Mothering vs Making Love

It’s been nearly a month since I read the article on Motherlode pitting parenting against passion.

Allow me to clarify.

Lisa Belkin was following up on “Fear of Flying” author Erica Jong’s recent ruminations on women and sex.

Or lack of sex.

Among younger women, younger mothers in particular, Ms. Jong notes an apparent lessened interest in sexuality. She associates it with – among other things – increasingly involved parenting.

Is this media hype? Promotional posturing?

In “Is Sex Passé?” Ms. Jong comments, relative to a group of female fiction writers:

I was fascinated to see, among younger women, a nostalgia for ’50s-era attitudes toward sexuality. The older writers in my anthology are raunchier than the younger writers. The younger writers are obsessed with motherhood and monogamy.

Motherhood? Monogamy?

Is the premise that today’s women are missing out, that motherhood is stealing time for sex, drive for sex, enthusiasm for creative sex – and oh by the way – monogamy is bad?

Are we truly so engaged in caring for kids that everything else pales in comparison – including making love to the ones we love?

Will all the women who agree please stand up? Oh, I imagine you’re sitting down. And the men? (Come on guys. You can do it. Let us know what you really think.)

Not quite so cut and dry?

Forgetting the “monogamy” part of the equation for a moment, what about Junior taking precedence over Dear Old Dad? Mom glued to her smart phone, her laptop, her carpool schedule, and Dad thinking that since he cleared the dishes and tidied the bathroom – maybe tonight he might get lucky?

Sexual Revolution, Sexual Evolution

Here’s the gist as I see it: Ms. Jong’s fame grew out of a controversial book in a heady time (1973) – a time of feminist enthusiasm and female sexual exploration, including with more than one partner.

Some 40 years later, Jong is trotting out the same old shtick – or is she? Could it be that she’s observing what many of us have – these observations unsupported by “data” but no less worthy of discussion? After all, motherhood is more involved than it was three or four decades ago. We are more fretful, we are more cautious, we are more hands-on.

But what of the issues Jong is ignoring? Aging and sexuality in a culture that worships the tummy tucked body? Depression and sexuality, fatigue and sexuality?

Maybe we’ve journeyed from sexual revolution to sexual evolution. And that isn’t a destination; it’s a voyage all its own.

Sex on Life Support?

Ms. Jong continues:

Sex itself may not be dead, but it seems sexual passion is on life support.

She goes on to point the finger at the Internet, motherhood, and a general swing toward more conservative ideas. And frankly, she makes some excellent points.

But I don’t believe that sexual passion is on life support. I do believe that the La-La-Land we lived in the 70s is over. Cue the passing of another generation. Cue the hardships of the current economy. And yes, cue the Internet. We simply don’t need to talk about sex the way we did in the 70s – which doesn’t mean we don’t need to talk about sex – with our partners as lovers, and with our children as parents.


As for desire?

Oh, I doubt that we’ve cast off desire for romance or eroticism. Desire doesn’t disappear once the wedding ring is slipped on and the infants are birthed. Well, depending on our hormones and our sleep deprivation.

Still, we don’t stop fantasizing, we don’t cease yearning, we don’t relinquish dreaming because of marital status or stress or aging. Not in my experience… thus far.

We do cycle in and out of sexual desire as with anything else. There is no static state; rather, desire ebbs and flows, reviving with changing life circumstances, when worries ease, when issues clarify. Libido lessens when we’re depressed (or medicated), and blossoms when we’re whisked off to a new location.

And let’s not ignore reality: stress will impact your sex drive.

Making Time for Making Love

“You’ll have to schedule nights out and schedule your lovemaking.”

That was the prevailing wisdom I heard years ago – when marriage was new and babies were young. I was tired, but I still didn’t believe it. Dumb. Very dumb. I learned otherwise, and I learned the hard way.

Last month’s bills on the table? Dinner burning on the stove? Kids screaming in the living room? My boss on the answering machine?

Couple kissingPatient Papa may tune out the tumult, but most mommas?

Not so much.

Mothering doesn’t shove aside sex; engaged parenting doesn’t drain us of desire. However, if we’re spending round-the-clock hours in domestic duties and impossible juggles, time will run out, as will our energy.

Life Experience

Ms. Jong may bring no data to bear, and I find plenty of contradictions in what she’s saying. Yet her commentary is based on life experience, and is there a woman of 45 or 55 or 65 who won’t attest to recognizing some measure of what she has identified – to observing the shift in the importance of parenting over partnering – not to mention the swing back to more conservative “positions” on sex?

I specify the 45+ crowd precisely because we have points of comparison (to our own childhoods), and also because we are likely to be beyond the baby stage – those first years of sleepless nights – and consequently, assumptions that life (and sex schedules) would “return to normal.”

In reality, many of us morph from infant interruptions to carpool conundrums, from sitter snafus to tween and teen tantrums. We live two decades of good times and bad – wearying and worrisome when we do it alone, and almost as much for those who share the pleasure. And parenting is pleasure – as well as work.

Sex – 10 minutes; Motherhood – 10 hours

Did motherhood play a role in getting us here? I’d say yes.

But what about divorce? What about the economy? What about the cost of of childcare options? What about families geographically dispersed? What about increasingly competitive preschools and private schools, as public education deteriorates with fewer tax dollars?

Can we really disregard the inherent social issues that filter into family life?

It’s worth noting that Ms. Belkin’s article includes a rebuttal from a young woman who is a 31-year old mother of a 5-month old. She lucidly defends her right to monogamy, the stability of her marriage, the shared parenting roles she enjoys – which she attributes at least in part to her feminist foremothers. She insists that motherhood doesn’t trump sex in marriage.

But as one (older) Motherlode reader points out – the experience of one child, still a baby, is a far cry from what happens over the years. And I agree.

Fightin’ Words?

Does that lessen her argument and reinforce Ms. Jong’s?

Hell – I believe in monogamy. I believe in sexual experimentation when you aren’t married – safely please. I also believe in sexual playfulness with the one you love – your partner, your spouse.

Is it possible to live with the same man or woman for 40 years, or 50, or 60 – as your only sexual partner? You tell me.

All things considered, I give a few rounds to Ms. Jong for reminding us to reconsider our priorities. I give another round to the young mother for her beautiful words and determined outlook. I give a nod to the inevitable weight of time and fatigue – and to the sustaining will of those who are willing to exercise the right hook, the left jab, the defensive maneuvers of hanging on to their family units – understanding that the building blocks of our “village” must include jobs, employment flexibility, affordable health care, rational educational opportunities, and a culture in which the elusive “balance” is no longer quite so elusive.

Three Cheers for This Vision!

Meanwhile, I will stand up and cheer for these words from Ms. Jong:

Different though we are, men and women were designed to be allies, to fill out each other’s limitations, to raise children together and give them different models of adulthood. We have often botched attempts to do this, but there is valor in trying to get it right…

We may differ on where we are. We may differ on what it takes to get us to feel like allies again. And I daresay – women need to see each other as allies, too. And yes, there is valor in trying to get it right.


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  1. says

    I think some mothers may over-focus on kids as a way to avoid intimacy with a partner, for a variety of reasons. I think many people are on antidepressants, which can affect desire and performance. I’ve also had post-menopausal friends and relatives tell me they don’t care if they ever have sex again. Personally, most of the moms I know have active sex lives, complete with a cache of sex toys they regularly try out with their partners. I think lack of sexual contact has more to do with intimacy issues (some people are just avoidant by nature) and less to do with mothering — but mothering takes the fall.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Mothering does indeed seem to take the “fall” for an awful lot these days, I agree. Meds and intimacy issues – certainly powerful factors. (Sounds like most of your friends have pretty healthy sex lives, by the way.)

  2. says

    I have had this discussion with the guys on more than a few occasions. Dads understand fatigue and stress. We recognize that the moms are working hard but that understanding only goes so far.

    We married you for a million different reasons and sex almost always plays a part in that. If you shut your husband down every time and make him feel badly for wanting sex you will hurt your relationship.

  3. says

    I can’t speak for women but most of the guys said told me that they were shocked by how dramatic the changes were. One of my friends confided that prior to the birth of his first kid his wife’s libido was constantly on. Sex wasn’t ever a question for her, but after childbirth it was like he was married to a different woman.

    So I think that communication is important. That is not particularly profound, but it is important as is compromise. A lot of guys use sex to maintain feeling close to their wives. It is not the only thing, but it matters a lot.

    But like anything else if you talk about it I think it is much easier to reach an understanding that works for everyone.

    As for first wives being disposable, well I have only known one person to truly believe that. I don’t think that every marriage is meant to last but I don’t believe that most people go into it expecting for things to end either.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thanks as always for your thoughts, Jack. These are things we need to talk about, or we’ll all keep repeating the same (unhelpful) patterns, over and over. Really appreciate the feedback.

  4. says

    I often fantasize about the “good ole days” when women didn’t have to be family managers, chauffeurs, personal chefs, and housekeepers on top of also being breadwinners and involved parents. That’s a lot to heap on one plate.

    However, many women get caught up in the cycle of Shoulds. You don’t have to take on all those duties … but we often feel bad about ourselves if we don’t. The internal pressure is as bad as the external.

    Unfortunately, sex and intimacy often get lost in the shuffle.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You’re so right. But there’s a practical element that underlies all the different roles, including the breadwinner role for women. And that has to do with what has brought us here – at least in part – namely, women unable to make their way or get a fair shake in the workplace. Back in my mother’s day, and even in my own (very) early days in the workforce. And that’s important because the reality is that half of all marriages end, and if they do, split households cost more to maintain than single households.

      Even in intact marriages, spouses lose jobs and the other has to pick up the slack. These days, for most families, one salary or wage isn’t enough. And then there’s hanging on to medical insurance – either through an employer (the husband’s or the wife’s), or making enough money to pick up the entire tab as a family.

      The world has changed.

      And yet…

      Nothing says that competent and capable women can’t also be caring, compassionate, and sexual women – to their mates. And I agree that all too often the seemingly more pressing issues of kids and work or whatever not to mention exhaustion – all get in the way of where it began – a spouse or loved one’s feelings, his need (or ours) to talk through the moments in our day, and then to communicate in ways other than with words.

      It’s the proverbial glue that marriages need. The glue that too often marriages lose. In that terrible shuffle.

  5. says

    I like to think monogamy can and does work. If not, the life I’ve built and worked hard for doesn’t mean all that much. There’s so much more I could say, but I fear I’m too much of a prude. Maybe this year in Europe will loosen me up a bit!

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I’ll be interested to know how your perspective changes with your European stay, Stacia. That said, I think many of us believe in monogamy. But perhaps with some years, we come to understand that the occasional “slip” may occur. Hurtful, yes. Dumb? That, too, in most cases. But would you end a marriage over it?

      That’s a personal question, of course, and one that most can’t answer until they live it.

      What role do our “motherly” preoccupations play in that? Another personal question, and no doubt – as many answers as there are men and women, with their own experiences.

  6. says

    The only experience I may speak about is the one I had. Over time, if consideration isn’t given to both spouses when it comes to raising children and juggling at-home and work responsibilities, it will wear deeply on the spouse who is not being considered. The last thing the spouse who isn’t receiving respect and some effort towards equitability in the relationship is going to want to do is give the other spouse one more thing…sex…which in some way isn’t being reciprocated.

    I think it boils down to this. We live in a very different society from the 1970s. Yes, agreed. However, we live in a much more selfish, self-centered, entitled one as well. Before anyone jumps down my back about the “entitled” part, I do agree that sex is an entitlement in marriage. However, we all know that, when women are not being considered through ways of easing some of their stress, it is just another take situation on the part of a man to expect sex.

    In my marriage to my children’s father, he always needed some “down time” when he came home from work. I was excited to see him after a long day apart, the kids were excited to see him since they hadn’t seen him since early morning, and, even after a 45 min. commute home from work, he shunned us immediately and went off to his “down time”. Try explaining that routinely to excited children. Try explaining it to me when I had a dinner waiting for him upon his arrival. I started to slack off and figured that, if he wanted down time, I’d either not be home when he arrived so he’d have a quiet place to himself or I wouldn’t have dinner ready immediately. Well, the “poop” hit the fan! I tried talking with him about my “whys” for change, and he didn’t consider it nor made any effort to change. After 12 yrs of it, not only wasn’t I giving him sex, there is no way I wanted much to do with him anymore.

    We went to marriage counseling. No change on his part. I went back to work thinking that it would be good to have other interests and that we would both be professional people tired at the end of the day. Still no difference. What it all boiled down to was one extremely selfish person. (Even in divorce, no change, even though he sees his children rarely…apparently 2000 mi. and months in between still aren’t enough “down time”.)

    I don’t mean to use this as a venue for cathartic release; however, I will say that I think further exploration into the issues of selfishness, always getting what one wants, and entitlement in the society in which we live is merit-worthy to maybe figure out some of the problems. We know that divorce rates are extremely high and we know that selfishness is generally the true, deep down reason why divorce occurs and marriages dissolve.

  7. says

    Woo, boy, this is a good one, D. Thank you, as always, for asking the uncomfortable questions.

    I’m going to echo Stacia’s thumb’s up to monogamy and virtual wink and nod and confession of prudishness, but I will say I’m grateful to you for making me think today.

  8. says

    Whoa…where to begin? I will say that the utter exhaustion from working full-time and being the primary (almost exclusive) parent responsible for three boys, I’m just plain tired at the end of the day. When they were little, it was the physical demands of parenting. Now it’s managing their schedules. And, to make matters worse, now that the kids are older, more aware and stay up far later then when they were babies, finding the opportunity is a challenge. It strikes me that the whole “cougar” business and the generally supported notion that women’s sex drives peak much later seems to coincide with the decline of the heavy lifting of parenting. Is that just coincidence?

    And this is different than blaming exclusive attention on the children and distancing from the husband as the demise of sex.

  9. says

    My wife and I try, every day, to take ten minutes alone to just sit and listen to one another without asking for anything. If you’re suffering, you get to say it.

  10. says

    “Fear of Flying” greatly impressed me… as a thirteen-year-old boy; I thought that was what sophisticated sexy women were all about. These many decades later I’m inclined to suspect that those who tell too much end up kissing less—and complaining more. I’m hoping that we’re all moving in a heart direction, beyond the second chakra as a center of life… but that may merely be a wish.

    Still, I sense that the hyped up sexuality of recent decades has actually drained some of the life out of what might otherwise be a natural, and consistent, part of life well-lived (provided one hasn’t decided to go without, for whatever reasons).

    Sex has been coupled with fear (fear one is missing out, not getting enough, not doing it right,etc.) and fear sells all sorts of things—but probably not a better life, nor a better sex life.

    Anxiety and stress are antithetical to sex… thus if we really want to help each other have better sex lives, we might work to be kind and supportive… and see if people don’t end up in bed more and in therapy less.

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