“Have fun and make good choices!” Our 8 year old son called into fits of laughter as I walked him into his bedroom.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” Our 11 year old daughter is calling from her room via the landing, and she’s also laughing so hard that she’s having trouble getting the words out. I laugh too.
It’s a normal weeknight in epidemic quarantine, and my husband and I are about to have sex.
Children should sleep, in their own beds, in their own rooms, but they don’t do that much these days, preferring instead to stay up talking to each other or reading until we agree to let them sleep on our floor. And because they go to school from home and we kept them out of sports and social activities (in the past nine months), they are … always present.
I love them, but…it’s a lot more family time than I’m used to. The kids used to play soccer, after school care, piano lessons and play dates. My husband and I would occasionally go out to dinner without them. We are fortunate to have this family time and the privilege of enjoying it, but our tiny house doesn’t allow for a lot of “adult alone time”.
Before the pandemic, I would have preferred to have sex with my husband when the children were out. This doesn’t mean that this was the only time we had sex, but it was the only time I could relax enough to really enjoy it. When the kids were at a friend’s house or at school, I felt like we could take our time. Enjoy each other’s company. Luxuriate in the twilight. Those moments reminded me of our garden apartment in Brooklyn and the days we shared there in our twenties after we first moved in together. We’d have sex, take a nap and have sex again (or maybe take a really long nap and then take it outside). I love my kids, but I miss those days.
For the past 11 years my husband has understood this but is also a little frustrated with his aversion to having sex while the kids are at home. I could not explain why I was so afraid of them entering or interrupting us in some other way, such as knocking on the door or calling us. I have no painful memories of when I lived on my parents, unless I buried them so deeply that I can’t remember them. My husband and I have a door that slams, something my parents never had.
The only memory that stands out is a night in a hotel room with my dad and brother. I don’t know how old I was, but I was probably near my daughter’s age. I was awakened from sleep by the sound of a couple (in the next room? above us? across the hall?) having sex very loudly. I pretended to be asleep. Everyone did that too. They couldn’t actually be asleep, because the sounds were too loud to let them sleep.
I remember the feeling of lying in bed, so quiet and so quiet, that I didn’t want anyone else to know that I was awake and hearing these sounds. I was embarrassed but why? What would he have said about me as soon as he heard this – something that had nothing to do with me? Something I had no control over? And something that shouldn’t be embarrassing in the first place? I now know that sex isn’t awkward unless you treat it that way.
“Over the past 11 years, my husband has been understanding but also a little frustrated with a dislike of sex while the kids are at home. I couldn’t explain why I was so afraid of them coming in or interrupting us in some other way, like knocking on the door or calling us.”
As a little kid, long before that night in the hotel room, I asked my mom where the kids came from, and she didn’t say “stork.” Basically, I knew the biology of intercourse before it made much sense to me. I don’t remember another conversation about it then until years later, when I told my mom, one morning in my late teens, that I had sex for the first time the night before. Obviously, by then, I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed, but I also don’t remember being counseled by my parents in any helpful way on the subject of sex during my adolescence. However, I can remember many conversations I had with my friends about it.
Several years ago, I heard writer Peggy Orenstein speak on a radio show about a very specific group of women who were brought up in the ethos of free love, sex as empowerment, and the idea that as long as you used “protection” — from disease and unintended pregnancy — you were “safe.” Although my parents didn’t raise me that way, this is definitely the way my friends and I talked about sex, and how I expected to talk to my kids about it. But then Orenstein went on to warn that if we don’t talk about feelings associated with intimacy, we’re doing our children harm. I was in my thirties, monogamous and married, and had been adapted to protect my body at all costs, including separating my feelings from sex. I sat in my car, a real “driveway moment,” realizing that I needed to rethink everything I had been thinking about sex.
My husband and I chose to have a sexually positive family a long time ago. Or rather, I told him we were going to have a sex-positive family and then explained what it meant to him. Our children would have had information from us about sex, and thanks to Peggy Orenstein, this would include discussions about feelings associated with intimacy. We were talking about things openly and honestly. We would use appropriate anatomical terminology and have developmentally appropriate conversations and imbue them with our values, not oppressive societal norms.
But because I didn’t mature with that kind of perspective, I felt a little bit like I was making things up as I went along. To be clear, you can read all the books. You can follow all blogs. However, you can be caught unprepared when your daughter reads about oral sex in a little adult book and asks, “Are you two doing that?”
Yes, we know we don’t have to answer all of our kids’ questions. We know what we do is private and we have a right to privacy, but also, sex isn’t bad, awful, or shameful, so if we tell them about the TV shows we watch behind closed doors, why not tell them about the other things we do when our door closes? Not explicitly, of course, but in general, in a way that we feel is developmentally appropriate.
One day, before the pandemic, while I was at work, my husband did just that. They asked questions and he answered them. They were eliminated at first, which is not surprising, but then they asked more questions. He answered them. nicely. Then they started harassing us. Which is strange. It made me more anxious about having sex when they were home. And soon after that, COVID-19 hit, and they were…always at home.
After a few months of self-imposed quarantine, the few months in which I felt like having sex with my husband was like sneaking — and not in a good way, as if I was a 16-year-old riding on the back of a “bad boy” motorcycle — I decided to I tell the kids exactly when we were having sex. I just can’t hide it anymore. It felt like a lot of lies, and while I know we don’t have an obligation to tell them, we had no good reason not to.
I said, “If you close the door and turn on the fan in the hall, please leave us alone.” “We’re having sex.” they laughed. They have been spoiled. Then they left us alone.
Our sex became less of making sure we did everything we wanted to do before being interrupted and more about connecting, just like it was all those years ago in Brooklyn.
If we want to watch a TV show naked after sex, we do. If we want to talk for an hour before we take off our clothes, we do. Our time together now is all about connection, and what couple doesn’t need more of that, especially in these trying times? If we forgo adult nights out at restaurants and events, we’ll have good sex. And to have good sex, I needed to be transparent about it. This may not be everyone’s preference, but it is a good choice for our family.
I hope this also has a positive impact on how our children deal with sex as they get older. We’ve talked with them for years about consent. We represent it to them and with them. We talked to them about anatomy, birth control, and disease prevention. We’ve talked to them about feelings and intimacy, and why people want sex even if they’re not “trying to have a baby.” We’re now designing that for them, too.
“Our time together now is all about connection, and what couple doesn’t need more of that, especially in these tough times? If we were foregoing adult nights out at restaurants and events, we’d have good sex. And to have good sex, I needed to be Transparent about it. It might not be everyone’s preference, but it’s a good business for our family.”
I think about that night in the hotel room with my dad and brother more than I’d like. I wonder if someone had admitted to what was happening at the moment, would they have felt less terrified or “dirty”? Because that’s how I felt at the time, and that’s why I never spoke to them. I don’t even know if any of them remember the nighttime activity in the morning or why I do it, 30 years later.
I wonder how I would handle the same situation if my family had woken up in the middle of the night now. I can imagine laughing to break our collective breath and then suggesting playing a movie to block out the noise and give the couple some privacy. I can imagine my kids laughing too. And I can imagine them telling the story to their children decades from now, without shame, or the knot I feel in the pit of my stomach every time the memory creeps up on me.
Will some parents disagree with our choices? Absolutely. Is our approach the right approach for other families? Probably. Is it suitable for our family? I hope so because I really believe that being open and honest with our children has been good for us as parents, it will be good for them as young people and have benefits for our family unit as a whole.
Did I somehow intimidate my children by telling them when and why my husband and I closed the door and turned on the fan? Could. But I hope when they think again about the mess 2020 has become – if we’re all lucky enough to live long enough to look back, there’s no guarantee these days or ever – they’ll come close to the idea of sex (and when they do) start having sex) with less shyness and secrecy than I did, and they will appreciate how much their parents care about each other. They still need time on their own. To call. to have sex. And watch TV shows naked.
Jamie Beth Cohen is a writer, storyteller and podcaster working in the field of higher education. She is the author of “Wasted Pretty” and host of “There’s a column for that!” A podcast for people who love spreadsheets and people who don’t know it yet. Find her on Twitter at jimmy_beth_s.
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