Healing the Whore-Madonna split and reviving sex during parenthood
Jake called into a morning drive radio talk show where I’m a sexpert and reported that there had been no sex in his marriage during his wife’s last trimester. Since their little darling was born, sex had only happened three times – hurriedly and perfunctorily. Another caller Angie complained that after her first baby was born, her husband lost his sex drive. “He stays at work until all hours of the night. Playing with the children has replaced our playfulness in bed. What can I do?”
Unconscious feelings and conscious goals are often in conflict at the crossroads of parenthood. We want to be good parents and keep our marriages strong (not to mention further developing our professional goals.) When we think of our own childhoods, our mother seemed to magically meet our needs. As infants and small children, we don’t see our mother as having needs of her own. Even in later adulthood we can cringe when we think of our mother or parents having sex expressing their devotion to each other. Perhaps especially if our mother was neglectful, our imagination further longs for an ideal of maternal love. From a child’s vantage point, mom symbolizes home and hearth. The mom concept is still a patriotic, national projection of all that is good, right and well with the world. When women become mothers, they often set out to fill these big shoes by becoming the most giving, unselfish, nurturing mother possible for their children. Fathers (or partners) often stand with arms around this new couple—baby/mommy—also delaying their own needs.
Truly, infants and small children are very demanding. Responding to their primal needs for hunger and comfort in timely fashion instills the beginning of hope that the world will be a good place. In fact, it lays a child’s future foundation for physical intimacy if they learn that their basic, physical needs are legitimate and don’t overwhelm their parents.
Yet, it is tiring to be up all hours of the night caring for a baby. Prolactin, the nursing hormone, represses sexual desire and can make the vagina dry like a post-menopausal woman. Breasts that used to be sexual playthings are now designated as “baby’s only.” Coping with pregnancy and postpartum body-esteem in a world obsessed with weight and fitness can stamp out feelings of sexiness for a woman. A man can see his formerly trim, spontaneous wife start to represent his own mother with her heavy breasts and heavier burden. The first 6-12 weeks post-birth is often a blur with little or no sexual activity. In no way do I dismiss the impact of real changes on sexual desire in either partner but the loss of sexual connection goes beyond these practical problems.
Building a family means that needs for security take a central focus in unprecedented ways. Unconsciously both partners can split off their sexual feelings from their needs for security. They can project their sexual aspect into their partner – “he always wants sex; I never want it again.” Or the two needs can be split into two people – the sexy mistress and unsexy, stable wife.
The whore-madonna complex was coined by Freud to describe the way the men of his day split attachment from sex. “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.”1 The root of this split comes from being unable to unite aspects of their own mother as both a good nurturer and an autonomous sexual being with needs of her own. In marriage, seeing his wife become a mother of his children, incestuous anxiety arises and he makes the same separate designations. Wifey used to be sexual but now she’s the pure Madonna unsullied by carnal desire. Perhaps in a modern twist, a man wanting to stay technically faithful often throws himself into the arms of his mistress Work sublimating sexual energy into productivity. But the split carries risks. Stephan Ducat writes, “Our partner can often turn out to be more complicated, unpredictable, erotically surprising, and changeable than we had ever imagined. And often, he or she will reject the role of the dull, safe spouse that we’ve assigned to him or her — sometimes rejecting us in the process.”
Practically, women can similarly split themselves into two opposing aspects. The mother/lover split means she relegates the wild, sexually-entitled, part to pre-mommy days and an idealized unselfish, wholly-devoted-to-her-children part to the present task of family building. Unfortunately, this single-minded focus often excludes herself and her primary relationship from the time and attention she needs to stay fulfilled. Carol Gilligan in The Birth of Pleasure writes that “femininity connotes a girl’s [woman’s] willingness to compromise herself for the sake of relationships” and essentially that the loss of her voice damages her ability to be authentic in her relationship to pleasure.2
Integrating our needs for permanence and the needs for excitement into one relationship takes years to balance. But a marriage won’t survive without attendance. Sex is the glue that reaffirms that parents are most importantly lovers. Out of our abundant love, we have love and affection for our children. The best legacy for our children is parents who love each other. All the lessons, toys, material riches, birthday parties, pony rides or perfect attention in the world won’t repair the blueprint of intimacy if their parent’s relationship is empty. How do we do it?
1) Act to change the world. On a macro level, vote for legislature granting more maternity and paternity leave in this country so that parents are not as stressed by financial needs. On a micro level, bring a casserole (or gift certificate) to the neighbors who just had a baby. As grandparents, prioritize two weeks to help with the new baby, offer to clean, cook or babysit, or pay for a housecleaner. As parents, commit that the framework of the family – the spousal relationship will be the top priority.
2) Consider the marriage as important as a child or a work client. Yes, your spouse is an adult and can delay gratification. But the marriage is not an adult. The marriage is an entity unto itself and requires regular attention. A marriage trying to incorporate a third priority is already stressed and needs something extra. Forget a dinner date when you are both exhausted. Best date for young parents: Saturday lunchtime + nap.
3) Question waning attraction to your partner. Do the deep work about your family of origin. Was your mother nurturing, suffocating, or abandoning? How did your father show his love for your mother? What did you feel when a sibling was born? What triangular relationships were dysfunctional in your original family? What does it feel like to be vulnerable sexually and emotionally with one person?
4) Integrate the whore-madonna. Nourish the sexual woman inside with time and priority.
- Take time for yourself. We cannot share what we do not have. You have to have nourishment and often for touched out, stressed out mommies – that means five minutes peace to herself. Rethink the selfless mother. Voice your needs and get creative about meeting them. Ask your partner to do specific things instead of resenting that he should know what you want. Partner: prioritize the primary cartaker’s need for physical rest and help with your own efforts and the family’s finances toward household assistance.
- Take back wild. Sexy moms own the body that can produce life. Sexy moms find orgasms bring true relief. Sexy moms are selfish. Sexy moms ask for sensuous pleasure – their way: luxurious lovemaking, long back rubs, hair brushing, time for soaks in the hot tub, velvet winter stews, rich hot chocolate, deep kisses, sheared wool slippers, silk pajamas. While you’re soaking in the tub, fantasize the hottest sex you could ever have. Don’t tell anyone what the content of your daydream is. But analyze its essence. What themes are represented? Are your needs represented as well in your real bedroom?
- 1 Freud, Sigmund (1912), “Über die allgemeinste Erniedrigung des Liebeslebens [The most prevalent form of degradation in erotic life]” Jahrbuch für Psychoanalytische und Psychopathologische Forschungen 4: 40–502Gilligan, Carol (2003), The Birth of Pleasure, Vintage Publisher, Kindle version