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.
Liz and Austin Alvarez from Atlanta are parents to 21-month-old Canaan. They talked constantly about bringing their kid into their existing family, not the other way around. After Liz had an unplanned c-section, she leaned on Austin in a way she never thought she would, and that immediate need for teamwork made the rest of their early-baby-dom much easier. Here, Liz and Austin talk about finding time for each other, their sex lives after baby, and how tired they were in the newborn phase.
When you were expecting, what kind of conversations were you having about your relationship? About what might change?
Liz: We have a lot of friends in our friend group and in our community that have already had kids. That was really helpful. Everything we observed other people parenting, we were taking notes like, “Oh, I love that. I love that they approached this that way.’”And then things that we saw that were like, “Hmm. Maybe that’s not something we want to take for our parenting style.” But honestly, it was all super theoretical until we actually had him.
Did your theoretical conversations look at all like the reality of having a newborn baby?
L: No newborn is easy. They all wake you up in the middle of the night and they’re all needy and they all eat around the clock, but Canaan, our son, was relatively happy as a newborn. The newborn phase was not actually quite as hard as we envisioned, just because we did have so many close friends that had some of the hardest newborn phases ever.
Austin: Going into it, I was thinking, ‘Okay. we’re literally never going to sleep again. We’re never going to have sex again.’ I set my expectations as low as humanly possible so I wouldn’t be let down. Thankfully, everything was a positive because of that.
So the grass was greener.
L: Yes. You can do all the classes and baby registering, but if you don’t have a support system, you aren’t going to make it. We have family that lives like an hour away across the city, and we have friends close, and my mom is a nine-hour drive. So for things like, for me, the hormonal part of having a newborn, when my hormones were just going crazy and I’d just given birth and was not myself, I’d be like, “I just need you to come over, and hold my baby, while I cry in a corner, because I’m mad at my kid a little bit, but he’s a perfect angel and I, just, am crazy.” I think cultivating that community was the biggest game-changer for us. I think that made everything easier for us, if that makes sense.
A: We knew people that didn’t have a single date night when they had their kid. We know some people that went three years before ever leaving their kids. How the heck do you prioritize connection with your spouse, and keeping your love life alive, keeping that deep, romantic connection, or even just like, staying best friends if your kid becomes the center of your universe, you know?
You made your love life a priority.
L: When Canaan was two or three weeks old, we went on a date. We were gone for an hour, but we went to Starbucks and sat there and drank our coffee and had an awkward, ‘we want to talk about our baby but we won’t do it, darnit,’ conversation. My mom stayed with our son. That was important for us, to put a stake in the ground.
I think a lot of parents make their kids their entire world. We’ve always had the theory, which was just a theory before we had kids and now we’re actually getting to figure out what that looks like in practice, but we’ve always said, Austin and I are a family. Kids will join our family and then leave. It’s hard to think about that when they are a couple of weeks old. But when they’re gone, it will just be Austin and I. We never want to be one of those couples that wakes up in 20 years when our kids are moved out and roll over and look at each other and say, “Oh. I don’t know you.”
It’s really hard to say that when you also have a newborn who obviously needs you for everything. But something that we’ve been doing since Canaan started going to bed at a reasonable hour, we pick one day a week that’s a date night in the home. We put our phones away and pick something to do — a game, or a movie, or questions to ask each other or dinner to cook together — one night a week. We set that time aside for each other. That’s really helped with our connection. I wish we had started doing that sooner.
A: After having him, I’ve finally understood why we watch parents let kids become the center of their lives. It’s really hard not to go there. This kid, if Liz is feeding this kid every couple of hours for weeks, and feels like her body —
L: Sometimes they’re just attached to you for hours.
A: So I’d constantly hear Liz saying, “I just want my body back. I don’t know who I am anymore. All I am is a food truck.”
What about the physical part of your relationship? Liz, how was birth and recovery, and when did you guys start talking about physical intimacy?
L: I had a rough pregnancy. I was one of those people who was sick all the way up until, and through, labor. I was throwing up every day. I kind of thought whenever it came to the birth recovery, I was like, well, anything is better than this. After four hours of pushing, I ended up having a C-section. That was tough, and breastfeeding was a much bigger challenge than I thought. I didn’t expect it to be so painful for so long. I was also really stable emotionally through pregnancy. I thought postpartum hormones wouldn’t be a big deal. But I just was a basket case. I’m thankful it didn’t last, but for the first three weeks of our son’s life, it was so hard. We tried for him for years. I was like, this has been all I wanted. Why am I not over the moon happy right now? There was this very dark cloud over those first few weeks.
A: She labored like a boss. She handled it so well. She was getting sick in the bucket that I was holding, every thirty minutes, minimum. When four hours went by and he didn’t come out, it was just ugly tears. For hours.. Because c-section is a major surgery, she couldn’t sit up by herself for a week or week and a half. We had to create this rhythm where it was just really challenging for her, because as you can probably tell, Liz is a go-getter. She doesn’t take any crap.
L: I don’t like help.
A: We got into a rhythm that I actually really appreciated. I felt like I could contribute. I was concerned that, if she carries the baby and does all the breastfeeding, what’s my role, other than to support her emotionally? How am I going to take care of my son? I was able to grab him, wrap him up, spend a quick moment with him or change his diaper and pass him off to Liz. That just became our thing.
When were you able to sit up on your own again?
L: A week and a half or two weeks after birth. It was probably right around that 3-week mark or so that I started feeling more like myself. There are gas and air bubbles that get trapped in you when they open you up for abdominal surgery. That’s painful. The pain from breastfeeding started getting better. That all coincided by helping lift that cloud. And then by the sixth week, the six week follow-up, I was much more good to go.
A: And at six weeks we got cleared for sexual intimacy again, too. We had a lot of conversations around the: “Okay, what are our sexual expectations post-pregnancy? How can we make sure both of our needs are met but accommodate her still healing?”
L: Yeah, just cause you get cleared for it doesn’t mean you can just pick up where you left off.
That’s what I was going to ask. Even if you were cleared, were you even in that mindset?
L: We always notice that our relationship is way worse when we’re not having sex on a regular basis. Not that it has to be all the time — but just, that physical connection, at least for us, fosters emotional connection, too. We were ready to get back into it but it took a while. We decided to ease back into it. It took quite a few times of being very ginger and being like “Okay, better than last time!”