Four days after my baby was born I lay in the bath, halfsubmerged in the water, and I looked at my new body. The soft rolls of my stomach were laced with a fine web of pale stretchmarks; my breasts were swollen, hard and unfamiliar. Before my pregnancy, my body had been a different country. My breasts were a gentle curve, softly filling out dresses in just the right way. I wore halterneck bikinis and unbuttoned shirts one button too far. I liked the way a locket on a long gold chain fell, I liked lingerie: hot pink, polka dot and teal and sleeping in silky, strappy chemises. But now my body fitted none of my dresses. I had no curves, just expanses of mottled flesh, like a giant beached whale. I wore a stained old T-shirt and my husband’s jeans. My breasts had to be pummelled and kneaded to help the milk flow. They were sore, too big, too firm, and my nipples needed special, medicated creams. It hurt a bit, all the time, all over. For what seemed like weeks, I crouched, daily, in warm water scented with tea-tree oil, nursing my scars and stitches. I felt like a wounded animal, walking differently – delicately, warily – wincing from the sharp pain of it all. People told me that life would never be the same again after I became a mother but would I ever, ever feel like having sex? It sure didn’t feel like it.
We all talk about the extraordinary miracle of growing a baby. I’ll never get over the wonder of it. But what really happens to your body when you’ve grown, carried and birthed a baby? When the narrative of your body changes, at least for a bit; because your body takes on new stories. Do we really talk, honestly, about sex after pregnancy? I don’t think we do. A close friend of mine had two children 10 months apart and although she and I talk about almost everything with honestly and frankness – and I feel I can ask her practically anything – it’s not something I’ve ever felt I can ask her: What sort of sex was she having when her baby was only a few days old? I can hardly imagine it. For me, sex after childbirth was a process of recovery, of feeling my way back to it, gingerly, cautiously.
Our bedroom was once a place that could feel sexy and romantic, a place I could feel tousled and sultry, smooth and lovely, naked and wrapped in a sheet; a place where we could feel in the mood on lazy Sunday mornings, or stumbling in together, tipsy from dinner. But in the weeks after we brought our baby home, our bedroom changed. It was crowded – not just with a baby, of course, restless in his Moses basket by our bed – but also a huge, floral breastfeeding pillow and muslins flung over the bed to mop up spillages of milk and sick. There were nappies and wipes and pots of Sudocrem on every surface. The nightlight bathed the room in permanent grey gloom. And there was me, dressed in a pale blue flannel nightdress (the only one I could find in Marks & Spencer that unbuttoned low enough to feed at night) and under it I was trussed in a vast expanse of nursing bra and greying rib-high knickers stuffed with absorbent pads. Sex seemed to be something that happened a million miles from here.
Our bed was no longer a place of intimacy and connection with my husband (indeed my husband spent most of those early nights relegated to the sofa) but it was now where I spent long midnight hours awake with my baby, feeding, burping, all the while reading Guardian articles on my iPad propped up on what was once my husband’s pillow. We’d always been quite firm that phones should stay out of the bedroom but the rules had changed. Everything had changed.
Or had it? Very slowly, I started to recover. The baby started sleeping for longer periods at night and my husband was allowed back into the bedroom. Somehow, and with lots of help from my kind health visitor, I got the hang of breastfeeding, the milk started flowing and I began to remember what my normal body felt like. I threw out my ageing, depressing maternity pants, packed away the flannel nightdress and bought two beautiful nursing bras that didn’t make me feel like a dairy cow. My body was probably changed forever (I was wider, thicker, broader – but stronger, too) but I was not really changed, not in any way that really mattered. I was still me, still a woman, my husband still himself. He had never thought I looked anything less than beautiful, even in those grey-faced, sunken-eyed first weeks, and he said it often. As I began to feel more like myself, I remembered I wanted him too.
But how do you find your way back to sex when you haven’t done it in ages? We never stopped holding each other and that really helped; our bodies were never strangers to one another. And, mostly, my husband had to be patient. And so, eventually, we did what we did at the start of it all, as nervous, 20-year-old students: we started with a kiss.
THE TRUTH ABOUT SEX AFTER BABIES
There are no rules about when to start having sex again after you’ve given birth. Some women wait three weeks, some wait six months – but doctors and midwives generally advise waiting until the six-week postnatal check. You’ll probably feel sore as well as tired after your baby is born so don’t rush into it. If sex hurts, it won’t be pleasurable. It might take even longer for it to be as enjoyable as it once was; that is normal too. A recent study showed that less than half of mothers rank their sex life as ‘good’ eight months after giving birth (compared to 70% of women beforehand). So it’s totally normal that after having a baby both the quantity and quality of sex may take a while to return to what is normal for you. (Source NHS)