It was with sorrow but not surprise that I read a recent article at Risen Motherhood. In The Gospel Frees Us From Shame: Embracing Sexual Intimacy with a Postpartum Body, Lauren Washer writes about an experience that’s common among women who have given birth to one or more children. “I never thought my feelings toward sexual intimacy would change so drastically after having babies. Yet, with each pregnancy and every extra pound on my body, I have struggled to believe my husband desires me.”
She goes on to explain why she struggles to believe this.
Our culture tells us women should have flat stomachs and flawless skin. We feel the pressure to only gain so many pounds during pregnancy, and then shed them immediately after giving birth. When we see perfectly styled images of celebrities holding their day-old babies, it’s tempting to believe this is normal. So, when we come home from the hospital in our yoga pants and postpartum underwear, we start to feel like there must be something wrong. As the days and weeks go by, and the stretch-marks, squishy tummies, and baggy eyes remain, we can find ourselves feeling unworthy of physical affection and shying away from sexual intimacy with our husbands.
If this experience isn’t universal, I’m sure it’s at least very common. For that reason, I’m glad Washer addresses it, and that she addresses it in light of the gospel, which so aptly deals with shame. But I’d like to take a slightly different tack by speaking on behalf of husbands. Of course I cannot speak on behalf of every husband, but I hope to speak on behalf of some, and to offer a husband’s perspective on a wife’s postpartum body. (And, to that point, I sent this article to several male friends who generally agreed with what I said.)
I Understand Why
I understand why a wife can believe that her husband does not find her desirable, or at least as desirable as he once did, after she has carried children. It actually makes a good deal of sense. Whatever else a young bride learns about her husband in the early days of marriage, she certainly learns that he is extremely visual, and that he gains great joy and satisfaction from feasting his eyes upon her. A young husband naturally delights in his wife’s body and, like Solomon in his famous Song, enjoys telling her what he finds particularly delightful. When this couple is young and free and naked, he may comment on the flatness of her stomach or the shape of her breasts or the sweep of her curves or the perfection of any and every part of her. He may not use exactly the language of the fourth chapter of the Song of Solomon (and, in fact, I don’t really recommend it), but certainly he has allowed his eyes to linger on every part of her, from head to toe, and to sing the praises of what he has seen.
But a few years and a few babies later, that body is not what it once was. The stomach is no longer as flat and toned as it used to be and it may now bear deep stretch marks or fierce scars from the surgeon’s knife. The breasts are no longer the shape they once were, the curves not quite so curvy. And the wife, being no fool, is prone to put two and two together: The very things that once attracted him are no longer as attractive. Therefore, he must no longer find me appealing. He must be disappointed. He might even be repelled. She feels shame and this shame can have consequences:
On the days when he compliments my appearance or hints at his desire for sexual intimacy, I inwardly roll my eyes, question the truth behind his words, and sometimes pull away. Yet, on the other hand, if he doesn’t pay special attention to me when I wear a new dress or he falls asleep before me at the end of the day, I interpret his behavior as disinterest and failure to pursue me. In both cases, I’m a captive to feelings of shame telling me the appearance of my body makes me no longer worthy of love, desire, or attention.
What Is a Wife To Believe?
So what is a wife to believe about the relationship of her husband to her postpartum body? She is to believe that his delight in her body and his desire for it is not diminished by what it has endured, but actually enhanced. He does not resent the imperfections but, rather, treasures them. Stick with me as I try to explain myself.
When a husband and wife marry, when the two become one, they begin a story together. That story is told through shared experiences, shared successes and failures, shared worship, shared moments, shared secrets. As it pertains to the postpartum body, that story is told through shared flesh and shared children. The wife’s body tells a significant part of that story, their story. A loving husband gazes at his wife’s body and sees reminders of their shared life—reminders that only her body has recorded.
That stretch mark across the belly tells a story of a pregnancy and calls them to remember the sweet moments of lying on the couch together, his head on her bare stomach, singing gently to the little life within. Will it be a boy? Will it be a girl? What name will we give this little one? That caesarean scar tells the story of sudden fear and urgent surgery and safe birth and great rejoicing. Those breasts, which may not be what they once were, tell the story of life, for what man hasn’t marveled as he has watched a baby suckle, drawing sustenance from his mother. Those stories are so very good, and they cannot be told apart from the postpartum body.
In this way there is a tenderness in the way a mature husband regards his wife’s body, in the way he gazes upon her nakedness. When he was young, he passionately made love to a near stranger, and though in that day he was enamored with her body, he barely knew it because he barely knew her. But now he tenderly makes love to an intimate companion and a dearest friend with a body that is so familiar. Its lines are their lines, its scars are their scars, his as much as hers. Somewhere in the march of time, the beauty of a young body gave way to the much greater beauty of a shared life, a shared soul. The things that once attracted him may have faded or stretched or become marred, but they’ve given way to something better, something deeper. He knows that stomach, he knows those breasts, he knows her every part.
That postpartum body is the hidden, intimate story of their shared life. Its secrets are for them alone. Its skin is the pages and its scars the words of the stories that only they know. Yes, the body has been blemished as the stories have unfolded, but no, he wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. As he gently runs his finger along the lines and scars, he knows that she willingly sacrificed her youthful body for this one, so they could enjoy the blessings of children together. He honors her for that sacrifice. He treasures her body for that sacrifice.
So how does a husband regard his wife’s postpartum body? With awe, that he has been given willing access to that body so many times—to look, to touch, to enjoy. With tenderness, knowing that it tells the story of so much of the journey they’ve made together. With gratitude, acknowledging that she has sacrificed her body so they could enjoy the thrill of pregnancy, the joy of children, and the blessings of family. And with desire, still longing to experience and increase the intimacy that has bound them together for all these years. He treasures each mark and each line as if they are his own. For in the sacred oneness of marriage, they are his own.