When I saw the play Giant Box of Porn last summer at Capital Fringe, it hit home for me. I walked out with one thought blaring through my baby-fevered mind: Don’t shake a rattle during sex. Yes, that actually happens as the main couple in the play navigate their sex life, with Kate eager to get pregnant, while husband Ron is not quite so gung ho.
After she shakes the rattle, Ron is distracted, admitting to her, “It’s just hard to shift gears,” followed by, “I’m so used to hoping you don’t get pregnant. How is this not weird to you?”
Since this is an issue I’ve been dealing with in my own life (minus the rattle, thank you very much), for this column, I wanted to explore what changes when the motive for sex moves from pleasure to procreation for male-female couples. According to Giant Box of Porn playwright Patrick Flynn, this is something many couples go through, but these characters have trouble talking about this major step they’re embarking on. “Kate is very focused on their scheduled relationship goals. They've been married for a year so she believes she is ready to have a baby. Ron has been going along with everything so far but when he's faced with the actual prospect right in front of him, he can't go through with it.” Flynn doesn’t see Ron’s reaction to unprotected sex as unusual, but one that may have snuck up on Ron. “I think it's something a lot of straight men don't realize they'll feel different about until they're there.”
Flynn calls this emblematic of the way our culture tells straight men they should behave. “American media trains young boys that they are supposed to be promiscuous as long as they ‘get serious’ one day, settle down, and marry,” Flynn says. “But they're also trained to be perpetual children with caves so they can hide from their wives who just want to make them grow up. It's Peter Pan syndrome. Sex for procreation is one of those few moments where men find themselves facing a clear line between childhood and adulthood. They have to grow up in that moment. They may not chose to be grownups after the child comes but, for a moment, they have to act like adults.”
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But what about women, who often carry so much of the weight of this decision, literally and figuratively? Does sex for procreation feel different for them too? For Claire, who began trying to get pregnant, at 32, after being married for three years, “At first it was fun and felt sort of risky and natural all at once.” They were on vacation when they started to try, “which made it feel more special.”
Then, she says, “we discovered that getting pregnant in real life is not like in the movies. I had been so focused my entire life on how not to get pregnant that I had completely disregarded any information on my fertility so I had to educate myself on ovulation and conception. Sometimes having sex felt like a machine-gun approach—do it as much as possible and see what sticks. Other times it feels very focused and laserlike.”
My partner was concerned that we would become “like a couple you see on TV,” planning our sexual encounters down to the minute based on when I ovulated, but others report feeling similar pressure that we don’t otherwise face. Claire reports, “My husband confessed that he didn't like the ‘scheduled’ feeling of it, which I honestly had little sympathy for. He was having orgasms each time, whereas I was more focused on getting ‘the job’ done. [For me it felt like], You're getting off and this isn't taking that long—what's your complaint?”"
It took Claire three to four months to get pregnant the first time. She tried various methods: keeping her legs up after sex, Pre-Seed lubricant, which claims to be “fertility-friendly,” and various tests. “I tried a very specific ovulation test that drove me crazy because it kept telling me ‘almost...almost...you're almost ready to have sex.’ Then I tried no ovulation test because I was so mad at the first ovulation test. Then, ultimately, I used a more general ovulation test that helped me know when I was truly ovulating but not down to the most minute detail.”
For her second pregnancy attempt, she scrapped those more complicated methods and credits her success to not trying to conceive. “We went on vacation to a friend's wedding and for the first time in a while were able to relax, sans first child. We stayed in a nice hotel, ate good food, drank a lot, smoked weed, hung out with friends, enjoyed beautiful scenery and each other's company. I think that, in addition to having sex, I needed to unclench, which you don't want to hear, of course, when you're actually working on it, because that advice can be impossible to heed.”
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This is in line with what Latham Thomas—maternity lifestyle maven, founder of the online community Mama Glow, and author of Mama Glow: A Hip Guide to Your Fabulous Abundant Pregnancy—advises women. “The biggest impediment to the fertility process is being in your head,” Thomas explains. If you’re thinking, this probably isn’t going to work, or stressing about what will happen after sex, you’re not letting yourself be in the best frame of mind for either intimacy or conception. “If the woman isn’t getting to a high level of arousal and orgasm, that doesn’t means that she won’t get pregnant, there’s just a better chance of it if she does.” There’s a biological reason for that, because, according to Thomas, when she does reach certain peaks of arousal, “the round ligaments, vulva, and uterine muscles pulse and work together to pull the sperm back towards your uterus.” (Mama Glow’s got more on that.)
Diane got pregnant the first time she attempted it with her husband (who she’d been with since college). She was 29, and her reaction to sex without birth control surprised her. “We’d been discussing trying when we ended up faced with the last condom in the box,” she recalls. “The big moment of decision was whether we would use it or just go ahead and start trying. We opted to leave the condom in the box and continued having sex, only to burst into laughter at the end because it felt so transgressive, like we’d violated some taboo neither of us knew was even there. It wasn’t just that he’d ejaculated inside me—I’d been on the Pill for a number of years until I started having problems with them and switched to condoms—but that, for the first time in either of our lives, we’d had sex with someone without birth control at all. It surprised both of us that safe-sex practices were so thoroughly ingrained in our minds that it took a conscious decision to overcome them.”
Kelly, who is 38 and has one child, waited several months and didn't see any results, so she got serious about charting her temperature and using smiley-face ovulation kits. “I got pretty obsessive about it, because it was easier to just know I was doing it every day; it got to be habit. I liked looking at the charts on Fertility Friend and trying to predict when I would ovulate or when my period was due and whether I had 'fertile' mucus and the smiley face. I tried not to let on to my husband just how much I was putting into it because I didn't want it to seem forced, but he knew I was using kits to chart. I wouldn't call it ‘fun’ exactly, but I liked that I got to really know my body and know what was happening.” Since they normally don’t have sex during the week, changing that schedule based on her test results meant more quickies, which she enjoyed, but “I sometimes felt that I had to overcompensate to make sure he didn't just feel like I wanted his sperm.”
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Everyone I spoke with said not to let your quest for a baby rule your sex life—or the rest of your life. To that end, Thomas advises not using the phrase “I’m trying to get pregnant,” lest it add to the pressure you may already be feeling. “It’s not something you need to try to do; it’s a normal biological process that our ancestors have been doing for forever and we’re fully capable of,” he says. “But if we put it in that context of ‘trying,’ it’s almost as if we can’t do it, or there’s a chance that we can’t.” Instead, she advises prospective parents to focus on pleasure and “remove the veil of duty or performance anxiety. If we just make it about play, orgasm is a training ground for fertility.”
Thomas isn’t just talking about the mental benefits of avoiding outcome-oriented thinking, but the physical ones as well. “There seems to be a lot of mental and emotionally packed psychological banter going on in a woman’s mind that prevents her from being fully relaxed,” Thomas says. “The cervical mucosa which needs to stay at a certain PH, and when we are really stressed out, we change the cervical mucosa PH.” Because of this, “stressing about the possibility of you getting pregnant creates impediments to your fertility.”
Thomas recommends pole dancing to fertility-minded women to get them in a sensual mood, which can translate into the bedroom, but also says that even when we’re not focused on getting busy, we can guide ourselves toward a mindset geared toward fertility rather than becoming fixated on it. Step one: don’t take on someone else’s fertility struggle believing it will be your own. Instead, Thomas suggests trying a prenatal yoga class. “After having gone to prenatal yoga class and being around that energy and learning more about your body, then coming home and being intimate, you’ll have a different awareness of what’s happening in your body,” Thomas advises. “It’ll feel different. The senses will be amplified. There’s ways to do it that have nothing to do with intimacy but have everything to do with you reclaiming your body and getting really comfortable. “
The longer you’re trying, the more daunting the prospect can be. As Toni Wechsler writes in Taking Charge of Your Fertility, “Sexual problems often arise between couples touched by infertility because sex has taken on one main function: a means of reproduction. What is often lost is the emotional expression of lovemaking—the tenderness, passion, and joy.” When it comes to bedding down, even if you’re on a timetable, sex doesn’t have to become a chore. To keep sex, well, sexy, Dr. Yvonne Fulbright, Ph.D., author of Your Orgasmic Pregnancy, advises, “A woman can plan to make her peak period for ovulation the sexiest time of the month, getting more creative in the bedroom or more adventurous outside of it. The association could have him looking even more forward to being intimate during a certain time of the month. She can also approach those few days as time for marathon sex sessions, in the spirit of exploration and what are we going to try this time?”
Men, too, can take steps to make the process more enjoyable. Thomas advises men not to rush into sex the moment she walks in the door, but to make her feel appreciated and wanted on an ongoing basis. “Foreplay is not for just right before sex; it starts the day before,” she wants men to know. Don’t just light a few candles and drop your pants; ease into sexing her up. “Women need to relax; when you have a looming sense of we don’t know if we can do this, you don’t want to just jump into things. Women have to shut off the part of the brain that’s connected with worry, fear and doubt, the amygdala, which happens when we’re engaged in pleasure.” A bonus: shutting down the amygdala also helps when it’s time to give birth.
What you don’t want is to wind up like Diane’s friend, who, in Diane’s words, “absolutely destroyed her relationship with her husband and their financial stability in pursuit of a pregnancy that never happened because it completely consumed her to the exclusion of everything else.” Winding up in that situation is one of my biggest fears, so I asked for advice about how to make sure I don’t. Kelly offered, “Don't panic if you don't get pregnant the first time, but know that it might start to get depressing every time you see a negative or your period shows. I used to specifically go out and get sushi or a drink or chocolate or something on those days to feel better.”
Thomas suggests having a conversation about the specifics of the finances involved and setting realistic benchmarks, since if you’ve been using birth control regularly, “sometimes it takes a while for hormones to settle in and for our brains to get on board again with actually producing the hormones that we need to facilitate conception.” She also advises seeking an objective outside counsel who can listen to both partners and help them sort through any issues or problems they face in the process. “Sometimes it becomes an obsession and goes beyond the original goal of having a baby,” says Thomas. “The self-worth of that person is equated to the outcome of being able to prove something.”
To avoid the fate of her friend, Diane offers this advice: “Sometime I think people forget that the goal of pregnancy is the creation of a new human being in the way they forget that a wedding is not about creating one perfect day but the marriage that will result from it. Getting pregnant is not about this one act. It is about what you create by doing it.”