Postpartum Low Desire: Emotional Causes

Last week, I talked about the physical causes of postpartum low desire. Today, I want to explore some of the emotional causes. These experiences, although not primarily physical in nature, are just as valid, and just as worthy of treatment and concern as medical issues. In fact, physical and emotional issues can’t always be easily separated. For instance, postpartum depression is partly physical and partly emotional; refer to last week’s post for more on that. And be sure to check in next week, when I’ll discuss rediscovering your sexuality as a new parent.

The first step in taking care of your relationship is taking care of yourself. Let’s take a look at some of the emotional struggles that new parents might face, and how they can be addressed.

Unresolved feelings about the pregnancy, birth or postpartum experience can contribute to low desire. These feelings, whether they result from a surprise change in birth plan, a traumatic delivery, breastfeeding problems, or any other unexpected difficulty, can lead to depression and disconnection between partners. As a midwife, I encountered this frequently. Women need a way to process their feelings about any disillusionment that occurred as part of the process of pregnancy and birth; otherwise, this distress can go on for decades. Although partners have a different experience of birth than mothers do, they also often need support. Remember: having very different experiences, feelings, and responses from one another doesn’t need to create a disconnect between you. You can empathize with one another’s experience without losing sight of your own. If you get stuck, a skilled couple therapist can help.

Sensory overload from holding a baby and/or nursing a baby much of the time can inhibit desire. Many new mothers tell me the last thing they want is to meet yet another person’s needs. This can understandably leave a partner feeling left out, and create loneliness, jealousy, and resentment.

Inability to relax can block desire. Listening for the baby, thinking about the baby, worrying about the baby–all the opposite of relaxing. Because a high level of vigilance is hard-wired into mothers, you will first need to feel certain your baby or toddler is in good hands. Perhaps you need to take yourself off-site in order to begin to work around this one. Incidentally, fathers may have a different kind of protective instinct, so misunderstandings around this difference can be a source of conflict. You don’t have to allow it to create a divide between you. Your experiences and feelings are both valid.

Not feeling beautiful is a common struggle for new mothers. Some women feel amazing after childbirth; others much less so, particularly if there were difficulties. For some women, breastfeeding evokes a visceral feeling of womanliness; others feel drippy and untidy. For some women, bottle feeding feels connecting and freeing; for others, it feels like a failure of womanliness or mothering. For some women, the weight gain associated with a healthy pregnancy can exacerbate lifelong body image issues, and those feelings can persist for quite some time after the birth. Perhaps you can start rediscovering your own eroticism by connecting with your partner–more on that in next week’s post. Others may find that a conversation with a skilled therapist is the best first step towards becoming comfortable in their body.

Loss of Self is a very common aspect of parenting a small child. For many, spending lots of time alone with an infant or toddler feels both delightful and mind-numbingly boring. If this describes you, the lost aspects of your self may need to re-emerge before desire can find its way back.

Worries about the future, going back to work, not going back to work, family relationships, parenting differences, finances (and so on and so on) can keep you from feeling sexual. These worries are only natural. Having a baby is one of the most stressful life changes for a family system; every family relationship has changed, and your responsibilities have multiplied geometrically. The stakes for everything are higher. Partners may be even more affected than mothers, particularly if they have a strong protective instinct.

Differences in style between family members are likely to emerge front and center. Flexibility is key, as is letting go of the small stuff. These skills may be more difficult to access now than ever, and if this was never your strong suit as a couple, this might be particularly challenging now.

Lack of time is a very real challenge as you build new habits and coping strategies for your new roles. Don’t forget that one of your roles is partner, and don’t let low desire prevent you from making time to connect in other important ways. If you let your couple connection slide now, you will pay for it in the future. Sooner or later you will need to make a decision to make time for one another; I recommend you make that commitment now.

Whether you are a mother struggling with low desire, or a partner struggling with feelings of frustration or rejection, your experience is perfectly normal and perfectly valid. This is a time to be patient and kind to yourself and one another. Remember that you are not alone. Know that help is available. Now is the perfect time to reach out to a physician or therapist; getting help early will pay off in many ways later.

Check in next week for my post Postpartum Low Desire: Improving Intimacy Amidst Multiple Challenges, in which I’ll lay out practical suggestions for rebuilding your connection and rekindling your spark. Meanwhile, if you missed it, check out last week’s post on Physical Causes of Postpartum Low Desire, and my post When Sex Doesn’t Go as Planned, in which I show how to transform disappointing intimate encounters into positive, relationship-building experiences.