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Sexual Tensions after the First Baby

Ask the average engaged couple if they want children and they may answer without any hesitation whatever, “Of course we do. No marriage is complete without children.”

Actually, however, the sober facts about having children and parenthood, with its constant and, at times, incredible demands, they have not faced emotionally.

They have little idea that it is one thing lo lose sleep because of a late party and quite another to lose it with a crying or demanding baby. The two causes may result in exactly the same amount of sleep loss, but somehow evoke different feelings about that loss.

Ina sense, reactions to parenthood take place on two levels, the spiritual and the mechanical. Spiritually, a baby can lift emotional ties of a household. Mechanically, a baby can cause considerable dislocation in the home.

Even in this day of nappy services, soiled diapers and bottoms, sour milk odors when the baby burps—sometimes on your best clothes – and the added necessity of so many practical tasks, and the moment when the baby ceases to be just a physical little being and begins to be an emotional one with quite clear-cut demands on your inner self, demands that require patience, understanding and denial of what you want to do. You might want to spend the afternoon watching television or reading or doing your nails or sleeping, but you cannot because the baby has a cold, wants attention or whines until you are frantic.

Although the answer to the question, “Do you want babies?” almost always comes immediately, “Yes,” the answer to the question, “Why do you want babies,” probably would be delayed.

Few people have ever thought about the answer to that one. It is not an answer which has to do with thinking or the intellect, but rather with the deepest kinds of feelings.

These are feelings of love which need to gain expression through the infant, feelings of “oneness” with youngsters, feelings of having achieved the ultimate in creative endeavor in life, feelings of wanting this concrete evidence that you and your mate are truly “one flesh”. There are many other feelings, of course, that are far less clearly defined.

Rebound Tensions

The very fact that the feelings connected with having a baby are so deep, and at the same time so unknown, is one explanation of why the rebound emotions after the first child are frequently as strong as they are. A young man and woman have barely plunged into that first great experience of living together when in a year or so they are plunged into an amazing extension of that experience.

Suddenly, they must live as three people instead of two, under conditions that I indicated earlier can be extremely demanding. Inevitably, there will be disagreements, harsh words, arguments.

In this connection, we must mention an important fact. If their initial relationship has not had the time or the opportunity to develop into a really strong one, the new demands of parenthood can cause considerable stresses and strains. At this point, troubles can really begin.

As a matter of fact, in the basically unsound marriage, parenthood can be the precipitating factor which leads to divorce. Nearly two-thirds of the divorced couples in Britain had no children or only one child. This is a strong reason why conception of a baby should be planned when the couple feels ready for it. Babies should be born by choice, not by chance.

Changes in the Woman

After the first child, the simple fact alone of the great changes in the woman’s body are enough to cause stress in the marriage. Here I would like to mention some of the inevitable factors that can and do cause sexual tensions between husband and wife in this vital period.

First, as I have said, the woman’s body has undergone profound changes. For nine months she has nurtured inside herself a new, young life. Processes have been taking place that she is not likely to understand fully. Her womb (uterus) has grown enormously along with the developing baby. Even after the birth, it takes this organ at least six weeks to return to near-normal size.

Of course, the passage of the baby through the birth canal has altered the vagina too, stretching it so that it is no longer the snug passage that it was. It, too, will return to normal size. But the word “normal” here is used with relation to its post-birth, rather than its pre-birth size and shape.

Further, the entrance into the vagina may also have changed. Partly, this may be due to the stretching it has undergone and partly to the small nick or episiotomy that is sometimes performed to permit the baby’s head to come through easily in birth, and that is repaired afterwards with a few stitches.

Her abdomen, too, is not as it once was. It will take some time for her muscles to regain their elasticity. Until then, she may have a soft, flabby feeling in the abdomen, or she may

have unattractive folds of wrinkled skin. This, too, may tend to make her feel ugly and ashamed. The discharge that is normal after birth, called “lochia”, may also linger for several weeks. It is not copious as a rule, but it is characterized by its own odor which may be disturbing to the young mother.

If she is nursing her baby, she will experience gushes of milk from the breast just before each nursing, when the breasts are full. These gushes may stain her clothing.

Certainly, they will provide another kind of body odor to which the mother must become accustomed, and the full sensitive breasts may cause moments of disturbing discomfort when intercourse is resumed, as well as interfere with pleasurable oral stimulation during the nursing period.

The Wife’s Question About Sex

Almost inevitably, the new young mother wonders if and how she will be able to function sexually with all of the changes I have mentioned.

She asks herself: Will I still be the same kind of wife I was before? Better perhaps? Worse? Will the changes in my body make my husband enjoy me less? Will I ever regain the feeling of youth, freshness and vitality that I had before I became pregnant?

She may be relieved rather than chagrined when the doctor forbids intercourse until the sixth week or so after the baby’s birth, for ordinarily, the doctor does not give the go-ahead until after the post-partum examination.

She has a sneaking conviction that she has been given a six-week holiday from sex, so she is relieved not to have to worry about anything until then—whether she will respond, whether she will become pregnant again. There are none of these particular anxieties for the short six weeks.

But there is still the haunting anxiety of how she will “do” when the six weeks are up.


Perhaps because of the physical changes in the woman, perhaps because of hormonal changes which are not yet understood, a great many new mothers experience post-partum depression. This occurs so often that it cannot be considered abnormal.

Usually, the new mother begins to feel blue without being able to explain why. Such depression comes as a rule shortly after birth and lasts no lodger than a few hours, or a day or two. If it persists longer than four or five days, the woman should tell her doctor of the problem.

I recall one case which is typical. A twenty-seven-year-old had just had her first baby, a boy. Her husband was elated and came home for lunch one day just a week after his wife and baby had returned from the hospital. He found his wife sitting on the bed in tears. “I’m ugly,” she sobbed. “Look at me. I’ll never be the same.” “You look wonderful to me, dear,” said the startled husband.

“Oh, no, I don’t,” she said. “I’m all changed. Look at my stomach. Look at me.”

The man sensed what was happening. His wife had a galloping case of post-partum blues. He spent the next hour reassuring her that she was more lovely than ever. He had to return to his office shortly afterwards, and when he came home that night, he found his wife in tears.

“I got a book to read about post-partum depression,” she said “That’s what I guess I have. But it goes away after a while. I feel much better now.”

All that wife needed was a little reassurance. Of course, not all cases are as simple as that. The depression may come one, six, ten weeks or even longer after the birth.

From the new father’s point of view, anxieties fall within the normal: “Does this mean permanent transfer of affection from him to the baby?” He may have only a vague idea of what has happened to his wife physically, and he, too, is likely to be full of anxieties

He has heard stories that stretching of the birth canal may make his wife “too large”. This, he believes, may make it more difficult for him to enjoy intercourse.

The husband knows at this point that his wife has not regained her strength. In addition, she has bottles, nappies, housework and the baby itself to contend with. He wants to be helpful, but secretly, he would like to return to the pre-birth status as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, he is increasingly anxious about whether intercourse will be as good and fulfilling as it was before. He visualizes the six-week period as being far from a holiday. Added as it is to the six or so weeks of abstinence previous to the birth, he begins to feel somewhat victimized by circumstance. He wants his wife, but he may be afraid that she has changed so he cannot have her again on his own terms.

I recall the case of a husband who simply would not abide by the doctor’s orders to abstain for six weeks prior to birth and six weeks after.

He insisted on having intercourse during both periods. His wife was so terrified that some permanent injury would result that she could not respond to her husband in her usual fashion, and intercourse during this time was a complete failure. This left the husband brooding and sullen. How can such occurrences be avoided?

Sometimes in the pre- and post-birth “no intercourse” period, a loving wife can offer masturbate her husband. I know of several couples for whom this has effectively decreased “first baby” tensions.

Sometimes when the husband is more relaxed, he will find it easy to do without sexual stimulation during the entire period.

Sometimes after the period is over, the husband will want sex frequently, more frequently than before. I suggest that the wife comply with such desires, for the couple together will gradually be working out a new level of adjustment.

All this focuses clearly on a need for considerable readjustment on the part of the married couple with their first child. Increasing the friction in this period is the fact that a readjustment is necessary often before the first real adjustment to marriage itself has been made. This is the point in marriage where communication between husband and wife is so important.

Putting your anxieties and your fears into words usually helps to clear them away. Once they are examined closely by the two persons most concerned, they seem to lose their immediacy and force. Also, it is discovered that many of the anxieties have no real foundation. If the husband and wife talk to each other honestly, each will understand the other’s problems and each will be spurred to a special effort to help the other.

Baby As a Protection

Supposing, though, that the husband an(l wife have not learned to talk to each other about sex. Often what happens then is that the baby becomes a sort of protective mechanism, useful to the wife and annoying to the husband. Needless to say, use of the baby in this manner compounds marital tensions.

Typically, the wife says, “I can’t now. I was up all night with the baby.” “I don’t feel like it now because I have to nurse the baby in a few minutes.” “I don’t want to turn on a light, it might disturb the baby.” “My breasts are too full of milk—they’ll hurt.” “The baby might overhear us.”

This type of response goes on and on, to the irritation of the husband, who reacts to what he hears and takes it literally. In no time at all he begins to wonder if the idea of having a baby was such a good one. He may begin to believe that he haslost more than he has gained by it.

In this situation, it will benefit husbands and wives to realize something that is basic to marriage and to many other life situations. Generally, you do exactly what you want to do. You help yourself do it by finding reasons to support it. This is called “rationalization”. All of us rationalize a good deal of the time.

In the particular situation I am discussing now, the wife may well be rationalizing. If she really wanted to be near her husband or to have intercourse with him, nothing would keep her from him. Why, then, does she not want the resumption of the love relationship with her husband?

Or, is she trying to avoid it? Right here and now I would like to say that the emotions most young people feel when they marry are inadequate to carry them for more than two or three years in marriage. They grow and deepen so that their emotions also do so.

You hear people say, “That couple would have stayed if they had children.” As a matter of fact, the presence of a child cannot fortify a weak marriage, any more than it can threaten a strong marriage.

The notion that babies solidify shaky homes is so widespread, I suspect, that many unhappy couples hope their problems will be solved by childbirth.

Too often they find they were wrong. I know of tragic cases where men and women deliberately had children in an effort to hold their rocky marriages together. The inevitable divorce eventually left the innocent youngster the real injured party.