Why so many moms can't have great sex

Cultural stereotypes around mothering have a detrimental effect on many moms' sex lives. Time to rewrite the script

Published December 20, 2020 2:00PM (EST)

Stressed out mother sipping on a cup of coffee on her messy bed while her three daughters are playing around her (Getty Images)
Stressed out mother sipping on a cup of coffee on her messy bed while her three daughters are playing around her (Getty Images)

San Francisco mother Sara Lopes didn't even realize she'd lost a part of herself until she got it back. "I had been so consumed with both children and starting to work again that we hadn't had sex in maybe a year and a half," says Lopes, 41, whose first name has been changed to protect her privacy. "Figuring out how to have dinners prepped, remembering to buy rain boots, paying our credit card bill, scheduling play dates, worrying about summer camps. I couldn't even think about my social life, let alone my sex life." Only after Lopes and her husband instituted Saturday night sex did the truth dawn on her: "I had needs that I had absolutely forgotten about." 

Lopes points the finger at herself, but she is not to blame for the problem, and Saturday night sex is not necessarily the solution. A handful of experts who've taken a closer look at the science of female sexuality and how it's impacted by motherhood—from newly postpartum to empty nest—say we've had it all wrong.

The common tale of female sexuality fails us

Cultural scripts are stories we watch play out in advertisements, sitcoms, and IRL so often that we know our part. Our roles have come to feel like second nature, like our nature. 

The cultural script we're told, particularly in the context of heterosexual relationships, goes something like this: Men are hardwired to seek variety; women, stability. Men crave sex; women consent to it (or bargain with it). Men prefer physical closeness; women, emotional intimacy. Men need climax; women are along for the ride. 

There's one problem with these familiar gender scripts: Scientifically speaking, they're B.S. "Women have been sold a bill of goods," writes Dr. Wednesday Martin in "Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free." "In matters of sex, women are not the tamer, more demure, or reticent sex." 

By our 30s and 40s, many of us figure that out. We embrace our sexuality after realizing, as Dr. Stephanie Buehler puts it: "We are built for pleasure." We do our part to decrease the "orgasm gap" by seeking out sex where foreplay isn't just an appetizer to be shoveled down as quickly as possible (or skipped entirely) prior to the main (inter)course. 

But when parenthood happens, the difference between male and female reports of desire and satisfaction yawns wider. Ultimately, "a giant share" of mothers in the U.S. aren't having good sex, says Katherine Rowland, author of "The Pleasure Gap," which hit shelves just before the pandemic. And that includes a lot of lesbian moms. Why? Often, it's because a mom-specific script has stepped in. Cultural stereotypes about motherhood often fall into one of these seven ruts.

1. I can't really think about myself right now

Lydia Elle, 40, is a single mom with a 10-year-old in Los Angeles. She told me that she felt like when she became a mom, it became all-encompassing: "almost like 'mom' eclipsed 'woman,'" she says. "Nurturing is a wonderful thing, but when you feel like that's your only role, it's a hindrance for good sex, because for that, you have to switch from being a giver to being okay being a receiver."

We bring up girls to be helpful and empathetic, anticipating others' needs and satisfying them. To "have it all" can often mean to give your all. To everyone. All the time.

You can partially thank the Victorians for this. In 1862, Dr. William Acton famously said, "As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself." But this is just a belief, and not one we've always held. Rowland says the Greeks thought female orgasm was required for conception. There's no reason modern Americans can't change the way we conceive of female pleasure.

2. I'm too touched-out

With a baby at her breast and a toddler clinging to her legs, one Seattle-area mom, who prefers not to be named, said the last thing she wants at night is another set of hands on her body. Buehler, a psychologist and sex therapist who's written multiple books, says the idea of "touch fatigue" is so popular that she was shocked to find not a single scientific study confirming the phenomenon. But it makes sense when you think about it: Have you met many moms who'll turn down a professional massage? It's not that parents who spend a good deal of time with young children don't want to be touched, Buehler thinks. They just don't want another unpleasant, obligatory touch: "You have a partner who has needs, but they may feel like demands. And then the woman is like, 'I am not here to service everybody,'" she says. Others simply find the gear-shift hard to manage, Buehler says, thinking, "How am I supposed to be this adoring, nurturing mother by day, and then be this sex goddess by night?"

3. I don't feel like myself

This feeling of having one's identity pulled and even torn can be especially acute when kids are small. Becoming a mother can make us feel disconnected from partners and from our former selves. "Most people need to feel relaxed in order to feel pleasure," says reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks, M.D., co-author of "What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood." "It can be hard to feel relaxed if you don't feel like you."

4. My to-do list is in bed with us

The domestic labor, emotional labor, and mental load that Lopes described isn't just a time suck—it can also be a desire suck. "If mentally you are distracted, that is going to create tension in your body, and that is going to make it difficult to get aroused," says Buehler. "To have good sex, you have to be both relaxed and aroused." Both can be inhibited by rising maternal workload (time-use diaries indicate mothers spent twice as much time engaging with their children in 2012 as they did in 1965) that's produced rising levels of stress. So too can inequitable division of household labor—exhaustion with a side of resentment is hardly an aphrodisiac.

5. My body's like, 'No way'

Dr. Sacks's co-author, Catherine Birndorf, M.D., says physiology unique to the postpartum window also plays a role: "After you deliver, you are practically in a menopausal state." Hormone fluctuations can lead to pain, dryness, and lack of sex drive. Moms who are menopausal and perimenopausal often know these symptoms too well. Stacy Tessler Lindau, M.D., who is director of Womanlab and a professor at the University of Chicago, says even when that's not the case "arousal may take more effort, more concentration." A variety of other medical diagnoses can also make sex painful, and of course, disrupted sleep has been shown to decrease sex drive.

Medications, too, can play a role. Research is mixed on whether hormonal birth control depresses libido. But, in Dr. Lindau's clinical experience, some women do experience difficulty with libido on the pill that gets better when they switch to an IUD. Another pharmacological suspect: Women have higher rates of depression and anxiety, says Buehler, and many of the medications to treat them can dampen desire.

6. My body—especially my vagina—has seen better days

Feeling desirable has been shown to increase one's own desire. Since shame and insecurity are not exactly relaxing, it's no wonder that internalized ideals of flat tummies and svelte arms can tank libido. That's true at any stage of life, but physical changes wrought by pregnancy, delivery, and the lingering effects of both can create or compound body image issues. So too can the shape shift that often accompanies menopause.

In a particularly nasty spin-off of body image stress, there's growing concern among women that their labia are too loose or veiny, a condition dubbed "vaginal orthorexia" by Jen Gunter, M.D., author of "The Vagina Bible." With everything from surgery to "soundwave therapy" to injection of collagen being marketed to us, the number of women who shell out for "vaginal rejuvenation" procedures has skyrocketed over the last decade, despite the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists calling most such treatments "not medically indicated" and stating that they "pose substantial risk."

7. Sex just isn't much fun anymore

Reasons one through six often contribute to and culminate in a seventh reason for decreased libido: All the things that make for good sex—energy, relaxation, playfulness, time, and curiosity—are in short supply after children. That leaves bad sex. And research has proven that bad sex decimates desire.

Think of it this way. The old you liked salad: Freshly rinsed butter lettuce with perfectly tender slices of chicken, ripe strawberries, toasted almonds, and goat cheese with a touch of honey. Or at least you'd hoped to find a salad like that. But these days, the only lettuce you encounter is a day-old pre-pack from an Airport kiosk. It makes sense that some women start to think they just don't like salad.

One sexual equivalent of limp leaves and mealy tomatoes is when your partner employs what sexperts call "crude initiations"— heading straight to penetration or similarly intense activity without teasing or anticipation, making you feel not alluring so much as … convenient. It's a form of benign neglect, where a mate or date just doesn't put in the effort required to arouse. And then there's habituation—your sex salad is fine, good even. But few of us find joy in eating the same salad week after week, month after month, year after year.

The point is that giving up the sexual side of ourselves after we've had kids can be a perfectly sensible reaction to the situation we're in. "Women hold themselves hostage to this idea that they have low desire, and that they need to work on themselves in order to 'fix' a problem, when their low desire is really a healthy, rational, and reasonable response to the fact that they aren't enjoying the kind of sex that they're having," says Rowland.

So what do we do about it?

First, what not to do: Take a hard pass on medicalizing solutions like vaginal rejuvenation and "female Viagra." And you don't need to force yourself to have sex as you might go to the gym, with an "it's painful, but boy you'll be glad you did it" mentality. A lingerie budget isn't required either.

Instead of ditching your cozy jammies, say goodbye to those old gendered scripts and the mother-specific ones as well. Believing women naturally don't like sex as much as men or are too touched out to enjoy it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy—especially when these beliefs get reinforced by distracted, unexciting sex. And that's a shame, because as Dr. Lindau says, "libido gives people a sense of being alive."

Instead, I think there are new mantras we can all agree on.

First, moms deserve to relax. Basic prerequisites to relaxation include reliable childcare and equitable division of labor. As Dr. Birndorf puts it, "If we had some time and had some space, we'd all be in the freaking mood." Believe you're entitled to it, and then share this priority with anyone who can help make it happen—your partner, your boss, your parents.

Second, moms want sex. If you feel disconnected from your partner, misunderstood, or unseen, Dr. Sacks says, you probably can't enjoy sex with them until they get to know you again—or get to know your new self for the first time. Making time to talk can help, and you can check out Jessica Graham's "Good Sex" for next-level info on how to use mindfulness to facilitate reconnection with your partner and yourself. You'll likely find the new you can contain the old one too. Moms can give and claim. We can be caretakers and want sex, and not just any sex, hot sex.

And finally, moms are desirable. You need to feel hot for hot sex to happen, and this means including yourself in the definition of what's hot. "After you have children, as you get older, you may need to challenge cultural norms of beauty and of sexuality in order to more fully enjoy your own sensuality," Dr. Sacks says, "Because the chase to look like someone else or be someone else—and that also applies to being a younger version of yourself—certainly isn't relaxing and it certainly isn't on the pathway to pleasure." But it isn't all about you practicing self-compassion and redefining your new creases and folds as attractive. 

Your partner, whether for decades or a tryst, needs to ask what you want and then put in the time and energy needed to give it to you; you deserve someone who tells you when they like how you've made them feel, and brings a sense of mystery and adventure to the bedroom. But most won't do that, they won't even realize they should try to do that, until they too chuck the old scripts in favor of these new three. Moms deserve to relax. Moms want sex. Moms are desirable.

The author would like to thank sexy mom Stephanie Dolgoff for helping shape this article. 

By Gail Cornwall

Gail Cornwall works as a mother and writer in San Francisco. Connect with Gail on Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

MORE FROM Gail Cornwall

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Are We There Yet Intimacy Mothering Parenting Sexual Health