Days after they cut a baby out of my womb, and their hands lifted my breast into the infant’s searching mouth, a strange thing happened.
A stranger came to talk with me about having sex again.
I decided to buy gorgeous lingerie.Credit:Stocksy
“Have you been consulted about family planning,” she asked, proffering a pamphlet, earnest eyebrows arching expectantly. It was raining outside the hospital window, the baby was sleeping, and I was unpacking wads of cotton my husband had brought to help with the bleeding. She was perfectly nice and a perfect stranger and the latest in a procession of questioning faces , both unfamiliar and known, to encroach on my addled mind since dawn.
“Are you aware of the options available to you?”
Unhelpfully, I blinked in reply, and my well-meaning nurse took it as her cue to unfurl her bundle of literature and begin her practiced monologue on family planning. I could put this thing in there, or that one here, she said, or take this pill.
“Or avoid sex?”
My contribution to her presentation, offered with wry smile and wink, wasn’t warmly received.
“We strongly encourage resumption of intimate relations once you’re up to it again.”
I had to stifle my laugh. She continued.
And I let her words wash over me as I shuffled around the room in pressure socks, bandages, and unkempt hair. I couldn’t help my amusement at the absurdity of it all. I was subjected to the family planning tutorial because my husband and I had planned to have a baby. It all began with a shag, and here was talk about how to get back on the proverbial steed, while I felt the most shagged, and the least like shagging, ever.
When should we do it?
And so began weeks of anxiety over sex. Despite her best intentions, she planted a seed of doubt, that, fertilised by forums, blogs, magazine articles, doctors, and my own growing sense of complete identity crisis, grew into a joy-sapping weed.
How best to approach a return to sex?
Sex. When should we do it? How should it feel? What’s normal? What’s not? What if it hurts, should we keep going or stop? What if I’m not in the mood? What if he’s not in the mood?
What if things never go back to the way they were before?
These questions surfaced, over and over, from the depths of my mind. They churned around the edges of my consciousness, colliding with incessant waves of doubt about survival, feeding, pain, crying and sleep. All this tumult played out under an empty, unnavigable sky of indecision.
So I took action.
I decided to buy gorgeous lingerie. Having healed enough to drive, I dragged myself away from my precious bundle of demanding mystery. Fatigued by crying and crapping and crying and confusion and crying, I rediscovered the local mall, managed a park, and faced the bright lights and dizzying normalcy of being in public, during the day, unattached to another human lifeform. That this otherwise mundane series of events felt like an achievement made me feel foolish.
But not as foolish as I was about to feel.
Shopping for lingerie
Until I had a baby, I enjoyed shopping at lingerie boutiques. I like lace. I liked push-up bras. And I really enjoyed sex. The two went hand-in-hand. Then I had a baby, and it was all foreign. My body was different, and I feared our sex life would be too. And as I browsed bras I previously only dreamed of filling, a leisurely trickle of warm milk leaked into cups of the maternity bra that I’d peeled back to sustain life not one hour earlier. I cried. The shop assistant offered her help. I couldn’t explain that my nipples were hurting because they’d nibbled and sucked all day and night. And not at all in a sexy way.
I even successfully navigated the shopping centre car park.Credit:Belinda Pratten
I cried again later that night.
The red lace was askew. We’d tried. I’d wanted to. Or so I thought. But the truth was, I was hopelessly confused. Nothing felt right. My body felt different, my mind felt different, I felt different. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I felt like an idiot. I felt exhausted. I felt like I had gained the most wonderful thing, and lost something at the same time. I had a scar to prove it. And in that moment, when I was vulnerable, and naked, and tired, and trying to lose myself in lovemaking like I always had, I was confronted by the ancient truth of motherhood and it scared the shit out of me.
Plan on having sex after you have a baby. But don’t plan on it being easy.
It was a strange thing to happen. It was terrifying.
But it didn’t last.
It got better, as things do, with time. We talked. We focused on other kinds of intimacy. We agreed ‘bounce back’ was a distasteful term, and that she was proof of our love, and adaptation isn’t a switch you flick. We cuddled. I cried, a lot. And we got better. In time.
So to the innocent question asked by the nurse who was only trying to help: Had I been consulted about family planning? Sure. I knew about contraception, erections, ovulations and fertilisation. I knew about families, and I knew about plans. But I didn’t plan on feeling this awful about sex. And I didn’t plan on it impacting my enjoyment of my beautiful new family. Which is kind of why I think family planning should be a much broader discussion. Family planning should be more consultative. Family planning should talk about feelings, not just instruments and methods. Family planning takes time.
Plan on having sex after you have a baby. But don’t plan on it being easy. Don’t expect it to be uncomplicated or like it was before. Try to avoid the pressure of expectation. Think about taking your time. It’s OK if it doesn’t work quite right the first time. Your whole world has changed forever, that’s the truth. Sex seems strange in relation to that. And that’s absolutely OK.
Strange things will happen.
It’s how you handle them that matters.
Katherine Feeney is a journalist and presenter with ABC Radio Brisbane. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or her website.
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