First things first: This is not another article that simply tells you to “go on a date night.”
Nothing against date nights. The best ones can remind you why you fell in love with your spouse or partner in the first place.
Or they can involve staring at each other in a sleep-deprived haze over an expensive meal while intermittently glancing at your phone for updates from the babysitter.
If date nights aren’t working for you, or if you’ve been struggling to maintain intimacy for months — or even years — after having children, here are some different ways to stay close to your spouse or partner, despite the stresses and frustrations of parenthood.
Try not to become complacent.
Just as there was never a perfect time to have children, there will rarely be a perfect time to rekindle a connection with your partner.
It’s easy to push your romantic relationship to the side: “Let’s get through sleep training first.” Or: “As soon as I get back into shape.” Or: “Maybe when I’m less tired.”
Then winter arrives. “Everyone’s sick again? Let’s wait until we get better.”
But if you keep waiting, experts say, regaining intimacy can become increasingly difficult.
“It seems to have been the norm for so many couples to say to themselves, ‘Now that the kids are here, we’ll focus on the kids. Our day will come,’” said Michele Weiner-Davis, a marriage and family therapist whose TEDx talk about sex-starved marriages has been viewed more than 5 million times. “But here’s the bad news from someone who’s been on the front lines with couples for decades. Unless you treat your relationship, your marriage, like it’s a living thing — which requires nurturing regularly — you won’t have a marriage after the kids leave home.”
Couples may start to lead parallel but separate lives — and discover they have nothing in common.
“They’re looking at a stranger, and they ask themselves, ‘Is this the way I want to spend the last few years of my life?’” Ms Weiner-Davis said. “And for too many couples the answer is no.”
But all of that is preventable, she added.
“It’s absolutely essential not to be complacent about what I call a ho-hum sex life. Touching is a very primal way of connecting and bonding,” Ms Weiner-Davis said. “If those needs to connect physically are ignored over a period of time, or are downgraded so that it’s not satisfying, I can assure people there will be problems in the relationship moving forward.”
Slow down and start over
If you had a vaginal birth, you and your partner may expect to begin having sex as early as six weeks after the baby is born, if you have been physically cleared to do so.
For some couples, that signals “the clock is now ticking,” said Emily Nagoski, author of “Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.”
But a lot of women simply won’t be ready that early. And that’s O.K.
“After the postpartum checkup, I didn’t feel like myself, I didn’t feel physically ready to have sex,” said Emily Stroia, 33, who lives in Los Angeles. “In terms of libido, I didn’t really have one.”
Ms Stroia, the mother of a 10-month-old, eventually starting having sex with her partner once a month — but before she became pregnant, they had sex nearly every week, she said.
“I still kind of forget that I’m in a relationship,” said Ms Stroia, who is struggling with sleep deprivation. “I have to remind myself that I have a partner.”
After any potential medical problems are ruled out, Dr. Nagoski advises couples to “start over” with one another by establishing a sexual connection in much in the same way they might have done when they were first getting to know each other: making out, holding each other and gradually moving in the direction of bare skin.
That’s especially important if there’s a birth parent involved, she added.
“That person’s body is brand-new,” Dr Nagoski said. “The whole meaning of their body has transformed.”
It also helps to remember that “intimacy isn’t just hot sex,” said Rick Miller, a psychotherapist in Massachusetts.
“It’s steadfast loyalty, a commitment to getting through stressful times together and, most importantly, enjoying the warm, cosy moments of home together,” Mr Miller said.
Put on your life preserver first
Taking the time to nurture your individual physical and emotional needs will give you the bandwidth to nurture your relationship, too, so that it doesn’t feel like another task on the to-do list.
“When you experience your partner’s desire for intimacy as an intrusion, ask yourself, ‘How deprived am I in my own self-care? What do I need to do to take care of myself in order to feel connected to my own sexuality?’” said Dr Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist and host of the “Motherhood Sessions” podcast.
That might mean going to the gym or talking to your partner about decreasing the invisible mental load that is often carried by one parent.
Enlisting the support of your family (or your chosen family) to take some time for yourself or discuss some of the struggles that accompany parenting can help you recharge.
“Relying on others is an indirect way of working on intimacy,” Mr Miller said.
This is especially important for gay couples, he added, who may not typically share vulnerabilities “because the world hasn’t been a safe place.”
Practising self-care as a couple is equally important
Dr Sacks recommends making a list of everything you used to do together as a couple that helped you feel close and thinking about how those rituals have changed.
Is your toddler sleeping in your bed, spread out like a sea star between you and your partner? Have you stopped doing the things together you used to really enjoy like working out or going to the movies? Dr Sacks recommends thinking about how you’re going to adjust to create physical and emotional intimacy with your partner.
For example, if you always used to talk about your day together and now that time is completely absorbed by caregiving, the absence of that connection will be profound.
“You can’t just eliminate it and expect to feel as close,” she said.
Think about what turns you on
According to Dr Nagoski, one way to nurture intimacy is to remind yourselves of the context in which you had a great sexual connection together.
What characteristics did your partner have? What characteristics did your relationship have?
Then, she said, think about the setting.
“Were we at home with the door locked? Were we on vacation? Was it over text? Was it at a party in a closet at a stranger’s house against a wall of other people’s coats? What context really works for us?” Dr Nagoski said.
When doing this exercise, and when thinking about your current libido (or lack thereof) it’s also helpful to remember that not everyone experiences spontaneous desire — the kind of sexual desire that pops out of nowhere. For example, you’re walking down the street and suddenly can’t stop thinking about sex.
Millions of other people experience something different called responsive desire, which stems from erotic stimulation. In other words, arousal comes first and then desire.
Both types of desire are normal.
Create a magic circle in your bedroom
Dr Nagoski suggested cordoning off an imaginative protected space in your mind where you can “bring forward the aspects of your identity that are relevant to your erotic connection and you close the door on the parts of yourself that are not important for an erotic connection.”
With enough focus, this strategy can work even if the physical space you’re using contains reminders of your role as a caregiver.
It can also help to think of your bedroom as a sanctuary, advised Ms Weiner-Davis.
For couples who have spent years co-sleeping with their children, that can be somewhat difficult.
“I do believe there comes a point where it’s important to have those boundaries again,” Ms Weiner-Davis said.
Don’t bank on spontaneity
It’s easy to forget how much time and effort we put into our relationships in the early days: planning for dates, caring for our bodies and (gasp) having long conversations with one another.
“People feel sort of sad when they get that news that yes, it does require effort to build a connection across a lifetime,” Dr Nagoski said. “You don’t just dive in — you don’t just put your body in the bed and put your genitals against each other and expect for it to be ecstatic.”
Karen Jeffries (a pen name she uses as a writer and performer to protect her privacy) said her sex life with her husband is better than ever after having had two children. They’ve always had a strong physical connection, she said. But they also plan ahead and prioritize.
“There are times where I’ll text him and I’ll be like, ‘We’re having sex tonight,’ and he’ll be like ‘O.K.’ or vice versa,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll send him a picture of a taco and he’ll send me a picture of an eggplant.”
Ms Jeffries, 37, a fourth-grade dual-language teacher in Westchester County, N.Y., is the author of “Hilariously Infertile,” an account of the fertility treatments she endured to conceive her two daughters. Her children, now aged 6 and 4, are on a strict sleep schedule with a 7:30 p.m. bedtime, allowing for couple time in the evening.
Think of building good sexual habits just like you would develop good eating or exercising habits, she advised.
“Sex begets more sex. Kind of like when you go to the gym,” she said. “It takes you a while to build that habit.”
Then, she added, “You’ll notice little by little that it becomes more and more as opposed to less and less.”
A small 2018 study found that attending group therapy helped couples with low sexual desire as well as those who had discrepancies in their levels of sexual desire.
Individual or couples therapy can also be a good place to start.
For many parents, however, and especially those with young children, finding the time and money to go to a therapist can be challenging.
Esther Perel, a psychotherapist whose TED talks on sexuality and relationships have been viewed by millions, offers an online course, currently $199, that includes a section called “Sex After Kids.”
Ms Perel also hosts the popular “Where Should We Begin?” podcast, in which couples share the intimate details of their troubles during recorded therapy sessions.
Several other podcasts also offer advice to couples, including "Marriage Therapy Radio” and “Relationship Advice.”
Regardless of what steps you take to rebuild a connection with your spouse, experts say it’s important to take action as soon as possible.
“The child is not going to take up less space over time,” Dr Sacks said. “So the question is: How do you carve out space for your relationships around the child, as the child continues to develop with different but continually demanding needs.”
Christina Caron is a parenting reporter at The New York Times.