How Are Parents of Teenagers Supposed to Ever Have Sex Again?

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

A couple of days a week, my husband and I play a game. We are both 46 years old. We have been married for 18 years and have three children. Against all odds, sagging skin, thinning hair, and adult acne, we find each other hot and very much enjoy having sex.

Here’s the game: We start by texting each other suggestive messages during the day. No, we do not use fruit and vegetable emojis, because we are middle-age. We write poetry like, “I’d like to have sex tonight,” and then perhaps make out a little in the kitchen while cooking dinner. My husband makes me a drink, like he does every night, but he might grab my butt when he hands it to me. Around 8 p.m., we lose steam, because one of us has to put our 5-year-old to bed, and we are both tired from cleaning up dishes and yelling at one or more children to put their dirty clothes in the hamper. But we persevere! The middle kid goes to bed! The game is back afoot! I whisper to my husband that I’m heading to bed, and I consider whether to take off all of my clothes or just wait for him in a T-shirt and no underwear (more likely), when I remember that the twist in this game is that, in the end, he will be unjustly delayed in the living room. In the end, the night will drag on, and no one will have sex. We’ll tumble off a cliff or down a magic portal and pop back up at the start of the game tomorrow, unsatisfied. And this is because we have a teenager. (I never said it was a fun game.)

At 10 p.m., an hour where my husband and I used to be alone, we now have company. If we are on the couch, our teenager is standing two feet from our faces, blocking the TV, telling us a story of something that happened at soccer practice or complaining about humanities homework. If we are in the kitchen, she is in the doorway. If we are in bed, she’s at the foot of it. Occasionally her younger brother, a tween nipping at the heels of her later bedtime, is also up. It’s as if upon sensing that their parents might like to be alone, they decide it is the ideal time to discuss what summer-camp session they’d like to attend nine months from now.

More than once in the past month, I have fallen asleep before my teen, sometimes when she is mid-sentence, and while yes, yes, it’s so nice that she enjoys our company, someday we will miss it, of course we will (we love her very much!), I just want to know when I’m supposed to have sex.

I was not prepared for the physical and emotional ramifications of losing all my alone time in the evening. In the shift from parenting little kids to parenting big kids, my spouse and I have lost not just time for sex but time for anything private that we don’t want our kids to hear, whether it’s an argument or sensitive information about a friend we don’t need repeated. I do have friends who say their teens want nothing to do with them at night, that they could walk stark naked through the living room and their children’s eyes would never stray from their phones. But that is not my reality. Even when my teenager does shut herself in her room, I cannot relax. My kingdom for an upstairs, a separate wing, but this is Manhattan, where I can shoot a rubber band from my bedroom doorway to hers. Ours does have a lock, but if I am going to fully enjoy myself, my children need to be in a very deep sleep or out of town. Just yesterday, my oldest rattled that locked door, whining like an injured wolf pup, pleading for us to approve five more minutes on Snapchat.

Making time for sex was not necessarily easier when my children were small. My third child is still 5 years old, so I know the exhaustion that comes from parenting kids who don’t bathe themselves. Still, this stage is tougher. When my two older children were asleep by 7:30 p.m., I had time. Time to sit in silence with a drink on the couch. Time to cuddle — innocently — without an eye roll from a teenager. My husband and I watched shows or caught up on the news with time remaining to have quick sex before bed, if we were in the mood. On a Saturday morning, we could do it while our kids watched an episode of Bubble Guppies. (Listen, I could get it done in an episode of Bluey if absolutely pressed, and Bluey episodes are seven minutes long.) But big kids don’t zone out in front of cartoons. Big kids are wise and have better hearing.

I’m aware that big kids also sleep late. One friend in similar shoes to mine, let’s call her Leslie, said weekend mornings are key. Her teenager sleeps, and her younger kids watch TV. I’m exploring this option.

Another friend, Jen, told me, half-seriously: “We go on vacation.” She also says that she and her husband have sex at night — quietly — when their oldest teenager is awake, because his room is farther from theirs. If Jen’s second teenager, whose bedroom and theirs share a wall, is up, then no dice. My friend Sophie gets her kids out of the apartment. “New York kids love to be out in the city, especially if their parents are sponsoring a food run. We’ll give them money for bubble tea or a coffee date with a friend if we know it’ll give us time for sex,” she told me.

A divorced friend, Andi, confided that sex is one area where she has a leg up — and yes, I’m leaving that phrase in. Her new partner only spends the night when her kids aren’t there, so her attention is never divided. “The awful thing about being divorced is that I miss 50 percent of life with my kids. I crave time with them, so being up with them at night never feels like a burden. I also have 50 percent of my time that is all mine. That’s when the sex happens,” she says.

I’ve heard from parents who live outside the city, without the constraints of close quarters, and yet they also struggle to do it at night. “My teenager is upstairs doing homework and ignoring me. And our room is down a long hallway. I can hear kids coming,” said Emily, who lives in a big house in the suburbs. “The problem is that I am exhausted by 8:45 p.m.”

Emily has come to the same conclusion I have: We are daytime-sex people now. I work from home. Post-pandemic, my husband has some office flexibility. One of us has to take our youngest child to kindergarten, but the phrase “I’m coming home after drop off” is code for “Please brush your teeth and close the bedroom shades.” Regular sex is important to us — and, in a cruel twist of timing, we both find it better in our mid-40s. And the mid-morning schedule works, I guess. It’s just a little … depressing? Like the sexual equivalent of beginning to eat dinner at 4:45 p.m. I miss doing it in the dark, a little tipsy, when I can fall asleep immediately after. (Full disclosure: I sometimes fall asleep immediately after mid-morning sex, at 11 a.m., which is definitely depressing and also not compatible with a job.)

I am trying to change my attitude, though. Maybe there is freedom in being daytime-sex people, like there is freedom in saying, “I don’t wear heels anymore unless I’m going to a wedding.” My husband and I can stop pretending anything is happening after 11 p.m. We can stop resenting the teenager for chatting in our bedroom doorway (truly, what is wrong with us?) and just listen. And then go to sleep.

And look forward to the morning.

How Are Parents of Teens Supposed to Ever Have Sex Again?