I wrote my book, Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life, to highlight the critical importance pleasure plays in promoting our overall wellbeing. Although our sex lives are certainly not the only source of pleasure, our relationship with our sexuality provides a keen window into our relationship with pleasure in general, and beneath that, good information about the functioning of our emotional brain. Many of us now appear to be struggling with anhedonia—the inability to experience satisfying pleasures—which can be a symptom of stress, anxiety, and depression. Anhedonia also contributes to making matters worse.
In this blog, I explore how sex (and pleasure) can be impacted by all sorts of factors that come along with living and loving.
Now, onto the intersection of sex and parenthood with Kayt Sukel, author of This is Your Brain on Sex: The Science Behind the Search for Love.
Background: Kayt is an accomplished science writer I met in 2010 when she volunteered to participate in my experiments on how sexual stimulation and orgasm affect the brain. Kayt was researching her own book and was courageous enough to participate in the pilot studies while I worked out kinks in the protocol. Studying orgasm in the fMRI scanner is not an easy job for either researcher or orgasm donor, and Kayt, an intrepid explorer and decidedly good sport, dutifully practiced keeping her head still while masturbating (head movement is the number one enemy of brain studies) and came back a few times to contribute her brain data to my project, even managing to do so while being filmed for Nightline's feature, "Female Orgasm, All in Women's Heads?"
We caught up a bit on the phone and then dove in with the ease that comes from logging long hours together in the lab.
Nan: As I recall, Kayt, you were motivated, at least in part, to write your book, This is Your Brain on Sex, because of how badly your first marriage was impacted by your libido taking a nosedive after the birth of your son.
Kayt: Yes, I really didn't know what to expect. I remember being told to wait six to eight weeks after giving birth before having sex, but I don't recall anyone honestly telling me how my sex life might change—how some of these changes might be dramatic—how what used to feel good, might not feel so good anymore. The focus was on what to expect while expecting and on the baby, but not what to expect in bed afterward.
My son was a cuddly baby who loved to be held. By the time I got to bed, I didn't want to be touched. My body needed a break. On top of that, sleep deprivation kicked in. It's hard to deal with these common issues when you are exhausted. I don't think we had the tools at the time to sort this out.
Speaking of tools? Here's what Kayt and I came up with:
1. Practice radical acceptance.
Kayt: Embrace the notion that our sex lives will change in ways we might not anticipate after we become parents, whether we give birth to the kids or not. And women who give birth find their bodies changed, and that's a lot to deal with.
Nan: After having kids, change becomes the new normal. And with change comes strain. But here's good news, the practice of giving ourselves permission to be where and how we are is key to loosening and softening around challenges. Studies show that practicing radical acceptance of what is helpful. It is a mindfulness practice. Practicing radical acceptance can even help people better tolerate physical pain. And newer approaches to psychotherapy incorporate it for treatment of all sorts of psychological issues. When I work with clients who are struggling with negative feelings or moods, I always start by suggesting radical acceptance. I also use this to manage my own anxiety. It is powerful mindfulness medicine.
2. Circle the troops: See this as an opportunity to reach out for support.
Kayt: Talking candidly helps. So does peer support. Ask for help. Be authentic with friends and family.
Nan: And don't buy into the idea that parenthood is always supposed to be glorious and endlessly blissful. It's full-catastrophe living! Dirty diapers and little downtime. We need to deal with the dark side of parenthood with a sense of humor, for example as in the book Sh*tty Mom. Parenting isn't for the faint of heart.
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate with your partner.
Kayt and I agree that discussing the hard stuff is what helps partners build connection skills that can last a lifetime. Pick a time and a place for an off the record conversation in which you feel safe to express fears and wishes, frustrations, needs, and challenges.
Kayt: For example, breastfeeding may affect how you feel about your breasts, which might be tender or leaky. Some women don't even want to take off their bras when they have sex, and their partners might not understand why. You need to share what's up for you.
Nan: As I like to say when we can talk candidly about sex, we can talk about everything and anything.
4. Be patient and optimistic.
Kayt: It takes time to adjust to changes in our bodies, to cope with sleep deprivation, and experiment with new ways to be sexual.
Nan: When we realize that most people end up having their sex lives at least temporarily derailed by parenthood, we don't have to panic. The hormones released in the wake of new parenthood tend to put a kibosh on active sexual desire, the feeling of wanting sex. But even if we don't feel the urge to merge, we can tap into receptive desire, the kind that can be kindled given the right kind of stimulation or setting. I write a lot about this in my book.
5. Prioritize pleasure and expand your notion of what sex is.
Nan: Remember that sex can be fun. If it feels like a duty or obligation, then it's time to do something different.
Kayt: Exhaustion looms large for all new parents, and prioritizing rest is key. Let "napping" become the new sex date. You're more likely to feel rebooted when you take the pressure off of having to have sex and let your definition of sex expand to anything you can do together that gives you some pleasure. Find some new ways to PLAY!
Wise, N. J., Frangos, E., & Komisaruk, B. R. (2017). Brain activity unique to orgasm in women: An fMRI analysis. The journal of sexual medicine, 14(11), 1380-1391.
Wise, N. (2020). Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life. Houghton Mifflin.