Self

How I Reclaimed My Sexuality After 10 Years Of Childrearing

Photo: Caroline Hernandez | Canva
Woman reclaiming her sexuality

When the man who would become my life partner walked into the bar, he flashed a smile that revealed his two perfect dimples. They were like pinpricks at each corner of his lips. My knees buckled slightly. I didn’t yet know his name, and it would be 18 months before our first date, but the physical chemistry between us was already palpable.

He told me later that he had to stop coming in on the nights that I worked because he didn’t want to risk giving in to temptation. We were both in other relationships at the time — his, toxic; mine, flat. Both of our partners would eventually leave us, and then eventually beg for us back.

But they were too late. We were already tangled up together in his shabby one-bedroom apartment, sweating both from exertion and because his thermostat was stuck at 78 degrees.

The physical intimacy complemented and collided with our burgeoning emotional intimacy.

We’d talk for hours, interrupt ourselves, then talk some more. It took months before we succeeded in watching an entire movie from beginning to end.

As I remember it, our undeniable mutual attraction took root and grew into love. But my partner vehemently denies this version of events. He insists it was love at first sight.

We were living together within a year, and married in three. We bought a condo and painted our bedroom wall bright blue. Assembled a proper “adult” bed frame, one without metal legs, and purchased decorative pillows because adults, for some reason, require a multitude of pillows that serve no discernible purpose.

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Our evening trysts were perhaps a bit less spontaneous, a bit more predictable, but still most definitely overheard by our neighbors.

We had some dry spells and frustrations here and there — stress, low libido, performance anxiety — but always managed to get back on track. And we still spent hours talking, sometimes on our cramped balcony, sometimes over lively rounds of dominoes.

Then we had a baby.

I was lucky enough to have a mostly enjoyable pregnancy. I delighted in my swelling belly and breasts. I joined a prenatal yoga class, took long walks, regularly visited a team of attentive midwives, and ate protein-rich salads.

How I Reclaimed My Sexuality After 10 Years of ChildrearingPhoto: Ground Picture / Shutterstock

Strangers smiled at me in the street and weekly emails from BabyCenter informed me of all the physical developments I could expect over the course of the next seven days, including which fruit my fetus most closely resembled in size.

Expecting mothers learn a lot about their bodies during pregnancy but very little about what comes after.

I was wholly unprepared for the “reverse pregnancy,” which takes place in a matter of days and is sudden, sticky, and severe. My stomach, so recently taut and gleaming, now hung in loose folds. The surgical slash of my C-section was red, raw, and laced with waxy black thread.

No one had told me about breastfeeding. No one warned me that it rarely came “naturally,” that it was initially taxing, chafing, and sometimes unbearable. Even when I got the hang of it, I had never considered the extent to which breastfeeding tethers a mother to her child, swelling her breasts with milk even in the baby’s absence, transforming a formerly erotic pair of organs into ones that were purely functional, decidedly unsexy, and frequently sore.

In the bedroom, I instructed my partner not to touch them. In fact, I didn’t want him to touch me much at all. I delighted in the tender skin against the skin of mother and baby, but by the time I dropped into bed at the end of the day, I’d grown weary of touch. I wanted to feel the contours of my own body, a body that no longer seemed to belong to me.

My hair began to fall out in clumps. This is normal, I was told, though no one had thought to warn me.

And, of course, there were the bodily fluids. So. Many. Fluids. Urine and sweat and spit-up and shit. Tears and drool and milk and saliva. I joked to a friend that I wished I could orgasm from a simple back rub, but I was only half-joking. Sex was so messy. I couldn’t fathom voluntarily welcoming more fluids in and on my over-saturated, over-stimulated, alien body.

For over a year, our daughter howled multiple times a night and frequently ended up in our bed. My partner frequently ended up on the couch.

It wasn’t until I stopped breastfeeding that I began to feel the cautious, dormant tendrils of my libido unfurling.

My breasts sagged sadly, no longer plump with milk, but at least they were mine.

In fits and starts, my partner and I attempted to rediscover one another. His body was unchanged; mine felt ravaged by surgical knives, gnawing gums, the swell and retreat of blood, milk and hormones. Our trysts were quieter, hastier, shadowed by the awareness of the small human in the other room. She had only to whimper to shatter the fragile illusions we were attempting to weave.

We were cautiously getting our groove back when Baby #2 came along, not only undoing all our progress but setting us even further behind.

I managed a vaginal birth this time around, which meant that blood pooled and poured from between my legs in the ensuing days. The pounds that had fallen away so easily after my first birth were more stubborn nearly four years later. I felt squishy and big, not used to my hips and midsection taking up so much space. Sure, I’d been big during pregnancy, but that was a glowing bigness that elicited smiles from passers-by. This bigness felt grotesque. I saw pictures of myself from various angles and grimaced.

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When Baby #2 was done with breastfeeding I waited dutifully for the return of my libido, but it continued to elude me.

Intercourse was painful; it felt like I was being repeatedly stabbed. Google could not explain my pain. My partner, growing impatient and frustrated, suggested I see a doctor, but I could already anticipate the furrowed brows, and the blank stare.

Female sexuality, I was coming to learn, is not a hot topic of discussion in Western medicine. A doctor had already pronounced me “ready to resume intercourse,” as though my body was a piece of machinery on a factory line that had passed inspection. Not one doctor asked me if I felt ready to resume intercourse, or what I felt about anything at all.

The attention I’d received during pregnancy was all for the baby. I was merely the carrier, the package. Sure, no one wanted me to die during childbirth — who would take care of the baby? — but once said baby arrived, I was cast aside, discarded.

The doctor’s appointments for the baby were frequent and doting, but our healthcare system saved no space for me. If I needed it, I would have to stake it out, but I didn’t even know where to start, or what questions to ask.

With two small humans that demanded constant attention, and a broader society that gazed impassively over my shoulder, the role of mother as a martyr was coming into startling focus.

It was a role in which my own needs were routinely deprioritized. In which my space, time, and body no longer belonged to me.

In the years after our second child’s birth, motherhood gradually became less intensive, and less physically demanding. But it was still decidedly sticky.

   

   

There were still some bodily fluids, yes — the urine and the tears and the vomit — but there were also the congealed substances. The hardened white entrails of Colgate strewn across the sink basin following my son’s epic battles with the toothpaste tube. The unidentifiable grime coating the microwave after my daughter’s culinary experiments. The crumb-coated stickiness I constantly felt underfoot when I dared to wander the house without slippers.

In the rare quiet moments, my partner and I enjoyed after bedtime — after the frantic blur of dishes and bedtime stories — sex hung like a question mark in the air. Would he want it tonight? Was he as exhausted as I was? Would we both grope for one another in the dark because this was what married couples were supposed to do from time to time? Would one of us turn away? If I attempted to close the chasm between us in bed with a friendly cuddle, would he mistake my intentions?

There were too many questions and not enough time to sort out the answers. We tried to let our bodies lead the way. But our bodies were frequently exhausted and out of sync.

Spontaneous sex had become more of a burden than a joy.

That’s what led us, eventually, to put sex on the calendar. We’d both been resisting it for the same reason all couples resist it — scheduling sex seems inherently unsexy. It smacks of routine and obligation.

In practice, it was the crucial first step toward reclaiming my sexuality, reclaiming the sparks that had flown between me and my partner so many years ago.

We started with one day weekly, then upped the ante to two, and we held ourselves accountable to our schedule unless my period or a health problem got in our way. A health problem had to be legit — food poisoning or a 102-degree fever. It couldn’t just be a late-breaking “headache.”

On our scheduled days, I shaved my legs and saved bits of time here and there to let my mind wander. It helped immensely, to carve out time, but it wasn’t until I learned to carve out space as well that I began to think of myself once again as an innately sexual being.

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I can’t even remember exactly how or when the ritual emerged, but after the kids went to bed, my partner and I began to stake out our own corners — me on the couch, him in the bedroom — to make the transformation from frazzled parents to giddy lovers.

I drank a glass of wine, took a hit or two of cannabis, and read an erotic story. I needed a little haze, a little distance from my “day self” — the one who’d just cleaned piss off the toilet seat and sung The Riddle Song and scraped bits of soggy leftovers down the garbage disposal.

Then I changed into something else, something I’d picked out earlier in the day, something my children had never seen me wear. Sometimes it was lacy lingerie, sometimes it was my partner’s old tank top. I took down my hair, and put on mascara, lipstick, and coconut lotion. I studied myself in the mirror, surprised by my own eroticism.

My body had changed over the years, softer now around the edges, but if anything, I was not only learning to reclaim it, but to own it with more confidence. I almost pitied girls in their 20s, all sharp angles and narrow hips, putting too much stock in the lingering gazes of strangers.

In the mirror, while my children slept and my lover awaited me in our bed, I didn’t look like a different person, per se. But I didn’t look like a “mother,” either.

Traditional, and still very much perpetuated, notions of motherhood splice childrearing women from their own sexuality.

Once we have fulfilled our maternal destiny, our bodies exist to cuddle our children and please our partners, but we are not meant to possess them, to stake out space for ourselves.

While society expects fathers to continue claiming their own spaces in the world, mothers — even mothers who work outside the house — find themselves subsumed and confined by the demands of the home. The boundaries between Self and Other become flimsy, fluid. We hold no mysteries, and thus, no erotic allure.

For years, my partner and I had been wading through the muck of these socialized notions of motherhood, reexamining our own roles and our own beliefs about partnership. The work was daunting, grimy. At times it felt futile, like trying to swim upstream.

It wasn’t just about regaining ownership of my body and space, but about drawing new boundary lines.

It was about taking on challenges in my career, sharing my perspectives on Medium, planning occasional trips without my partner or the children, and retreating to a café, alone, on a Saturday afternoon.

The more I began to claim — and demand — my own autonomy, the sexier I began to feel.

Not all of the time, not even most of the time. But on certain evenings — my mouth stained with wine and lipstick, my brain cottony around the edges, my hair down and slightly wild, my inner thighs warm and moist — I now see a woman in the bathroom mirror who is unencumbered yet in full possession of herself.

Now, when I enter the bedroom, there are no question marks. There is no need to even talk. We are two ready bodies. In the space between us, 17 years after our first encounter, our chemistry still sizzles.

There is no magic formula, no fail-proof step-by-step guide, no cure-all pills or creams. Even our hard-won rituals still fail us from time to time.

Sometimes my daughter is still awake and shuffling around in her bedroom, distracting me from my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Sometimes I am relieved when we propel ourselves to climax because I’m suddenly overtaken by fatigue. Sometimes there is no climax at all.

What mostly works for us now may not work for us next year, or even next week. Our 40-something-year-old bodies are still evolving. New hormonal changes await us.

And I’ll admit that even after all this, talking about sex with my partner can sometimes be hard for me.

Writing publicly about my own sex life is even harder. But as female sexuality becomes even further controlled and confined, as more women will be shoehorned into motherhood whether or not they want to be, it’s more important than ever to acknowledge, and fight for, our own sexuality without shame.

We are women, yes. Some of us are wives and mothers. All of us are autonomous beings, erotic beings — beings with our own desires, ambitions, and fantasies that exist beyond the confines of socially constructed gender roles.

There are lots of men out there who insist on the social construct, or who, at the very least, don’t feel compelled to challenge it or acknowledge it as such. The irony is, that they would be having much better sex, much more sex, maybe even mind-blowing sex, if they only fought for our autonomy, too.

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Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.