Getting mind and body back in the mood after giving birth isn't always easy.
It was a standing joke — literally — between Chucho and me. He would pass me in a doorway, our bodies brushing against each other, and suddenly grab me in a crushing embrace, panting, while I smiled sheepishly and waited him out. Then he would pat me on the hindquarters the way you might a favorite horse, and we would go our separate ways.
But as two months postpartum turned into four and six and eight, my libido stayed stuck in neutral. We tried, once in awhile, to rev up the engine — we dimmed the lights, bought a new tube of K-Y jelly. But nothing could get me past the thought that this contrived, paint-by-numbers kind of sex was taking up a lot of prime sleeping time.
What, really, was the point?
I felt like Andie MacDowell in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, when she admits to her therapist that she doesn't masturbate.
"It just seems so stupid," she says. I must point out that this is a rare phenomenon in my 15-year marriage, which I would optimistically guess (based on no comparison data) is sexually healthy. Certainly our sex life has changed over the years, which I take as a sign of growth.
We aren't the same people who used to scramble home for a quickie on our lunch hour, but as we approach middle age, the comfort of our long acquaintance has made intimacy more, well, intimate.
We wrecked all that by producing Lucia, an unbelievably happy baby. Her older brother and sister had been challenging infants, but Lucia was a dream: flexible, easy to entertain, a good sleeper. All through the pregnancy I had sworn this was my last one, and meant it. I was 37 years old and three children were enough.
Then, after Lucia's blessed arrival, I began to feel an odd kind of grief: The exquisite and bitter pain of knowing I was doing something I loved for the very last time.
I clung to the last of my pink, precious baby days — the tiny onesies, the soft little cheeks and toes, and especially the hours spent nursing in the rocking chair. Breastfeeding was a love-drug for both me and Lucia. We cuddled together day after day like a mama bear hibernating with her cub.
We didn't need anyone else. Breastfeeding, of course, was the root of my libido problem.
All the baby-care books explained how the hormones that made me produce milk were also shutting down my sex drive.
To fix this, the books suggest the same old stuff: Make time for sex, dress up and go on a date with your husband, buy nice underwear. This advice just seemed silly. How could movies and lingerie counteract my own body's chemistry?
Still, I felt guilty that I no longer turned to my handsome, passionate husband in the middle of the night. I knew it couldn't be fun for him to be married to someone who was no longer interested in some of his favorite and most satisfying impulses.
I began to detect an increasing irritation in him — a shortness, a shrinking of generosity. He started pointing out my driving errors. His sarcasm got sharper. It took me awhile to connect his peevishness with my libido problem, but once I figured it out, it made sense.
He felt rejected, and it made him mad.
I must add that I hadn't exactly been a peach to live with. Even a dream baby requires a lot of care, so by the end of the day I wanted Chucho not as a lover but as my own personal relief worker.
Evenings, after we got the kids squared away, we took turns on the computer and went separately to bed.
When I began to look at this problem head-on, as a problem and not as another shrugging expectation of married life with kids, I realized the whole thing boiled down to resources. How much of me should I allocate to my baby, and how much to my husband? And what long-term damage might my choice inadvertently do to either? I put it this way to a good friend over Saturday lunch.
Anne is a newlywed for the second time; having endured a long, increasingly icy marriage and years of single motherhood, she is newly attuned to the pleasures and responsibilities of married life. "Is he taking a lot of cold showers?" she asked with real concern.
"No, he's been very understanding," I said miserably. "You know," Anne said, "this weird thing happened when I was still married to Jeffrey." She described arriving home late one evening, casually flipping on the TV, and being shocked to see full-on porn. "We kept saying, 'Can you believe that they're showing that right on TV?' But let me tell you, after watching it for awhile, woo-hoo."
"You mean, it worked?"
"You betcha, baby."
This was stunning news. Anne's first marriage had broken up precisely because she and Jeffrey weren't compatible in the bedroom.
Yet here was proof that even the most irreparable kind of sexual problem might, at times, be overcome — even if just for one night. Still — porn?
I squirmed in my seat. "I don't know, Anne," I said, looking at the ceiling. She didn't reply, and I realized almost instantly how small-minded it was to reject a possible solution merely because I didn't think of myself as a pornography kind of girl. "Where do you get that stuff, anyway?"
I left Anne's that day with a mission. I was going to solve this problem that Chucho and I had allowed to lie dormant between us. We had fumed in private and been cordial in public, pretending that it would go away by itself, but neither of us had actively searched for a solution.
Until now. I logged onto Xandria, an online sex shop. In the women's section, I chose a DVD called The Voyeur. After entering a fake phone number and grumbling at the $9 shipping and handling charge, I pressed "Buy." A shiver went down my spine.
Then a key rattled in the front door and I leaped up, aghast. With trembling hands I opened solitaire, so that when Chucho came bustling in he found me blandly putting a red seven on a black eight.
Later that evening I began to think I had been silly to hide my purchase from him. Wouldn't sharing my plan create a yummy sense of mutual anticipation?
So after the kids went to bed, as we finished the supper dishes, I told him. "I bought something online today. A video. You know. That kind of video." He said nothing. I felt a stab of remorse. Was my husband disappointed in me? Did he think I was polluting our marriage?
But then, scrubbing a pot, he asked, "And when is this video going to get here?" The carefulness with which he said it — the deliberate way he avoided making eye contact — told me he was intrigued.
About an hour later, he stood at the foot of the bed and asked if we could have a "muertito." This was our private slang for the dull, workmanlike sex we had been having for the past year or so. "Certainly," I said, hoping to make up in politeness what I lacked in libido.
But you know what? It came back. That old horny snaggletoothed friend, desire, came sliding back between the sheets, sprinkling Chucho with the ineffable attractiveness and magnetism that makes a person want to rip another person's clothes off.
What is up with that? I thought afterwards, my leg intertwined with his in the pleasantly rumpled bed. Where did it come from? And why now?
I puzzled over all of this in the bright light of the next morning. I felt foolish, like Dorothy when she finds out that all she needed to do was click her heels together. But at the same time I felt magical, having conjured lust out of empty air.
I was still sexy! And spontaneous! Yet I knew none of this would have happened if I hadn't decided to order the video.
Sneaking around naughtily on Xandria and enjoying sex five hours later were not unrelated events. Two weeks later, when the video finally arrived, Chucho and I sat down to watch it, a little nervously, like a couple on their first date. It turned out to be a silly little romp with hardly any bite to it—just a lot of enormous breasts and preposterous underwear.
"Do people really like this stuff?" I asked Chucho. "Do you?" he asked, putting his hand on the inside of my thigh. Afterwards, lying in the crook of his arm, I thought of Lucia—the tiny triangles of her shoulder blades, the dimples in her elbows. I slid my hand into Chucho's. Maybe I had enough love for both of them.
Elizabeth Uppman lives in Overland Park, Kan., with her husband and children. Her essays and poems have appeared in various anthologies.