Listen to the recording of this podcast episode HERE.
Rachel Neilson: Welcome to 3 in 30: a podcast for moms who want to create more meaning in motherhood. Each 30-minute episode will feature 3 doable takeaways for you to try at home with your family this week. I'm your host Rachel Neilson. Thank you so much for being here.
This is a topic that sometimes comes up when groups of moms are together. We joke about our sex life and bemoan the fact that having little children has killed all flickers of desire in us. In fact, one of the listeners who heard that I was going to be addressing this topic on the podcast sent me this meme, and I will admit I laughed out loud when I read it: "You can thank your dad that you were born because chances are pretty good your mom was not in the mood." But all laughing and stereotypes aside, this is a really tender, sensitive topic for many women. There's often more going on than what we're willing to talk about openly with our girlfriends. It gets to the heart of what we believe about ourselves, our bodies, our relationships, and even our worth. Some women listening right now might feel hurt that they actually desire sex much more than their partner seems to, which makes them feel even more alone at those girls' nights wondering, "Am I the only one?" Others listening might feel frustrated thinking, “I used to have a sex drive, but where did it go? Since becoming a mom it feels non-existent.” That is what we're going to be talking about specifically today. Our guest is truly an expert in this field and can help you no matter what questions and struggles you face in your sex life. And I will tell you more about how to continue learning from her at the end of the episode.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in relationship and sexuality counseling. She's also a mother of three and a phenomenal human being. I had the privilege of attending one of her in-person workshops several years ago, and I was truly amazed by her. I already knew that she was a genius from listening to her on various other podcasts, but what I didn't know until I met her in person is how incredibly kind and real and generous she is. I recorded this podcast episode with her back in 2018, shortly after I attended her in-person workshop. And I decided to pull it out of the archives and re-air it today as an encore as we wrap up our month-long focus on improving our marriages and partnerships because sex is a very important part of that. It can get complicated within motherhood. You'll hear so much more about that within this conversation with Jennifer, so let's get right into it. Here we go!
Dr. Finlayson-Fife it's such an honor to have you on 3 in 30.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Thank you for having me, Rachel. I'm happy to be here.
Rachel Neilson: So, I have wanted to interview you for over a year. Since I started my podcast, you were one of the first people I wrote down, but I knew that I wanted to attend one of your workshops first. I'm so glad I waited because I feel like it just gave me so much more context for the conversation that we're about to have. But I will say this, after attending your workshop, I realize now how huge this topic is. And we only have 30 minutes. So we're gonna dive right in, and I'm gonna encourage everybody afterward to look at your courses because this is such a big, involved topic. But let's just start right with this question that women ask, which is: "What happened to my sex drive?" Can you just start off by telling us about where these problems with sexual desire sort of come from?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Well, I think that the most efficient way to say it is that it feels like a biological problem when you lose your sex drive. It feels like something has just gone away, and a lot of women say, "I don't know why it's gone away. There must be something wrong with me biologically." Human beings are meaning-makers inherently because we have a prefrontal cortex and we can't help but create meaning. And what’s usually the case is that the meanings that are operating in our lives are undermining our sexual interest. I talk a lot about in my workshops the idea that women are just as sexual as men are, but women are much pickier about where they want to express and be sexual. And so meanings are especially important to women. And the meanings that we have been offered often from our cultures, our families, and our faith are often times meanings that constrict us sexually, especially as women. And so oftentimes we're operating within meanings that are killing our desire, or teaching us to relate to our sexuality in a particular way, and it has a massive impact on our physical responsiveness.
Rachel Neilson: Yes. I had a friend who had a metaphor. She said that with sexual desire, you have an accelerator and you have breaks. And yet lots of women think there's something wrong with their accelerator, when really it's that they're putting on the brakes, with their frames of meaning. Would you say that that's accurate?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes. I like to think that's absolutely true, and research shows that the more you can deal with your breaks, the more likely you are to feel arousal. It's not necessarily about increasing accelerators for women.
Rachel Neilson: So we are going to spend the bulk of this conversation talking about frames of meaning. But before we dive into that I had a question a listener asked before this episode. How do you know when it is a physical problem that you should go see a doctor about it?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah, that's a good first question because I think it's always smart to start with a physical check-up. To have a sexual health doctor check you out, and just make sure hormonal levels are normal and to figure out if there are physical issues that are interfering especially if you're having pain during intercourse. Because once you start having pain, or a negative association with sex, it can make physical challenges get more entrenched. So it's just a good starting place, to just make sure that you check out, in that sense. And then it's easier to kind of look at what's going on, in my mind.
Rachel Neilson: That's really helpful to know. I know in your workshop, you told us that there are three sources of problems. One is medical or physical issues. One is insufficient stimulation to create arousal, which we're not going to go into on this podcast, but I did want to mention that I really appreciated that your workshop did talk about this. And so if people are interested in learning more about that, then they can go to your Art of Desire course. And I love you don't mince words, you just explain anatomy, and explain how to deal with that. And then the third reason why we might have problems with desire is the attributed meanings that we give to our sexuality and to our relationship. So that's where we're gonna focus today. And one thing that I loved that you described in the workshop was the idea of the difference between constrictive frames of meaning and expansive frames of meaning, and the difference those frames of meaning can make. So I was wondering if you could start by just kind of explaining that principle.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Sure. Yeah, well one of the things that somebody whose work I follow quite a bit is Dr. David Schnarch, and he talks about the fact that as human beings, more than we want to be sexual, we want to belong to our own sense of self. We don't want to feel taken over, we don't want to feel that we owe somebody. Our lives and our sense of agency are really important to us as human beings. So whenever we relate to sexuality in a way that makes us feel like we are losing our sense of self through our sexual relationship, we won't be desirous. On the other hand, if the way we relate to our sexuality makes us feel like we belong more deeply to ourselves, it makes us feel a sense of being stronger, more able, more worthy, or more valuable. Then we will like sex. So just as a brief example, when you're falling in love with somebody, and you meet this person that just makes you feel attractive and desirable, and gives you a sense of hope and possibility, your sexual desire is high because being with them makes you feel better, bigger, larger, than your other self. And so you feel good. And so you want to be in connection with them because being in connection with them makes you feel a more expansive sense of self. But if you, in your marriage, create a meaning frame in which you owe him sex, or you better do it or else he's gonna look at pornography, or something like that, well then it starts to feel like being sexual takes away from your sense of self. You've gotta prop up somebody else's sense of self through your sexuality. And now it's obligated through marriage. Well, that's gonna make you not want it very, very quickly. Because you start losing your sense of self through being sexual.
Rachel Neilson: And one thing that you mentioned, that you gave the example of when you're dating someone, and they touch your hand or they touch the back of your neck. And you're just like “whoa,” and it just lights everything up for you because it has meaning to you. There's an expansive meaning to it. Verses when you're married, and your husband touches your hand, or the back of your neck, it's either just every day and you don't even notice it, or you could take it to mean “Uh-oh! He's making a move on me, and this isn't what I want right now.” So that becomes a more constrictive framework meaning that you're seeing that same touch through. So how do we combat that and continue to have an expansive mindset or frame of meaning?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes. I think, of course, I'm giving you the very expedited version of it, but I think that you have to first start and take a look at what are the meanings that I do have around my sexuality. In particular, for this podcast, being a mother, because I think that often gives us a whole cultural framing of sexuality and selfhood that kills desire. And we're so accustomed to it, that we can't even see it. That's the thing. A lot of what I do in my courses is I offer people more ability to see their lives because it actually increases their agency by seeing what's there. You can't change what you can't see. If you don't even know you're operating within this particular system, it's impossible to work your way out of that system. So a lot of it's helping people see more clearly.
Rachel Neilson: Yeah. And I love that, even that metaphor, of seeing more clearly. I think frames of meaning are almost like glasses frames. It's like what you're putting on and how you're seeing your life and the experience of sex through these lenses.
I asked you to come prepared with three takeaways because it's very hard to make a topic this big and important into actionable steps, which is what I always promise with this podcast. So in order to try to do that a little bit, I asked you to come up with three of the common meaning frames that mothers have that will inhibit desire. These constrictive meaning frames. And also could you give us some tools or strategies or some way that we can try to combat or challenge that meaning frame, or turn it around? So we’re really excited to hear from all of the work that you've done with hundreds and hundreds of clients over the years, and courses and workshops. What are some of the most common meaning frames that you hear about and what we can do about those? So what is the first meaning frame that you want to discuss?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: So the first one I'll talk about is one that I think goes right to the heart of being a mother, which is that basically to be a good woman or a good mother is to strip themselves of their sexuality. And I think that this is one of these implicit meaning frames that a lot of times we're given. That your sexuality it's counter to our notions of what good motherhood is. Because we have an idea that good motherhood is a selfless woman. A woman who sacrifices her desires, and sacrifices her pleasure for the benefit of her children. I remember when I was younger, and I was sitting in church, and there were young mothers around me or women that I had known that then became mothers, and I would see they would go from their leather purses to a quilted diaper bag. I remember even just as an adolescent thinking, “Wait, it's like she's becoming like a baby.” I didn't quite have the words for it. But I could see that she would be sort of stripping herself of her womanliness and becoming a kind of stereotype of a mother. And I think that's very much in our messaging. Often we'll think of sexuality as this darker part of being human, and so we better get rid of it, suppress it, or pretend it's not there for as long as possible for the benefit of our children.
Rachel Neilson: I can definitely see that that happens. And I also can see how it happens, somewhat, because literally, our bodies change when we have children, and so that becomes an almost physical reminder. Like a mother who's nursing. All these things are physical reminders that children are dependent on us. Now those parts of our bodies that used to be kind of sexy to us are now they're these milk makers.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Exactly. Very utilitarian.
Rachel Neilson: Yes, and so it does sort of strip your sexuality now that you're a mother.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Well I would say it differently. It can do that. You can think of it that those are contradictory views of the breast. I don't know that you have to do that, necessarily. You don't have to think of it as, “These are just milk makers,” because it's possible to think of yourself as both a loving mother who will do what her children need for their well-being and also a sexy woman. That both things can coexist, and in my view, ought to coexist, if you're actually going to be a good mother. Again it's the model were given that as you strip yourself of your desires, both sexual and non-sexual desires, you strip yourself of yourself-hood, and then you won't be selfish. That's the meaning frame a lot of us get. But I think the more appropriate meaning frame is to be integrated. And by integrated I mean you relate to your desires, you relate to your sexuality, you relate to your body, and you relate to your own development in a way that creates strength in you, the mother, and creates strength in your children. When you don't take care of yourself in the former meaning frame, you raise up children who will, on some level, try to take care of you, because they sense your fragility, your weakness, and your doubt. And that's no favor to our children. I just read some research on this. If children have a mother who takes good care of herself, those children tend to thrive more in the world, because they don't have to spend energy taking care of the mother. The mother who's comfortable in her own skin, comfortable with herself, and loves and is invested in her children. And a lot of times we wanna put it in the either/or frame.
Rachel Neilson: Right. And is comfortable with her own desires, and not just her sexual desires but with her own desires for her life. And that she is a person outside of just being a mother. Her children will thrive more if they sense that about their mother. So if a woman is listening to this, and thinking, “Oh my word, I think I fall into this frame that I've believed that to be a good mother I have to strip myself of my sexuality." What is one practical thing that she could do to challenge that? Or to try to move away from that?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah. I just want to get it into the practical, which is sometimes not my strength. Let me just say a little bit about why. Because a lot of times what it is, is when you start waking up to something, and you see it as a problem, your mind starts to automatically start to look for what is the right way to do this for yourself. And sometimes it’s more nuanced than what I can say to you in a practical tip. But let me still try and make it a little bit practical. I mean, I think what I would maybe be doing is recognizing all the places that I get anxious about sexuality and recognize also that I'm teaching my children anxiety about sexuality. So when you start seeing what you're doing, I don't know how practical that is, but it allows you to shift and say, “Can I be in relationship to my sexuality and my kids and not be so anxious? Can I try and center myself more and think about how to be in relationship to my sexuality in a way that creates strength in me and would help create more strength in my children? What would that look like for me?”
Rachel Neilson: And one thing that I really took away from your class was the importance of believing that a woman deserves just as much sexual pleasure as a man. That she is just as capable of having sexual pleasure as a man. I think that for so many of us, with these jokes like I was saying at the beginning about “Men are so sexual and women don't want it.” That's not true, and we need to own that. Not only is it okay to have sexual desire, but we should have sexual desire and we should start to explore that and be okay with it.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes, exactly. This leads me to my second meaning frame, which is very much in that idea, which is basically that women are not as sexual as men. That's the meaning frame. And women’s sexuality is basically just to take care of men’s sexuality. So a lot of people have grown up with the idea that men are the sexual ones. They are the ones who are naturally sexual and have more sexuality than women do. And women's role, on some level, is to manage men’s sexuality. And so if you're a good wife, you will basically take care of his sexual desires and feelings at the end of the day. This is his love language after all. So you need to basically speak in his stupid language to get him to feel loved. And so on. So it's very much not in the frame that you maybe felt when you were dating, which was about excitement and belonging to your own sense of self, and your future, and all the possibility that's in that. That's exciting sexuality. Now it's in the frame of, "It's a job. It's not play. It's work. It's something I've supposed to do if I'm a good wife." I can't tell you how many people have said to me, “I'm just touched out at the end of the day. I've had children hanging on me all day and the last thing I want to do is be touched again by my husband.” And for me, what that genuine feeling is, that what women are betraying is the paradigm that they're in. Which is that “My children take from me through touching me, and now my husband's going to take from me through touching me. And there's only so much taking and depletion that I can handle.”
Rachel Neilson: So how do you turn that around? How do you see that in a different light?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: I think that a different way of thinking about it is that, “I've been giving a lot all day to young children,” which any of us who've done that know how challenging that is. What kind of rigor is in that kind of caretaking? “And that I want to be taken care of tonight. I want to be loved, and cared for, through my sensuality, and my sexuality. That I'd like to be given to.” Think of sexuality as a way to be in relationship to yourself. To be in relationship to your spouse. Let yourself be taken care of in this way. Being given to physically, as a way of filling you back up, reconnecting you to yourself, and to your spouse. To have the resources for that kind of work that may happen in the next 30 minutes after when your child wakes up again. Now you have more to give. But this is not the frame of a selfless woman who services everyone. This is about being a whole woman who is loving, but also able to be loved. Gives but also can deeply receive. And I think for many of us, that's a scary meaning frame to even try on. We like the control that's in the position of always being the giver. There's control in it, even though we can talk about it resentfully.
Rachel Neilson: Well it does go back to what you said in the previous takeaway, about this sense of agency. That as long as you're the giver, you're maintaining your sense of agency. But when you start to admit that you really need something too, and that you desire it, and that you're receiving it as well, it can feel a little bit scary to realize it. It feels like you're not in full control anymore.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That's exactly right. A lot of us, in my experience, resist receiving and we resent the idea that we're supposed to give all the time. But we also take a kind of safety in it. We can hide in it.
Rachel Neilson: Yes. And there's a whole portion of your art of desire class about receiving, the importance of being able to receive, which I loved. And this shift of thinking about sex instead of, “I can't believe he wants to have sex with me right now. Doesn't he know I've been taking care of people all day? And now he expects me to take care of him!” Shifting that to, “I've been taking care of people all day, and now I would love to be cared for by him in this way.” That was a major epiphany for me in your workshop. I do think that some work probably needs to happen there, as far as making your sex better, so that it actually does feel like you're being cared for. And not just having better sex, but your relationship is better, and feeling a true connection with each other, so then that you have really fulfilling sex as a result.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: I think that's absolutely true because it's a meaning shift. But then if you're gonna really shift it, then you have to start operating more as a partner. It's gonna mean probably shifts for your husband too because if he's always been in the idea, or he himself has been enculturated into the idea that “Sex is for men and women service that sexuality.” And many women are married to men who really do want more egalitarian sexual relationships, but the wife has been hesitant to grow into that frame. So you have to address what you've been co-creating as a couple. And you have to really do at least your half to create a shift in what's actually happening. And again, this is very challenging work, with our sense of self. I have one exercise in there that's just about a man giving to his wife. And this is an exercise where you just receive. And for many people this is just really hard to do. And I'm not being critical of that. It is hard. It's a real shift for people, and how they relate to themselves, and their sexuality. But it's a very valuable kind of shift, and it starts opening you up to a whole different way of being in your marriage, being in relationship to yourself, and being in relationship to your sexuality. So that’s about as practical as I can get it.
Rachel Neilson: I think that's great. And like you said before, just starting to recognize that you may have some of these frames on is huge. And that alone can be, maybe not practical, but definitely impactful takeaways from this conversation. And then you will think about situations in your own life, and you will come up with practical things to do to address them. I mean that's ultimately the goal. So that was our second frame of meaning. And then there's our third.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: I think the third one, I would say that I think very often related to mothers is our relationship to our bodies. And again, we grow up in a culture that teaches us that women are the sexual objects of men's desire. And that women are supposed to be desirable. So the imagery that we see around us is airbrushed images of some time and culture-specific ideal of the female form. That is always an unreachable ideal. These are very pervasive ideals that we inherit, and yet, they can sabotage our relationship to our peace of mind and our sense of self. And so what happens is when our bodies change, or our body doesn't meet the ideal, which is the case for 99.99% of us, that you can feel like you're not attractive, you're not desirable, you're not acceptable sexually. And so then it's hard if you're in that frame to think of your husband's desire as legitimate because “How could he be attracted to me? I'm so unacceptable.” Or you think that, basically, you don't deserve to be sexual because you're not attractive enough. I mean a lot of people feel that way. They feel that somehow if I don't fit all the ideals, I can't allow this to be a part of myself. Only the most attractive women can feel sexual. And this is just a very sad thing that we have had done to us, and that we do to ourselves by inheriting it, and accepting it.
I think the meaning shift is to redefine what it means to be desirable. That a desirable woman is a whole-hearted woman. She’s a woman who claims her strength and her personhood and creates goodness in the world through her choices. And I don’t mean in the selfless sense. I mean, in the fully anchored sense, that she really is anchored into her strength and anchored into a kind of acceptance of her body and her capacities and her desires. It matters to us as women to know that we're desirable. But, we want to expand our notion of desirability. Not to be these artificial image-based notions of desirability. But more about the kind of person that you are. That you are more in a position of, “Of course he wants me, because I know what kind of person I am in his life. I know what it is that I do, and I offer, and it doesn't make me better than other people, but I understand why he would want me. Because I have a heart. Because I offer goodness in this relationship. And I offer goodness in the world.” And out of that strength, you offer acceptance to your whole body, including your stretch marks, including the sags that happen in time. That they are a tribute to the good things you've done in your life with your body. And here's a practical thing you can do. I actually have one on this one. You can look in the mirror every day. Every time you're getting in the shower, disrobed to the level that you can tolerate. And I know that sounds a little funny, but for some people, that's not very far. And look in the mirror, and look every day for one thing that you value, that you're grateful for with your body, that you find attractive. Anything that you can look for and acknowledge the beauty that's there. And it will get easier with time if you keep doing it. But we're so accustomed to scanning for what is not acceptable to us, rather than looking for all the beauty and loveliness that is our body. It's just being able to see what's real. And we often think we see what's real, and we're actually distorted.
Rachel Neilson: I just want to end by earnestly and genuinely thanking you for your work. I know that you probably have a sense of how important it is, based on the clients that you talk to, and the experiences that you've had in your private sessions. But I know it has impacted my life deeply, and many of the women that I've talked to about your work. And I also just wanted to tell you that I feel like you are an example to me of a woman who's living her purpose. And I just think that is so important, and goes back to what you were saying about a woman who's able to claim her strength and to put goodness in the world, and you are doing that. And it's such a great example to all of us. So thank you for your example, and for coming on and sharing a piece of your wisdom today.
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Thank you, Rachel. It makes me happy to know it's had a positive impact on you. And I’m happy to be here today, so thanks for having me.
Rachel Neilson: That was really just scratching the surface of Dr. Finlayson-Fife's work. If this has piqued your interest, I strongly encourage you to go to her website, which I will link the show notes, and invest in one of her courses, which are a phenomenal value. Honestly, each course is less than one counseling session with Jennifer would cost. She also has two podcasts, and she is hosting several in-person retreats in the fall, both for women and for couples who want to immerse themselves in the work to heal themselves and their relationships. By way of a recap of this episode, Jennifer wanted us to remember that any frames of meaning that are constrictive--basically that make us feel smaller, or bored, or that we owe something to someone--are going to inhibit our desire. Versus frames of meaning that are expansive--that make us feel more like ourselves like we have agency to ourselves--are going to increase desire. She talked about three common constrictive frames of meaning for mothers that can inhibit our desire, and those are: First, a good mother strips herself of all of her desires, including her sexual desires, for the benefit of her children. Second, a good woman is a caretaker of men’s sexuality. And third, women are only desirable if they have a beautiful “perfect” body.
If we want to increase our sexual desire, we can work to slowly embrace new frames of meaning. Expansive frames of meaning around our sexuality. Namely: first, you can be a good mother and have desires outside of motherhood, both sexual desires, and professional or personal desires for your life. Second, a good woman is not just a caretaker of men’s sexuality. She needs and deserves connective sex as much as her husband, and she can allow herself to receive fully, and be taken care of in this way. And third and finally, a woman’s beauty and desirability are about more than just the appearance of her body. She can be desirable at any age, weight, or phase of life. I loved this quote by Jennifer, from the episode, “A desirable woman is a whole-hearted woman. She’s a woman who claims her strength and her personhood and creates goodness in the world through her choices. And I don’t mean in the selfless sense. I mean, in the fully anchored sense, that she really is anchored into her strength and anchored into a kind of acceptance of her body and her capacities and her desires.” I think that quote pretty much sums up this episode and is such a beautiful reminder of the kind of woman I want to be. Thank you so much for listening and for doing this deep work with me. I'm rooting for you, and I hope that you have a beautiful week with your family.