Before my girlfriend and I had kids, I had a girlfriend.
I mean, I had a girlfriend, in the primary-partner, live-in, eventually-got-married kind of way. But I also had a girlfriend, in the piece-on-the-side kind of way.
This was, generally, okay with my girlfriend (the one I lived with). That’s because we were Hipster, Sex-Positive, Non-Monogamous urban dykes, with enough women’s studies and Marxist theory courses and protest marches between us to have agreed, from the outset of our relationship, that it would be an open one.
Before you go there, let me stress that this wasn’t some kind of crazy lesbian-sex free for all. (Fine, go there if you’d like. I’ll wait.) (You back? Was that fun? Good.) We were smart enough, even in our youthful recklessness, to draw some parameters around our extra-curricular activities. Frankly, it’s not like we were out every night at the bar, picking up chicks. In practice, what non-monogamy meant for us was the freedom to follow up on the occasional interesting prospect. In the event that either of us started seeing someone else more regularly, we had to limit ourselves to no more than one date a week.
So, when I met my girlfriend (the other one), and our relationship sparked into something bigger than a one-night stand, I began to exercise that one-night-a-week protocol. It was kind of perfect: I lived in a hip urban neighborhood with one girlfriend and our cats. I worked long hours for myself, but, remember, we didn’t have kids yet, so I could work whenever I wanted. My other girlfriend was, at the time, also childless, and she wasn’t seeing anyone besides me. Beyond those things, I had almost no obligations, masses of freedom, the security of an established relationship, and one night each week where I got to go over to the other girlfriend’s apartment and have mind-blowing sex with someone new and shiny, in that way in which you can have mind-blowing sex only with someone new and shiny because, obviously, NEW AND SHINY. You remember that, right? When sex took hours and you did everything twice or more, those gut-twisty spasms of pleasure and longing every time you thought about that new and shiny person? Those new and shiny kisses, where you lose yourself in someone else’s mouth, make out for hours? For me, it’s the number-one argument against monogamy: the idea that a person could potentially never experience and follow through on those feelings again.
In short, I was fucking exhausted.
Maintaining one relationship is hard work. Maintaining two relationships, even when one of those is fluffy and shiny and sex-drenched, is, well, harder work. When you are seeing two people, that’s two people to negotiate with, schedule around, think about, process with. It leaves less time for earning money, exercise, your other friends, grocery shopping, or just Taking a Fucking Break to regroup. (And yes, I understand that you at this point may be rolling your eyes: I’m not complaining. I mean, see above re. mind-blowing sex. I’m just pointing out that it took a lot of energy.)
So you can imagine how having a baby, or even two babies, might just put a damper on the whole non-monogamy thing. Take everything about newborns and babies and toddlers and small children — sleep deprivation, cosleeping, stitches, engorgement, round-the-clock nursing, daycare, ice packs to the crotch, Thomas the Train, vomit, postpartum mood disorders, Goldfish crackers, puréeing everything, shit, Good Night Moon and, mostly, sleep deprivation — and it’s kind of a recipe for Not More Sex. I fantasized about a full night’s sleep, could barely fathom having sex with my wife, let alone finding the time or energy or desire to have sex with multiple (or even just one more) partners.
I met up with my girlfriend (the other one) only once more after I had my first baby. By then, we had both moved to different cities, but we managed a rendezvous on a business trip. It was lovely to see her, but I remember less about the actual sex than I do about the fact that (A) I was still exhausted and (B) our encounter was punctuated by me pumping breastmilk for the five-month-old I had left, anxiously, behind. Hawt.
My wife and I survived, barely, those early-childhood years with two kids. But they took their toll, and by the time our youngest was five, we were in counselling to try to get our relationship back on track. During one session, the subject of sex came up. (It always does, eventually, in counseling, doesn’t it? You get through some really heavy stuff about emotions and respect and housework and your parents then you, tentatively, at minute 48 of your hour, mention that maybe there are some bedroom things that could be, maybe? Looked at? You know, if we’ve dealt with everything else?) During that session, we came out, hesitantly, about our still technically open marriage — although neither of us had engaged in any extracurricular action for years by then. I expected our counselor to balk. Instead, he asked, “What about the arrangement worked for you?”
We answered: it made us feel adult, independent, empowered, sexy. We were good at it, and that skill reflected well on our relationship. It made us feel like more than just suburban moms. The Shiny New Sex excitement. That when it worked well, it let us transfer some of that excitement and passion into our relationship. And so forth.
The counselor nodded. “Then why on earth,” he asked, “aren’t you doing that now?”
And so, we began, slowly, to figure out how to start doing that again.
A friend of mine set me up with her married-to-a-man-but-exploring-her-bisexual-side mutual friend, and we hit it off. But if non-monogamy was challenging for me as a childless, urban gadabout, imagine, if you will (You did try to imagine that, didn’t you? Was that fun? Good.), trying to schedule a date as a suburban mom of two. Especially when you are trying to schedule a date WITH a suburban mom of two. Between piano and violin lessons, hockey and soccer practices, swimming lessons, the flu, holidays, visits from in-laws, work and volunteer schedules, children with lice, PA days, and our partners’ own schedules, it could often take weeks to find a time where we could get together and get busy.
And if we found the time, we faced another challenge: finding a place. Clearly, and practically, our homes were off-limits. Neither of us really had the budget to grab a hotel room, although, during desperate times, we did consider it. I started to scout around for opportunities — you need someone to feed your cat over Christmas break? At your house? With bedrooms in it? Sign me up. We found a seedy motel that rented rooms by the hour. We made out in parking lots. Once, we parked later at night in a quiet city park and screwed in the back seat. Moments after climax (mine) a cop knocked on the car window. “The park’s closed,” he told us, shining a way-too-bright flashlight into the car before realizing exactly what was going on and turning away discreetly. He seemed entirely nonplussed at the sight of two half-dressed adult woman entwined in the back of a vehicle; I’m guessing it happens more often than we think.
In fact, I’m entirely positive that it happens more often than anyone thinks. You are, too.
And, you know? It would happen waaaaaaaaaaaaay more, too, if we could just find some way to rejig the fucking soccer or hockey or dance or swimming or potluck or piano or haircut or field trip or volunteer gig schedule so that it was more compatible with the fucking fucking schedule.
Recently, I met someone at a conference. We hit it off, we had a brief encounter, we continued to text, had a phone date — which was totally hot until her husband came home. She missed our second scheduled phone date because she fell asleep in her toddler’s bed, which might have irked me more had I not been trapped in bed next to my nine-year-old, who was having nightmares and was scared to sleep alone.
The best extramarital sex I currently have seems to be at conferences, where family obligations are, mercifully, someone else’s problem for a few days, where alcohol runs free and where hotel rooms have locks on doors and are furnished with beds. Glorious beds that other people make for you after the fact, beds where no toddlers or spooked nine-year-olds lie, beds that aren’t the back seats of cars where, say, your heel might get stuck in (true story) a wad of somebody’s else’s child’s cast-off chewing gum. For example.
What’s my point here?
My point is not that fun and hot sex with Shiny New people is hot and fun and that I highly recommend it, especially if engaging in said fun and hot sex with Shiny New people is something that your primary partner doesn’t mind you doing. On occasion, and in particular if you engage in fun and familiar sex with your primary partner as part of that arrangement. And that you don’t lose yourself so far into the Shiny New person that you forget about your Regular and Familiar partner. (That, my friend, is an entirely different essay.) My point is not that, although I do think that that is a good point to make.
My point is that if you are partnered, with children, and you manage to maintain some semblance of a regular or satisfying sex life with your partner, then you deserve a fucking medal (double entendre entirely intended). Moreover, though, if you are partnered, with children, and you manage to maintain not only some semblance of a regular and satisfying sex life with your partner, but also manage to maintain some kind of regular and satisfying sex life with someone else in addition to that partner — with that partner’s blessing, even — then you, my friend, are a Golden Ninja Sex Unicorn, able to coordinate eight conflicting iCalendars in a single bound. I bow to you. We all bow to you.
And when you crash, as you inevitably will, from the sheer exhaustion of managing it all, we will be there to catch you. We will make you soup, and rub your shoulders, and tuck you up in bed for a nap. We will do all this for you, and then, when you wake up, you will divulge Every. Last. Detail. Deal? Deal. Now go play.
(This post is part of our Blunt Talk About Sex series)