Think back to your elementary or high school days — what kind of sexual health education did you receive, if any?
When I think about the sex ed programs I experienced, I think about watching my ageing male gym teacher awkwardly roll a condom down a banana, or a Powerpoint presentation in 10th grade with graphic images of STI sores and lesions. Like that scene from the movie Mean Girls, it wasn’t exactly comprehensive and it was definitely fear-based.
Sexual health is an integral part of our physical, mental, emotional, and social health. It’s about pleasure, identity, and intimacy. It’s always influenced by gender norms, expectations, and power dynamics and it changes and evolves throughout our lifetime.
The World Health Organization puts it this way “Sexual health, when viewed affirmatively, requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences.”
Whether we have reflected upon it or not, many of us did not receive the expansive sexual health education that could have provided us with the strategies to help us navigate and cultivate intimacy in its many forms. Sexual health and intimacy ebbs and flows, especially when we navigate big life experiences like pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum, death and loss, illness, parenthood and ageing. Most of us don’t have the tools to navigate these changes with confidence and clarity.
Of course, if you Google “intimacy and parenthood”, there’s no shortage of hits about how to “spice up your sex life” when you are trying to conceive, are pregnant, or are a new parent. It goes on and on and on. And of course many of these articles are meant for a cis-gendered female audience, putting much of the pressure on them to revive the intimacy, making it personal and not as a part of a larger whole. Research shows, for many couples, the transition to parenthood is a time where intimacy is redefined. So what would it look like to address this redefinition head on? What could it look like to use this time as an opportunity to explore for ourselves what intimacy means for us beyond sex? Let’s talk about it!
Some sources will tell you there are 4 types of intimacy (or 8, or 12) but to keep it simple, intimacy is about being and feeling seen and known by another person(s). It’s the closeness we share. It’s about physical touch, emotional connection, the freedom to share your beliefs and feelings, and also feeling safe enough to talk about what is pleasurable, as well as what we don’t want. We aren’t taught about how to build or maintain intimacy, but the transition to parenthood brings about a whole host of life changes – and through that, an opportunity to better understand our relationship with it.
Educating yourself about all the changes and experiences ahead can be a great place to start. Consider doing some research about all the body changes and emotional experiences common to the different phases of the journey to parenthood. This could include the conception phase, pregnancy, birth and postpartum, and take some time to go through them with your partner(s) too. For gestational parents, much like with puberty, the many body changes can bring up big feelings, and that’s totally normal. If you are struggling with these changes, it’s important to reach out to someone in your community (a friend, a counsellor etc.) for support. You are not in this alone!
In my doula practice, I have heard so many ‘confessions’ that are really common experiences that aren’t being talked about. t’s normal to feel “touched out”, to find feeding your baby erotic (it’s hormonal, not sexual), to feel resentful of your partner while trying to conceive, to not feel in the mood, to be an extremely horny pregnant person but not wanting to be touched, to not bond with baby right away, to feel guilt about how easy your labour was, or in shock from how hard it was… the list goes on. The more you and your partner know about these body changes and common experiences, the more empathy and compassion you can have for yourselves and each other.
As a doula and sexual health educator I want my clients to know that intimacy isn’t something we ‘do’ or check off a list — it’s a practice. It’s harder to maintain intimacy when you are under stress, tired, anxious or aren’t getting your needs met. When thinking about intimacy in a partnership, we need to think about how we ‘fill our cup’. Everyone has needs, but how can we build these into our daily routines, especially when managing new and big life changes?
‘Filling our cup’ is how we replenish our emotional, physical and mental energy. Let’s try some conscious reflections aimed at supporting this metaphorical cup filling:
1. Start compiling a list of all the things in your life that make you feel energised! If you are having trouble getting started, consider taking the oh-so-cheesy Love Language Test to see if it sparks any ideas. Rituals, connection, and rest often fill our cups — but your list will be totally unique to you.
Remember, these things don’t have to be big, we can fill our cup with a call to a friend who lives out of town, or the routine of our morning coffee, a long bath, kisses or a snuggle, or a tidy kitchen.
2. Once you have your list, encourage your partner(s) to do the same.
3. Set a time to talk about your lists with each other and make a plan moving forward for how to support each other. Can you build in a small amount of time each day for each of you to recharge, integrate and energise? This may include compromises, and will take flexibility for both of you. Be gentle with each other.
We are all often overscheduled and too busy, so our spare time is often scarce. But even the act of making a list can sometimes give us a fresh perspective on how we spend what time we do have for ourselves and in our partnership.
I don’t mean that doing a facemask is going to right the injustices of the world, or that through self-care we can ‘beat’ the structural inequities and oppressive systems that impact us all differently. Self-care is not a substitute for community care. However, taking some time to reflect on what your needs are right now, in this time of your life, and sharing them with your partner is an exercise in intimacy in and of itself.
When thinking about people’s transitions to parenthood, expectation setting is critical to minimise feelings of resentment and distance, and grow intimacy. The goal of an expectation setting conversation should be to get into the nitty gritty of a plan or routine. This can be done with anything!
You might find it helpful to have this kind of conversation about a range of subjects such as:
- What happens if penis and vagina penetrative sex isn’t leading to pregnancy?
- How will we manage and divide up the tasks of night feeds with a newborn?
- What boundaries will be put in place for visitors when the baby is here?
- What tasks and responsibilities around the home will need to change when a baby arrives?
You will want each of these expectation-setting conversations to include:
- How you feel about the topic at the beginning of the conversation – what is your intuition telling you?
- What do you want to happen, what do you not want to happen? What is the plan?
- What compromises might need to be made?
- How can your community show up for you and offer support?
- How will you communicate and check in if things change? Can you set time aside now for these discussions?
Note: These suggestions are not just for couples in romantic partnerships — you can do them no matter what your family or relationships look like.
Let’s take the example mentioned above of visitor boundaries during the postpartum period. It can be hard to get on the same page as your partner(s) about visitors, but having a clear conversation that sets up each person’s expectations and making a plan of action can help to make both of you feel like your needs are worthy of meeting and that you are a team. It’s hard to make resourced decisions in the moment, so looking ahead can be crucial in setting you up for success.
A conversation about this topic could go something like this:
- How will visitors make you feel? Will having people visit make you feel energised/supported/drained/overwhelmed?
- When you do accept visitors, what do you want those visits to look like? Could you set a time limit, only offer a few days/times in a week where people can come over?
- What compromises might need to be made when it comes to setting boundaries in the early postpartum time for visitors?
- How can you offer ways for your community to show up for you that make you both feel connected and supported? How will you communicate your agreed boundaries to your community?
- How will you check in with each other and assess if you need to alter your plan?
You are constantly changing and evolving as a person and getting your needs met is going to look different day-to-day, not just during peak moments like the transition to parenthood. What feels supportive, what energises you… even what feels good sexually or intimately will change throughout your life. As we work on our tools of self reflection and communication we make space not only for our changing bodies, but our whole selves to show up, continuing to build and nurture intimacy for ourselves and with others.
- Sylvie Lévesque, Véronique Bisson, Mylène Fernet & Laurence Charton (2021) A study of the transition to parenthood: new parents’ perspectives on their sexual intimacy during the perinatal period, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 36:2-3, 238-255, DOI: 10.1080/14681994.2019.1675870
Written by Hayaat Stuart-Khafaji