“Have fun and make good choices!” our 8-year-old son calls through a fit of laughter as I usher him into his bedroom.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” our 11-year-old daughter calls from her room across the landing, also laughing so hard she’s having trouble getting the words out. I’m laughing, too.
It’s a normal weeknight in pandemic quarantine, and my husband and I are about to have sex.
The kids should be asleep, in their own beds, in their own rooms, but they don’t do that much these days, preferring instead to stay up late talking to each other or reading until we agree to let them sleep on our floor. And because they’re doing school from home and we’ve kept them out of sports and social activities (for the past nine months), they are... always around.
I love them, but... it’s a lot more family time than I’m used to. The kids used to have soccer practice, after-school care, piano lessons and playdates. My husband and I used to occasionally go out to dinner without them. We are privileged to have this family time and privileged to enjoy it, but our small townhouse doesn’t allow for a lot of “grown-up alone time.”
Prior to the pandemic, I preferred to have sex with my husband when the kids were out of the house. That’s not to say that’s the only time we had sex, but it was the only time I could relax enough to truly 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 afterglow. Those moments reminded me of our garden apartment in Brooklyn and the days we shared there in our 20s after we first moved in together. We would have sex, take a nap and have sex again (or maybe just take a really long nap and then get takeout). I love my kids, but I miss those days.
For the last 11 years, my husband has been understanding but also a little frustrated with my aversion to having sex while the kids are in the house. I couldn’t explain why I was so afraid of them walking in on us or interrupting us in some other way, like knocking on the door or calling out for us. I have no traumatic memories of walking in on my own parents, unless I’ve buried them so deeply I can’t remember them. And my husband and I have a door that locks, something my parents never had.
The only memory that does stand out is a night in a hotel room with my parents and brother. I don’t know how old I was, but I was probably around my daughter’s age. I was jarred awake by the sound of a couple (in the next room? above us? across the hall?) having very loud sex. I pretended to be asleep. Everyone else did, too. They couldn’t have actually been asleep, because the sounds were way too loud to sleep through.
I remember the feeling of lying in bed, perfectly still and quiet, not wanting anyone else to know I was awake and hearing these sounds. I was embarrassed, but why? What would it have said about me to simply be hearing this ― something I had nothing to do with? Something I wasn’t in control of? And something that should not have been embarrassing in the first place? I know now sex is not embarrassing unless you treat it that way.
“For the last 11 years, my husband has been understanding but also a little frustrated with my aversion to having sex while the kids are in the house. I couldn’t explain why I was so afraid of them walking in on us or interrupting us in some other way, like knocking on the door or calling out for us.”
As a young kid, long before that night in the hotel room, I had asked my mom where babies came from, and she didn’t say “the stork.” Basically, I knew the biology of intercourse before it made much sense to me. I don’t remember another conversation on the subject after that until years later, when, one morning in my late teens, I told my mom that I had had sex for the first time the night before. Clearly, by then, I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed, but I also don’t remember being guided by my parents in any meaningful way around the subject of sex through my adolescence. I can, however, remember lots of conversations I had with my friends about the subject.
Several years ago, I heard author Peggy Orenstein speak on a radio show about a very specific contingent of women who were raised with the ethos of free love, sex as empowerment and the idea that as long as you were using “protection” ― from diseases and unintended pregnancy ― you were “safe.” While my parents didn’t raise me this way, this is certainly how my friends and I talked about sex, and how I expected I would talk to my own kids about it. But then Orenstein went on to caution that if we don’t talk about the feelings associated with intimacy, we are doing our kids a disservice. I was in my 30s, monogamous and married, and had been conditioned to protect my body at all costs, including separating my feelings from sex. I sat in my car, a true “driveway moment,” realizing I needed to rethink everything I thought about sex.
My husband and I chose to have a sex-positive household a long time ago. Or, rather, I told him we were going to have a sex-positive household and then explained to him what that meant. Our kids were going to get information about sex from us, and, thanks to Peggy Orenstein, that would include discussions of the emotions associated with intimacy. We were going to talk about things openly and frankly. We were going to use the proper anatomical terms and have developmentally appropriate conversations and imbue them with our values, not repressive societal norms.
But because I didn’t grow up with this kind of perspective, I felt a little like I was making things up as I went along. To be clear, you can read all the books. You can follow all the blogs. And still, you can be caught unprepared when your daughter reads about oral sex in a young adult book and asks, “Do you two do that?”
Yes, we know we don’t have to answer all our kids’ questions. We know what we do is private and we’re entitled to privacy, but also, sex isn’t bad or gross or shameful, so if we tell them what TV shows we watch behind closed doors, why wouldn’t we tell them about the other things we do when our door is closed? Not explicitly, of course, but generally, in a way we feel is developmentally appropriate.
One day, pre-pandemic, while I was at work, my husband did just that. They were asking questions and he answered them. They were initially grossed out, which is not surprising, but then they asked more questions. And he answered them. Delicately. And then they started teasing us. Which was weird. It made me even more uneasy about having sex when they were home. And very shortly after that, COVID-19 hit, and they were... always home.
A few months into our self-imposed quarantine, a few months in which I felt like having sex with my husband was akin to sneaking around ― and not in the good way, like when you’re 16 and riding on the back of the “bad boy’s” motorcycle ― I decided to tell the kids exactly when we were having sex. I just couldn’t hide it anymore. It felt too much like lying, and while I know we were under no obligation to tell them, we didn’t have a good reason not to.
“If I close the door and turn on the fan in the hall, please leave us alone,” I said. “We’re having sex.” They giggled. They squirmed. And then they left us alone.
Our sex became less about making sure we did everything we wanted to do before we got interrupted and more about connection, just like it was all those years ago back 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 our clothes off, we do. Our time together is now about connection, and what couple doesn’t need more of that, especially in these stressful times? If we were going to give up our grown-up nights out at restaurants and events, we were going to have good sex. And to have good sex, I needed to be transparent about it. That may not be everyone’s preference, but it’s one that’s worked out well for our family.
It is my hope this will also have a positive effect on how our kids approach sex as they get older. We’ve talked to them for years about consent. We model it for them and with them. We’ve talked to them about anatomy and birth control and disease prevention. We’ve talked to them about feelings and intimacy, and why people would want to have sex even if they’re not “trying to make a baby.” Now we’re modeling that for them, too.
“Our time together is now about connection, and what couple doesn’t need more of that, especially in these stressful times? If we were going to give up our grown-up nights out at restaurants and events, we were going to have good sex. And to have good sex, I needed to be transparent about it. That may not be everyone’s preference, but it’s one that’s worked out well for our family.”
I think about that night in the hotel room with my parents and brother more than I’d like to. I wonder if someone had acknowledged what was happening in the moment, would it have felt less scary or “dirty”? Because that’s how it felt back then, and it’s why I never spoke of it to them. I don’t even know if any of them remembered the nocturnal activity in the morning or why I do, 30 years later.
I wonder how I would handle the same situation if it were my family awakened in the middle of the night now. I can imagine laughing to break our collectively held breaths and then suggesting we turn on 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 kids 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? Definitely. Is our approach the right approach for other families? Possibly. Is it the right one for our family? I hope so because I truly believe being open and honest with our kids has been beneficial to us as parents, will be beneficial to them as young people and has benefits for our family unit as a whole.
Have I scarred my kids in some way by informing them when and why my husband and I close the door and turn on the fan? Maybe. But I hope when they think back on the mess that 2020 has become ― if we are all lucky enough to live long enough to look back on it, no guarantee these days or ever ― they will approach the idea of sex (and, when they start having it, the act of sex) with less shame and secrecy than I did, and they will value how much their parents cared about each other. That they still needed time alone. To connect. To have sex. And watch TV shows naked.
Jamie Beth Cohen is a writer, storyteller and podcaster who works in higher education. She is the author of “Wasted Pretty” and the host of “There’s a Column for That!” — a podcast for people who love spreadsheets and people who just don’t know it yet. Find her on Twitter at Jamie_Beth_S.