Sex and Parenthood

by Bruce Linton, Ph.D.

Having a baby and making the transition to parenthood is a very complicated process. I say this from both my professional perspective as a family counselor, and my own experience as a father of a 10 and 14 year old. With all the various pressures on young families, often there is not enough time or energy for parents to have the sexual contact one or both partners desire. As I look back on my marriage (and it's still true today), both my wife and I have had to discuss and accommodate our personal needs and desires, as well as the logistics of work schedules and kids schedules to find the time and "timing" to be together sexually.

Before we had kids, which seems like another lifetime now, our sexual relationship was fairly spontaneous. We had time together most evenings and we were young and had less complicated professional and emotional commitments. Over the years together, just being parents has changed us and our emotional dispositions, our bodies, and our desires for sex. After 18 years together, we are truly different people than we were when we first met. Our sexual relationship has in its frequency and intensity been rather unpredictable. I have tried to keep an open dialogue about how I feel about our sexual relationship, but at times it has been difficult to discuss. I think each of us has been concerned about hurting the other in discussing our sexual need. My wife and I continue today to struggle with our sexual desires, and our needs for intimacy while we try to understand our individual differences and what we need in terms of sex, and how to feel close and connected in our marriage.

How important is sex to a marriage? Sex seems to be the emotional barometer for most marriages. Not in the sense that the more sex the better the marriage, but in the way couples can discuss openly and with concern for each other their feelings about the intimacy in their relationship. In this way, sexuality is a symbolic way each partner becomes emotionally vulnerable. As a psychotherapist, I am acutely aware how each individual's ability to be emotionally vulnerable is often more a reflection of the influences of the family they grew up in than of their feelings about their current relationship or spouse.

I find in my work that in the couple's relationship, the individuals are working out the intimacy (or lack of it) that they experienced in their own family of origin. Although couples will focus the tension in their relationship on the sexuality, it is often a reflection of feelings of being appreciated and understood. What psychotherapists call "being seen" by one's partner; a sense that the other person understands or empathizes with your experience, separate from their own, is what appears to be a significant building block to emotional intimacy. As my clients report to me, there is a high correlation between this type of "being seen" and sexual intimacy and desire.

In working with fathers I have noticed a few particular themes in regard to sexuality. Some men have difficulty adjusting to the change in their wife's body shape after the birth of their baby. With all the advertising and media hype about how women's bodies should look, the whole "playboy" image can create problems for men (and women). Fathers often need to free themselves from the fantasies of the commercialism of women's sexuality to appreciate the reality of their wife's sexuality. During pregnancy, some men begin to resent the attention their wives get. They can develop an underlying anger that can become a powerful inhibitor to feelings of sexuality. After the baby is born the two-person bond is shifted.

New fathers often feel excluded by their wife's attention to their newborn. This can lead to feelings of anger, sadness, and depression. Often times these feelings are expressed by either emotional or physical withdrawal. Many men (and women, too) aren't consciously aware of these feelings. It can be difficult to talk about these feelings even if they are aware of them. Especially in the early years, when most fathers are trying to find their place in their family, they may feel it would be a burden on the relationship to discuss the way they feel. They may even feel guilty for having them. Some men feel uncomfortable about having sex during pregnancy. They have fears they will be hurting the baby or their partner. Many men need to look at how they view their own bodies in relationship to the pregnancy. If during the pregnancy (this can also be true throughout the marriage), his partner agrees to accommodate his physical needs but isn't interested herself in love making, how should he feel? If he is enjoying himself and she isn't, should he feel guilty about this? Is this kind of sexuality ok?

Is sex necessary? For some couples, it is critical to have an active sex life. It serves as both a physical and emotional outlet for tension. For other couples, the fun and excitement they experience through sex is very important. While many couples need to have sexual intercourse to feel satisfied, other couples find cuddling and holding to suffice. At various times in a relationship, couples feel the need to put their sexuality on "hold" while they are working through other issues in their relationship or life.

There are many legitimate forms of lovemaking that we overlook. Stress and tension in life are often relieved by feelings of closeness and by holding and touching another human being (most often our partners). Kissing, massage, and mutual masturbation are all ways to fulfill physical desires we all normally need to express.

Through working with the sexuality in our marriages we learn about so many things: our needs for closeness and intimacy, our own desires, and our own bodies. By discussing these feelings with our partners we gain perspective and develop emotional maturity. We learn that our sexual desires and needs can be a doorway to a deeper understanding of our partners and ourselves.


For Further self-reflection and discussion:
  1. How has the sexuality in your relationship changed from before you had a child?
  2. Do you know other dads or men with whom you can talk about your sexual feelings in your marriage?
  3. How important is the sexual relationship in your marriage to you?

Bruce Linton, Ph.D. is founder and director of the Fathers' Forum programs for expectant and new fathers. He is a former contributing editor to "Full-Time-Dads" magazines, and columnist for Parents' News in San Francisco, California. He is the author of Finding Time for Fatherhood (Berkeley Hills Books, 2000). Bruce is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapists and received his doctorate for his research on men's development as fathers.

Copyright © Bruce Linton. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.