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The scientific journey from attraction to attachment and lasting love

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 partner 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 partner? 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.

[A version of this article was originally published February 12, 2018.]

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When you become a parent for the first time, there is an undeniably steep learning curve. Add to that the struggle of sorting through fact and fiction when it comes to advice and—whew—it's enough to make you more tired than you already are with that newborn in the house.

Just like those childhood games of telephone when one statement would get twisted by the time it was told a dozen times, there are many parenting misconceptions that still tend to get traction. This is especially true with myths about bottle-feeding—something that the majority of parents will do during their baby's infancy, either exclusively or occasionally.

Here's what you really need to know about bottle-feeding facts versus fiction.

1. Myth: Babies are fine taking any bottle

Not all bottles are created equally. Many parents experience anxiety when it seems their infant rejects all bottles, which is especially nerve wracking if a breastfeeding mom is preparing to return to work. However, it's often a matter of giving the baby some time to warm up to the new feeding method, says Katie Ferraro, a registered dietician, infant feeding specialist and associate professor of nutrition at the University of California San Francisco graduate School of Nursing.

"For mothers returning to work, if you're breastfeeding but trying to transition to bottle[s], try to give yourself a two- to four-week trial window to experiment with bottle feeding," says Ferraro.

2. Myth: You either use breast milk or formula

So often, the question of whether a parent is using formula or breastfeeding is presented exclusively as one or the other. In reality, many babies are combo-fed—meaning they have formula sometimes, breast milk other times.

The advantage with mixed feeding is the babies still get the benefits of breast milk while parents can ensure the overall nutritional and caloric needs are met through formula, says Ferraro.

3. Myth: Cleaning bottles is a lot of work

For parents looking for simplification in their lives (meaning, all of us), cleaning bottles day after day can sound daunting. But, really, it doesn't require much more effort than you are already used to doing with the dishes each night: With bottles that are safe for the top rack of the dishwasher, cleaning them is as easy as letting the machine work for you.

For added confidence in the sanitization, Dr. Brown's offers an incredibly helpful microwavable steam sterilizer that effectively kills all household bacteria on up to four bottles at a time. (Not to mention it can also be used on pacifiers, sippy cups and more.)

4. Myth: Bottle-feeding causes colic

One of the leading theories on what causes colic is indigestion, which can be caused by baby getting air bubbles while bottle feeding. However, Dr. Brown's bottles are the only bottles in the market that are actually clinically proven to reduce colic thanks to an ingenious internal vent system that eliminates negative pressure and air bubbles.

5. Myth: Bottles are all you can use for the first year

By the time your baby is six months old (way to go!), they may be ready to begin using a sippy cup. Explains Ferraro, "Even though they don't need water or additional liquids at this point, it is a feeding milestone that helps promote independent eating and even speech development."

With a complete line of products to see you from newborn feeding to solo sippy cups, Dr. Brown's does its part to make these new transitions less daunting. And, for new parents, that truly is priceless.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

As a military spouse, Cydney Cooper is used to doing things alone. But when she delivered her twin daughters early after complications due to Influenza A, she was missing her husband Skylar more than ever.

Recovering from the flu and an emergency C-section, and trying to parent the couple's two older boys and be with her new infant daughters in the NICU, Cydney was exhausted and scared and just wanted her husband who was deployed in Kuwait with the Army and wasn't expected home for weeks.

Alone in the NICU 12 days after giving birth, Cydney was texting an update on the twins to her husband when he walked through the door to shoulder some of the massive burden this mama was carrying.

"I was typing up their summary as best I could and trying to remember every detail to tell him when I looked up and saw him standing there. Shock, relief, and the feeling that everything was just alright hit me at once. I just finally let go," she explains in a statement to Motherly.

The moment was captured on video thanks to a family member who was in on Skylar's surprise and the reunion has now gone viral, having been viewed millions of times. It's an incredible moment for the couple who hadn't seen each other since Skylar had a three-day pass in seven months earlier.

Cydney had been caring for the couple's two boys and progressing in her pregnancy when, just over a week before the viral video was taken, she tested positive for Influenza A and went into preterm labor. "My husband was gone, my babies were early, I had the flu, and I was terrified," she tells Motherly.

"Over the next 48 hours they were able to stop my labor and I was discharged from the hospital. It only lasted two days and I went right back up and was in full on labor that was too far to stop."

Cydney needed an emergency C-section due to the babies' positioning, and her medical team could not allow anyone who had previously been around her into the operating room because anyone close to Cydney had been exposed to the flu.

"So I went in alone. The nurses and doctors were wonderful and held my hand through the entire thing but at the same time, I felt very very alone and scared. [Skylar] had been present for our first two and he was my rock and I didn't have him when I wanted him the most. But I did it! He was messaging me the second they wheeled me to recovery. Little did I know he was already working on being on his way."

When he found out his baby girls were coming early Skylar did everything he could to get home, and seeing him walk into the NICU is a moment Cydney will hold in her heart and her memory forever. "I had been having to hop back and forth from our sons to our daughters and felt guilty constantly because I couldn't be with all of them especially with their dad gone. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life and I won't be forgetting it."

It's so hard for a military spouse to do everything alone after a baby comes, and the military does recognize this. Just last month the Army doubled the amount of leave qualifying secondary caregivers (most often dads) can take after a birth or adoption, from 10 days to 21 so that moms like Cydney don't have to do it all alone.

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Alexis Ohanian is Serena Williams' husband, little Olympia's dad, and an outspoken advocate for fathers taking parental leave. In a recent op-ed the venture capitalist said taking parental leave was one of the most important decisions he'd ever made.

Now he's standing with Dove as the company launches The Pledge for Paternity Leave, asking fathers to pledge to actually take their leave if it's available, and asking allies and businesses to advocate for paid parental leave policies. But Dove isn't just collecting signatures. It's also giving $5,000 grants to new fathers.

Dove just launched The Dove Men+Care Paternity Leave Fund, which will see $1 million (in $5,000 increments) doled out to dads who apply to receive a $5,000 grant for parental leave.

These grants could help more dads get to do what Ohanian did. Most fathers aren't offered paid leave through their employers and simply can't afford to take unpaid leave (especially if their partner has already had to take unpaid time).

"No dad should have to sacrifice taking leave, and I've been very public about taking mine in an effort to show other men that you can still be an ambitious businessperson while also taking time for your family," says Ohanian, who notes that parental leave doesn't just benefit dads, but also their babies, families, workplaces and communities.

According to a media release, Dove's Paternity Leave Fund "is available for new or expectant dads who do not currently have access to paid leave through their employer."

So if a new dad in your life doesn't get paid leave at work, maybe they could get it through this grant.

The application is online, and to be eligible dads must be over 18, be legal residents of one the 50 United States (or D.C.) and work for an employer who offers no more than 10 days of paid paternity leave. Dads can be new dads (baby's gotta be under 8 months old) or be expecting a child through birth or adoption. And they have to have taken the Pledge for Paternity Leave as well.

It's unfortunate that more dads can't do what Ohanian did, either because of the stigma against fathers taking leave or a lack of financial support for it. Hopefully, American parents (moms and dads) will have access to paid parental leave by the time this PR campaign ends in 2020, but until then, this is a pretty cool move by the brand.

Dove knows that advertising can do more than just sell body wash—it can start cultural conversations. It's been more than 10 years since Dove first launched its Campaign for Real Beauty, and while that campaign has been criticized it has also been credited with starting the trend of more body-positive and inclusive advertising in marketing for women and girls.

It's kind of crazy to look back at some of the advertising from the early 2000s and see one very specific body type represented over and over again. Our generation lived through an era when everyone in the Delia*s catalog was the same size, but our daughters are growing up in a world where they can look at an Aerie campaign and see different sizes and body types represented (and with their stretch marks intact!).

Maybe 10 years from now the lack of paid parental leave for fathers will seem as bizarre as expecting every woman in a catalog to be a size zero. With any hope, we'll be talking about how crazy it was that it took a marketing campaign from a toiletries brand to change the way our culture sees parental leave for fathers.

But in the meantime, go get your money, dads. Dove's got $1 million to spend on this conversation.

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For so many parents, finding and funding childcare is a constant struggle. How would your life change if you didn't have to worry about finding and paying for quality childcare? Would you go back to work? Work more hours? Or just take the four figures you'd save each month and pay off your student loans faster?

These hypothetical scenarios have been playing in the minds of many American parents this week as presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled her plan for free or affordable "high-quality child care and early education for every child in America."

Universal childcare will be a cornerstone of Warren's campaign for 2020. It's a lofty goal, and one many parents can get behind, but is it doable?

Supporters note it's been done in other countries for decades. In Finland, for example, every child has had access to free universal day care since the early 1990s. Sweden, too, has been building its universal childcare system for decades.

Critics of Warren's plan worry about the price tag and potential for ballooning bureaucracy, and some are concerned that subsidizing childcare could actually make it more expensive for those who have a government-funded spot, as it could result in fewer private childcare providers.

But subsidized childcare had lowered prices in other places. In Sweden, parents pay less than $140 USD to send children to preschool. In Finland, the cost per child varies by municipality, household income and family size. A parent on the lower end of the income spectrum might pay as little as the equivalent of $30 USD, and the maximum fee is about $330 a month.

But Finland's population is on par with Minnesota's. Sweden is comparable to Michigan.

So could the Nordic model scale to serve the hundreds of millions of families in America?

As Eeva Penttila, speaking as the head of international relations for Helsinki, Finland's education department once told The Globe and Mail, "you can't take one element out and transfer it to your own country. Education is the result of culture, history and the society of a nation."

Right now America spends less on early childhood education than most other developed countries (only Turkey, Latvia, and Croatia spend less), but that wasn't always the case. This nation does have a history of investing in childcare, if we look back far enough.

Back in World War II, when women needed to step into the workforce as men fought overseas, America invested in a network of childcare to the tune of $1 billion (adjusted to today's money) and served hundreds of thousands of families in almost every state through center-based care. Parents paid between $0.50 and $0.75 per child per day (the equivalent of about $10 in today's money).

So America does have a historical and cultural precedent, not to mention a current model of universal preschool that is working, right now, in the nation's capital. In D.C. In Washington, D.C., 90% of 4-year-olds attend a full-day preschool program for free, according to the Center for American Progress. Seventy percent of 3-year-old are going too, and the program has increased the city's maternal workforce participation rate by more than 10%.

It won't happen overnight

While some American parents might be daydreaming of a life without a four-figure day care bill in 2020, the road to true universal childcare for all children in America would be a long one. Peter Moss, a researcher at the University of London's Institute of Education, previously told The Globe and Mail it took Sweden "many years to get it right."

Indeed, the 1990s saw long wait lists at Swedish day cares, but the growing pains of the '90s paved the way for the enviable system Swedes enjoy today.

According to Moss, governments in other countries look at the Nordic model and "tend to say, 'We can't do that.' But what they really mean is 'We can't suddenly do that.' In other countries, they just don't get to grips with what needs doing and actually plot a course."

Maybe America's starting point is found in its history books, or in the modern day preschools of the nation's capital, or in the conversations happening between now and 2020. It doesn't have to be Warren's plan, but America does need a plan for safer, more affordable childcare.

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It's so unfortunate that in the working world there are still those who believe mothers are more distracted and less productive than people without children.

Research proves that just isn't true—working moms are actually more engaged than working dads and fathers and equally committed—and plenty of working mothers will say that parenthood has actually made them more productive.

Ayesha Curry counts herself among those moms who become more efficient at work after becoming parents. The entrepreneurial mom of three seems unstoppable when it comes to expanding her career, which she launched as a lifestyle blog back when the oldest of her three children was still a baby.

"You don't realize how much you can get done in a day until you become a parent and you're like, 'what was I doing with my time before'?" she recently old Cheddar's Nora Ali.

Now less than seven years later she's built her own empire as a mom, not in spite of being one.


Now a New York Times best-selling cookbook author and restaurateur, Curry has also got her own brand, Homemade, and you can find her products bearing her name in places like Target and JC Penny. She's been promoting a partnership with GoDaddy and she's an ambassador for the Honest Company, too.

Curry says motherhood taught her how to multitask and manage her time.

"I have three children, so I've had to grow four invisible arms," she explains. "I've definitely learned efficiency through being a parent. It's helped me in my business tenfold."

As a celebrity, Curry's life experience is kind of unique, but her experience of becoming better at work because of motherhood isn't, according to experts.

Career coach Eileen Chadnick previously told Motherly that motherhood is an asset in the workplace, in part because it trains women to be both empathetic and assertive at the same time, a combo that makes for great leaders. "There are incredibly nice, compassionate women who are very strong and know how to take a stand," Chadmick said. "And they're trusted and admired by others even if they need to say 'no' to their employees."

That's something Curry agrees with. Because it's her name on that frying pan, cookbook or bedspread, she doesn't shy away from saying 'no' when she doesn't like something. "I'm really good about being forceful and putting my foot down," she explains.

It's easier to put your foot down when you've already grown four invisible arms. That's the balancing act of motherhood, and it's what makes this mama so good at business.

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