During at least one of the check-up appointments in the months after giving birth, many women will be given the ‘green light’ to have sex with their partners again. They will also likely be warned by their practitioner that, if they are breastfeeding, pregnancy can still occur, so to take the proper precautionary measures. For some of us (myself very much included) it’s a warning that will make you quite literally laugh out loud. The notion that I, in my postpartum state of perpetual exhaustion, infrequent showering, regular leaking of milk and blood, and frequent delirium, would also muster up the desire for, well, desire—when all I could think about was sweet, sweet sleep—was hilarious.
There’s a physical reason for the dip in sex drive that happens postpartum. “When a woman is pregnant her reproductive hormones are elevated and after giving birth they crash,” says Julia Arenson, a Brooklyn-based doula. “This results in a dip in estrogen, which can cause low sex drive and vaginal dryness, making sex feel painful.” There’s also an evolutionary reason for it: “It’s basically her body’s natural way of ensuring that she takes the time to properly heal and focus on caring for the baby instead of on trying to have another one,” says Vanessa Marin, a psychotherapist and writer specialising in sex therapy. Many women also still simply find themselves in a great deal of physical pain in the months postpartum after going through what is, by all accounts, a significant trauma for the body. If you are breastfeeding, that can pose its own roadblocks for the libido. “When you are breastfeeding, hormones like oxytocin [often referred to as the ‘love hormone’] and prolactin increase,” says Arenson. “Oxytocin flows during the bonding and breastfeeding process, and this can replace some of the urge to connect intimately through sex.” The accompanying lower levels of estrogen and testosterone can, adds Karyn Eilber, M.D., a urologist focused on female pelvic medicine, negatively impact the libido as well.
Hormonal cascades aside, there’s also the simple fact that reality as you know it has drastically changed. “Your body feels like it doesn’t belong to you anymore; you’re stressed and anxious about keeping your baby alive and doing everything ‘right’; you’re exhausted, overwhelmed, and seriously lacking sleep; and you’re adjusting to what it’s like to see yourself as a ‘mom’ and how that fits in with your previously held identity,” says Marin. “How could your sex drive not change?” While it’s not as common, even partners who didn’t physically give birth can experience their own libido loss. “That’s most likely due to tiredness related to newborn care, the stress on the individual and relationship that a baby can bring, or also a fear of ‘hurting’ the partner who gave birth,” Eilber explains.
If you’re waiting in the months, and often years, postpartum for your libido to just turn back on like a light switch, it doesn’t quite work that way, explains Orna Guralnik, Psy.D., a psychoanalyst and star of Showtime’s Couples Therapy. “Libido is actually a whole matrix of biological, emotional, and psychological factors,” she says. “It’s not a binary thing that’s there or not there.” It can encompass actual sexual genital desire, the psychological experience of wanting to be in a sexual situation, and the willingness to be in a sexual experience, which is different from the wanting. Having a child often changes the dynamic of a partnership because it alters the configuration: What started as a dyadic relationship, says Guralnik, shifts to a triangular relationship, a different kind of interpersonal field in which you will register yourself differently. One in which you will register yourself differently.
Amid the additional stresses of the past year, plus sorting out your willingness and desire for sex can become that much more challenging. “There’s a huge connection between high cortisol and low sex drive,” says Marin. “When you’re in ‘fight or flight’ mode, cortisol helps shut down many of your body’s systems so that in a state of emergency your body can focus all of its resources on self-preservation.” As cortisol levels elevate, the body may not want to put as much energy into feeling desire when there are other more pressing needs at hand. But that’s not true for everybody. “It’s a complicated correlation between stress and sex,” says Guralnik. “Some people, when they’re stressed out, find sex very appealing as a way of reducing anxiety and a form of release.” Guralnik points to sexual behavior in animal models like chimpanzees versus bonobos: Chimpanzees respond to high levels of stress with aggression, while bonobos (a matriarchal society) respond with an elevated sex drive.
Over the course of the pandemic, Guralnik has noticed that her patients have also contended with what she calls “the safety factor.” For some people, feeling the safety of being with only their partner has allowed them to connect to their libidos, while for others it’s a turnoff. “For some, distance and difference produce desire rather than sameness and presence, so they may be having less sex during the pandemic not because of anxiety, but because they’re just always there next to each other and available,” she explains, adding that studies have shown that novelty is a key factor in desire for women more than for men.
Rediscovering your libido may begin with reconnecting with yourself.
Remember when, at the start of the pandemic, New York City’s health department encouraged us all to masturbate? Start there. “It’s the single best way to reconnect with your body, increase your confidence, and discover what works for you,” says Marin. Incorporating regular movement, like yoga or dance, can also help. New York’s Sky Ting Yoga studio has been known to offer classes focused on libido. “Allowing a flow of energy through dance or other forms of movement like yoga makes you feel more sensual and accepting of the changes in your body, especially postpartum,” says Arenson. “It can also flow endorphins, which work in tandem with oxytocin, the hormone of love and bonding.” Connecting with your partner may start with talking about each of your needs—like what makes you feel desire and what gets in the way—and how they may have changed post-baby. Remember to consider desire as a broad spectrum, one that includes willingness, not just want, says Guralnik, and create conditions that emphasise a dyad, not just a family matrix. “There is definitely something to be said about ‘date night,’ and other intentional acts to maintain a couple’s relationship,” says Eilber. But, Guralnik says, perhaps most important? “Getting enough sleep so you can actually register libido at all.”
This story originally appeared in Vogue.com