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Valentine’s day is this week, and instead of anticipating a day of surprises and delight, we may find ourselves too tired or busy to make room for the celebration of our love that every media outlet says we should enjoy. Up to our eyeballs in kids, toys, tasks and poop, we might look at our partner and wonder just how we got here, those days of giddy longing seemingly eons behind us.


It may be hard to believe now, but those days are not gone forever.

Through the journey of love, we can reignite passion and desire along the way with a little understanding, focus and effort—and we can remain as madly in love as empty nesters as we were in the days before we became parents.

Love is what keeps us together

Love is nature’s amazing way of keeping us interested in our baby daddy long after the baby is made. According to Dr. Richard Schwartz, a Harvard Medical School associate professor of psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., “There’s good reason to suspect that romantic love is kept alive by something basic to our biological nature.”

Love involves a very complex and integrated dance between stimuli and its effects on our body and brain. There’s a veritable soup of chemicals and hormones swishing around inside of us that sends information back and forth between our glands and organs, and that control, to a degree, how we feel and act.

But falling and being in love are two different things.

According to Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, there are three distinct stages of love which are driven by the hormones and chemicals that play a role in how we feel in love, as we progress through our relationship—desire and attraction give way to the attachment that ensures the best outcome for our offspring, and over the course of time, these phases of love change our brain and body for the better.

Desire

Whether it was love at first sight or a friendship that took a turn toward the romantic with that first whiff of smokey desire, lust probably had a hand in sparking the relationship we now enjoy.

Lust can be defined as our need to reproduce, as manifested in the desire for sexual gratification. In our brain, the hypothalamus plays a significant role in this, stimulating the production of the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen from the testes and ovaries, respectively.

Though characterized as the male hormone, testosterone increases libido in both men and women. And women enjoy an extra boost of sexy with a spike in sexual desire around the time of ovulation when estrogen levels are highest. Estrogen can increase confidence in appearance “by prompting subtle shifts in soft tissue that make…facial features slightly more symmetrical,” says Gabrielle Lichterman, speaker and author of 28 Days: What Your Cycle Reveals about Your Love Life, Moods and Potential.

Attraction

Attraction involves the brain pathways that control “reward” behavior, which partly explains why the first few weeks or months of a relationship can be so exhilarating and all-consuming.

Remember the first time you laid eyes on your husband or wife? Or those early days when all you could do was think about him or her, to the exclusion of all other things reasonable and necessary?

Well, we are not singular in this incapacitation, as studies have shown that early, hot love is associated with intense changes in emotion and attention, as well as reduced cognitive control that results in impaired ability to perform daily tasks, like study and work.

We crave them like an addict

When we fall in love, chemicals associated with the reward circuit flood our brain, producing a variety of physical and emotional responses—fluttery hearts, rosy cheeks, sweaty palms and moments of euphoria, passion and anxiety. Love triggers our glands and organs to surge the hormones into our bloodstream that are responsible for these intense feelings.

Research has shown that falling in love activates the same system in the brain and triggers the same sensation of euphoria experienced by people when they take cocaine. Other researchers from Syracuse University reveal in an article in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, called “The Neuroimaging of Love,” that several euphoria-inducing chemicals, like adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin, are released in the brain, activating the brain’s opioid system in the same way heroin and opioid painkillers do.

The adrenaline released in the initial stages of falling for someone activates our stress response, increasing our blood levels of cortisol. This is why when we run into our crush or new beau, we start to sweat, our heart races and our mouth goes dry.

High levels of dopamine are released during attraction, and newly in love couples often show signs of surging dopamine—increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and immense delight in all the details of the new relationship.

Dopamine, produced by the hypothalamus, is a neurotransmitter that helps control our brain's reward and pleasure centers. It helps regulate emotional responses and enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. It’s released when we do things that feel good to us, like spending time with our beloved and having sex.

Most types of rewards increase the level of dopamine in the brain, and many addictive drugs also increase dopamine neuronal activity.

“Romantic love is one of the most addictive substances on Earth… My guess is that our modern addictions—nicotine, drugs, sex, gambling—are simply hijacking this ancient brain pathway that evolved millions of years ago, that evolved for romantic love,” says Dr. Helen Fisher, anthropologist and author of Why We Love.

Research supports that when we are newly in love, we have a lot more cortisol in our bloodstream, which helps our bodies cope with the “crisis” of love, but depletes the neurotransmitter serotonin, a hormone that’s known to be involved in appetite and mood.

This can bring on the “intrusive, maddeningly preoccupying thoughts, hopes, terrors of early love,” as described by Schwartz. Other studies have also associated the effects of attraction with the low serotonin levels that also occur in obsessive-compulsive disorder, helping to explain the cravings, obsessive thoughts and desire to spend every moment with your partner.

In an Italian study, it was demonstrated that attraction could change the way we think. Dr. Donatella Marazziti, a psychiatrist at the University of Pisa, studied 20 couples who'd been madly in love for less than six months “to see if the brain mechanisms that cause us to think about our lover constantly are related to the brain mechanisms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” By analyzing blood samples from the 20 couples, Dr. Marazziti discovered that serotonin levels of new lovers were equivalent to the low serotonin levels of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) patients.

There’s a reason why love is blind

When we are newly in love and extremely attracted to each other, we tend to idealize our relationship, finding perfection in each other. This is because the hormones involved in these feelings of love also deactivate the neural pathway responsible for negative emotions, like fear and social judgment, effectively shutting down our ability to critically assess our partner.

Psychologists think we need this foggy lens to help us want to stay together, so we can enter the next stage of love. First comes love, then comes...

Attachment

Attachment is the bond that keeps us together long enough for us to have and raise children. While lust and attraction are pretty much exclusive to early love, attachment is the main factor in long-term relationships, mediating friendships, parent-infant bonding, social bonds, and many other close relationships. The two primary hormones at work are oxytocin and vasopressin.

Like dopamine, oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and released in large quantities during sex, breastfeeding, and childbirth—the common factor being all of these events are precursors to bonding. Oxytocin is also known as the love, or “cuddle,” hormone, and when released invokes feelings of contentment, calmness and security. Heightened by skin-to-skin contact, oxytocin is released by men and women during orgasm, establishing the theory that the more sex a couple has, the deeper their bond becomes.

Vasopressin is another important hormone in the long-term commitment stage of relationships and is released after sex directly into the brain from the hypothalamus—as a vasoconstrictor, it is responsible for the postcoital glow and has a significant role in the social behavior that produces long-term, monogamous relationships.

The differences in behavior associated with the effects of oxytocin and vasopressin can explain why passionate love fades as attachment grows.

Lasting love

When love lasts, “the wild ride of emotions mellows within years,” says Schwartz. “The passion is still there, but the stress of it is gone,” he adds. Cortisol and serotonin levels return to normal. Love, which began as a stressor (to our brains and bodies, at least), actually then becomes a buffer against stress.

Brain areas associated with reward and pleasure are still activated as loving relationships proceed, but the constant craving and desire that are inherent in romantic love often decrease. “Many theories of love,” says Schwartz, “propose that there is an inevitable change over time from passionate love to what is typically called compassionate love—love that is deep but not as euphoric as that experienced during the early stages of romance.”

This does not, however, mean that the spark of romance is no longer there for long-married couples.

Thinking of our partners can yield a greater sense of social connection to and care for them by activating our brain’s empathy and emotion-processing centers, while also reducing activity in brain areas associated with self-focused thought. And research supports this theory in that the more we think of others first, the better we get at it, since our brains respond by growing more neurons in those areas that are associated with processing emotion.

So the more we love, the more empathetic and able to process emotions we become, changing our brain structure for better and for life.

A 2011 study conducted at Stony Brook University, New York, found that it is possible to be madly in love with someone after decades of marriage. Researchers found similar activity in specific brain regions among longtime, happily married couples, and among couples who had recently fallen in love.

The research team at Stonybrook performed MRI scans on couples who had been married an average of 21 years. They found the same intensity of activity in dopamine-rich areas of the brains as seen in the brains of couples who were newly in love. The study suggested that the excitement of romance can remain while the apprehension is lost.

The study also found that for those of us whose marriage seems to have transitioned from passionate, romantic love to a more compassionate, routine type of love, due to the daily grind and mental load, it appears that it is possible to rekindle the flame that burned so hot during our early days. All we need to do is have more sex.

Sexual intercourse can increase oxytocin levels and activate the brain’s reward circuit, making couples desire each other more.

According to an article in Psychology Today, we experience intense romantic love when...

  • We crave union ?
  • We focus our attention on our beloved
  • We have increased energy with them
  • We are motivated to do things that make them happy
  • We are sexually attracted to them and think about them when we are apart

Although the days in this season of life may be long, the nights don’t have to be. We can still conjure the heady high that accompanies a racing heart, sweaty palms and hot desire for that love object in front of us. And for the time being, this little hit of lust is the honey on our daily bread, fortifying us when things might get a little stale.

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Summer heat has a way of making the house feel smaller, more congested, with less room for the air to circulate. And there's nothing like the heat to make me want to strip down, cool off and lighten my load. So, motivation in three digits, now that school is back in, it's time to do a purge.

Forget the spring clean—who has time for that? Those last few months of the school year are busier than the first. And summer's warm weather entices our family outdoors on the weekends, which doesn't leave much time for re-organizing.

So, I seize the opportunity when my kids are back in school to enter my zone.

I love throwing open every closet and cupboard door, pulling out anything and everything that doesn't fit our bodies or our lives. Each joyless item purged peels off another oppressive layer of "not me" or "not us."

Stuff can obscure what really makes us feel light, capable and competent.

Stuff can stem the flow of what makes our lives work.

With my kids back in school, I am energized, motivated by the thought that I have the space to be in my head with no interruptions. No refereeing. No snacks. No naps… I am tossing. I am folding. I am stacking. I am organizing. I don't worry about having to stop. The neat-freak in me is having a field day.

Passing bedroom doors, ajar and flashing their naughty bits of chaos at me, it's more than I can handle in terms of temptation. I have to be careful, though, because I can get on a roll. Taking to my kids' rooms I tread carefully, always aware that what I think is junk can actually be their treasure.

But I usually have a good sense for what has been abandoned or invisible in plain sight for the lack of movement or the accumulation of dust. Anything that fits the description gets relegated to a box in the garage where it is on standby—in case its absence is noticed and a meltdown has ensued. Crisis averted. Either way, it's a victory.

Oh, it's quiet. So, so quiet. And I can think it all through…

Do we really need all this stuff?

Will my son really notice if I toss all this stuff?

Will my daughter be heartbroken if I donate all this stuff?

Will I really miss this dress I wore three years ago that barely fit my waist then and had me holding in my tummy all night, and that I for sure cannot zip today?

Can we live without it all? All. This. Stuff?

The fall purge always gets me wondering, where in the world does all this stuff come from? So with the beginning of the school year upon us, I vow to create a new mindset to evaluate everything that enters my home from now on, so that there will be so much less stuff.

I vow to really think about objects before they enter my home…

…to evaluate what is really useful,

...to consider when it would be useful,

...to imagine where it would be useful,

...to remember why it may be useful,

…to decide how to use it in more than one way,

... so that all this stuff won't get in the way of what really matters—time and attention for my kids and our lives as a new year reveals more layers of the real stuff—what my kids are made of.

Bring it on.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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For many years, Serena Williams seemed as perfect as a person could be. But now, Serena is a mom. She's imperfect and she's being honest about that and we're so grateful.

On the cover of TIME, Williams owns her imperfection, and in doing so, she gives mothers around the world permission to be as real as she is being.

"Nothing about me right now is perfect," she told TIME. "But I'm perfectly Serena."

The interview sheds light on Williams' recovery from her traumatic birth experience, and how her mental health has been impacted by the challenges she's faced in going from a medical emergency to new motherhood and back to the tennis court all within one year.

"Some days, I cry. I'm really sad. I've had meltdowns. It's been a really tough 11 months," she said.

It would have been easy for Williams to keep her struggles to herself over the last year. She didn't have to tell the world about her life-threatening birth experience, her decision to stop breastfeeding, her maternal mental health, how she missed her daughter's first steps, or any of it. But she did share these experiences, and in doing so she started incredibly powerful conversations on a national stage.

After Serena lost at Wimbledon this summer, she told the mothers watching around the world that she was playing for them. "And I tried," she said through tears. "I look forward to continuing to be back out here and doing what I do best."

In the TIME cover story, what happened before that match, where Williams lost to Angelique Kerber was revealed. TIME reports that Williams checked her phone about 10 minutes before the match, and learned, via Instagram, that the man convicted of fatally shooting her sister Yetunde Price, in 2003 is out on parole.

"I couldn't shake it out of my mind," Serena says. "It was hard because all I think about is her kids," she says. She was playing for all the mothers out there, but she had a specific mother on her mind during that historic match.

Williams' performance at Wimbledon wasn't perfect, and neither is she, as she clearly states on the cover of time. But motherhood isn't perfect either. It's okay to admit that. Thanks, Serena, for showing us how.

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There are some mornings where I wake up and I'm ready for the day. My alarm goes off and I pop out of bed and hum along as I make breakfast before my son wakes up. But then there are days where I just want 10 more minutes to sleep in. Or breakfast feels impossible to make because all our time has run out. Or I just feel overwhelmed and unprepared.

Those are the mornings I stare at the fridge and think, Can someone else just make breakfast, please?

Enter: make-ahead breakfasts. We spoke to the geniuses at Pinterest and they shared their top 10 pins all around this beautiful, planned-ahead treat. Here they are.

(You're welcome, future self.)

1. Make-ahead breakfast enchiladas

www.pinterest.com

Created by Bellyful

I'd make these for dinner, too.

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