The weight of unrealistic expectations can crush a new mom, so it’s important to be aware of those expectations when working with postpartum parents. In some ways, our society expects moms to act like they’re exactly like they were pre-children —Get fit, lose the baby weight! Get back to your job! Get sexy already, it’s been six weeks!
In other ways, we expect moms to just accept difficult circumstances because that’s the sacrifice you have to make for motherhood. Sure, you might always pee when you laugh, but it’s no big deal. Yeah, you might struggle just to shower and eat food in those first few weeks, but isn’t it worthwhile? As a sex coach, one of the best things you can do when working with new moms is sorting through some of the expectations, so they can let go of the external “shoulds” that are harming them and their sex life. Your clients can then define for themselves what they need. Help them discover where they are now in this long transition process into motherhood, and how to feel good right now, not in some distant moment “When things are easier” or “When I go back to normal.” (Bonus tip: There is no going back to “before!!”) Read on for my top three tips for working with postpartum moms.
Let me be clear when I talk about postpartum, I mean the first year at least, maybe two. It’s also important to acknowledge that not all new moms have given birth, and some folks who have given birth don’t identify as moms. I believe that many of the tips in this article may apply to any birthing parent (dads included, too), although I have the most experience with cisgender moms who have given birth, so I’ll be using she/her pronouns throughout this piece.
Set Fair Expectations for New Moms
Tip #1: Time and energy constraints are intense, so don’t give your new mom clients grossly unrealistic home assignments. Be gentle, realistic, hopeful, and motivating.
Just because your client wants to prioritize their relationship, their self-care, their pleasure, and their sex life, they may not be able to easily follow through with the same types of exercises or practices you might give a child-free client or a client with a teenager.
You have to carefully balance the idea of holding the bar high for your client so that things can improve with the need to keep it simple, start small, and not overwhelm her. Don’t let her come up with a plan that includes all the ambitious care and connecting she dreams of, when there’s really not the amount of structure and support in place to be able to do half of that. You probably set her up for failure if she suddenly expects to fit in weekly date night, daily gym visits, 30-minute daily meditation, and a weekly leisurely bubble bath while reading and drinking tea. Even just one of those ideas (say, daily gym time) might not be truly feasible right now.
Check in about the when, where, how, and with the support of whom, before you two add something to her action plan or home assignments.
Help Moms Get the Help They Need
Tip #2: Help your client distinguish between the trade-offs of motherhood and unnecessary sacrifice or harm.
One of my biggest pet peeves as a sex coach, educator, and mom-adoring advocate is when we tell moms to just suck it up and deal with it when we’re talking about issues that can actually be resolved.
There are definitely many things that just come with the territory of parenting, which we just have to accept. Are you going to be woken up at night for a while? Yep, at least part-time, depending on if and how you’re sharing parenting responsibilities. Are you going to get poop and spit-up on your clothes sometimes? Yep, it’s inevitable. Do you have to feed the baby at inconvenient times and deal with their screaming in the middle of stores and restaurants? Absolutely.
We all know that parenting is really, really hard and full of things we have to do for the benefit of our kiddos. Let’s not make it harder than it has to be by telling moms to suffer over things that can be fixed or avoided.
For example, postpartum depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns are common, but that doesn’t mean they just have to be that way. Yes, all new moms have some big emotions, some fear, some worries, lots of exhaustion— but there’s a difference between feeling some of that and feeling hopeless or having panic attacks. As a sex coach, it’s important to be aware of the differences. Don’t hesitate to refer out to a therapist when needed.
Pelvic floor-related issues are very common postpartum, yet moms are often not referred to pelvic floor therapists when they should be. Moms sometimes suffer with issues like incontinence, diastasis recti (which can exacerbate body image issues, too), or painful sex, without ever being sent to the right professionals. Granted, painful sex can be caused by many different factors, but it’s good to be evaluated by a pelvic floor physical or occupational therapist. These issues should not be accepted as part of being a mom when they are treatable.
Pelvic pain and painful sex should always be taken seriously and not accepted as the new normal. Refer them to their ob/gyn and a pelvic floor therapist, but also explore with them some of the other things that could be contributing. Sometimes there are simple fixes, like using a lubricant because your client didn’t know that postpartum dryness (especially if breastfeeding) is common. Maybe the main culprit is actually that they’re always in such a rush when they do make time for sex, that she’s not getting fully aroused before penetration happens.
Some moms are ready and excited for sexual play before the 6-week mark, but others may hit the 6-month mark and still feel disconnected. For moms who don’t feel much or any desire, it’s important to note that postpartum sex also shouldn’t be something your client feels she has to do just to appease her partner. Sometimes I hear from moms who are getting back to sex before they feel ready, before they want to, because they’re concerned their partner will be upset, or lose interest, or cheat. I consider this appeasing sex ultimately harmful rather than a healthy give-and-take, because it’s not actually helping her get back into pleasure. Guilt-motivated sex isn’t good sex.
However, you do want to talk to your client about responsive desire. There’s a difference between having sex you really don’t want to have, and going into the situation feeling neutral, or maybe with an open mind, and ending up feeling good, getting aroused, and then having pleasurable sex. Explain responsive desire and encourage your client to find time and ways to be physically intimate with their partner in ways that feel good to her. Take intercourse off the table at first if it doesn’t appeal to her or if it’s been painful, but encourage other types of touch and playfulness. And if she’s “touched out” from being with a baby all the time, help her find ways to eke out some more alone time, as well.
You may also want to investigate how connected she is to her own body and her own sexuality, sexiness, fantasy, and sensuality. How can you help her reconnect with herself? You might ask her things like:
- What do you need from your partner to feel seen, cared for, safe?
- What do you need in order to feel the relationship is as equitable as it can be, given the circumstances (is there resentment over what their partner is not doing that needs to be discussed)?
- What support do you need from others (babysitter, friends, the grandparents) in order to have the time and space to get intimate with your partner?
- What are the benefits to you of connecting sexually and rediscovering more pleasure?
- What would make you feel sexy now? What do you need to distance yourself from your mom role enough to fantasize and get playful?
- What non-sexual activities make you feel good? How can you add more pleasure of all types into your daily life (always keeping time and energy constraints in mind)?
Give Your Mom Clients Tools to Show Themselves Kindness
Tip #3: Help your clients reject expectations that aren’t realistic or in line with their values. Give them tools to be kind to themselves in all the difficult moments.
For example, body issues are one of the most unrealistic expectations that are put on moms. They’re often expected to “bounce back” to their pre-baby weight soon after giving birth. Yet they’re probably not eating, sleeping, and exercising in the same way they were pre-baby. And they might get back to pre-baby weight, only to find that their body still looks different— the weight is not quite distributed the same as before. So in this example, the focus may be on reframing expectations and helping your client enjoy and appreciate her body exactly as it is today.
Sometimes the unrealistic expectations come from your client herself. Maybe they had a pre-baby expectation for themselves that they were not going to co-sleep, but circumstances led to a baby being in their bed every night. Or they were sure they would never give their one-year-old screen time, but here they are doing just that. It’s important to check in about her overarching or most important values when this comes up. And while it might seem like worrying about her kid’s screen time isn’t relevant to her sex coaching goals, it often is important in the big picture.
Moms are constantly saddled with “shoulds”—impossibly long and contradictory lists of how to be a perfect mom, partner, woman, successful worker, friend, daughter, etc. The key word here is impossible! There is no doing it all. You can guide them to evaluate their own values and priorities, so they can practice shrugging off the rest.
Even if she’s got her priorities and values all laid out and is making great progress in coaching, there are still going to be really difficult moments. There will be times when she’s sure she’s failing. At this point, the best idea is to give her resources and tools to practice self-compassion. I also stress the importance of community care as part of self-care; parents can’t take care of themselves and their children sufficiently all on their own— we really, truly need others in our lives. And as a sex coach, you can be a part of that community care.