Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Who Needs a Man?

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Dear Marjo,

I am so embarrassed to be writing this and my husband would feel terrible if he knew. But ever since my baby boy was born, I cringe every time my husband touches me. I’m not talking about sex, although that, too, is out of the question. I’ve heard that it takes time after childbirth to get your sex life back, so I feel pretty normal in that regard. I’m talking about the rest of the time.

Every time my husband rubs my shoulders, I hunch up and move away from him. This is saying something, because my shoulders hurt all the time from nursing and holding the baby. I can tolerate hugs, but I have trouble hugging him back, which I know hurts his feelings. And the only way I can hold his hand is to look away and pretend that I feel normal. Which I don’t.

The weird thing is that even though I don’t want him to touch me, I also feel incredibly lonely for him. We used to be very affectionate physically, and I miss that easiness between us. Shouldn’t it be better by now? My son is four months old, so it’s not like I’m still recovering from childbirth. And he’s been sleeping through the night for the last couple of weeks, so I’m starting to feel a little more rested. But this whole no touching thing isn’t getting any better, and I’m afraid my husband is about to give up. What the hell is wrong with me?

Signed,

Wincing

Dear Wincing,

What a hard place you’re in, smack in the middle between yes and no. Yes, you want to be happy and affectionate with your husband, but no, you don’t want to hug him or even hold his hand. Yes, your shoulders hurt, but no, you don’t want him to rub them. Yes, you want to have sex again, but no, not tonight.

The middle is a dark and empty space, and it can be incredibly lonely. I can picture you frozen in place and curled up against the cold, unable to stand up and feel your way out of the darkness. Loving your husband isn’t enough to break the spell, and when he reaches in to help, you curl up into an even smaller ball of sadness and guilt. No wonder you feel confused.

Maybe the first step toward reconnecting – with yourself and with your husband – is to realize that you aren’t alone, that your aversion to being touched is entirely normal. I call it Who Needs a Man Syndrome, and I suffered from it for several months after my son was born. And my husband suffered nearly as much as I did.

I didn’t need a man because I was already being touched all day and all night. During the day, I held my baby constantly, swaying in our gliding rocking chair while he took naps in my arms and nursed on demand. At night I slept with him in our bed and walked him when he couldn’t settle. We made baby burritos, swaddled together in a blanket, both of us naked. We even showered together.

During the brief times when I wasn’t touching (and being touched by) the baby, I felt gloriously free. Standing up, arching my back, and stretching my arms out straight was such a physical relief. Washing my hair was downright indulgent. And buttering toast! With two hands! While drinking hot tea! Woe be to the person who made me bend my arms, press my breasts into a hug, or sit down for a shoulder rub – even if that person was my beloved husband.

I have to be honest and confess another, smaller reason for my hands-off policy. Like most new moms, my personal grooming was suffering. Daily showers felt almost impossible, and brushing my teeth without dribbling was hard. My hair was always, always in a ponytail, and I couldn’t find my deodorant (never mind makeup). Even when I was clean I smelled like strained carrots. It made me self-conscious, and when my husband tried to touch me all I could think of was how awful I must look and smell, even when I was perfectly clean. That plus the luxury of moving freely put me in the same place that you are, in the middle, feeling free and ambivalent at the same time.

Realizing these two things convinced me that Who Needs a Man Syndrome was temporary, and that I’d eventually find my way back to hugging and kissing again. I relaxed about it, and suddenly that middle space felt warmer and lighter. What made it even better, though, was talking to my husband about it. His hurt feelings were replaced with support, and he began sweetly asking me if it was okay before he touched me. It was a lot to ask of him, but it was better than asking him not to take it personally when I pushed him away – literally.

So, dear Wincing, remember that you are not alone. That dark middle space is not so empty after all, and your time there will come to an end whether you take a shower or not. And, if you can find a way to feel relaxed and hopeful, then pass those feelings on to your husband. You’ll both feel better, and eventually you’ll find a way to reconnect, even if you’re holding the baby and buttering toast with one hand.

XO,

Marjo

Do you have a question about the joys, complexities, or challenges of being a mother? Email askmarjo AT gmail.com and I’ll do my best to answer it. Please do not bend, fold, mutilate, or otherwise contort this column into anything it's not meant to be: friendly advice from one mom to another. My opinions and thoughts, no matter how heartfelt, are not a substitute for professional counseling or medical care.



Marjorie Osterhout is a writer, editor, and storyteller. Her essays and articles have appeared in anthologies like It’s A Boy (Seal Press) and magazines including Parents, Parenting, and ePregnancy. She also spent a whirlwind three years travel writing for Disney. She is a former managing editor, columns editor, and columnist (“Dear Marjo”) for Literary Mama.


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Your response is thoughtful and possibly accurate but it is also important to consider the possibility of postpartum depression.
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