It’s an issue all parents face – but rarely talk about. Now, one mother dares to ask that important question…
After giving birth, a woman thinks of many things; chocolate, baby names, how soon she can go home, how soon she can sit down without the help of an inflatable rubber ring, and which breastfeeding bras are the most practical.
The last thing on her mind is sex. Possibly ever again. This is in stark contrast to her husband, who has probably thought of little else for the previous three months.
It might be a subject few women are willing to talk about, even with their closest friends, but the issue of when you should resume marital relations is something all new parents will have to face at some point or other.
So how long should you wait? Received wisdom says that the uterus takes about six weeks to return to its normal size, so this is taken as a good benchmark for when to even think about resuming love-making after a natural birth.
Sex is the last thing on a new mother’s mind – particularly with a baby to care for. Yet it’s a topic all parents must broach at some point
However, one respected medical text states that ‘following an uncomplicated delivery, a six-week abstinence from intercourse makes little sense. It can be safely resumed in as little as three weeks, or when comfort can be maintained.’
Another study, published in the Journal of Family Practice, noted that ‘at five to seven weeks, only 50 per cent of women had resumed intercourse’.
Personally, I’m amazed it’s that many. In my experience, the decision a woman makes will in no small way be affected by the advice her doctor gives her. I experienced the joys of giving birth in both England and France. My daughter, Olivia, who’s nine, was born in England, and my two youngest, Bea, eight, and Leo, five, were born in France.
The difference is like the difference between buying your clothes from Camden Market as opposed to Harvey Nichols.
After giving birth in Sussex with no painkillers – due to the fact I stupidly fell for all the propaganda about a natural birth – during which I suffered a tear that was not stitched up (‘best to let it heal naturally, dear,’ I was told), my first instinct was never to have sex again.
When the doctor tentatively suggested that eight weeks might be a good time to think about resuming marital relations, I must have looked at him as though he was suggesting I chop my foot off without an anaesthetic.
I remember one of my most humiliating moments was five days after I had given birth, when I visited Tunbridge Wells on the hunt for baby clothes.
Suddenly, I needed to sit down. Out came the white and orange Mothercare rubber ring, which was placed on a bench for me.
Some youths were standing close by in Tunbridge Wells. Once the rubber ring was placed on the bench, my mother took one arm, my stepmother the other and they proceeded to lower my post-pregnancy frame down on to it.
‘What’s up with her?’ said one youth to the other in a loud voice. ‘Dunno, maybe she’s incontinent,’ replied the other. I can safely say such indignities meant I didn’t even think about having sex for another three months. Fast-forward a few short years to France, and we have a totally different scenario.
Now, Olivia plays in the swimming pool with my rubber ring, and I have given birth twice under French care, to Bea and Leo. Right from the beginning, I realised the French have a different attitude to childbirth.
Whereas in England, childbirth is all about what is best for the child, in France there is much more emphasis on the mother. And by default, the father – or at least his carnal desires. Returning to a normal sex life is seen of paramount importance.
Bea was a breech baby and delivered by Caesarean. I think this gave me a bit of grace from the French emphasis on getting you back in sexual shape – but after my third baby, Leo, who was born naturally, I felt the full force of the French obsession.
Lying in hospital after his birth, the issue of when I could make love to my husband again was not on my list of questions to ask my doctor as I perused the day’s menu. And yet it was just about the first thing the doctor mentioned.
‘You go home in three days, non?’ he asked when he came to check up on me after Leo’s birth. ‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘You can resume normal sexual relations as soon as you feel ready. Normally within about four weeks.’
Frankly, that seemed more than a little hasty to me – so I decided not to tell my husband.
But the obsession in the medical profession with my sex life didn’t abate. Just a couple of weeks after leaving hospital, I found I had a diary packed with ‘perineal retraining classes’, the sole aim of which was to get me – and my pelvic floor – back in as good a shape as possible.
There were around ten classes, to be delivered by our local kinesiotherapist, something akin to a physiotherapist. His name was Nicolas, and he was paid by the French state to make sure my nether regions were fit enough for my husband’s attentions. The aim is to get you back in the sack within the month. But, I have to say, I was in no way prepared. I hadn’t even asked any of my French friends what these classes entailed.
They don’t really share intimate details like that, and it would probably have turned into a competition – with everyone boasting about how many seconds after giving birth they squeezed back into their designer jeans.
Nicolas arrived in the room wearing a pair of see-through plastic gloves and carrying an instrument that looked a little like something you might have found in one of Pinochet’s torture chambers.
I won’t go into detail, but an examination took place and after a few minutes he said that I wasn’t too bad ‘after three children’. I wasn’t sure whether to say ‘thank you’ or ‘bloody cheek’. Following this meeting, Nicolas, me and his blunt instrument met on a regular basis, sometimes three times a week.
‘Do it when you feel like it’
I found the concept of the state paying for me to get my pelvic floor back in shape totally extraordinary. But the French government’s magnanimity towards new mothers knows no bounds. One friend of mine was even offered cosmetic surgery to deal with saggy breasts and a less-than-toned midriff.
‘As you’re not fat or overweight anywhere else,’ the doctor told her, ‘this is clearly a direct result of having children. Therefore it is covered by the state.’
I have to admit that if I were to have any more children, I would have them in France. I think that for female self-esteem, especially after such a potentially damaging thing as childbirth, there is no better place.
When I compare that sad creature wandering around Tunbridge Wells with a rubber ring to the confident woman strutting the streets of Beziers, I know which one was better for my sex life. And it isn’t just your nether regions that stay in better shape in France.
In hospital, the doctor told me to watch what I ate and, while the menu is good, it’s geared to weight loss. There was no chocolate, and I was advised that I could have cheese or pudding, not both.
And there is no alcohol at all. Not because they are worried about the effects it will have on the breastfeeding baby, because there are hardly any breastfeeding babies in France, but because they don’t want the women sipping empty calories.
‘We are selfish,’ a French friend said. ‘We don’t make many sacrifices, not even for our children.’ So forget earth mother-type antics – this is a place where the needs of the mother, and especially the father, come before those of the child.
And there is no emphasis on natural birth in France.
When, pregnant with Bea, I told the doctor in Beziers that I wanted a natural birth, his immediate reaction was: ‘Why?’
At least, I thought, I can throw myself into breastfeeding – though as I discovered, this is not something a lot of French mothers relate to. When I asked one mother why she wasn’t breastfeeding, she told me: ‘My breasts are for my husband.’
Presumably, a woman who is not breastfeeding – the milk stops being produced if you don’t feed – is more likely to feel sexy sooner than a woman who spends about eight hours in every 24 with an infant strapped to her cracked nipples. It’s not exactly an aphrodisiac, is it?
When I went to the hospital for a chat before I had Bea, there was a mere five-minute slot dedicated to breastfeeding.
‘Do you know about breastfeeding?’ a nurse asked me.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I breastfed my first baby for six months.’
‘Then you know more about it than we do,’ she said, and that was the end of the discussion.
A French woman would argue that she wants to be free as quickly as is humanly possible after giving birth; free to shop, to go the gym and, most crucially, free to sleep with her husband before someone else does. This is the thing about French women. They are aware that if they are not with their husbands, the chances are someone else will be.
So perhaps we have to forgive their obsession with looking perfect even after birth and blame it on their faithless husbands? They would rather their breasts stayed in shape than breastfeed their babies.
So when did I go back to bed with my husband? Well, Olivia’s natural birth took its toll; I didn’t have the courage to have sex again for three months, which might sound like a long time, but when you’re exhausted and feeding a newborn every night, it doesn’t feel like very long at all.
After the Caesarean I had with Bea, I waited for six weeks, which was the point at which I felt strong enough to drive a car. A friend of mine said that if I could do one, I could do the other – and she was right.
But after the birth of Leo, I was back in my husband’s bed quicker than you could imagine.
But then I was living with the constant threat of French women who find an Englishman speaking French almost sexier than anti-cellulite cream.
My advice would be to get back to having sex when you feel like it. Your body will tell you when it’s ready. It is a better judge than any doctor is.
Unless you live in France, of course. And then all you really have to be sure about is seducing your husband all over again before your best friend does…