As children enter their elementary school years -- and become aware of when their parents disappear into the bedroom during the day or are curious about bedroom noises late at night -- maintaining a spontaneous sex life can be a challenge.
Seattle therapist LeeAnn Decker specializes in working with mothers of young children. She observes that as children get older, "family life becomes a lot more structured, with school, homework and extracurricular activities. Spontaneity seems to be a thing of the past. Plus, when there is time for parents to be together privately, one or both are often exhausted.
"It's typical for parents to find that they haven't paid much attention to their spouse in days, weeks or even months," Decker adds. "This can fuel resentments, which will whither anyone's sex drive. Most women don't feel the urge for an active sex life unless they have time with their partner, to talk, to enjoy activities together and to relax."
Becoming more conscious of creating time for sex and intimacy is key, Decker says. "We need to prioritize and create time for our relationship and our sex life, just like we prioritize time with our children. Just as the family's life gets more structured, parents need to consciously structure private time regularly.
"I recommend arranging some childcare outside of the home," she adds. "Get together with a neighbor or friend and set up a schedule where you can drop the kids off regularly. Offer to watch their kids for equal amounts of time or do other favors to reciprocate. Some parents schedule a day off from work while their kids are in school, calling it their date day."
Seattle therapist Leslie Linsley's work includes helping parents stay close as couples. "Great sex comes from great intimacy and that happens outside the bedroom," she says. Parents, she says, "must maintain a strong friendship, be creative and realistic and make their relationship a priority." Always greet each other with a kiss and a hug. "Sometimes, she adds, "hugs work better than kisses."
Linsley assures couples struggling with the sex issue that "it does get easier as the kids get older." But parents should "take time for yourself, too." It is easy, Lindsey says, for women and men to "lose yourself as a parent." And if couples "aren't friends" Lindsey says, "consider seeing a therapist."
Therapist Barbara Perlmutter specializes in helping build strong couple connections with stepfamilies. Remarried parents can have additional challenges to sex and intimacy, she points out. Spouses will need to negotiate new rules with all the children involved.
In the old marriage, for example, it may have been OK for kids to wander in and out of the parent's bedroom. In stepfamilies and in all families, she adds, "the couple is always the foundation." For second families to succeed, "couples need alone time."
Gabi McCarthy is the Seattle mother of two teens, ages 15 and 18. She was a La Leche League and toddler group leader and over the years she has heard from many parents as they balance being loving parents with being lovers. She points out that for most moms, a full day of kids and work wipes them out. Husbands who are interested in sex "need to be thinking about cooking dinner now and taking the kids out for a bit," she says, so their wives can decompress and have energy later.
Seattle therapist Mim Collins acknowledges that fatigue can often affect the sex lives of couples with kids at this age. "Tending to children tends to absorb our energy and we get to bed exhausted." But sex can reconnect and energize couples in a unique way, she points out.
She recommends that couples remember how to flirt and create a sexual code that is fun and playful, and can be given in front of the children. The message of the code is, "I'm here to see you, I'm interested and I want you."
Get creative, she says. The code could include special music, gestures or something as simple as lighting candles when it is dinnertime. The code sends the message but also maintains intrigue and a special sense of sensual connection between parents who are also still lovers.
Kathleen F. Miller is a Sammamish-based freelance writer and mother of two.
- LeeAnn Decker recommends two books for mothers by Alice Domar, Self Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself as Effectively as You Care for Everyone Else and Healing Mind, Healthy Woman: Using the Mind-Body Connection to Manage Stress and Take Control of Your Life.
- Leslie Linsey recommends books by Seattle-based marriage researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., including: The Relationship Cure: A Five-Step Guide for Building Better Connections and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
- Therapyrefferal.com provides a list of individual and couples theraptists
- Stepfamiliiesseattle.org resources
Originally published in the September, 2005 print edition of ParentMap.