt fully prepared to handle anything. I might, I conceded (sensibly), be a little surprised every now and again, but because I had read everything I could get my hands on about infancy and motherhood, it was going to be easier for me to cope with the big changes ahead than it was for other, more ignorant women.
So, okay, I decided (sensibly) I might feel a little blue for a couple of days after I brought the baby home, I could understand that. My hormones would be in flux and I might not be getting enough sleep. So if I started feeling down at any point, I would just tell myself that everything was okay, it was natural to feel that way, and presto! I’d just talk myself into straightening up and flying right. I was very smart, very educated, and very practical. I was going to be a special case in this motherhood game. If I had any depression at all — which I heartily doubted I would — a “merely hormonal” moment or two wouldn’t be a big deal for ME!
I not only got depressed, I felt ASHAMED of feeling depressed, and that made everything worse.
Even before I left the hospital I was realizing that this new adventure called motherhood MIGHT not be amenable to my interior pep talks. I woke from one fitful hospital sleep in which I was mentally berating my new mother room-mates for not taking care of their crying babies to discover that it was MY baby who was crying her little heart out while Mommy slept (more shame). I fell asleep with her on my chest (another no-no!) and woke again to find that she had evacuated about a quart of gooey black new-baby feces all over us both (even the newborn sized diapers were too big). So at three in the morning I was in the hospital bathroom again, cleaning us both up, crying (again). What a mess, I kept thinking, what a mess, what a mess, what a mess. And it wasn’t just the shit I was thinking about.
August 26, 2003
My daughter was a restless baby and a weak nurser (as I only realized after I had my son, who had a Hoover of a mouth), so my milk production wasn’t enough to really fill her up at any given feeding. As a result we got into a bad schedule of an inadequate feeding every two hours. I couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t sleep, we were going crazy. It was a nightmare.
But it was self-inflicted to a degree, because I was such an intellectual purist on the subject of breast feeding that I WOULD NOT supplement with a bottle to top her off and give us time for my breasts to fill well before she was hungry again. I also violated the cardinal rule for a breast-feeding mother — I didn’t take in enough water. More experienced women told me later that nursing moms should push fluids until they practically slosh when they walk, and they should never, ever feel thirsty, because by the time thirst kicks in, you’re already dehydrated. I’d read that in all my piles of books, of course, but it still seemed like a minor point, and I was so tired and distracted and crazy that I more or less forgot it.
I go into this amount of sad new motherhood detail not to bore or disgust you but to make a point. The baby’s care and my anxieties and inadequacies became the totality of my existence in those early weeks. My husband was as helpful as I allowed him to be, but for me he became almost beside the point. I saw him as a distraction, something else I had to deal with in the midst of my exhaustion. I had to be strong and normal and competent in front of him, because he would become worried and — I feared — cranky if I wasn’t. The last thing in the world I wanted was a grumpy husband on top of everything else.
So I got into my Superwoman mode again, trying to do everything myself and resenting the fact that I “had” to. Many women become grizzly bears at this stage in their lives, crazily, jealously protective of their “cubs” at the expense of everything else, including their husbands’ needs. I think part of my reason for being so adamant about not supplementing my breast milk with formula was because letting her father feed her was a privilege I didn’t want to relinquish. I was truly indispensible and I liked that feeling, even as I also resented it.
Women’s emotional circle naturally draws inward into a preoccupation with their infants. Objectively speaking, this extreme preoccupation/protectiveness isn’t really necessary to the infant’s survival in this day and age, but in earlier human history it probably was. The human family has benefitted enormously from women’s “natural” dismissal of husbands from their consciousness after the birth of a baby, and girl babies that survived because of this recentering of attention grew up to be adult women with the same trait. But for some women this initial bearish irritability and child-centeredness continues far beyond the infancy stage, and that’s when things tend to get really sticky between marital partners.
Even the initial phase of this preoccupied state of being can be very problematic for couples today. Early motherhood is often distillation of virtually ALL the sex-freezing problems we’ve discussed so far: Disgust, Discomfort, Distraction, Insecurity, Misunderstanding, Anger, and Boredom, with additional challenges from major emotional and physical ass-kickers like vaginal injury (let’s face it, birth may be “natural” but it also routinely tears and bruises), hormonal storms, and crushing fatigue. For me fatigue combined with personal pride was a particularly terrible combination.
August 29, 2003
To tell you the truth, I don’t know what obstetricians are recommmending today in terms of when new mothers can resume intercourse. For all I know it’s three weeks or eight, but when I had my daughter, it was “No intercourse for six weeks.”
Some of the motherhood books I read were all chirpy, though, about how we sleepless, anxious, bruised new moms might like to indulge our hovering husbands with “other kinds” of sex in the meantime. Yaright.
Not to beat a dead horse here — and not pretending that I was necessarily RIGHT to feel this way — but my body and mind were already in too much of an uproar for me to add any other female “duties” to my list of Supermommy chores. It was all I could do to maintain a “competent and coping” face so I wouldn’t upset my husband too much. He may have felt negelected, I don’t know (and I’ve never asked), but at the time, for me, the male adult living with me was just background noise to my frantic concern with the baby. The only way I could reassure him was with my outward display of cool and collected motherhood. I don’t know whether it was hormones or female nature or what, but THE BABY was I.T., It for me at that point. I not only couldn’t do anything more, I almost couldn’t THINK of anything else.
At five weeks my daughter started to have unexplained rectal bleeding, and she went into the hospital. It ended up stopping on its own, but at one point I had to go on a no-animal-protein-except-for-fish diet because there was a possibility that her intestines were reacting badly to some animal-protein antigen coming through in my milk. She had a certain kind of Xray test in which I had to hold her tiny feet down while she screamed blue-white murder. I slept at the hospital on a cot for three days, entertaining a parade of curious military doctors whose role in the hierarchy of her care was opaque even to me, the daughter of an RN.
We finally got home from the hospital (the bleeding stopped, the mystery of what had caused it remained) a couple of days before she was six weeks old.
Frankly, I was dreading the sex I would “have” to give to my husband the minute the six weeks were up. Not just because I was concerned that it might hurt, but because my mind was so completely turned away from that part of my existence. I knew intellectually — and I’d read it in my books, too! — that it was necessary to reconnect with that other adult human in my household, and that if my husband was deprived of my body for too long he’d start to lose it, and we’d all be worse off than before. But I couldn’t feel sexual. At all.
Yet I did my duty and it did sting a little bit, along the line of my episiotomy scar, but it was otherwise okay. I breathed a sigh of relief afterward.
But of course it was a continuing duty. I couldn’t just do it that one brave time and have it over with. I knew I was supposed to pick up the pace as time went on, enjoy it more and have it more often. There were EXPECTATIONS of good motherhood and good wifehood that I had to meet.
It was the frigidity thing all over again. I didn’t see sex as an enjoyable interlude or something to look forward to, but as just another one of the long line of demands that were being made on my body. The baby pulled on my breasts nine times a day, I couldn’t sleep, I had my routine household work to do, I had to tend to the baby’s needs from dawn to dawn, and now I had to “perform” in bed with my husband, too.
A lot of people, discussing the issue of sex after a baby, have made a lot of the idea that many women have a subconscious hangup that tells them that “Mothers” are not supposed to be sexy. I don’t think that was my problem. (That may be denial talking, since if it’s supposed to be a subsconscious hangup, I wouldn’t consciously recognize it, right?) But for me I think it was more that feeling of being overwhelmed by the demands of others (even though, in truth, many were demands I was actually imposing on myself) and my radical emotional, mental and physical preoccupation with the baby (something that the bleeding incident had made much worse).
I’ve heard other women say this, too: Something about having a baby — whether it’s hormones or whatever — made me a taut, singing wire of baby empathy, to the extent that even news stories about infants or children being hurt caused me to react much more emotionally and viscerally than they ever had before. Again, this is probably a paleological survival trick Nature plays on new mothers, and luckily it wears off somewhat, because hysterical weeping about the inhumanity of total strangers who beat their children is not a useful reaction in the long run.
September 4, 2003
My most important “sex advice” for you as a new father is: don’t let your wife butt you out of your legitimate role. Her concentration is naturally going to narrow and be trained almost exclusively on the baby, and her “mother bear” irritability may end up making you feel left out, insulted or unimportant. But your participation and responsiveness to your family’s needs are absolutely crucial at this point. This is primo “Do The Right Thing” territory. Embrace the roster of your new responsibilities wholeheartedly and you’ll be glad in the end. Whine that the universe is no longer babying YOU, and you’ll blow it.
Your responsibilities to your wife at this point are to help her sleep, help her eat, help her nurse, and help her relax. If you help your wife you’ll be helping your baby. Sure, the baby will need some Daddy snuggling, etc., but the person who really, really needs you now — more than she can know or express — is your wife.
If you can stand it, read one of your wife’s “nursing advice” books. I know that many men are somewhat freaked out or even secretly disgusted by this particular life function (some women are, too). If you have these hesitations, your wife is going to sense them, and although there’s little you can do about these feelings directly, sometimes getting more intellectually familiar with the whole weird process can moderate that “gut” reaction.
One of the psychological hurdles that many women and men experience in relation to having sex during the nursing period is that sexual stimulation of the breasts can cause the milk to flow. That can be messy, of course, but more importantly, some women will panic about the idea that the baby’s milk is being “wasted.” You can diminish this concern by having sex right after she has nursed the baby, when she is likely to be more or less “empty.”
Milk production is a continuous process, however, so there is likely to be some milk in her breasts within minutes afterward. So you do need to work out how you and she both feel about the milk issue. Some women don’t have any problem with allowing their husbands to “taste” or even outright suckle, and others are horrified by the very idea. One good thing about sexual stimulation of the breast is that it can help to increase production, and might be particularly useful in those cases where the baby’s suckling is relatively weak.
I go on about this “icky” issue because it is one of those places in the motherhood process where women are required to reconcile their sexual and motherhood roles in a very direct and immediate way. Those women who feel that Mommies aren’t (or shouldn’t be) sexual creatures — and again, their evolutionary nature might be pushing this into their brains in spite of their intellectual resistance to the idea — will have some trouble, inwardly or outwardly, with the milk issue.
Similarly, some women have an unshakable, gut level concern about having sex with the baby in the room. Even when they know this concern is ridiculous, it still impinges on their consciousness and constitutes one of those direct, bedroom level “Distraction”s we talked about earlier. But moving the baby out of the room might not help much, either, because then there will be the worry that they will not hear the baby cry for help.
When I first came home with my daughter, whenever I took a shower I ended up turning it off several times because amidst the sound of the rushing water I always thought I heard her crying. Something deep inside seemed to require me to respond to her, even if I was in the middle of something else. Even if I didn’t or couldn’t instantly go to her physically, in my mind I was still completely there with her whenever she was crying. So if she started crying in the middle of sex…well, you see the problem.
Distraction is also the major problem with later childrearing, and next time I’ll briefly reprise some issues from that discussion, with more words on how to help your wife keep her eye on the erotic ball.
Then there’s the problem some MEN have with fatherhood, per se. Becoming a parent can damage their sense of themselves as hot dudes with infinite possibilities, and many of them will subconsciously blame their wives for the feeling of loss.
September 6, 2003
An apparent digression which leads to new material
In the comments on the Shlain book, Sex, Time and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution featured in Monday’s post, Rayne gave us some excellent input.
I particularly responded to this, for reasons you’ll understand in a minute:
Do I believe in the notion of a woman’s “unconscious cooperation” with nature outside of our “alleged control”? Yeah, howdy. The reason why is contained in the story of how I became a mother for the second time.
We were using a diaphragm at that point, hormonal contraception being out while I was breastfeeding my daughter and me being lazy about starting it up again in the 6 or 7 months since I’d stopped nursing her. One morning we got out of bed to discover my diaphragm sitting on the dresser with a semi-crystalized puddle of spermicide in the flattened bottom of its little bowl. I’d gotten it all ready to put in, and then, apparently, set it on the dresser doily, got into bed, and….
Do I need to mention that this little lapse on my part happened at exactly the most fertile point in my menstrual cycle?
Okay, it’s true that I’m the absent-minded type, and I’m sometimes ridiculously scatterbrained when it comes to the details of everyday living, but this was just too perfect in terms of timing for me to see it as anything other than nature insisting on its way despite my conscious wishes. I will swear from here to eternity that I didn’t want another child at that point. My daughter was only 15 months old at that time, and I could see that she would need my undivided attention for a long time to come. She’d barely gotten to the point that she could walk reliably and was starting to talk. And yet, somehow, I still forgot to put in that damn diaphragm.
I should also mention here that recent research has revealed that many women ovulate more than once a month. That’s probably the major reason why women who rely on the “rhythm” method end up pregnant. Other studies have noted that sperm can remain alive in a woman’s reproductive tract for up to a week. No matter how regular you are, there really isn’t any “safe” time to have sex without contraceptives.
And that’s one of the major problems many women have with sex: they are afraid they’ll get pregnant, and/or their chosen contraceptive method is anti-spontaneous and a pain in the ass.
September 15, 2003
Getting Back on the Sexual El Train
The fear of a new pregnancy is a particularly upfront and personal one for new mothers, especially if they’ve had a rough delivery and/or a traumatic early motherhood. But even women who’ve never had a baby, or who might be expected to have “forgotten” the immediate experience of delivery can fear pregnancy, and sometimes that fear is deeper than they themselves even realize.
So just as contraception becomes almost more important than ever, it also becomes more aggravating to think about and use. At a time when the pill is out of the question for a nursing mother and sex is almost always too rushed (“Quick, the baby’s asleep, maybe we can…oh, shit, he’s awake again…”), a woman’s ability to recover her interest in romance and sexual pleasure is constrained by having to use mechanical methods of birth control (condoms, diaphragms, sponges), which interfere with relaxation and spontaneity.
It almost makes you wonder how women ever get back on the sexual track after a baby, doesn’t it? It’s a tribute to the strength of natural libido that most women do, one way or another. Eventually.
Her vagina heals, the baby becomes (but, yes, sometimes painfully slowly) less demanding, she gets more sleep and doesn’t have that “overload” of constant physical contact with another human body, you have time to become re-acquainted with each other, and the sexual instinct rises again.
But there are a lot of things that can interfere with this more-or-less natural progression, and as I noted earlier, nature seems to have set women up in such a way that their sexual interest is much more easily revived by NEW erotic possibilities after one of these periods of quiescence than by a “routine” partner. It’s probably evolution’s way of creating the widest possible variety of DNA combinations with the best possible chance of reproducing themselves: give men the drive to scatter their seed widely, and give women the drive to seek a “better” partner for each new child (“better” being defined differently depending on the challenges of any given environment).
So, contrary to popular belief, both men and women seek sexual variety, excitement, romance, or “sparks,” but in women that natural quest comes with a twist: her drive goes underground in the post-partum period, and if some kind of erotic encouragement or, ahem, new possibility isn’t available to her when that natural burrowing should end, her sex drive can stay down there indefinitely. Women are very much “use it or lose it” creatures when it comes to sex, while men (until they grow older, at least) tend to have libidos with pilot lights that never go out.
I’ll talk next time about some ways you can encourage your wife to come up for air at the end of her new motherhood tunnel.
September 16, 2003
The Surfacing Phase
As I mentioned earlier, your most important role in the early parenthood period is to be a guardian of your wife’s well-being so that she can take good care of your child, and one of the most important aspects of this guardianship is, paradoxically, to help her maintain her sense of herself as a woman separate from that child.
Now, in order to do this job right you’ll have to have to cultivate a sense of timing. In the first 6 to 8 weeks you may have to let her submerge herself in the baby and neglect you and herself in a way that you may think is Too Much, because interference with that natural post-partum “underwater” process can add stress and conflict to an already crazy period of your life. Be strong. Be a hero of unheard-of patience and forbearance. Go with her flow for the first month and a half or so. Let her have her way when it comes to baby care decisions and obsessional behaviors and preoccupations. Then, gently and gradually, begin to encourage her to come back to the surface.
There are two things you must try to arrange at about the 4-6 week mark: time for you two to be a couple away from the baby and time for her to be ALONE with herself.
I can almost guarantee that she will resist both of these attempts at first (and maybe even at second, third and fourth). She will hesitate to leave the baby with a babysitter. She may even hesitate to leave the baby alone with you. She will make excuses not to go and when she does she will worry and fret the whole time you are gone (at least on the inside). You may even conclude that it wasn’t worth it because the baby was still essentially “there” the whole time anyway, but it was a first necessary step. Go out to dinner. You can talk about the baby if she insists, at least the first time, but try to turn the conversation to other things on subsequent afternoons or evenings out. The plan is to gradually, gently, softly draw her attention away from the cares of motherhood to the joys of couplehood. Keep the tractor beam of your dazzling masculine charm tugging upon her bow. Prow. Erm…..you know what I mean.
You also have to encourage her to go out of the house alone. To the library. To get a pedicure. To window shop. To rant on a soap box at Marble Arch. Anything. It’s not enough to just get her to take time for herself in the house within sight and sound of the baby. Physical separation of a couple hours’ duration is absolutely necessary. These moments when a woman can re-experience herself in her alternate roles (as wife and as her individual self) should occur at LEAST once a week, but ideally more often.
I’ll get a lot of flack for this, I think, but I’m going to say it anyway: I’m against the current fad for keeping a baby in a “Family Bed” at night with its mother and father until it is a toddler. Not only does this practice encourage children to remain dependent “infants” too long emotionally and makes for a more difficult separation transition at a more aware age, it discourages mothers from resuming their other life roles as wives and independent individuals. I also have a pet theory about the quality of sleep being a prime determinate of quality of life, and a baby in the bed can interfere with sleep in a number of subtle ways, even if the adults involved think they have “gotten used” to it.
Let the brickbats begin.
ADDENDUM: An intervening post on The Politics of Parenthood
Since I’ve been talking about new motherhood here I’ve been more attuned to birth/early days stories on some of the other blogs I read, and today Jeanne of Body and Soul has a particularly good one. The genesis of it was the generalized bitchfest which resulted from her post on Clinton the day before. To complement the complaints, Jeanne decided to write something positive about the man. But, “rather than list accomplishments,” she wrote, “I prefer to just tell a story.”
My daughter was born in 1995. She was a C-section. She came out late one Saturday night, and, insurance being what it is, we were both home early the following Monday morning. When I was sent home I was still unable to turn over in bed without help, let alone walk. Within a day or so, I had a temperature of 105, and a serious infection. Not long after, I had a husband who was supposed to go back to work, having used up his miserly few personal leave days. We have no family in California. I was going to be left alone, unable to get up without falling over, with a raging fever (and, by this time, a catheter) to take care of a newborn baby.And then a friend reminded my husband about the Family Leave Act, which Clinton had signed two years earlier, requiring employers to give workers up to 12 weeks a year of unpaid time off to care for a family member (or, in our case, two family members). I don’t know anybody who could afford to lose 12 weeks of their salary, but my husband took off a week, which he would not have been entitled to without Bill Clinton, and which meant that my daughter was taken care of, by her father, for the first weeks of her life, and not left to cry in her crib because her mother would not have been able to pick her up without dropping her, even if she’d been able to get across the room to the crib.
In case anyone gets the opportunity to break it to George Bush, that is what family values are all about.
If you think it’s nuts that the hospital was throwing a surgical patient with a newborn out on her own in less than 36 hours, I can only agree. This ridiculousness was part of the reason for another piece of legislation Bill Clinton signed in 1996 requiring insurers to pay for hospital stays of at least 48 hours following normal childbirth and 96 hours following a Caesarian — unless a mom herself wants to go home sooner. If this legislation had been in effect for Jeanne, her rising infection would probably have been caught before she went home, and because of the extra days of hospital care her husband’s ordinary leave might have been enough to get them through afterward. Everybody might have been happy about that — the husband’s employer as well as the Jeannes — because even though a firm doesn’t have to pay an employee who is on Family Leave, they still have to compensate somehow for the employee’s lost work.
More than a few on the right screamed bloody murder about the 48 hour rule, calling it, for example, “48 hour incarceration,” as if it somehow interfered with the rights of new mothers to get out of that “jail” called a hospital. It didn’t. It doesn’t begin to address the problem of what happens after 48 or 96 hours, of course, when what is really needed is some trained, supportive, practical in-home assistance. But it can prevent the worst of the “kick’em” outrages that were occurring in that era, outrages which in aggregate were actually more expensive — to families, to employers AND to insurers, than the funding of professional at-home assistance might be. As Jeanne said,
The catch, of course, is that losing a week’s salary, for us, meant we had to cut back a bit, but we weren’t going to starve. There are large numbers of people in this country who need the same kind of help who can’t afford to take [family leave].
The kind of hands-on, in-home help new mothers need used to be provided by members of the new baby’s extended family, but in today’s atomized, mobile, working-women society, many of us no longer can count on that resource. So new fathers too often have to leave their employers — and their co-workers! — in the lurch, and the new family has to take a budgetary hit just when they can least afford it. We should be doing some heavy thinking about that, don’t you think?