Want good sex as a parent?
Relationship health scientist Christine Leistner has found that the beliefs men hold about mothers and their capacity for sexual pleasure directly impacts the sense of sexual desire and satisfaction experienced by the female partners with whom they share children. Essentially, according to her research, when men view mothers as sexual beings, their partners report experiencing more sexual desire.
There’s a caveat, though — especially for American parents: Leistner has premised her work on another finding established by sociologist Christine Glass, whose study of parents and non-parents in 22 countries found that parents experience what Glass calls the “happiness penalty” for having kids. Unfortunately, the happiness gap between American parents and non-parents is the largest in the world.
Which Leistner says, naturally leads to an accompanying pleasure deficit — i.e., because they’re less happy, American parents are likely having less fulfilling sex than parents elsewhere in the world (and non-parents elsewhere in the country). “In terms of sexual and relationship satisfaction, research indicates that both of these outcomes are associated with general happiness and life satisfaction,” she explains. “It’s likely then that the gaps in sexual and relationship satisfaction among parents and non-parents in the U.S. are also comparable to the gap in general life satisfaction.”
A few possible reasons, per Leistner, for the gap…
Because we’re really shitty about talking to each other about sex.
“Another U.S.-based study reports that women who become mothers have a sharper decline in relationship satisfaction than fathers and women who don’t become mothers,” says Leistner. “However, communication between partners can prevent this decline. For example, when male partners express fondness toward their partner and communicate in a positive way, these sharp declines in mothers’ relationship satisfaction don’t occur.
“More generally, positive communication includes things like providing partners with compliments, expressing fondness, disclosing important information and expressing affection. These types of communication patterns, in conjunction with humor and taking on an equal load of responsibility on average can bring partners together and keep relationships healthy.”
Because we don’t learn enough about sex in school.
“In the U.S., many people don’t receive comprehensive sexuality education,” Leistner says. “Instead, they receive shame-focused messages about sexuality. This leads to a lack of preparation for birth and the postpartum experience for women and their partners. It also leads to a hesitation to talk about sex with health-care practitioners about sexual concerns in the short- or long-term postpartum.”
Because we don’t think about moms the way we think of daddies.
“Many women report not feeling like a sexual being during pregnancy and after giving birth,” Leistner continues. “This may be because culturally, we don’t view pregnant women or mothers as complex individuals with sexual desires. Researchers conducted a wonderful study in 1998 that demonstrated how we don’t perceive motherhood and sexuality as compatible. In it, 117 men and 121 women were presented with one of four descriptions of a woman varying her level of sexuality from low, to moderate, to high. They were told she was married, had two children and worked outside the home. They were asked to rate her on four dimensions of mothering. Across the board, people rated the highly sexual woman as a bad mother and wife, indicating that being interested in sex isn’t compatible with motherhood and that this view is shared by women and by men.
“What happens is that people view the idea of a mother as a two-dimensional person serving as a caregiver and safe person. But what we know about sexual desire is that it’s fueled by novelty, excitement and exploration. So mothers and their partners have to work through their own conceptualizations of the mother role, how to continue introducing novelty and/or exploration into their sexual lives, postpartum issues and the stress of parenting all at once for years or decades, depending on how many children they decide to have.”
Because a new dad’s libido needs recalibrating, too.
“Fathers also experience fatigue, confusion and mental-health concerns in the postpartum period, and their issues aren’t frequently addressed or discussed,” Leistner explains. “Additionally, fathers are also working to conceptualize themselves as parents and figuring out how to deal with the extra work involved in parenting. Sexual attitudes play a role here as well.
“What was interesting about my study is that specifically, fathers’ attitudes about mothers’ sexual pleasure and enjoyment were related to better outcomes for fathers and for mothers. These findings really highlight the importance of sexual pleasure in general satisfaction for couples. And so, alternatively, when fathers don’t have positive attitudes toward mothers as sexual beings, they aren’t as sexually or relationally satisfied.”
Because some dads aren’t doing any of the following…
“There’s research indicating that men who were present in the delivery room have higher satisfaction than those who were not,” Leistner tells me. “In the postpartum, when thinking about initiating sex for the first time after birth, it’s always a good idea to communicate with your partner and try other activities first before diving into vaginal intercourse. These activities include mutual masturbation, oral sex and hand play. Women report finding these activities pleasurable in the postpartum period, perhaps more so than vaginal sex.
“Additionally, men can provide their female partners with opportunities to do what they love and find fulfillment outside of their roles as mother and wife. This allows women to continue developing and maintaining their identities and confidence. By allowing partners this room to grow, the couple creates a safe space to build their relationship satisfaction while also instilling novelty, which is important for desire.”
Because we don’t understand that we’re not always gonna fuck like teenagers.
“In long-term couples, sexual desire is very much an ebb and flow,” says Leistner. “Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you don’t. It’s about the ways couples manage those times when there are significant discrepancies. [Rosemary] Basson’s model of sexual response talks about how in long-term relationships — when the stresses of parenting and other aspects of busy adult American lives come into the relationship — it’s about being open to a sexual experience with your partner more so than experiencing an overwhelming amount of sexual desire.
“A lot of the time for women, the desire comes after the couple begins engaging in sexual activity. After being stimulated, women will report feeling arousal and then desire. Desire is also influenced by motivation for sex. So if a person is engaging in sex to bring themselves closer to something — intimacy, orgasm, connection — they’ll have more desire than if they’re engaging in sex to get away from something — e.g., making their partner angry.”