Leave it to a guy to bring up sex. But before you click away, hear me out. I’m a husband, dad of two little ones and a women’s health advocate. I regularly see new parents we work with as a women’s health advocate experience the challenge of figuring out physical and emotional intimacy after a baby is born.
But I’m not actually here to talk about sex. Sure, it’s among the most common questions dads and partners ask me. However, the conversation about postpartum sex isn’t really about sex at all—it’s about connection and shifting relationship dynamics. Frankly, it’s about loss and rebirth.
It took over a year for my wife and I to truly reconnect after our daughter was born. I vividly recall the evening we sat drinking wine on our Brooklyn fire escape, a few weeks after Adena stopped breastfeeding. There was something different about her—she was present and still. She looked at me in a way that reminded me of the old us. She described it feeling like a year-long fog lifting. I felt it, too.
I’ve since learned how much complexity is wrapped up in intimacy after childbirth. How it’s equal parts emotional and physical and how mothers and partners so easily misinterpret each other on this.
I’ve learned about the mental load of motherhood and the tireless checklist running through a mother’s mind at all times. I’ve learned that postpartum hormonal changes affect libido and sexual comfort, which some believe is nature’s way of helping us space out pregnancies so women’s bodies have a chance to heal. I’ve also learned how extremely common it is for mothers to need time to regain a genuine interest in sex. (And when I say “time” I don’t mean the highly anticipated “6 week appointment.” I mean months, a year—all super normal.)
The connection disconnect
In my work, I partner with and learn from many of the nation’s top postpartum experts, including Dr. Dan Singley, psychologist and founder of San Diego’s Center for Men’s Excellence. He’s an expert in the male transition to fatherhood and works with couples to help them navigate this life stage. “In the stress of the transition into parenthood, so much pressure is put on sex,” says Singley. “Some people think physical intimacy and emotional intimacy go together. That physical sex is what’s going to save them and bring them together. It won’t.”
This often gets lost in translation: When your partner asks for sex, they are likely seeking connection.
You may feel like we’re just impatient, but we’re actually longing for you. We miss you. This disconnect can lead to feelings of rejection. Because when you say “no,” we may hear, “I don’t want you,” which is likely not what you’re saying at all. But until there is an open conversation about what’s really going on, the cycle will continue.
The rebirth of your relationship after childbirth
This is not a sad story of a lost relationship. Yes, there is loss of what once was—but there is also rebirth. The shift to co-parents is a huge one and my wife and I were really good at it, but it took us time to find our new rhythm as co-parents and lovers. In fact, it’s something we actively work on daily.
I spoke with Dr. Singley about tips to help new parents navigate this period. Here are four ways you can connect with your partner after birth:
1. Redefine intimacy
Intimacy doesn’t have to be sex, and sex doesn’t have to be penetrative. Hugging, kissing, back rubs, even sitting on the sofa with your legs touching—these are all forms of physical intimacy that can make partners feel connected. “I tell clients to ask, ‘What did we used to do that we’re not doing now? What’s important to you? To me?” says Singley.
Tapping into your pre-baby selves is the first step to reconnecting as a couple, not just co-parents.
2. Make the space
As mothers, you constantly give to others. But it’s difficult to find the capacity for genuine connection while running on empty—there must be something left to give. Ask your partner for time to reconnect with yourself, as someone other than ‘mother.’ Go out with friends, take a yoga class, do something just for you. It will benefit you both.
3. Start talking
Communicate openly about sex with your partner. Share what you’re going through so it doesn’t feel like a personal rejection. Reaffirm your love for them and remind them (and yourself) that this is a temporary period. Talk about your needs and boundaries. “Approach it in a way that’s neither shaming nor demanding. Instead, have a sense of compassion, even humor, about it,” says Singley.
4. Consider a new mantra: “Not that, but this”
Singley says the most successful couples can hear each other’s needs. “Even if they have some guilt or shame for not wanting the same thing, they can hear their partner,” he says.
“One of the healthiest ways I’ve seen couples navigate this journey is [not that, but this] approach.” If one partner initiates intimacy but the other isn’t interested, consider what you are willing to do. “You could say, ‘I’m not in a place to have sex right now but maybe we can take a bath together.” Not that, but this. “By hearing your partner but also offering an alternative you’re comfortable with, you bypass the rejection and shame spiral that tends to come up when one partner isn’t exactly in the same place,” says Singley.
Parts of new parenthood can be tough, no doubt. It’s a major life shift that, frankly, no one’s being totally honest about. So I’m sharing our journey with the hope that it helps you through yours. Stay positive, take naps and, when in doubt, hold hands.