This article originally appeared in Brooding, a subscriber-only newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.
Reading a review of Molly Roden Winter’s recent, much-talked-about book More, one detail in particular distinguished itself. When the author and her husband laid the groundwork for their polyamorous relationship, the cardinal rule was that sex with other people had to take place outside their home. Must be nice, I thought. Not so much the “sex with other people” part — the “sex in a different location” part.
A lesser-discussed dimension of today’s culture of intensive parenting is the way it affects relationships between parents. Mostly, our conversations about family life center on children and on the physical and emotional burden carried by mothers during the early years of a child’s life. But while we’re dutifully parenting with extreme intention and care, we also expect, per the norms of our time, to nurture mutually fulfilling and engaged relationships with our partners, who are also, ideally, our besties. How much engaging and nurturing can any one person do? A surprising amount, if you ask the author of More. But only, it would seem, if one has the use of a secret second location.
Our capacity to love may be unlimited, but our houses’ floor plans are not — nor is our paid time off. Logistics end up playing a central role in our love lives. That’s what I wanted to find out more about when I sent out a survey to Brooding subscribers about how they negotiate privacy and intimacy in their homes. I heard from 227 anonymous respondents, the vast majority of whom have children under 13. Most respondents live with their partners, but there were some notable exceptions. Shout-out to the reader in a nonmonogamous, separate-houses relationship with their co-parent who offered this levelheaded appraisal: “It makes being a couple completely separate from being parents in a way that’s unambiguously good … It’ll probably all fall apart when our son is older. We’ll see. For the moment I’m … I would say mostly happy about it.”
Interesting nontraditional arrangements aside, a few big trends emerged right away, with some more granular but no less interesting patterns showing up after a closer reading. A few people wrote that they’re deprived of privacy for themselves, and only after feeling like a whole, actualized person (rather than a husklike caregiver) would they even begin to care about privacy for their relationship. Fair point! And a separate topic entirely.
Many readers named the same conundrum: Living far from extended family has granted them privacy from the hectic and crowded multigenerational living that they had grown up in, but it also means they have no regular affordable child care. Being a self-contained nuclear unit means that, unless you have a lot of money, for many years parents don’t get many breaks. So for over 80 percent of people who responded, there’s only one window of opportunity for any kind of sexual intimacy: after the kids are asleep. And this comes with a major caveat: exhaustion. For older kids, there are sleepovers and summer camp, but these are aberrations in the routine, not reliable pillars of it.
Being a highly engaged parent in a nuclear family, fulfilling as it can be, often requires that some intimacy between parents gets lost. After reading through the responses, I was left with the sense that perhaps it’s easier for parents to sacrifice partner intimacy than it is to risk feeling guilty about being occasionally unavailable to our kids.
DOORS OPEN, CLOSED, OR LOCKED
There are some obvious reasons why many of us don’t have much time for our partners: We work longer hours, and based on all the time-use surveys, we spend more time with our kids than our parents’ generation did. But there’s another dimension to the challenge of parental intimacy that many survey respondents described: Many of us don’t feel comfortable drawing boundaries of privacy with our kids. “Always-on” parenting means having an open-door policy in our bedrooms. Maybe this is good for our kids! That’s a question for a different kind of survey, though. What’s clear is that it’s hard on partner intimacy.
For about 10 percent of respondents, partner intimacy is simply not that important to their relationship. The sacrifice is an easy one to make. “We’re happy with our crazy life,” one parent wrote. Added another: “I thought all parents just retired their sexuality, like mine did. Like I have, lol.”
But most respondents are living with a contradiction: They want to have a sexual relationship with their partner, but only as long as their kids are fully unaware of it. Only 15 percent of respondents said they think it’s appropriate to tell your kids you need privacy for the purpose of intimacy with your partner. Of the 85 percent who disagreed with that, half specified that it depends on how you present it to the kids. Many euphemisms were proposed for “your parents need to spend time together, and you aren’t invited.”
“We would define intimacy in terms that our kids would find relatable and not gross,” one parent wrote. “As in, ‘Dad and I want to hang out ’cause we are still sweethearts and he’s my boyfriend.’”
More than a few parents expressed a theoretical willingness to talk to their kids about privacy and boundaries, but not much appetite for it in practice.
“I think it is appropriate [to create a boundary of privacy],” wrote one parent, “but only if you can bring yourself to do that! I applaud those who can tell their kids they need private time so their parents can be intimate. I can’t. As a result, my partner and I are only intimate late at night when we’re both really tired.”
“No conscious awareness [of our sex life], please! But that’s for my sake, not any sort of idea of what’s developmentally appropriate — I think it’s great for kids to know to respect boundaries and privacy and adult relationships without having to get into wild details or actual exposure.”
The fact remains that 44 percent of parents who responded don’t think kids should be in any way aware that their parents have an intimate relationship that excludes them. This creates a large structural barrier around which to try to negotiate intimate relations, especially in a house with, say, shared walls.
Parents who were raised in households with loose boundaries around sex bring heavy baggage to this conversation. Several parents described having been made very uncomfortable by their own parents’ behavior, and vowing never to put their own kids through such an embarrassing and confusing experience. It’s certainly no surprise that the overwhelming majority of us don’t want our kids to hear us having sex. What’s interesting is the length we’ll go to keep their ears muffled. This makes real estate another structuring element. One thing no one wrote in to complain about is an overabundance of space.
THE REAL-ESTATE PROBLEM
Half of the survey respondents said they are satisfied with the amount of privacy they have in their homes. There’s nothing like a multilevel home to keep the flame alight.
“Bedrooms on different levels was a serious consideration when we bought our house,” wrote one parent.
Another satisfied customer: “We recently moved out of Manhattan to the suburbs and have much better opportunities for sex now. This is surely in part due to having more space — the living room is down a 15–20’ hallway away from the bedroom now!! Massive difference from our 2-bed apt!! But I think it is also due to the fact that our kids are getting older so are better able to occupy themselves for a longer stretch of time without realizing we’re gone.”
But sometimes two levels isn’t enough: “I can’t get into it if I’m worried the kids are gonna stomp upstairs. I need to be left alone.”
“This is a simmering source of stress for us,” wrote one parent. “We don’t have an issue now, but once our daughter ages into a light sleep, we will have to find another home where we don’t share a wall, and we don’t know if we can do that in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that we like. We’re afraid that without enough privacy we may just become intimate less frequently, and that could hurt our marriage.”
Another reader has both kids and neighbors to think about: “We live in a standard Toronto semi. Our neighbors can hear us (and bang on the wall often, grumpy old folks), which means the kid DEFINITELY hears us. In order for me to have an orgasm, I need to be pretty relaxed, so I would love some space.”
The lesson remains that one should never block a blessing: “We live in an old house, and our bedroom door sticks when it’s fully closed. That’s been the best enforcer of our privacy because the kids literally can’t get in.”
For another parent, perspective is important. Despite not being happy with their degree of privacy, “it beats fucking in the suburbs.”
OTHER TIMES AND PLACES
Have you ever wondered how people who co-sleep with their kids have sex? I have. Many parents reported that they basically don’t have a sex life while babies and toddlers are spread-eagling in their beds. I did not find this surprising. One parent wrote that they escape to other parts of the house during the co-sleeping years. In fact, basements, living rooms, and laundry rooms seem to be pretty common locations for getting busy, even among those who are not co-sleeping with children.
One surprise pattern I noticed was that parents who work from home have more chances at privacy. Several people said that ever since they started working from home on a semi-synced schedule with their partner, they have sex during their lunch breaks.
I was left with a sweet feeling after reading through all these responses, most of which contained a spirit of loving compromise and humor. I guess I’m very biased, but the readers of this newsletter seem like really thoughtful people. It remains that our best intentions, however, often set traps that we struggle to escape from. I’ll leave you with a bit of advice from a reader with kids age 3 and 4. “It’s important for us that the kids see us showing affection towards each other. But equally important (and we stress this) that mom and dad need some time away from you.”
More From This Newsletter
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