People ask, “Why don’t more people in the UK breastfeed until six months or beyond?” Obviously the reasons are complex. It’s often about people not being able to access the breastfeeding support they need in the first month. It’s also about new parents not realising what’s normal when it comes to breastfeeding and being surrounded by a bottlefeeding culture that undermines their confidence. However I think a little bit of it is connected to the way British women think about their breasts and their bodies. I think a little bit of it might also be because we don’t know how to be a breastfeeding mum and be a sexual partner at the same time.
From when we are very small, we are surrounded by the message that boobs are about sex. We see it on billboards, in daily newspapers, on magazine covers. Think of all the images an average 20 year old woman will have received about her breasts and how many of those images are about a woman feeding her baby. And that’s just the girls – never mind the new fathers.
We are bombarded with all these messages about what breasts are ‘for’ and then we’re told when we’re pregnant, “Oh, by the way, forget all that, THIS is REALLY what breasts are for. It’s really important. It’s best for baby. OK?” It’s quite a brain shift.
We also live in a society where we no longer live in extended families and the couple is the centre of our household. Successful couples in our culture are perceived to be couples with active sex lives and sometimes when we are a new parent, we’re finding our way when it comes to sex. We’re trying to work out how to be a mother and how to be a sexual partner at the same time. Meanwhile dad (or partner) is trying to figure out how to support you in your new role as a mother and understands this teeny new person is your new priority. But they would quite like to feel loved as well. I never subscribe to the view that breastfeeding makes new dads feel excluded. But realistically, when there’s a new baby at the centre of your world and dad is shunted back to work after only 2 weeks of paternity leave while you carry on getting to know this new person, it’s tough.
Sex isn’t just about sex. It’s a way for people to feel connected and loved and special. When your partner is asking for sex, it’s not just about wanting to get their ‘rocks off’. Most adult males (and females) are pretty proficient at organising the offing of rocks all by themselves. It’s also about wanting to connect with you and feel that they still matter and your relationship as a couple still matters.
It’s very easy when you are a new mum to get into a downward spiral of feeling negatively about sex and sex starting to feel like another chore. New motherhood is a time when you may actually find yourself using the cheesy expression ‘touched out’. A little person is touching and needing us all day long. New motherhood is exhausting. If we feel ‘needed’ by anyone else who might place physical demands on us, it can feel like a step too far.
Not to mention the fact that after the birth we may have physical reasons for not feeling quite ready for sex. There is some suggestion that breastfeeding can result in lower oestrogen levels and this might result in increased levels of vaginal dryness. This may be true for some women in the early months and lubrication can be useful. Although some may claim that breastfeeding ‘affects your hormones’ in a way that impacts on libido, it’s difficult to make any hard and fast rules when it comes to libido. In pregnancy, we all have fairly similar hormones flying around and some women feel very sexual and motivated and others switch off sex entirely. Whatever might be causing sex to feel difficult for some new mothers, we need to be conscious of what’s going on and recognise that we need to spare a bit of mental energy for our relationship.
When it comes to protecting and cherishing your relationship there are some things that are worth spelling out:
·Everyone is more tired and we aren’t always brilliant communicators when we are tired. We may be snappier and less patient and need to be more conscious of the words we are choosing and the way we are saying things. Stuart Heritage, writing in The Guardian, talked about his relationship with his wife in the early days of parenting: "The fact that we haven’t murdered each other yet is little short of a miracle, especially given that my method of dealing with tiredness (snippy sarcasm) is directly at odds with hers (irrational sensitivity to snippy sarcasm)."
·It’s worth pausing and taking a moment to think through what’s really important. If your partner doesn’t put on a baby’s nappy in exactly the same way you might, that might be a comment worth letting go. In the beginning, you were both muddling through this parenting thing together but as the hours went by you probably spent more and more time with the baby and they possibly felt more excluded and disempowered. You simply had more practise. It is your job to mother your child but also to help your partner to be a new parent in the best way that they can. OK, if they are rrrreally bad at putting the nappy on, you can say something.
·There may be new ways to be intimate. In the olden days (a few weeks ago before baby), it might have seemed logical for couple time to consist of evenings out, dinner in a restaurant and sex before falling asleep in bed. These are spectacularly bad ways for a couple to try and reconnect when they have a new teeny baby. Evenings and bedtimes are often the times when we feel the most exhausted. There are also the times when baby wants to cluster feed and is at their most demanding. Whereas 9pm once felt like the beginning of an exciting evening, it now feels like a time when your body is pretty convinced it really shouldn’t have to be operating fully conscious. We may have to rethink what ‘couple time’ means. Time as a couple doesn’t have to mean time separated from baby. It is possible for the three of you to curl up on the sofa and watch a great movie. Or go for a walk in a beautiful place. Or have a nice meal in a restaurant. Young babies sleep and when they don’t sleep, they breastfeed and that tends to be peaceful and straightforward. You might prefer to be in that restaurant at 6pm or 2pm instead of 9pm. If you are ready for time away from baby (and don’t force yourself until it feels right – this isn’t a test of anything), take care with who you choose to look after your baby. It may be that your first meal out isn’t with your partner at all because that’s who you first trust to be at home with baby while you eat out with a friend. When it comes time for the babysitter to give you couple time, it might make sense for the babysitter to be there from 2pm to 7pm giving you a chance for a meal and an experience and still get home for bed. Or how about a babysitter who takes the baby to park or a family member who takes baby to their own home while you and your partner share a bath and have some intimate time? Or how about you share a bath and have some intimate time with a baby in a Moses basket nearby? You can be both things at once – a mother and a partner. We feel we have to compartmentalise ourselves and that just isn’t true. No one has to ‘switch off’ being a mother in order to be intimate and connect with their partner. And intimate time doesn’t have to mean putting a penis into a vagina (even less likely if you're not a heterosexual couple). There are lots of options that you can talk about honestly. If communication is open, you don’t have to avoid other physical affection because you fear that you are sending signals you are ready for sex when you aren’t.
·Talk. Sometimes we feel that new parenthood is supposed to be lovely and we’re supposed to be thrilled and grateful and jolly. The reality is that it’s very difficult. Any relationship with weak points is likely to find those weak points even more exposed. It’s a time to communicate honestly and kindly.
·You do have to make time for your partner. Don’t roll your eyes at me for spelling that out. You may think you hardly have time to brush your teeth so get stuffed. Truthfully, your baby benefits from parents who are connected and loving. Do you find yourself feeling angry towards your partner more than you feel loving and appreciative? You may need to talk more. Taking time to listen to your partner and show kindness is for all of you as a family. A bestselling baby writer suggests women drink a large glass of red wine and force themselves to have sex even when they don’t feel like it. If this is what sex has come to mean to you, you need to talk more with your partner and use a bit more imagination. One of the symptoms of postnatal depression is a feeling of resentment towards your partner, a disinterest in sex and a lack of motivation in reconnecting. It might be that your partner is simply a complete prat and all these feelings are justified. Some relationships may breakdown in the first few months after a baby is born and that might not be a bad thing. However if you feel that life isn’t quite going the way you’d like in other ways too, take a moment to talk to someone about how you feel and just check you don’t need further help.
·Be kind to yourself too. Our bodies change when we are new mums. They are supposed to. That can feel weird when we are surrounded by magazines and images telling us that flat tummies are the meaning of life and breasts aren’t about babies. Breastfeeding itself doesn’t make your breasts sag by the way. That is the effect of pregnancy hormones and may happen to people who don’t breastfeed even for a minute. Breastfeeding may make inverted nipples evert for ever more but it’s not going to permanently change your breasts. And even if it did make a little alteration, most women would feel it was more than worth it for the all the positives – including reducing a mother’s risk of breast cancer. If you feel you want to lose weight, that can still happen while you are breastfeeding. Breastfeeding mums can still run and play netball and swim in the sea. Just don’t push yourself to do too much too fast because you feel you need to rush to change your body back into the way it was. Your baby will only be a baby for a short time. Before you know it, it will be all about finding shoes and reading stories and playing football and banging drums and wearing sparkly dresses. Your priority right now is meeting this new person and getting to know them and caring for them and taking on probably the most important role of your life.
Our relationships should be robust enough to deal with these difficult phases and changes. When baby has changed into a bloke who worries about rent and his next holiday, your relationship with your partner will continue to be a core aspect of your life. We need to integrate 'being a mother' into who we are rather than expect 'being a partner' and 'being a mother' to live in different boxes. These women are more likely to make breastfeeding work in the longer term and they are more likely to make relationships work too.