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Most parents know that having less sex is part and parcel of life with a new baby. Yet when the children are a bit older, when we’re less tired and we have more opportunity to be intimate, we can look forward to our sex life returning pretty much to what it was pre-children, right?
Well, apparently not. According to a survey carried out for Family Lives, parents having the least sex are the ones whose children are teenagers. 66 per cent of our respondents have teenage or older children, followed by those with children aged between 5 and 12 (49%). Clearly, these parents aren’t struggling with sleep deprivation or exhausted by the demands of caring for a newborn. Many seem to a large extent to have given up on their sex life: just under 45% told us they have sex less than once a week, and just over 23% confessed they hadn’t had sex at all in the preceding month.
When we talked to parents of teenagers about their sex life after children, we found a similar story. One father of three daughters aged 16, 14 and 11 told Family Lives: “My wife just isn’t interested any more. Since our last daughter was born we’ve had sex very rarely, maybe once a month, and it’s always me who wants it. I put up with it at first because I thought things would get better when the kids got older, but they haven’t. Most of the time we don’t mention sex, but if I bring it up she accuses me of being demanding and it ends up in an almighty row.”
A huge majority - 86% of the respondents to our survey said they had sex less often since having children – and 73% said their sex life had definitely taken a turn for the worse since kids came on the scene.
For other parents of older children, issues of privacy and never having enough time alone were far more important that lack of desire. Only 9% of our surveyed parents said they don’t feel like sex, while a total of 46% blamed either more privacy or more time away from the kids as things that would improve their sex life.
One single mum told us: ‘I haven’t met anyone yet but the issue is that my child’s bedroom backs on to mine and my walls are thin and not very sound-proof. She’s often awake and I feel she is listening, so after midnight is my only time for intimacy.’ Another mum of two children under 4, who split up with their father shortly after her youngest was born, said: ‘I miss having sex because I long to feel close to someone. My whole life is centred round the kids and sometimes I get weighed down by the responsibility.’
Tiredness was stated as a big factor affecting parents’ sex lives across all age groups – not just among those with new babies. Just under 27% of all parents who responded to our survey said they just don’t have the energy for sex – and others who spoke to us separately confessed that they rarely feel in the mood. One mother of two children aged 4 and 1 confessed: ‘My husband is always pestering me for sex. I was up for it before we had kids but I work full-time and I’m just so tired, so the last thing I want to do when I get into bed is have sex. I dread Saturday mornings because we both have the day off and I know he’ll wake me up wanting it. Most of the time I just go through the motions to keep the peace.”
Suzie Hayman, Family Lives trustee and sexpert, says that these feelings are common, but it doesn’t have to be this way. She adds that, while it’s never too late to put sex back on the agenda after children – even if you haven’t been doing it for years – doing so benefits not just you, but the whole family. ‘It’s quite a common idea in our culture that you are somehow selfish to want a sex life after having children,’ she says. ‘But in fact, having a strong relationship is as much for your child’s sake as it is yours.
‘A recent Children's Society survey found that 70% of children report that their parents having a good relationship makes them happy - whilst only 30% of parents recognised that this was the case.’ The message is clear. ‘Strengthening your relationship isn’t selfish – it benefits the whole family. And while sex isn’t the be-all and end-all, it is often a barometer for the true state of your relationship. So if you don’t do it for yourself, do it for your kids!’
The majority of couples will struggle with their sexual relationship at some time. Many experience this in the months after a new baby when recovery from the birth, and sheer physical exhaustion, seem to leave little time for sex. Suzie advises that couples should keep talking about how they’re feeling during this time, and still show affection to each other, even if they don’t feel ready for full sex. ‘Being honest with each other eases resentment which will, in turn, improve your sex life,’ she says. ‘Think about sex in a different way: it doesn’t have to be penetrative sex. Try touching, cuddling, holding each other. It’s never too much effort to have a cuddle.’
Suzie advises parents of children of all ages to make it a habit to plan regular times when they can be alone together. Asking family and friends to help with the children to give you even a few hours alone together each week should be a priority. And, she says, it’s never too late.
Even if not having sex has become an excuse, or a situation you feel you can’t change. If there are resentments between you, it may be that you may need help from a person outside the family to think about ways of resolving them. You can call and speak to a trained call taker on our Family Lives helpline 0808 800 2222. Don’t forget you can also speak to Relate about any aspect of your family life or your sexual relationship.