Let's Talk About Sex
An expert answers your questions on sex and parenting
Every subscriber to this newsletter gets a welcome email, and in it I pose a question: tell me what you want to talk about. At least once a week, someone asks a variation of "can you talk about sex, and the role that parenthood plays in it?"
I wasn’t sure how best to tackle it, but was pleasantly surprised when an email from Erin Chen landed in my inbox. Erin is the founder of Gilly, an intimacy wellness app for couples with kids. She holds a Masters of Science in Medicine in Sexual Health Counseling from the University of Sydney and is a passionate advocate for the inclusion of sexual wellness as part of everyday healthy living. She offered to help out, so we put out a call for your questions, and Erin knocked it out of the park with the response below.
If you've got a question you'd like to ask—completely anonymously—for a future newsletter you can do it here.
OK, here’s Erin.
A dad writes:
I try my best to share the parenting and household responsibilities equally with my wife. I try to give her time to be alone so she can recharge. But she's still exhausted and has little to no desire to have sex. It's been a while like this. Is there anything else I can do to help her be more in the mood?
I feel bad bringing it up because it just seems to make her feel pressured.
Oof, this is such a common challenge for couples with kids with so much to unpack here. First, I want to acknowledge you for recognizing that with parenthood comes continual adjustment of household and parenting responsibilities. It sounds like you are an involved partner and teammate.
From the brief context that you’ve shared here, I’m gathering that you’ve likely given this a lot of thought and tried different ways to help your partner gain the energy and space she might need to feel sexual again since becoming a mother. It also sounds like perhaps this is something you’ve both talked about and you’re at a point where you hesitate to “push” it further because of how she may have reacted in the past.
Hopefully, I’ve gotten some of the context right and what I ask and share next will resonate.
First, a few questions I invite you to reflect on:
How do you know that exhaustion is what is causing her little desire to have sex? Before you throw your laptop out the window — hear me out. Yes, she probably told you that she’s too tired to have sex because there is a lot to do. And that is very much true — exhaustion is likely the most obvious challenge at the moment for her (and probably you too!). AND, there could also be some sense of loss of self, perhaps feelings she has about changes with her body, or grief for a loss of freedom, or unresolved impact from her birth experience…
What I’m trying to say is that there is no simple formula or cause-effect solution here. This is where I invite you to make some room in your expectations around how much “doing” and “fixing” you can provide for your partner. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should stop doing what you’re doing! It’s an invitation to you to give your partner space to walk her journey — she may be very clear about why her sexual desire has dropped, or more likely, this is also a new and overwhelming experience for her and she doesn't have clear answers either.
And this ambiguity doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom! This won’t be the first time in your life together where the process of aging, ad hoc life events will throw curveballs at your sex life. What’s matters is that you are figuring it out together—honing this valuable life skill of exploring and refreshing your sex life together.
Another question to chew on: What kind of sex are you wanting or expecting? Are you open to expanding the sexual repertoire in your relationship?
While we know that parenthood shakes up pretty much every aspect of our life—sleep, weekend routines, the amount of time we have for our personal hobbies—and we know that as we adjust our ways of going about those areas of life, couples often miss the memo about making similar adjustments for sex and intimacy in their relationship.
You may have already noticed that what worked in the past to get each other in the mood may not be so doable or reliable anymore. Similarly, the kind of sex you used to consistently have may also not be as feasible.
Couples often assume that “sex” equals sexual intercourse—the other “sexual stuff” are foreplay. This is what we call a sexual script. You and your partner share your own unique sexual scripts that you enjoyed before kids came and chances are, these scripts haven’t been intentionally refreshed.
And spoiler alert: couples who enjoy long lasting and rich intimate experiences have learned to redefine their sexual scripts throughout their relationship.
So my invitation to you is: Take a step back and examine your sexual script. When you close your eyes and picture the sex you are hoping your wife would want to have tonight with you—what do you picture? How does sex usually get initiated? How does it usually end?
How open are you to changing up the script? For example, rather than moving through foreplay then to intercourse, how about first checking in with each other on your energy levels and what would feel good for each of you in that moment? How about having a mutual masturbation where you watch each other pleasure yourself instead of intercourse? Or perhaps you both want to feel close but one of you wants to have a quickie so you skip the foreplay and speed things up with the help of a sex toy to help her orgasm more quickly?
We call these “low hanging fruits”—kinds of sex that feel easier to say “yes” to than intercourse and that still feel pleasurable, fulfilling and intimate for you both. Give yourself permission to get creative and be open to some trial and error to figure out what to keep on this list.
By being open about your specific needs and energy levels in the moment and having these “low hanging fruits” ready as options to choose together, you can better ensure that you are having the experience that is pleasurable and fulfilling for both. It also means that you don’t need to completely rid yourself of exhaustion before having sex — that’s an almost impossible feat for parents!
So, a few take aways as a recap:
Keep sharing the load and being an equal partner for your wife. At the same time, give some space for her to process the changes that came with parenthood for herself
Adjust expectations that you have around cause and effect for her sexual desire and try to reframe this as a journey and life skill that you are both navigating together
Explore your sexual scripts — can you find opportunities for new ways of approaching sex and what sex usually is for you?
When ready, create a low hanging fruits list together. Be open to some trial and error!
You got this, dad!
I'm delighted Erin has offered her time and expertise to this community, and for this thoughtful and insightful response. She wrote this while imminently awaiting her second child, who is now here—congratulations!
If you'd like to have her back (I know I would) and have something you'd like to ask (completely anonymously of course) you can do so here.
3 things to read this week
Self-care is a topic I regularly circle back to—as recently as last week, in fact—because of it’s impact on physical and mental well-being, and the knock-on effects for your entire family. But there's an arising need to reframe what self-care means: away from the wellness tropes of yoga and kale smoothies and a luxury for those with disposable income. This article on rethinking self-care does a great job of showing how this might work. "If I have one message, it’s this — everyone has access to self-care. It's not just about what you spend your money on, it's also about how you invest your time, your effort and your energy into meaningful work."
Did you spend all summer watching your kids play Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite? It seems like the Chinese government did too, then got sick of it, enacting a new law restricting under 18s to three hours of online gaming a week. China has half a billion online gamers (more than the combined population of the UK and US) and videogame addiction has long been a problem there, with parents sending their kids to military-style boot camps to kick the habit.
There have been a whole suite of articles written on how to raise boys fit for today's society—I even wrote one myself in March in the wake of horrific events. This one from The Guardian's Tom Lamont is another must-read. He consults a series of experts and weaves it into an single thread that'll confirm some things you already believe, and open your eyes to potential blind spots. "It’s not just about raising gentle, empathic boys. It’s not just about explaining to those boys that there are certain structures preferable to men and we want to dismantle those structures. It’s about explaining why we want things to be more equitable, and they can do all of those things without their very humanity being called upon, without them being told: ‘You are less of a man because of this.’”
One thing to watch with the kids this week
One of the last things we did before leaving London was hitting up the Ryoji Ikeda exhibition at 180 The Strand (big thank you to my wife who knew it was happening and booked the tickets). Highly recommended. It's an overwhelming audiovisual experience, as you’d expect with Fact Magazine and The Vinyl Factory involved in putting it together. We took both kids and, whilst we were a little worried it might be too much, they loved it. Here's Bodhi “enjoying” the room from the video above.
How did you like this week’s issue? Your feedback helps me make this great.
Branding by Selman Design. Illustrations by Tony Johnson who should be well rested after a bank holiday in the UK. Tony, If you’re reading this, I’ve got the next essay done already. I’ve got my shit together this week, I promise!