The joys of parental celibacy
THE first time I cottoned on to parental celibacy I was being given a tour of my friend's new four-bedroom house. There was a mattress on the floor in the smallest room, with all the boxes they'd yet to unpack.
"That's where my husband sleeps," she said casually, "the boys and I are in the other rooms. It's quite normal."
It ended in divorce a few months later. But it was as she said. To parents of young children, sex can be a chore. When you're sleep deprived sleeping with someone means just that.
I put her experience out of my head and went ahead to procreate anyway. Seven weeks into the pregnancy I met a colleague who was just about to have his second child. I told him I was pregnant and he grinned: "Brilliant. You realise your sex life is about to be decimated?"
I thought of the mattress my friend's husband slept on: that only happens to people who are going to get divorced. I bet you're going to be next.
He's still married. He has three kids. He must have had sex again to have the third one. He is absolutely right.
My pre-motherhood, heavily pregnant diary has the following line in it: "Must get back to Hunter's Hotel when they're six months old." They're 10. I never got back there.
For half a decade I lived in an ashram. One where two Buddhas ruled the roost. We are good, kind parents so the bedroom is not off limits. If a kid has a nightmare a mother has a pair of arms to comfort him, and that is that. It's my choice and I stuck to it.
I say if you're doing it right you will look like shite, and I stick to that too. But it would have been nice when my children were small and I was too tired to think of anything other than basic hygiene and how long I could go between cups of coffee, to be one of those svelte yummy mums who go to the gym and got rolled in the hay regularly.
The only thing about sex while you're rearing young children is, on the rare occasions it happens, it's like it has never happened before. When you've been through the rigours of early mornings and late nights, you really appreciate the one free and mighty thing which is so great and makes the human species exist.
But there is nothing romantic about getting it on if you know there's a night feed due, or if the alarm's going to sound at 6am with 10,000 demands coming immediately after it. That's why a lot of women turn to the wall and a lot of men don't mind that they have.
Make time for intimacy, make time for your relationships, make sure you have boundaries the experts say. I used their books and their opinions as doorstops to keep the boys out while I tried romancing and felt like a stone.
There's a fabulous sketch with Tamsin Greig of Black Books fame who is an architect claiming motherhood isn't going to change her. She dribbles on her drawings and talks to an interviewer about Special Saturday Nights as her husband snores open-mouthed with a Chinese noodle on his lower chin.
The 21st century demands are percolating at higher temperatures than ever. My friend Jane, who asks only that I change her name and I agreed once she let me call her husband Tarzan, says she hasn't swung through the trees with her guy since their baby was born last year:
"I remember my parents used to put a chair against the door on Saturday mornings. It was a bit like civil service sex in that it was routine and happened at the same time every week, but they had it. The only demands on their Saturdays were housework and groceries. My children are the join-everything kind and need to be dropped off for five different activities over the weekend."
Tarzan doesn't get near Jane. If he does, there's a little cheetah wondering how to interrupt things.
"He doesn't want to, though. He's jaded," she reveals with a rueful smile.
The website parents.com features sex advice for parents after the arrival of the little darlings. Dr Hutcherson acknowledges one vital reason a woman might not want sex after childbirth: "Painful sex after childbirth is common, and most new mums are scared intercourse will never feel normal again. Some men can feel pushed away and unwanted during this time."
The advice is hang on and wait a while, like six weeks. The doctor's comment on this is succinct: "Waiting six weeks for intercourse can feel like an eternity for men. A lot of new fathers worry that it won't be the same."
But talking to young couples this week on this topic revealed the sure and certain information that when a man is doing a job during a recession and tiredness affects that job, he's also rolling over and snoring. I just don't buy the randy father/reluctant mother scenario. I've had too many dinner parties where both parts of the couple have their elbows on the table and are trying to keep their eyes open. You can say it's my food and company, but I think it's more to do with the dynamics of our children tearing around upstairs.
The way back into sex when the children are older is to embrace the notion of a second courtship. It's fun to date someone who you already fell in love with. For a start you have no nerves that you're not going to like them. You know you do. Also they've no dark secrets to stumble on. You already know those. So it's like getting to know a stranger who isn't one.
Doing that for me has worked wonders. I've gone from mammy to person again and I like it. Now I had to do a bit of work to get back to woman again. By that I mean to see myself as a siren rather than waiting for one to go off. It took some seduction on my part and his, but we got there.
Seduction when you are parents is hard work. It's like trying to have a candlelit dinner under floodlights, but you have to do it. A family home is not a romantic hideaway. Even if you farm the children out for the night it feels like a ghost town without their noise. You're better off running away and leaving them babysat. The trouble is in recessions we can't afford hotel breaks a few times a year. But we can afford the local pub and a bag of chips. We did it when we were teenagers.
Lisa, who I met at a mother and toddler group, has children aged 16 down to six. She told me a few years ago: "No matter how tired I am I make myself go out. I want to remember how we were because when they leave home we'll be there again and I don't want to be one of those pub couples with two drinks being sipped and nothing to say to one another."
She's right, because when you get back home to a sleeping house, with salt and vinegar fingers, a little wine in your system and a little romance in your eyes, you've been yourself for a few hours. And you can try that teenage thing again. Like it's never happened.