I recently watched the show, Sex/Life, for work research purposes of course. Wink. To be clear, i had quite a bit of thoughts about this show, and it left me feeling disappointed. Not in the heavy sex scenes (they were fun), but rather how yet again another show could have done so much better in their narrative on sexual mothers. All general critique of the show aside, i did feel compelled to share some thoughts on the depiction of women who are mothers on their journey to reclaiming their sexual self.
Let me back up and bit and share a summary, in case you don’t know the premise of the show. I don’t think this will create any spoilers as the show is more about the steamy eye candy than deep content. Billie is a mother of two young children and in a seemingly happy marriage to her type A successful husband. She left her career while still doing her PhD in Psychology, in order to be home with the kids. Before meeting her husband, she had a wild and invigorating relationship with a man. He came from an insecure attachment due to his absentee father (of course) and they had wild sex. Even though she was literally studying sexuality at school, she always presented as surprised and hesitant to do things. She was more ‘vanilla’ to his adventurous offerings in bed.
Fast forward 8 years and she is settling into her new life. She starts to have doubts and regret about the path her life has taken her on. She loves her family and yet she misses the good sex since she settled down and became a bored housewife. Her career-focused husband presents as involved and yet he seems sexually disinterested. Until one day when her sexual fantasies, both real and imagined, came flooding back. The extent of the show is all about Billie re-imagining her old relationship with her former lover and wondering if she can have it all. She is faced with this dilemma: try to accept life with her husband and children, or leave her family to pursue unfinished business and sexual escapades with the lover who left her when it got too hard for him.
Over and over again, Billie is left in this quandary of wanting more sexual pleasure and feeling guilty for it. She sees herself as a “postpartum exhausted mother of 2 version of a midlife crisis.”
This latest series again reminds us that culture shows that women’s primary role is to be caregivers and helpers, not care receivers or pleasure recipients. If we are, it is only in our rebellious and care-free youth. We are called selfish and judged harshly for it.
We need to unlink sex, love and gender to only be valid during the Maiden phase of our life. In fact, i think i am a more sexually confident woman now because i am older and have a sense of the magic my body can do.
Enter the “Initiated Woman”
I kind of like that the show included liberated and confident women, mainly seen in Billie’s best friend, who also happens to be a professor of psychology. Her character even launches a new book called The Third Way, which i can’t help but assume the creator of the show slipped in there for us viewers to ponder. That ‘third way’ is to not choose to be single and work-focused, or married with children and bored, but rather having it all and being satisfied.
Women typically are taught that our sexual desires and fantasies are not a priority, both by our partners and society at large. So we engage in code switching to make us more marriage-worthy. This allows us to be less than in order to fit in and get something out of this so-called life. We are taught that the Maiden archetype is more prestigious than the Whore and when we become Mothers, that former part of our life should become non-existent.
Having children does not mean the end of our sexual identity. In fact, for a lot of us, sex is what is intrinsically tied to having babies in the first place. While not all babies are conceived this way, there is still that connection that sex leads to becoming a mother and yet we are shamed to believe that motherhood should not also be sexy. The early postpartum stage of life, though, is a season of sacrifice. It is a time to pause and learn more about our new identity as parents, as mothers. Our bodies are healing from birth, and our time is now spent learning how to keep this new child alive. Our bodies are not so apart from our babies and it’s hard to think of much else.
Plus new mothers are exhausted, overwhelmed and our hormones are literally trying to do us a favour by not getting pregnant again. I remember being so touched out by my babies when they were tiny. All i wanted was a bath to reclaim my body for myself, not to want to cuddle with my partner and give more of me out. And yet, i learned that this was the transition process to start to integrate this new identity into my full life. This is what Matresence is at its core – the metamorphosis process of becoming something new.
Can you have it all?
In Sex/Life, Billie asks herself “is it possible that the person who gives you love and safety can also give you a rush and excitement?” My answer is YES it’s possible, but not magically and without the effort of work. I know it is because that’s what I’ve established over years of partnership myself. It took vulnerability too – to first acknowledge to myself what i wanted and then to speak about this needs out loud.
Betty Friedan is known to say that we can have it all but not at the same time. So when we practice acceptance of this truth, it brings freedom from pressure. We live so many different lives in one lifetime. A lot of things give us butterflies – what that is changes over time. I am not the same vania i was at 20, or 30. I’m not supposed to be. So of course, what i find important and how I practice pleasure changes.
I have seen this past year that i have died several little deaths of myself over the years. This past year it was just more noticed, evident and celebrated even. I am stepping into my own one true Self. I’m excited about this stage in my journey. I am starting to hear that voice of Self. My goal has become to return to that one true Self. She has always been there, hiding in the shadows under duty, performance and people pleasing.
So what do we do about it?
One thing to start doing, if squashing the patriarchy feels a bit too big and overwhelming, is to Fantasize. Literally take time to remember your core sexual fantasies. I have shared some ways to do this in past articles HERE and HERE. Now it’s about sharing them with your partner or lovers. Speak your truth. Share your needs. Open up to the vulnerability about having fantasies.
I read recently about a key way to heal your inner people pleaser is learning to be loving instead of nice. I adore this reclamation. It so aligns with what is important to me. I don’t think our partners realize how overwhelmed, burned out, and touched out we are. We are screaming it from the tops of mountains, and it falls on deaf ears. Why? Because this system is working for those in power as is, they don’t want to hear that change is necessary. That’s why therapy has been so taboo, and that couple counselling specifically is scary for so many couples – the truth is hard to ignore once it becomes heard. So don’t be nice – be clear with your needs and love yourself. Love your partner when you have capacity and want to, versus playing that good wife role.
Another way to honour this part of you is to find ways to be feminine and have pleasure. You don’t have to identify as a woman to be feminine, but rather play with what this energy feels like. It also is not as binary as we have been taught. It’s time to femininize sex. We need to move from the old paradigm of heternormative sex as penis in vagina penetration and male orgasm as the end result. We need to slow down and have warm juicy sex. Let me again give credit to Billie for sharing that nugget of info – “coital alignment technique.” It sounds so technical, and yet it’s so helpful to get partners in sync versus racing to get to the end.
Do a Desire Discrepancy check-in – marriages fall into a rut over time and especially when we are in the throws of a new identity. This global pandemic has definitely derailed desire and intimacy. Maybe your relationship with your partner was already stale. Maybe you felt pressure (internal or by others) to redefine your relationship now that you are parents. Your identity as polyamorous, for instance might need an updated review.
These archetypes of Woman – Maiden, Virgin, Mother, Whore, Crone – are just that: stories and myths that we continue to aspire to. We do not need to have children to be born from us and raise to be in the Mother phase of our life. This time period is when we are nourishing ourselves and our community, when we are in our full self, and when we have come into our bodies. For some women, this stage is mired in trauma, shame and sadness as their journey to become mothers with children of their own was not conceived. Does this make them not members of this age-old archetype?
This time period is when we are meant to be in our ‘full bloom’ of life, when we claim our inner power and maturity. This is when we start to have things fall into place. And yet it is a messy transition, and one that is typically done alone in the shadows. This is a discredit to this seemingly powerful and wonderful reclamation.
The Woman in the Shadowy Mirror
So, we need to see our Self as human: A woman with hope, dreams and desires too. Here are some ways to do this:
Learn more about how your physical body is adjusting now that you in this Mother Stage If you have had a baby, this is especially important. It’s no surprise that new moms struggle with body image issues, when our world still values skinny white women in their Maiden stage of life. So where do the rest of us fit in? Also, take some time to understand hormones and that “new mom brain.” It is minimized and yet i think it’s something to be proud of as that brain is prioritizing things to keep the baby alive. Similarly, this early postpartum time is a chance to focus on Matresence and adjusting to the early stage of parenthood. We may already know how to be a couple but we do not know yet how do be a couple with children in tow.
Intimacy does not have to be just intercourse – it can be cuddles, slow dinners, hand holding, and that 12 second hug. It can be showers that start the day with sexy texts and love notes. Dr. Tracy Dalgleish shares some helpful tips as well – when we are feeling more like roommates who are co-parents, it’s hard to get back to feeling like lovers. It can be wearing something that helps you feel like a goddess, even if you are the only one who knows. As we know that women-identified folx with vaginas and estrogen take 30-40 minutes to be aroused, that means we sometimes have to start the process during the day. It’s not just 40 minutes of foreplay at once. Because who are we kidding, we don’t have time to wait that long these days! Our bodies are designed to prepare us. Thank the Goddess for that. This is why these smaller acts are not just teasing, but rather tantalizing and getting us turned on for later.
If you are breastfeeding/chest feeding, that can feel very non-sexy. So do simple things like change the room and scenery you are intimate in. Throw some pillows off the bed or light a candle and play a sexy song mix. Get rid of baby things for the time being – set your scene up for success. I know it feels counter-spontaneous but it helps to schedule time to do it so it’s not when your breasts are full or you just fed the baby. This helps your brain hold space for the adult part of you that wants connection.
Speaking of your body, both your healing process due to birth or previous trauma and pain can be a barrier to sex now. Your body has changed (both due to having a baby and this last year of living in a pandemic!). So make sure you take time to get support and heal it. This will have a great healing effect on your body image and self-worth. Happy as a Mother featured a great podcast recently where a Pelvic Floor Physiotherapist came on to discuss this at length. Check it out here to learn more!
I know that some of what happens is in our head so we also need to address our expectations, narrative timelines, and assumptions. Maybe you have a stuck memory of walking in on your own parents when you were a kid. That image has impacted your own interpretation as a sexual parent. Or maybe it’s hard to switch gears so easily over the course of one day. It’s okay if the first few times ‘fail’ or are messy. It helps to have a self-compassionate reframe instead of being hard on yourself – maybe shift that judgemental voice of “what’s wrong with me, i used to enjoy sex” to “i know this is a journey and i will get there again.” Honour the human in you and your partner. Sex is already a vulnerable and intimate act so it helps to acknowledge the elephant in the room even when it’s in our mind.
Also, even deeper than this is if postpartum mood challenges and disorders (PMAD) are getting in the way of your desire for sexual intimacy. So, it’s helpful to learn about the signs of PMAD as there are links to low arousal and postpartum depression.
This past year has been so hard for couples and relationships in general. We may have had sufficient quantity time due to sheltering at home, but that did not necessarily increase quality time. As social creatures, we need more connection than mere physical proximity. Having a healthy relationship takes work. Luckily, there are so many resources to help you along the way. David Richo’s book How to be an Adult in Relationships shares these Five Keys to Mindful Loving – attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing. They are very aligned with the Gottmans’ concepts of Connection Bids and the Emotional Bank Deposits as well as the theory of Love Languages. Esther Perel, a renowned couple’s therapist speaks a lot about re-connection. She shares that “the quality of our life depends on the quality of our relationships” – this is social engagement theory in action. She offers fantastic workshops for couples all the time, like this recent on on rekindling desire -there is even a part on sex after having kids!
The Gottman Institute has done research on sex and intimacy after having a baby. This work is so important as it is validating and empowering to know how many relationships struggle. We assume it’s just us and this is so far from true. In heteronormative relationships though, the male partner needs further reminder that his partner has spent days and months at home with the baby so is feeling a different reality with their body, body image, drain and burn-out, and desire needs. So, he needs to lower his expectations to make them realistic – no one can switch gears this quickly; he needs to expect less and not rush partner to “bounce back,” Catastrophize when sex isn’t happening – this is a chapter of life, not the end; it helps for the non-newborn caring parent to meet the needs of the new mom so she can meet needs of baby – she is running on fumes of exhaustion. And it’s okay to relearn how to meet you own needs with self-pleasure and masturbation.
Build a new foundation as a couple who are now parents. Make time as a couple to date again. Have this in place so when your children grow, they see this time as normal – we want to share love with our partner as it sets a good example for them later in life. I love that my children see me love their dad. They even count how long our kisses are sometimes (yes they meet the 6 second requirement!)
Sex postpartum happens during a shift in hormones. It can take time to come back into balance due to feeling touched out OR a relationship concern that is bigger than new parenthood. Sometimes, one partner needs more and then will need less; dynamics change over time. Ironically, when you just spend the day being a mom with a baby, your partner was still playing the role of adult or partner even when apart. Our roles are not permanent, as they depend on what the work is. It is our values and purpose that is the constant. So remember what kind of woman/person/human/partner you want to be. What is exciting for you? What feels aligned with these old dreams that got you to this point?
Come back to your why to find your way.
At the end of season 1 of Sex/Life, Billie is left wanting more and asking herself if the person who gives you lust, thrill and excitement can also be the one that also gives you security. She worries what it may cost her – I think that we can definitely have both.
What if you could do it, all of it? Don’t underestimate or short-change yourself. This is a quiet awakening happening in the collective. You, like me, have more to offer than you think – the world is waiting for you to see that potential and for you to own it.
Come claim your seat in the re-wilding, this awakening. This is the re-awakening of embodied feminine pleasure and energy.
So yes we can have that cake and eat it too. We just have to make it first.