The Birds and the Bees Revisited


In the abstract, at least, our mind/bodies are designed to live in a continuum of love: love for our parents, for a mate, for our offspring, and for our comrades. While the real world is never ideal, it’s worthwhile to take a look at how mating and parenting are “supposed to” work. Understanding this makes it easier to identify things that we can make better — what to shoot for.

Oxytocin is the chemical thread that binds together all forms of positive social interaction. It begins to guide you — in the ideal world — as you first enter the world, during birth. But perhaps at no time is the oxytocin experience so intense as during sex. Our society has become highly sexualized as opportunities for other kinds of connection have dwindled. But in this ideal world we’re about to enter, sex is the beginning of nature’s plan for a life lived in love, not fear.

Humans usually bear just one baby at a time, after nearly a year of gestation, making this one offspring extremely precious. To increase the chance that this tiny and very helpless baby will survive for 12 long years, it was important that both parents be intensely devoted to its care.

This is why the excitement of sex is so closely tied to the bonding effects of oxytocin. In prehistoric times, if a woman copulated with a man, it was likely she would become pregnant. If sex caused them to feel closely bonded with each other, they would want to stay together until the baby was born.

Although we can now — usually — avoid making a baby when we have sex, this ancient formula still drives our brains. During sex, oxytocin causes erection of the penis, engorgement of the clitoris, and the release of orgasm. At the same time, it floods our brain, combining the pleasure and excitement of sex with a deep emotional connection to the sex partner. This connection is often especially deep for the woman, because estrogen enhances oxytocin’s bonding effects.

Every time the couple has sex, the bond goes deeper. When a baby comes, the couple is deeply tied to each other and ready to do whatever it takes to help their baby thrive. Just as oxytocin is central to sex, it guides the process of labor and birth, again tying physiological processes to emotion.

When the fetus is fully developed and ready to emerge from the womb as a baby, it produces chemicals that cause the mother’s brain to release oxytocin. Much of this oxytocin travels from the pituitary gland into her bloodstream, where it causes rhythmic contractions of the uterus. These regular contractions begin to push the baby down the birth canal. At first, the contractions are far apart, moving the baby just a tiny bit. Over time, the contractions become stronger and closer together. But they’re not constant. The rest between contractions helps the mother to relax, and it allows unimpeded blood flow into and out of the baby’s circulatory system. Remember, the mother’s heart is beating for the baby at this point.

At the same time, oxytocin in the mother’s brain calms the amygdala, her fear center, as it activates her social center, causing her to feel peace and love. Some women who experience natural childbirth report feelings of mystical transcendence. A few experience orgasm.

At first, the idea of having an orgasm during the birth of your child may seem disturbing or wrong. But physiologically, it makes sense. After all, women use the same equipment for making a baby and giving birth to it, while oxytocin is the chemical of sexual engorgement and satisfaction, as well as the hormone of birth. This is simply another example of the way Nature has connected sex, love and parenting.

This intense bodymind experience, whether or not it includes orgasm, creates an overwhelming feeling of love and connection to the baby. While scientists haven’t determined whether the oxytocin flowing through the mother’s body reaches the baby’s brain, many midwives and obstetricians believe that it does. In any case, the mother’s feeling of love causes intense desire to hold and caress the newborn.

As she cares for the newborn, especially when she feeds him, his brain begins to respond by releasing oxytocin. Soon, his brain will release oxytocin in response to other people who hold him and speak to him. As his world expands to include more and more people, he’ll be able to use the baseline of love and trust within his family to evaluate strangers and to build loving connections with those who are also open and trustworthy. Someday, he’ll feel a strong attraction to another person. Sexual desire will cause them to come together. When they do, the special combination of sex and oxytocin will create the deep bond of committed love, readying them to have a child and introduce a new generation to the oxytocin cycle of love and procreation.

We’re designed to be born and die in a multi-generational web of love — all kinds of love, from the passionate and sexual to the spiritual to the familial. All these kinds of love are fueled by oxytocin, which also makes us more resilient to stress. So, love keeps us healthy as well as happy.

This excerpt is from Oxytocin Parenting by Bryan Post and Susan Kutchinskas