Sexual healing

I used to relish the challenge of being good in bed. I read the Kama Sutra with steely discipline, confident there wasn't a skill I couldn't master. Then I had a baby.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 28, 2006 12:20PM (EST)

When it comes to sex, I've always been an overachiever. From the moment I crossed "lose virginity" off a youthful to-do list like it was taking the SATs, I relished the challenge of being good in bed. In my adventures I've experienced earth-shaking lust and utter abandon. Still, I realize now how often the thrill of sex was tinged with something else -- the triumph of conquest. I read the Kama Sutra and sex books with the steely discipline I applied to yoga class, confident there wasn't a skill I couldn't master with limberness and resolve.

Then I had a baby.

I don't know if it's true what they say about sex during pregnancy being incredibly hot. That's how I remember it, but now that I'm a mother the memory of any kind of uninterrupted, unexhausted encounter seems like the apex of ecstasy. I do know that as my belly expanded my libido went right along with it. When certain moves involving weight on my big, big midsection became logistical absurdities, I cheerfully learned new ones to compensate, flipping onto my sides, enlisting chairs and bedposts for support. My hormones were amped up to previously unimagined heights while my puzzle-solving brain relished every obstacle. It was perfect. In the back of my mind, however, I was worried about what would happen next.

I'd heard stories of couples who'd gone at it like gangbusters until an 8-pound bundle of joy killed their sex lives. I saw once recklessly sultry friends get sensible haircuts and saggy bellies, preoccupying themselves with sippy cups and singalongs. I became determined not to commit the sin of letting myself go. I was screwing like a condemned woman.

So it came to pass that precisely six weeks after pushing a human being out of my body, I lay on my back in the doctor's office awaiting the go-ahead to put something else in it. My middle was a vast expanse of squish. My breasts were tender and aching from the infant who'd clamped herself on me in the delivery room and had barely come up for air since. I was so sleep deprived I'd hallucinated a few times. And below deck? Pure wreckage. I had been torn, and was still bleeding. I had hemorrhoids, the least sexy condition ever invented. Yet I was considered normal for all I'd weathered, and had reached a deadline matter-of-factly referred to in pregnancy guides on the "How soon can I have sex?" page. So it didn't surprise me in the least when the doctor removed the speculum, peeled off the gloves and declared, "You're fine to resume sexual activity."

I took the words not as a suggestion but an imperative. It was what I was supposed to do. My body had been pronounced capable; my psyche didn't even stop to question why it was less enthused. Besides, I figured that after our longest period of marital abstinence, my husband was deserving of -- nay, eager for -- my lustful embraces.

I went home and informed him that as soon as the baby was solidly asleep, we were to commence fornication. He gave me a weary thumbs up. Had I not been too tired myself to pay attention, I might have noticed that his work-all-day, up-half-the-night-with-the-baby schedule hadn't exactly been stoking his fires.

The baby's sleep was still as easily and noisily set off as a car alarm on a Sunday morning. At the first sign of her buzz-saw-like snore, we plopped her drowsing form in the other room, where fitful gurgles told us we'd better try to wrap it up as soon as possible.

We undressed quickly and he fondly touched my breasts, a pair of old friends he hadn't seen in a while. I cringed. His hands felt like sandpaper on my raw skin. It wasn't just that it was painful, though; it was worse than that. After having the baby on them all day, I wanted them all to myself for a while. They'd gone from sex props to utilitarian devices, and the thought of having somebody else needing my tools filled me with dread. I swatted his hands away with a grimace. He looked at me, a mixture of hurt and concern on his face. So much for foreplay.

It didn't get any steamier from there. "How do you want to do this?" he whispered huskily, while I paused to contemplate my options. I climbed aboard, figuring that would afford me the greatest measure of control.

It was agonizing. You'd think that after delivering something the size of a Thanksgiving turkey, a woman would feel like she'd just added a lane or two to her private highway. Instead, I'd lately been looking at my ultra-slim tampons and thinking, Oh God, no, never. My earliest sexual exploits had been awkward and a little uncomfortable, but full of fun and foreplay. This? This felt like the Amityville Horror, my husband in the role of unwelcome interloper and my lower half ominously commanding, Get out!

We didn't last much longer after that. We hadn't even fully gotten to penetration, let alone thrusting, let alone pleasure. After a few uninspired minutes, I defeatedly flopped down beside him.

I had what is tactfully referred to as a performance problem. In a previous life, I might have gamely switched tactics, attempted some partner-pleasuring tricks of an oral or manual variety. Instead, I sulked. My husband didn't push it. You'd be surprised what a few yelps of "Ow. Ow. OWOW NOOOOOO" can do to dampen a man's mood. In retrospect, if he'd still been up for it at that point, I'd have considered the possibility that I had married a sadist.

I lay in bed thinking, I have failed. But the truth was, I hadn't wanted to have sex at all that night. I'd convinced myself that because I allegedly was able to, I automatically ought to, and preferably better than anyone else ever in the history of postpartum sex. It just hadn't worked out that way. I wasn't sure I ever wanted to have sex again. For someone who'd invested a certain amount of her self-worth in the idea she could be a wanton slut bomb at will, this was a terrifying place to be. If I couldn't make it happen tonight, surely I was headed down the road of separate twin beds and Lanz of Austria nightgowns. Maybe my brain was never going to have another horny thought. Maybe my body was never going to admit any more visitors.

Or maybe, I realized, this whole fiasco had been more about my ego than my libido. All those satisfying, playful years spent with a partner I loved hadn't diminished my sexual Type A personality. Instead, I had been plagued by the same doubt that had haunted me when I was a young woman devouring magazine articles on how to have Mindblowing Sex Tonight -- the dark fear of not making the grade. Humbled by my changed body and life, I had to learn something I couldn't find in a manual or a porn movie.

I could grit my teeth and attempt another crack at it, with this lovely man who looked petrified I was going to smack him if he touched me the wrong way, or I could let it go. I could cling to the hope that desire, like a full night's sleep and my curvy old ass, would one day return.

Much later, when I had cultivated candid friendships with fellow breeders, we could swap horror stories with the easy rapport of comrades in arms. "You waited only six weeks? My God, you're brave," I'd hear, from women who'd endured months of colicky babies and blocked milk ducts and episiotomy or cesarean scars before they could even think about intimacy again. Yet all of them, and their partners, had survived. Wounds healed. Kids grew, and sleep returned. And eventually we accepted that if ever there were a reasonable period in life for sex to take a temporary sabbatical, the time right after we've experienced one of its most awe-inspiring, ass-kicking consequences would be it.

My husband and I kept trying. Not every night. Not even all that often at first. When we did climb into bed together, I had to, of necessity, pipe up about what felt good and what didn't. Along the way, I began to notice a shift in my attitude. Never before in my life had sex necessitated such intense contemplation. Never before had I needed to plan for it, psych myself up for it, schedule it into my bedraggled existence. But as the months wore on, never before had I felt more appreciative of the simple act of intimacy, stripped of bells and whistles and fueled by pure longing.

I would no longer have the luxury of making love to prove my prowess. I would no longer have sex because I believed it was what I was supposed to do. I would have sex because I wanted to, because dammit, I believed it would be fun. I would discover all over again for the first time what would work for me and what wouldn't. It's not that things ever quite went back to exactly as they were, but I began to understand that they didn't have to. This new stage would have its rewards too.

I'm still open to possibilities, eager for novel ways to discover bliss. I'm just not such a hardass about it anymore. Six weeks after my second child was born, I was back at the doctor's office, in the same undignified, scooted-down position. "You're ready to resume sexual activity," he pronounced authoratively, as if speaking ex cathedra. I smiled indulgently, thanked him, and immediately resolved to ignore him. Because this time, I was going to be the one to decide when I was ready. And I knew that someday soon, I really would be.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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