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What is love?

Written by Louise

A couple of days ago, someone society tells me I should respect told me – in not so many words – that I’ll never know what love is because I haven’t given birth. It was one of those ‘what the fuck?’ moments.

I knew she had a bit of an attitude that ‘a mother’s love for her children is a special kind of love’, but her assertion that a mother couldn’t not love her child, even if she wanted to, is a load of crap. Mothers abandon their children all the time. OK, perhaps not as often as fathers do, but I can’t even say that with any certainty since society often forces fathers to leave their children by awarding sole custody to the mother.

As someone who is childfree by choice (and the phrase means exactly what it says – someone who has chosen not to have children), the attitude of some people that I will never experience ‘real’ love pisses me off. What about those women who adopt children? Is the love not the same simply because they don’t share some DNA?

In all honesty, I have a problem with the idea of love as a feeling. Attachment is caused by hormones, specifically oxytocin, which is sometimes known as the ‘cuddle hormone’ because its release is often triggered by physical contact, as well as sex and … oh, hang on a moment. That’s right, childbirth. In fact, oxytocin is at particularly high levels during the latter stages of pregnancy, through labour, and for some time afterwards. It’s important that a mother bonds with her child because human young are dependent on their mothers for a long time, so it makes sense that high levels of a hormone that promotes bonding at such a critical time have been positively selected by the evolutionary process.

Also, high levels of a particular endorphin are found during labour, which makes sense because endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers, and labour is – from what I’m told – a particularly painful process. The effect endorphins have on pain is not to make it go away, however. They’re like the body’s natural morphine (except many times more powerful). They don’t stop the pain, but they do make you feel really good while it’s happening.

So, during childbirth, women’s bodies are flooded with two very powerful hormones, one that encourages bonding and one that makes them feel good. There you have the source of the special love a mother feels for her child. Hormones. A simple, biological process.

It’s interesting to note here that women who don’t experience a natural birth – and this doesn’t always mean having a caesarean; it can simply mean receiving large amounts of pain relief – are more likely to struggle with feeling they don’t love their babies ‘enough’. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Messing with the natural birth process interrupts the natural release of hormones. (This isn’t intended as a judgement against women who can’t give birth naturally. If it’s a choice between a caesarean or likely loss of life, then having to work harder at the bonding process is the obvious way to go.)

It’s also interesting to note that my mother had a much more difficult pregnancy – and also required intervention during childbirth – with me than she did with my brother. It’s no secret to anyone (except perhaps my mother, herself) that she has a much closer bond with my brother than she’s ever had with me. I have been blamed for this – I’m tempted to say ‘obviously’ – because I was a difficult and rebellious teenager, but by that time the damage was already done. The ‘bonding time’ happened when I was a newborn baby – an innocent. The opportunity was missed long before I was capable of making independent choices.

Not that I blame my mother for the missed opportunity. It was nearly 43 years ago, and much less was known then about the role of hormones in the mother-baby bond. Even with the knowledge we have now, the bond sometimes fails to happen.

What pisses me off is when someone claims that a mother’s love is pure, everlasting, eternal, unbreakable (or some similar shit) when my experience tells me it isn’t. There’s nothing special about a mother’s love. It’s just like any other kind of ‘love’ humans experience – hormones released and neurons firing.

Love is a verb

Understanding it as far as I do – and I suppose I should ‘blame’ my study of psychology for that – makes me rather cynical of the love experience. I prefer to look at love in terms of what we do. Do we act in a loving way? Or do we claim perfect, unbreakable love, while our actions tell another story?

I found Sam at the side of a main road in August 1999, and my love for him grew, over the years we were together, until it reached that perfect, unbreakable state that mothers smugly claim is only possible for one you have given birth to. And yet Sam and I didn’t share a single strand of DNA. We weren’t even the same species. I didn’t push him out of my womb while my body was flooded with bonding and feel-good hormones, but I still loved him.

And today, 3 years after a brain tumour claimed his life – one of the few things I couldn’t protect him against – I can still remind myself that I never let him down. Every choice I made, from the moment I first saw him to the day I held him in my arms and felt the life slowly drain from his body, was made with his needs in mind, even if it meant a huge sacrifice for me.

So, while you’re sitting there, self-righteously claiming that the love you feel is a special kind of love, exclusive only to one who has given birth, take a good, hard look at yourself, and make sure the love you do meets those same, exacting standards.

(Photo is Sam, in the safe sleeping place he chose during his last weeks of life.)

About the author


Animal lover, asexual, blogger, cyclist, daughter, dreamer, entrepreneur, expat, optimist, procrastinator, reader, realist, rescuer, runner, sister, writer ... Hate labels? Me too. Just read my blog.

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