Mother f*cker

The Exhausted Parent’s Guide to Having Great Sex More Often

Yes, you’re still hot. No, you can’t just expect it’ll happen spontaneously.
The Exhausted Parents Guide to Having Great Sex More Often
Gracia Lam

This article is part of SELF’s Keep It Hot package, a collection of content that celebrates love and lust. Throughout February, we’ll be dishing out advice and inspiration for feeling hot, getting horny, and nurturing romantic relationships.

Ever since I became a mother four-ish years ago, meshing my partying, pre-parenthood self with mom me has been…an ongoing process.

In the first year and a half after giving birth, finding a consistent way to maintain a sex life with my partner—while sharing a small New York City apartment with our new child—was a bigger part of this adjustment than I like to admit. I’ve met enough siblings born 10 months apart to presume that plenty of people happily hop back on the sex horse right after the suggested healing period of four to six weeks after birth, but I definitely wasn’t ready for a while after that.

Motherhood can be a massive identity shift, both internally and in how the external world, including your partner, perceives you. Any combination of physical changes—stretch marks, achy breasts, a favorite outfit simply hanging differently now—might have you looking in the mirror and asking, “Who is THAT?” for months to years after the 6–8 weeks that are considered postpartum. 

The good news is: This transition period has a clear beginning and end, and you emerge instinctively knowing how to balance your interests, friendships, work demands, and athletic sex with your significant other while basically reinventing what it means to be a good parent!

I’m kidding, obviously. And what’s more: One of the reasons I was ambivalent about motherhood for years before taking the leap was that, as a lifelong student of US gender dynamics, I’m painfully aware of how society thinks of “Mom.”

Culturally, it feels like “Mom” doesn’t cum. “There are so many social narratives about what it means to be a mom, and a lot of them come down to, ‘You’re the desexualized mother who is self-sacrificial and ever-giving to her family,’” Marina Voron, LMFT, CST, a New York–based therapist who’s worked with new parents on a range of sex-related issues, tells SELF. On a hundred sitcoms, Mom tsks as her hapless husband and kids track mud through the house. Mom keeps order; she stands with her hands on her hips and scolds like the Angry Mama microwave cleaner. In those moments when I’ve (justifiably!) assumed the Angry Mama pose myself, I can assure you that absolutely no adult in our household is turned on for quite some time afterward.

This is new territory for me—and for my sense of self. Have I mentioned that I historically love every aspect of sex? That I’ve reviewed sex toys for a living and have an enormous box of unopened lube samples in my closet to prove it? That I love both spending time with my kid and separately spending intimate time with my partner? Real as all of this is, for busy parents like my partner and I, Voron says, “Sex requires time and energy, and kids take up a lot of both.” 

How to make room for your “erotica persona” as an overwhelmed parent

According to Lisa Hochberger, LCSW, CST, educational director and senior therapist at New York–based sex therapy firm Wise Therapy, there’s a term for the sense of sexy-self that I had to find my way back to: It’s called your “erotic persona.” “Your erotic persona is that space in which you feel fully connected to your sexuality, which might be very limited if being a mom seems to take up 99% of your time,” Hochberger tells SELF. You’re dropped into your erotic persona when you’re turned on, feeling like your most sexual self, and not thinking about the other roles that you take on.

In my relationship, reserving the energy to access our erotic personas has required establishing some structure. Here are a few of our (loose!) rules, plus two sex therapists’ advice on keeping it hot when you’re a tired-out parent.

Touch as much as possible throughout the day. 

Kissing hello and goodbye, couch-snuggling while watching TV, spooning, drive-by butt pats: It’s all money in the sex bank. “There has to be a continuity of touch and sensuality so that it's not a feast-or-famine situation where you don’t touch all week, and then all of a sudden there’s an expectation to have sex,” Voron says. In other words, foreplay isn’t an activity, it’s a lifestyle.  

Prioritize relaxation over sex.

Hochberger echoes the need to proactively create the conditions for desire, and prefers to frame sexy time as “relaxation” time to avoid expectations of intercourse or orgasm. In her experience counseling people in heterosexual relationships, “It can be really difficult for some women, more often than men, to snap into the headspace to enjoy sex because of the ‘oh, God, I need to do this NOW’ pressure.” 

Regardless of your gender or sexual orientation, pressure can evoke a stress response, transmitting a huge “NOPE” to the parts of your brain that control arousal and physical response.  “Our genitals respond to fear, which can result in vaginal clenching and tightness, as well as erectile unpredictability,” Hochberger says. “It causes our bodies to brace, rather than to relax into an experience.”

Hochberger suggests lying on your back together with your eyes closed for some deep breathing. Consider emitting a deep sigh or moan on your exhale, she adds (this may make you laugh, and that can be relaxing too!). Breathing can help you access your erotic persona because it relaxes your sympathetic nervous system (associated with the body’s fight-or-flight stress response) and triggers your parasympathetic nervous system (which is related to rest and relaxation), Hochberger says. When your brain is telling your body that it’s safe, you can pay more attention to pleasant physical sensations. 

You can also try to reset and reconnect by looking into each other’s eyes, or hugging chest-to-chest, for one solid minute. “You’re allowing yourself to turn on another part of your body and shut out the outside world’s distractions,” Hochberger says. If tuning into each other turns into satisfying sex, great. If not, you’re still stoking the intimacy fire.

Schedule time for intimacy.

“Let go of the belief that scheduling isn’t sexy,” says Voron. “What's more unsexy is just not having sex until you feel like there’s a spontaneous moment for it.” When you’re up at 6 a.m. every day, working, and shuttling kids to activities, months can fly by before this magical organic moment presents itself.

What often happens next, Voron says, is that “one partner becomes convinced there's a lack of interest from the other—when in reality, you’re both just not being strategic about carving out a time that actually works.” She recommends looking at your calendar together to find a time when your energy-level peaks overlap. For example, you might pick a Tuesday night because work hasn’t zapped your energy reserves and the kids don’t have the swim or karate lessons that delay their bedtimes later in the week. Or, if one or both of you are more of a morning sex person, it could be a stolen hour after daycare drop-off.

Go ahead and schedule a backup time too.

So many things can pop up to derail your Sunday Sex Night. You’ve suddenly remembered your promise to make cupcakes for a school party, or you’re still catching up on work you had to pause for parent-teacher conferences, or you’re running on three hours of sleep because your toddler refused to stay in bed last night (or they’re refusing to stay in bed now, when you want to hook up). Then there’s the most common culprit:  One or all of you is sick from the latest school-fueled virus

You can’t fake it if you’re truly not feeling up to it. But if you miss a few of them in a row, Voron says, “it’s harder to get consistent again.” Having a backup night makes it easier to maintain that time you’ve blocked off for each other and say, “No problem—let’s try again (naked) on Wednesday.” 

Avoid any mention of kids during your designated intimacy window.

Discussing our wonderful son is a splash of ice water in my lap. My erotic persona cannot emerge if I was talking about parent-teacher conferences five minutes ago. For this one hour, he’s out of mind as much as possible, and I’d honestly prefer zero mention in the hour preceding either. “This is a very reasonable boundary held by a lot of couples,” Voron says. 

Keep all children’s toys out of the bedroom.

Again, my son does not conceptually exist during this us-time, and I better not see so much as one Hot Wheel. (My toys, on the other hand, often make an appearance. I can’t recommend the Maude vibrator enough). 

Remember that a slower sex season isn’t necessarily a problem.

Hochberger stresses that if both partners are experiencing a mutual dip in desire or energy to have sex—you suddenly realize you haven’t had penetrative sex in weeks, for example—this is absolutely normal and fine. If it’s not a situation where one of you is perpetually frustrated, there’s zero need to turn this into a “we are a sexless couple that is doomed!” story in your head. In fact, she warns, that can become a toxic thought pattern that heaps on needless (unsexy) guilt and blame. “Some periods might be more sex-focused than others,” Hochberger says. 

That’s something that I try to remember on the days when it feels like I’ll be knee-deep in all things young-child-related forever. There will come a day when my son will be much more preoccupied with the world outside of his father and me, when his toy car obsession will give way to stuff like video games, hanging out with his friends, and scrolling whatever terrifying successors to TikTok exist in 2033. If my partner and I are lucky enough to meet that year with our health and libidos intact, we won’t need our current rules anymore. We’ll be evolved versions of our past selves, just as we are now.

It’s easy to forget that, like everyone, my sex drive has its ups and downs, and my identity has never been fixed in place. Pre-parent me and mother me are two versions of the same (hot) person, and future me will be in her own way too. I can’t wait to meet her.