Welcome to ‘Sex After Kids,’ a column where parents frankly talk about how their sex lives shifted after they had children and what steps they took to recalibrate their relationship. A baby raises the stakes. Couples have less time to devote to one another, emotional intimacy can dwindle, date nights — at least for the first months — are nearly non-existent, and sex is often a non-starter. Couples must adapt. Here’s how they do it.
Louise and Rob Westra, who live in Scotland, have been married for 20 years. They got married six months to the day after they met and had their son eleven years later. For a long time, they weren’t sure they wanted to have kids, and so they had a lot of time to talk the big picture questions about their marriage and their lives. Still, it was a big change. Now, Louise and Rob are in the process of adopting their second son, who is three and lives with them. Here, they talk about how their marriage changed after kids, what they did to keep their relationship on track, and the big benefits of scheduling sex.
Louise: One of the things that has served us is that we had such a significant period of time together, and because we’d had the ‘kids’ conversation on several occasions before we ultimately decided to try to conceive. We had sorted out some of the things that held us back from having a kid earlier on. There were occasions where Rob was ready and I was kind of like “I’m not ready to give up my career,” or I was ready and Rob was like, “I’m not quite ready.”
Rob: Yeah. We’re both strong characters, as well. So normally, I think, being under family pressure sometimes impacts when couples decide to have kids. As soon as you get married, you get the uncles and aunties pop up and say “When are the kids coming?” That proper thing. We don’t tend to follow the lead of what others want us to do. We tend to run our own race. We’ve always done that and we’ve always been a team.
L: When our biological son was born, I decided to take a step back from my practice. As a self-employed person, that was a significant financial decision for us. I wanted to make sure that I took a whole year, at least, with him, because I knew we’d never get that time back. So, the conversation was that because Rob would continue to be working full time, apart from his two weeks paternity leave. Our agreement was that I would get up in the night. I was breastfeeding anyway. I wanted to support him in making sure that he had everything he needed to continue to be the bread-winner at that stage. Rob actually found it easier to deal with our son when he was distressed. He was always distressed at about seven or eight in the evening, as a newborn. That gave me a little bit of emotional freedom, because I knew Rob was there. We called him the baby whisperer.
R: We did.
L: He was naturally so capable. Whereas, I was having a visceral panic response at that time.
R: You need to be flexible.
L: So you do have to view parenting as a team event.
R: That’s an “us” thing, though.
L: I actually really enjoyed pregnancy much more than I anticipated. I felt beautiful. I particularly enjoyed the second trimester. I know that I was blessed, because I had a very lovely husband beside me. But I never felt sexier.
The child birth itself was very frightening. I don’t actually share my birth story with women who have never had a child, because I don’t think it’s helpful. It’s just not necessary. There are too many terrifying things out there in the world. I don’t need to add to their fear and worry. We’d hoped for a home birth. We’d gotten a midwife. And, unfortunately, it didn’t go that way at all. When I saw my c-section scar after giving birth, Rob saw me looking in the mirror and said: “I don’t ever want you to think negatively about that scar. That scar just saved yours and our baby’s life. Thank god it’s there.” That was a profound shift for me. I think, had I had a man next to me who wasn’t so able to verbalize his feelings around what was happening, that could have really been quite a significantly negative thing for me.
R: In terms of emotional intimacy, think that we’re really well attuned to each other. We’ve always been together as a team. And we compliment each other all the time, as well. Kids sometimes try to play each other off, or play one parent against the other parent. We’ve always had that ability to be united. That’s just how we’ve always rolled.
L: We haven’t had a close-knit family around us for much of our raising kids. And unless we know people well, we’re not going to let them look after our kids. So, we haven’t really ever been at that point where we’ve scheduled dates. In an ideal world, we’d do that. But we actively choose to say kind things to each other. We actually asked our 9 year old earlier, we said, “We’re going to do this interview with this lady. This is the question.” He said: “I think you should tell her that you should sleep together as much as possible.” He didn’t mean sex. But we do have that level of intimacy by actually being in the same bed. I find that, and I know Rob does too, very, very helpful. Even if you’re not having sex. But when you’re talking about sex, and it sounds a bit Stepford Wives, but sometimes you just need to schedule it.
L: A few days ago, Rob was really up for it. And for whatever reason, it just didn’t happen. So this morning, it was like, he was awake, I was awake, and we just needed to do it. In some long term marriages, and even in short-term relationships, there are long-term resentments that fester. Because we don’t really have any of that, because we actively choose to air how we are feeling, even if it ends up in a fight. People can have impromptu, healthy sexual experiences with one another without anyone feeling like, taken advantage of. We have a very healthy sex life, but sometimes it’s a struggle, to just actually have sex with our schedules. It can feel a little bit like ships in the night.
L: For Rob particularly, honestly, and I think this is true of quite a lot of men, sex is bound up with intimacy for them. Whereas, for me, the foreplay is washing up. If you just do some household chores —
R: But sometimes, I do the washing up and it doesn’t lead to sex! So that doesn’t work!
L: You know.
R: I’m still trying to figure that one out. Maybe I should get a cleaner, so the washing’s already done.
L: In all seriousness, we did, at once, hire a cleaner, because it freed me up and Robert to have more time and energy for one another.
R: It’s been a humongous difference between raising just the one and raising two.
L: Our situation is complicated a little bit, because when you’ve had a child growing inside of you, this little creature comes out of you and they look like you, and you recognize them on so many different levels, because they grew inside of you and they look like you.
R: The father has a bond, as well.
L: You recognized him.
R: Absolutely. Your brain never has the opportunity to switch off with two kids. You’re constantly looking, and thinking and scanning the house to see what might happen next. You go into another area of fatigue. Being totally drained — work commitments, household commitments, and this commitment on top. And we’ve chosen it.
L: Everyone I’ve spoken to says going from one to two kids is harder than from two to three. And we just had to keep reminding ourselves that we chose him. So, when it comes to the practical day to day, there is less time. What we’ve needed to do for our older child is make sure that we’re more available for him in the evenings. He’s going to bed a little bit later now, which is happening naturally as he grows older. But we’ve made that extra space available, and that does have a knock-on effect on our sex lives. Hence, why it took us three days to have sex on this occasion, when maybe we’d only had one child, it would have kind of just been like, right, let’s do it! So there’s definitely a price to be paid. But then when you hear him — our three year old — he’s got a great laugh.
R: He’s got the best laugh on the planet.
L: When you hear them laugh and they want to cuddle you and give you a kiss.
R: Or they’re both playing in the backyard together… It’s been a hard slog, but the blessing is fantastic.
L: It’s the price that you have to be willing to pay. There are only 24 hours in a day.