When Charlie and his wife started dating everything was an adventure, including sex. The Connecticut couple hopped bars and clubs before hopping on each other. But when they decided to start a family in their late 30s, the loose spontaneity of their sex life vanished.
It felt like a job. They were on a schedule, driven by data analysis and biometrics, trying to engineer a specific result. Charlie’s wife’s body coursed with hormones and fertility medications — Charlie administered the drugs by sticking needles into her butt — and the battery of pregnancy-inducing chemicals amplified her stress and anxiety to arena-shaking decibels.
“Once, she tore me apart for smoking pot, saying it was ruining my sperm,” Charlie says. “When I made a joke about Snoop Dogg having four kids she yelled at me for not taking it seriously. Then we had sex that afternoon because we were scheduled to. That’s the only time I’ve had sex with someone who was mad at me. Minimal foreplay. I don’t think we even kissed. It was just like, get it done.”
Today, Charlie’s daughter is in elementary school. “In the long run it brought us closer together,” Charlie says. “But when it looked like the kid thing might not happen, it was really hard.”
Trying for a baby can change a couple’s sex life in profound ways. Sex stops being about carnal pleasure or kinky thrills and becomes two people working together towards a common goal. Making a baby can spark profound passion and connection. Or it can drain the fun out of the bedroom and make sex a chore or a source of stress. That’s especially true when couples have trouble conceiving.
New York City mother of one Amy Klein became pregnant after three years of infertility and four miscarriages and recorded her embattled journey to motherhood in a New York Times blog and the forthcoming book The Trying Game. Klein says couples trying to get pregnant need to accept that recreational sex and procreative sex feel very different.
“It might not be the most relaxing and fun sexual experience of your life that you had in your 20s,” she says. “It’s not your one-night stand. It’s not meeting guy in the bar and having wild, passionate sex. It’s having sex and hopefully coming up with a result.
With modern couples getting married later in life, conception sex is far more likely to produce stress. The average American first-time mother is 26, five years older than the average new mom of 1972. In cities like San Francisco, the average is even higher, with women delaying pregnancy until their early 30s. Women start losing fertility at 32, and that loss accelerates at 35.
With the odds stacked against older couples hoping to conceive, they boost their chances by tracking ovulation cycles, sperm motility, body temperature, cervical mucus, and other biological data that might give them a baby-making edge. Fiona Gilbert, physiologist and co-founder of San Francisco fertility clinic Haumea Health, says the biological monitoring can spill over into obsession and short circuit the sex it’s supposed to supplement.
“There are people who jump up after sex to measure mucus levels and check their temperature,” Gilbert says. But being hyper-conscious of biological fluctuations often strips sex of its, well, sexiness. “Once you get into that mindset, it becomes clinical.”
Approaching sex like a task requiring peak efficiency and tactical precision can sabotage sex for a simple reason: people need to be turned on. And what turns us on is varied and unpredictable. When researchers asked 400 sexually active college students why they had sex, they received 237 different answers, ranging from physical desire to revenge. While the urgency inherent to hacking your reproductive system can initially be a turn on, over time it feels like disavowing the pleasure and desire that are central components of sex.
“It’s very exciting and sexy the first couple times the woman pounces on the man and says ‘drop your pants, it’s time to make a baby,’” New York City clinical psychologist Dr. Chloe Carmichael says. “It can be exciting if people are going about it with the right attitude. But after the first few times when you keep doing it, it can start to feel like a little bit more of a demand situation for both parties. And it can also seem as if you’re saying the purpose here is now just all about making a baby.”
In her unsuccessful attempt at getting pregnant in her early 40s, Carol Gee adopted kept an ovulation calendar that required her and her husband to rush home to have sex to optimize their chances,” Gee says. “Having sex like that took the romance out of our intimacy and actually made me feel more anxious than sensual.”
When couples have problems conceiving, it’s easy to lose touch with the pleasure and intimacy of sex. When Klein was struggling to conceive, she found it impossible to look past her fertility problems. “In the very beginning, obviously it’s fun and it’s sexy,” Klein says. “At a certain point it’s always going to be there in the back of your mind. To try to expect it that it’s not is a little bit too much pressure on you.”
When you’re unable to conceive, sex can stop being a reliable source of relaxation and escape and becomes a source of profound stress. “It really stresses the adrenal response,” Gilbert says. “You start thinking ‘I’m here to do a job and if we don’t get pregnant, I kind of suck at my job.”
Michigan resident and hopeful mom-to-be Melissa Bush says sex changed when conception became a factor. “It was planned and not a surprise. The time between was stressful because I was anxious to know if conception occurred and sad because it didn’t. Patience is hard and it’s difficult because we are both older and still hope to have a baby.”
During Klein’s long struggle with infertility, she kept encountering the same boilerplate advice. “The typical woman’s magazine advice is that you should just relax,” Klein says. But she found the suggestion more annoying than helpful. “It’s not relaxing when you wait every month for something to happen and it’s not happening whether you’re trying at home or you’re at a fertility clinic.”
But Klein says couples can still try to make sex special even if it’s on a schedule. ”I think that there’s like a middle balance between calling your partner and saying, honey, it’s 2:17, I’m ovulating, come home right now for the next 15 minutes and let’s have wild, abandoned sex,” Klein says.
And there’s good reason to believe that recreational sex might not be as abandoned and wild as it’s cracked up to be. As sex and relationship expert and host of the Sex With Dr. Jess Podcast Jess O’Reilly, PhD points out, scheduling and planning underlies sex in most stages of a relationship.
“I would consider whether or not sex is ever spontaneous,” O’Reilly says. “We tend to believe it is, especially at the beginning of a relationship, but when you consider all the planning that goes into sex when you first start dating, it’s anything but. You set a date to go out. You pick an outfit. You groom, shower, shave, clean up your room. You spend time together enjoying one another’s company. You flirt. You touch. You’re seductive in many ways. And then you go home and have sex.”
Do all of these things regardless of whether you’re on your first date or planning to have a baby and, says O’Reilly, “it will feel good — if not, spontaneous.”