As Valentine's Day approaches, we’re bombarded with messages that suggest the kindling of special, oftentimes intimate, moments with our partner. But, as new parents, many of us find that we aren’t as available for physical intimacy as we once were. In other words, new parents—moms in particular—are “touched-out” and need a break from hands (tiny or big) clinging to them.
But isn’t human touch supposed to be good for us? Doesn’t it foster connection and compassion? Isn’t it supposed to help soothe our nervous system, not activate it?
Yes, under most normal circumstances, a hug can do wonders to relax and calm us. But new motherhood is unique and uniquely demanding on our nervous system. The little things that normally calm us can tip the scales and send us into overdrive and reactivity.
Why are we so on edge? Just a teeny tug away from yelling, “Just leave me alone!,” slamming the bedroom door, and burying ourselves under the covers?
New Motherhood Is…Overwhelming….and Overstimulating
For a new mom, her baby’s needs are relentless. As cute as they are, new babies need a lot. Lots of holding, carrying, balancing, rocking, soothing, and feeding. Even cuddling and snuggling can turn into a chore when it’s the only way you can get them to sleep.
And in this day and age, what would already overwhelm anyone, is amplified with the on-demand nature of our society. Many of us moms are always available, always within reach to make a decision or solve a problem for our kids, partners, colleagues, community. Between the pervasive dings of cell phones, tablets, emails, etc., it can be hard to turn off the feeling that we are needed. And when you are primed to respond 24/7, it’s natural to start to live in a hypervigilant state. When we are in this state, physiologically, our sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight response) is activated.
Intimacy Can Feel Like Another To-Do
So it is completely normal and natural that instead of interpreting a partner’s physical touch as a time to connect, that we see physical intimacy as just another thing on our long list of to-dos-for-others. This can cause some tension in ourselves and in our relationship. When this happens, it’s easy to turn inward, build resentment, and essentially isolate ourselves (which only keeps this cycle going).
There’s good news though. There are a number of ways to be able to honor feeling “touched-out” while still connecting with your partner in the hopes of kindling emotional intimacy…and maybe even just a little physical intimacy (when you’re ready, of course).
Connecting with Your Partner
Show (and tell) your appreciation—everyday.
There is incredible power in doing “small things often.” This term was coined by John and Julie Gottman, who have done longitudinal studies on couples to explore the secrets to healthy and successful relationships. Their research shows that creating a culture of appreciation is key for long-term success. This can look like:
- Pausing to say thank you.
- Calling out that they made an amazing dinner last night.
- Letting them know that you appreciate them picking up the kids from daycare.
- Making sure coffee is going before they start their day.
It all matters, and takes seconds to do. This behavior can also create a positive feedback loop that leads to them showing their appreciation for you even more. Win-win.
Sneak in at-home dates.
The Gottmans are also big supporters of always dating your partner. Whereas dating pre-kids may have meant exploring something new together outside of the home, dating post-kids often means exploring something new about each other inside the home. This looks like having stress-reducing conversations with your partner where both of you feel seen and supported. Carving out time for this type of emotional intimacy can foster feelings of closeness and admiration. Taking 15 minutes of uninterrupted time for pillow talk before bed, during naptime, or before the kids wake up just a couple times a week could be super beneficial to improving intimacy all around. Want to make it a habit? Put it in the calendar as a recurring event for a gentle reminder.
Invite your partner to parent with you.
Sometimes the best foreplay is getting a break from parenting. While ideally your partner would volunteer to help, many partners struggle to offer to help because they are intimidated by care-taking or worried that they will “do something wrong.” Inviting them to participate in parenting not only boosts their confidence because it means you trust them to parent, but it can also give you a break. Something like, “Would you mind watching the baby while I grab a nap? I’m pretty exhausted and it would be really helpful for me” and then relinquishing control over how they parent can create physical and emotional space for you to not be in demand and empower them (as a parent and partner) along the way.
Physiologically, being able to take a break and care for yourself, allows you the time and space to let your body settle and the nervous system to regroup. This is key for being able to enjoy a physically intimate experience. Ideally, we want to be fully present in our bodies so we can enjoy ourselves.
Be gentle with your No’s.
Just as it’s normal for a mom to feel touched-out, it’s normal for a partner to desire more touch. If your partner makes a bid for physical intimacy, and it doesn’t feel right or comfortable for any reason, let your partner gently know that you are still there for them.Allowing yourself to say, “Hey, I appreciate you trying to be intimate with me. I still want to be intimate with you, but maybe in a different way” can be a compassionate way of letting them know that you still care about them, but that you’re just not ready. Then you can suggest alternatives. Some ideas of physically or emotionally intimate activities are:
- Giving each other massages
- Cuddling and watching a movie or something funny together
- Sharing the best and worst moments of your days
- Sharing things that you appreciate about one another
Intimacy comes in many different forms, and as the seasons of parenthood ebb and flow, the types of intimacy we may need or be able to express varies. If you are navigating diving back into physical intimacy 6 weeks postpartum, check out “Your Guide to Intimacy and Sex After Birth.” Coupling the understanding of what you are experiencing physically, plus the guidance we offered above, can help you transition back successfully while staying communicative and connected to your partner. The consideration and admiration you show your partner day in and day out is the real foreplay…and the one that will lead to deeper, more meaningful love.
If you would like to continue to work on these types of communication skills and strategies, feel free to download the Canopie app. We would love to help you navigate your relationships as a new parent! We also have other great coping skills we can teach you no matter what stage of the perinatal period you’re in.