Sex and breastfeeding.
As I’ve said a lot (here, here and here) I get quite a bit of traffic finding its way to my blog looking for sexy breastfeeding stories and I’m not sure how I come up in that search because I don’t post on that topic. When I first started noticing these search stats I was a bit put out. I had my own bit of space on the internet to explore the incredible experience of becoming a mother and someone was peering over my shoulder to see if they could catch sight of a nipple. But a feminist mother friend of mine had a completely different reaction. Good on them, she said only partly tongue in cheek. Good on these men (and women?) for having sexual fantasies about real breasts, including lactating breasts. In this increasingly rigid raunch culture we find ourselves in fantasies about lactating breasts border on the transgressive. We might think we sexualise mothers but just how ‘mummy’ is a yummy mummy really? According to our culture sexy breasts don’t feed babies; they’re gravity-defying, perfectly round, symmetrically shaped, and at the very least perky. They’re not pendulous like real breasts and especially lactating breasts can be. (In truth some of the men fantasizing about breastfeeding are probably picturing perky, silicon-enhanced breasts rather than real lactating breasts too.)
So, I’m admitting that I should talk about sex and breastfeeding because actually there is quite a bit to be said about the two, though in my experience the relationship is not altogether positive. (Sorry sexy breastfeeding story lurkers). Quite a few other mothers, including author Heidi Raykeil (Confessions of a Naughty Mommy: How I Found My Lost Libido) have agreed that breastfeeding can dampen your libido. There seems to be a strong inverse relationship for lots of mothers, the more you are breastfeeding, the less you’re in the mood. Of course there are many factors at play here.
I’m guessing the more you’re breastfeeding the more likely it is that you’re not getting a good night’s sleep and that you’re too tied up with baby-care tasks to be thinking sexy thoughts. I think you need some time out, some time to yourself, and some privacy to re-connect with yourself as a sexual person and all these things are lacking in that first year of motherhood. Plus the more you’re breastfeeding the more you’re holding, patting, carrying, and generally touching a baby until… ohmygod you can feel like you are being suffocated in tactile stimulation. Maybe, the more you’re breastfeeding the more likely it is that you’re also in a very demanding stage of parenting; one that might have you and your partner stressed out, one that might have you two arguing a whole lot, one that might make you feel like you’d rather have sex with just about anybody else other than the father of your baby, who also happens to be the man who didn’t do the washing.
But there is something else going on here too with breastfeeding and libido. Two hormones that help with breastfeeding are not all that great for sex-drive – prolactin and progesterone. Breastfeeding reconfigures the hormonal balance in order to allow milk production and libido is often suppressed in the process. I wish I’d known this at the time. You’d think while attending my breastfeeding support group for 8 months that at some point this important and relevant topic would have come up, that the leaders would have shared this tid bit with the group but nooooo we had to talk about handbags instead. I think breastfeeding is fabulous, I’m glad I did it, I wouldn’t change it, but I think it’d be better if breastfeeding advocates were up front about the disadvantages of breastfeeding too so women can deal with them.
I was fortunate, despite breastfeeding my daughter for almost two years my hormones re-aligned themselves relatively quickly within that first year. The downside was that I had to guard against getting pregnant again. Just when I got around to thinking what in the hell happened to sex, it was back. I imagine it can be a much longer, lonelier time for some other mothers (particularly extended breastfeeders) whose hormones don’t return to libido-inducing wonder for years. Its a long haul.
Being sexy is such a big part of the modern woman’s identity that I’m sure a drop in libido undermines your self-esteem pretty quickly and just when you could do with some reassurance from other women about what you’re going through… well, I don’t see much honesty among mothers about this. I’m guessing mothers don’t want to risk losing such an important aspect of their image. Yes, everyone is pretty frank about how there wasn’t much great sex in the first six months but not too many are willing to share if there wasn’t much great sex in the first few years.
I was also very fortunate that libido wasn’t a point of tension between my partner and I because I would have found that very undermining. There are enough strains adjusting to parenthood to contend with without fighting about this. One of the benefits of trying to share parenting (especially night-time parenting) equally, apart from being feminist is that it puts you both more or less on the same wave length. Neither of us was skipping along thinking about hours of leisurely sex in that first year because both of us were out of our minds with exhaustion. We knew that sex had to fit in around sleep, tending to the baby, and um, cleaning up all the shit around our house. We were both realistic. I’m not going to blow our trumpet about too many things because we made/make plenty of mistakes but this is one thing we got right. Somehow we managed to feel connected by our mutual longing. We didn’t blame each other, instead we gazed fondly at each other across the bed. I wish I had the energy to have sex with you right now, one would say. I’d nod in agreement if I could lift my head off the pillow, the other would reply.
I think we did experience a sense of loss though for a while. The reliable old way of renewing our coupledom just wasn’t there as much in that first year and it meant we had to put the effort into connecting in other ways. You know, boring things like talking to each other. The trouble is, you’re tired in that first year and you don’t have the energy and thought-space to realise all this then. Anyway, we made it.
Now, back to breastfeeding and sex.
I’m in the process of preparing for a conference that I and my co-conspirator in feminist motherhood are going to be speaking at, and I’ve been reading the abstracts from all the other speakers when I came across this paper by Alison Bartlett comparing maternal advice manuals from the 1970s and the present –
In the 1970s textual archives, breastfeeding is understood to include turn-ons as well as let downs. While largely the domain of heterosexuality and marriage, breastmilk is discusses as a novely bonus for sexual practice in terms that are rarely encountered today. It is a discourse supported by medical narratives of hormonal and brain function; thus sexuality emerges as a form of breastfeed intelligence, but not for long. The difference between these narratives of eroticised breastmilk and today’s circulation of stories of fear and loathing, failure and despair, are vast and suggestive. A different set of ethical relations between sexuality and babies may impinge on such discources today, however the seventies archives are notable for the pleasure and agency imbued in the maternal subject and her generative and generous body.
So, basically I am a product of my times. I have written here about breastfeeding problems and anxieties (and a bit about the enjoyment of breastfeeding too) because I am a highly-strung neurotic of the 2000s. For all the people still arriving at my site looking for sexy breastfeeding stories, you’re 30 years too late.