Steph Visco (they/them) is a writer of journals, love notes, and weird little lists who lives in Gentilly. Steph is lucky enough to have their dream job as birth worker, development coordinator, and member-owner with Birthmark Doula Collective (the only worker-owned doula cooperative in Louisiana). Their work includes birth justice advocacy and disrupting the barriers that prevent people from birthing and parenting safely and joyfully. Steph spends most of their free time looking for cool rocks and bugs with their three-year-old, Max, drinking coffee and gossiping with their partner, Scott, and sitting by the river with a bunch of delightful humans who make up their expansive family of sisters, aunts, neighbors, and friends, without whom parenting would be a lot less possible.
SEXY, SEXY PARENTHOOD
Part I: Postpartum is Forever
For Mother’s Day during my pregnancy, my partner gifted me with a Hitachi Magic Wand. I was still in my cursed first trimester, and the only break I could find amidst bouts of intense nausea and depression was in fits of afternoon self-pleasure. The wand was a nod to this practice, and my partner Scott’s way of affirming an important part of myself I feared losing to motherhood. The wand became a trusted friend during my increasingly horny pregnancy. Each time I came, I could briefly see through the fog of hormones and re-emerging PTSD symptoms and feel, for a few sweet moments, grounded. There was an element of desperation to those afternoons; I was clinging to a version of my sexuality I had long outgrown, based more on being perceived as sexy than actually knowing what turned me on. Giving birth would transform this stunted understanding, but first, there would have to be a swailing.
In the days that followed Max’s birth, I was stuck in the swamp of my bed. My original plan was to honor the tradition of lying in and follow the advice I have long offered to my doula clients—spend five days in the bed, five days on the bed, and five days around the bed. I wanted to heal slowly and intentionally. I felt I owed healing not just to my postpartum body, but also to my younger self who did not think they deserved rest, forgiveness, or support. What I envisioned was a serene cocoon of candles and warmth, but the reality was worlds away.
My body was limp and drained from the gargantuan effort of labor and the hemorrhage that immediately followed delivery of my placenta. I could barely sit up, let alone hold my baby for the first 48 hours, so Scott was suddenly tasked with not only changing diapers for our infant, but also helping me straddle to pee on a rotating pile of absorbent pads, akin to the type used for house training puppies. Our mattress was soaked in blood and piss, our skin sticky with milk and sweat. It was gross, bawdy, and overstimulating, but I can’t deny that there were moments of titillation.
The high of the immediate postpartum period can feel similar to taking psychedelics (and in fact, if you want to go deeper here, there is research suggesting that DMT is released by the pineal gland during birth). Scott and I, awed by our sudden charge with the care of a whole extra human, vacillated between stoney-eyed wonder, sleepless mania, and the kind of excessive love and appreciation you spew while on molly. The thought of leaving bed, or leaving the immediate radius of each other or the baby, felt both implausible and inhumane. So did the thought of sex.
Though it is highly evocative to bathe in a cocktail of hormones and phermones in a damp bedroom cave, the thought of sex itself—of touching myself or my partner in any way beyond the realm of the tender and tentative—seemed completely grotesque. My vagina felt like a gaping cavernous hole someone could get lost in, hot and mean as a tar pit swallowing bones. I didn’t want anyone to go near it, sure as I was that they would get swallowed. The femme mantle I had donned with such power and clarity during pregnancy felt heavy and animalistic postpartum. I was a different beast.
With all my layers peeled back and a baby in my arms, my scabbed nipples out and my coffee always cold, I told myself with certainty, like a meditation to soothe my overwhelm, that I would likely never come again. And staring at the beauty of my baby, I was pretty OK with that.
Though there was no sex to be had, there was constant contact. Max not only nursed, but they grabbed my hair, slept on my body, and tried to suck on my face. If they had one of my nipples in their mouth, the other was being tweaked mercilessly by their fingers. My chest was covered in tiny scratches from their seashell fingernails, which I was too afraid to trim. During feedings, there were pleasurable crests that would rise in my chest and catch in my throat, and I would choke, afraid of what it could mean to be reminded of sex in these moments. It is a shame that this phenomenon is not addressed openly in preparation for parenthood. To be caught off guard and unprepared could easily shame a parent into pushing their baby away. There were many times I did, disgusted and afraid.
By each day’s end, I was all touched out. It was overwhelming to be needed in this way, to be faced with a flood of emotions at each let down, and it left me with no capacity for touching or talking to anyone else. I recounted this feeling to a friend over coffee on one of my first ventures back into the world, and she affirmed everything I felt: “I thought it was my wet dream to have someone suck my titties all day, until it finally happened!” It was so gratifying to hear someone vocalize this mercurial area of parenting, humorously and without shame.
This is not to say I carried on in stride. The touching unearthed plenty of fear and anger for me. My chest had always been the harbinger of unwanted attention, and suddenly someone’s world began and ended there. Max’s need for sustenance and connection could not have been farther from the predatory groping or leering glances that lived on in my memory, but their tugging would trick my body, and I felt embarrassment and revulsion at the wires getting crossed in my brain.
In addition to these memories were gnarly intrusive thoughts that caught me off guard and knocked me out cold. This is a common pattern that can emerge with the hormonal shifts that occur postpartum, and are more likely if you have a history of PTSD, OCD, or anxiety. Intrusive thoughts are any nagging macabre image that pops into your head unprompted; they can be sexual, violent, or gruesome in natue. Because shame is the bedrock of our society, no one prepares parents for this onslaught, and it remains up to each individual to cope, to wonder fearfully if they are actually evil. Three years later, the visions haven’t left me, and the more I recall them to other parents, the more I realize how common it is to walk around the world with our babies in our arms while our brains pelt us with images too shamefully gory to discuss.
Obviously all of this left me decidedly unhorny. I cocooned inside of myself each time Scott touched me, too many death scenarios tumbling through my brain to remember that I trusted him. His advances seemed outlandish, especially as Max slept in the same room, usually in our bed. Across our sleeping baby we would shyly glance at each other, our worlds wedged apart as important parts of our relationship atrophied.
Part II: Postpartum is for Lovers
This wasn’t my first time finding my footing post-baby. I carried a pregnancy in my early 20s that ended in an open adoption, but my postpartum experience then was mainly focused on numbing out to ignore my grief and distance myself from motherhood. I rode my bike across Philadelphia six days postpartum to a party where no one even knew I had been pregnant, and I forced myself to stomach sex that felt jarring, telling myself that the faster I could do all the things from my life before, the sooner I could get to after.
Compartmentalization and avoidance were my superpowers during that secret, silent pregnancy, and I used them afterwards to my full advantage, asserting constantly that I was JUST FINE. Compulsively having chaotic sex while disassociating was a big part of that assertion. This postpartum was purposely everything my first was not. This time, my baby remained in my arms. I moved slowly towards the unknown, feeling everything all at once. I wanted to savor every moment, even and especially the ones that felt heartbreaking, to build myself back up into something better, someone who knew themselves more deeply.
Scott knew this, and he honored me in each unsure moment, and all the countless failed attempts and fumblings on the road to sharing intimacy again. But his journey and my own were vastly, hysterically different, and his wanting often felt offensively easy in comparison to my own stop-start-stopping. I yearned for the kind of sex that comes easily and without inhibition for so many cis men who have never experienced sexual trauma. I hated that his genitals had survived the birth of our child unscathed, that his body was knowable to him. I wanted to lose myself in pleasure, goddamnit. I wanted, finally, to feel like a person with a body, instead of a parent with a baby.
Slowly, we began relearning each other’s desires, which for me meant saying no. It became clear each time we attempted closeness of the boundaries of before and the things I thought I liked were false, constructed on a faulty and crumbling foundation. I would get worked up and ready, only to break down in tears, disturbed by how easily I would find myself acting out sex that was neither for me nor by me. I had to hear hundreds of times, from myself and from Scott, that I had the option of closing the door forever. Only in believing that it was OK to stop could I begin to go on.
I never regained the sexual prowess I once asserted as my own. It wasn’t mine, anyway; it was some diluted cocktail made from the backwash of everything all my partners had wanted, pieced together into a flimsy and misguided sense of fake empowerment. Once I let go of the desire to return, there was ample room for new things to flourish. The past year has surprised me by being one of the horniest of my life, which I credit to the controlled burn of postpartum wiping out decades of old growth. What follows are some of the tools that helped me find postpartum freakiness—obviously mileage may vary, but it nevers hurts to try:
Somatic practices can help you navigate what words can often scramble. I found the approach of talking about the shame of intrusive thoughts and old trauma only exacerbated my anxiety and lead to more obsessive spiraling, and didn’t give me tools to use for the moments when things would pop into my head, say, during oral sex. Physical practices that connected my mind and my body (a.k.a. somatics) gave way to a deeper trust and understanding of my own physicality, and some of the practices were easy to incorporate into foreplay. Splashing your face or parts of your body with water, clenching and unclenching your muscles, grounding yourself by placing both feet on the floor or against a wall—there are many ways to introduce somatic practices into your life and heal old trauma pathways, and they are easy to practice with a partner.
Bodies and desires change under normal circumstances, and birth is an extraordinary circumstance. I’d recommend taking a sexual inventory with any new partner, but it can be helpful to revisit even and especially if you’ve been with the same person (or people) for a while. Get curious about what your transformed self and partner might want, now that you’re on the other side. I love the Scarleteen quiz called “Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist” which I originally found through sex educator-liberator Ericka Hart (@ihartericka on Instagram). But there are many quizzes and inventories to be found on the good ol’ internet, some of which narrow down the focus to kink or BDSM. The gist of the quiz is to go through a whole world of “Are you into, could you be into” with your partner to figure out what’s on the table. It can be hard to find words for boundaries with such infinite sexual possibilities out there, and these tools can help. Make a date of it, with plenty of time to dig in, and bring a healthy dose of understanding and tenderness for each other while you get vulnerable.
When Survivors Give Birth: Understanding and Healing the Effects of Early Sexual Abuse on Childbearing Women and The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse are two standout titles that helped me frame the struggles I faced prenatally and postpartum, as well as that old PTSD chestnut, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Let yourself pick these up when you feel ready, and be OK with throwing them down when you feel overwhelmed. It can be helpful to practice some healthy compartmentalization here (who knew this could be a coping tool for good?) and envision the knowledge you are absorbing as being collected in a secure container that you can open and close. Don’t pressure yourself to figure it out all at once.
Be More Gay
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention here that queerness had a major role in reorienting my sexual compass postpartum. One of the biggest shifts I experienced post-baby as I shed old wants and desires was in my gender identity, and there was plenty of room to accommodate this change in my relationship. Queerness existed already in my relationship with Scott, and gave us so much more room to grow. There is a whole world beyond penetrative sex, and if I hadn’t already felt familiar and immersed in the full spectrum of desire sans coitus, and if my partner or I had placed penetration on a pedestal, well… we wouldn’t be together, for one, and the whole journey would have been more daunting. Queerness prepared me for expressing desires and needs I might not have had words for otherwise, and let me and my partner lean into sex without hierarchy, without limits.
illustrations by Victoria Allen
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