' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: 'Love' hormone's dark side may explain secondary infertility

Friday, August 23, 2013

'Love' hormone's dark side may explain secondary infertility

You know that "love hormone" we've talked about many times here? Women get a rush of oxytocin when we give birth, and so it is the physiological underpinning for the love and connection we feel towards our babies right after they are born. Some of us get more, some of us get less, but it is likely the reason that many of us end up grieving so long and so deeply for our children after we relinquish them to others. It's why some of us search for our children. It's the reason some of us are praying that our children find us one day. We remember the feeling of the love we felt for them at the time they were born. Supposedly, it makes us feel good--men and women get a release of it after sex. The hormone has such a good reputation that it has been tested as an anti-anxiety drug.

Okay, that's one side of it.

But how about the fact that after we have the experience of birth and relinquishment so many of us--some surveys put the number at around 40 percent--do not have other babies? It is such a widespread phenomenon that it is called secondary infertility. And how about the fact that a great many of us don't want to hear about babies that other women are having, even our friends and sisters? Turns out that same hormone can cause emotional pain as well as that loving feeling. New research finds that oxytocin may be the reason that certain stressful situations can reverberate long past the event, and can trigger fear and anxiety in the future when markers of a past bad experience are present.

The research on oxytocin has been done only on mice but what I read made so much sense to me as I read it I immediately made a mental list of all the things related to birth and babies that make me anxious: women giving birth in film; baby pictures; baby showers; anything baby-related, small children, especially blonde little girls. During movies with birth scenes, I shut my eyes or walk out. When someone shows me pictures of their young children or grandchildren; I look at one and hope more are not proffered, for I really do not want to see them. I have avoided as many as possible baby showers since my pregnancy and birth--only two was I not able to avoid in 47 years, and they were difficult to get through. There are probably more things that trigger bad feelings in me but that's just from the top of my head.

With the only baby I ever felt comfortable around, my granddaughter
As for ever having another child? Forget about it, was my response during the decades I was fecund after I had my daughter. I told my first husband I had relinquished a child before I answered when he asked me to marry, and said right then and there I would never have another child.* When I met my second husband, Birthmark had been published, and, upon hearing what my memoir was about, his first reaction was relief. I was not yet another woman approaching the end of her fertile years with her biological clock ticking loudly and incessantly, for that was whom he was meeting, one after another. He had two children not yet out of college, didn't want to start a new family, and rightly assumed I would not want to have another child. I know of course, that many women do go on to have other children. My writing partner here, Jane, had three more daughters. But more children for me? Inconceivable. I made that decision right after my daughter, my only child, was born. When fellow blogger Jane was dealing with a social worker during pregnancy, the woman said: Now I hope you aren't going to be one of those women who never has another child. She must already known that this phenomenon was common.

The scientists at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine discovered that oxytocin strengthens negative social memory and future anxiety by triggering an important signaling molecule (ERK--extracellular signal regulated kinases) that becomes activated after a negative social experience. ERK causes enhanced fear, the researchers believe, by stimulating the brain's fear pathways, many of which pass through the region of the brain that deal with emotional and stress responses. The research was published in the July 21 issue of Nature Neuroscience.

"Oxytocin is usually considered a stress-reducing agent based on decades of research," said Yomayra Guzman, a doctoral student at Northwestern and the study's lead author. "With this novel animal model, we showed how it enhances fear rather than reducing it and where the molecular changes are occurring in our central nervous system."

Enhances fear? I know this was done with mice, but I have been dealing with such stress related symptoms since my daughter Jane was born. Other than with my granddaughter, I did not want to be around other babies, didn't want to pick one up and coo with her or him, didn't want to see a load of pictures of friend's grandchildren. Still don't. I noticed this the other day at the beach when someone was proudly showing off pictures of their new grandchild. I looked at one and was done; the (childless by chance and choice) woman sitting next to me gushed over a dozen more. But this kind of sharing of baby pictures is triggering, reminding me of what I lost when I relinquished my daughter--our entire life together. When I entered her life again 15 years later, everything was different and emotionally fraught and we never could totally break down the barriers that had been erected.

Other recent research follows three human studies on oxytocin, all of which are beginning to offer a more complicated view of the hormone's role in emotions.

In two different experiments with mice, one group was missing its oxytocin receptors, another had an increased number, and the third group had the normal amount. The mice were put through two stressful situations, and then had a quiet period of several hours. When they were put back in the same stressful situation, the mice who were missing the oxytocin receptors didn't appear to remember what had happened before and showed no fear; the mice with the enhanced receptors exhibited intense fear, the group with the normal amount of receptors showed normal fear. They remembered, in other words, but didn't freak out.

The difference in reaction to a stressful situation could partly explain the great difference in how some first/birth mothers react when their lost children contact them. Some are overwhelmed with joy, others are fearful and may reject reunion, others are wary at first but are able to get over their fears. Understandably, the nature of the family situation of the birth mother--including whether or not she has told her husband and any other children--also plays a crucial part in not only her immediate reaction but also the final decision whether to meet, or reject, her lost child.

Okay, mice. It's a start. Though I can't conceive how an experiment on oxytocin could be designed for human subjects, I'd be glad to participate if any are. Jelena Radulovic, the professor in charge of the lab where the study was done, said: "This experiment shows that after a negative social experience the oxytocin triggers anxiety and fear in a new stressful situation." Amen to that.--lorraine

* My first husband remarried, and did have another child, who was named the same as my second husband's daughter. Coincidence, once again. Fortune teller says: You will marry someone who has a daughter named....

Love Hormone Has Dark Side
Fear-enhancing effects of septal oxytocin receptors
Shining light on the dark side of oxytocin
Posttraumatic oxytocin dysregulation: is it a link among posttraumatic self disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, and pelvic visceral dysregulation conditions in women?

The Case for More Time Before Signing Surrender Papers
Should women considering adoption be warned about secondary infertility?
How the daughter I gave up forever changed my life
The saddest story of all: Opting for adoption today
The saddest story of all: Opting for adoption today
A First/Birth Mother remembers the first Easter after surrender, only days earlier

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade
"Fessler has no agenda other than educating the reader about the hidden histories of these shamed, embarrassed unwed mothers. She uses personal narratives to flesh out her history book, but Fessler does not edit the histories to make any specific political point. Her subjects had widely varying experiences and reactions, all of which are captured herein."--from a review at Amazon. Order by clicking on the title or icon of the book jacket.


  1. I love that picture of you,your daughter,and granddaughter. This is a very interesting article.For a long time I felt the same about seeing and hearing about babies after I surrendered my son For me, I felt it was a combination of jealousy and a feeling like I was being stabbed in the heart-maybe it was just sadness. Since I found my son ,that feeling has gotten better to the point that sometimes I am even happy at seeing and hearing about new babies.But the feeling hasn't gone away entirely.I was waiting for someone a few days ago and the receptionist came over to me after awhile with 3 magazines(I must have looked odd just sitting there staring into space) Wouldn't you know the first magazine had a picture of Will and Kate and their new baby and I cringed and chose the 3rd magazine- the one that didn't have any people in it-just empty space and pretty-colored rooms and furnishings So I guess this feeling will never go away entirely-just some annoying physiological response-but I am working on it. I am also interested in medical journals and writings and am currently trying to figure out cancer patterns.Good luck with that one-no one's really cracked it yet and more often than not the same barbaric treatments are being used. Still, maybe I will write some of it down- it all comes back to the mitochondria from what I can see- in case anyone else out there is interested in this

  2. This is very, very interesting. I wonder if this phenomenon exists among women who have experienced the death of a child? From my empirical exposure, it seems that most go on to have other children (if they are still in their fertile years, that is) but I am not sure. Another beautifully written piece.

  3. Some of us went the other way, drawn to babies and children, had another child as soon as possible, in some cases had many more children. Some also went into careers where they were around babies and children all the time, pediatric and delivery room nurses, preschool teachers, midwives etc. Women respond to trauma in different ways and a lot more is going on than hormonal stress, although maybe that plays into it.But there is so much more involved in a mother deciding whether or not to have more children after a surrender, including whether she ever wanted children at all. I would only call it secondary infertility if the woman tried to have more children and could not. That has to be heartbreaking.

    I would be more likely to buy the magazine with the new royal baby on it,watched a lot of the TV coverage, and can't resist babies anywhere, even though for years there was also sadness about the one I did not get to raise. But I would go toward rather than avoid baby showers,Christenings, and other events involving babies. The fact that I did have other children made this easier. I am now eagerly awaiting becoming a great aunt, and love shopping for baby gifts.


  4. Nature did not mean for mothers and babies to be separated at birth.What Lorraine is talking about I can relate to 100% I won't call it "punishment" (because nature is impersonal)but rather a way to insure that not too many people follow in our sad footsteps(because the word gets around)When this feeling set in after I gave up my son, one of the songs that connected with it for me was "Paint it black" by the Rolling Stones

  5. As an adoptee, I know firstmoms in both ends of the spectrum. Several were ones who avoided babies, baby showers and never had another child. (Although one had two children who were surrendered.) On the other side, my own mom was forced by her father to visit her sister in law and newborn nephew a few weeks after my birth. She was dragged screaming and kicking out of the hospital. (Can't believe how cruelly she was treated) But she went on to plan her next pregnancy, and later became a nurse and worked primarily in the hospital nurseries. I have had several miscarriages, and after a hysterectomy following the last one- I have had real difficulty being around newborns or talking about pregnancy. I used to be the first to try to hold a baby- now I don't even ask. Very interesting article.

  6. I can relate to baby-phobia after having relinquished. I didn't want to hold them, when my friends had them, which was some years after I had and lost my son. I was nervous around my infant granddaughter, who came into my life shortly after I reunited with my son. I am still kinda weary around infants. better with toddlers and older. Also around grandchildren-aged children. I guess because I have g-kids myself now and don't feel that loss around them. But I definitely think I was impacted by that initial loss. And yes, I did hope to get pregnant again and couldn't. I do believe that was mental and chemical, a real fear.

  7. I was able to have three more daughters after surrendering my first born because I was able to compartmentalize my life, living as though I had no children. Still, when each of my daughters were born, I studied their faces to see if I could see my first daughter's face.

    I was less than enthusiastic about a shower given for me by co-worker for my "first baby." I felt guilty when I fed them or did all the other mommy things. I even had trouble giving them names, waiting until after I left the hospital.

  8. Never had another child. Small children, babies, no way. 39 years after relinquishment and 5 years after our reunion, I still cannot be around small children.

    I find it very interesting that another side effect of the posttraumatic oxytocin dysregulation is pelvic visceral dysregulation condition. I have suffered from IBS for years, that has completely mystified GI doctors. And developed a benign ovarian cyst that was the size of a full term baby. Otherwise I am fit and healthy.

    Thanks for the post, I have always thought there might be a connection.

  9. I looked up "pelvic visceral dysregulation" and this is what I found:

    Posttraumatic oxytocin dysregulation: is it a link among posttraumatic self disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, and pelvic visceral dysregulation conditions in women?
    Seng JS.

    School of Nursing, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Department of Women's Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-1290, USA. jseng@umich.edu

    This article explicates a theory that oxytocin, a sexually dimorphic neurotransmitter and paracrine hormone, is a plausible mechanism linking early relational trauma with (e.g., dissociation, somatization, and interpersonal sensitivity), posttraumatic stress disorder, and pelvic visceral dysregulation disorders (e.g., irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, interstitial cystitis, and hyperemesis gravidarum). This posttraumatic oxytocin dysregulation disorders theory is consistent with the historical and contemporary literature. It integrates attention to psychological and physical comorbidities and could account for the increased incidence of these disorders among females. Specific propositions are explored in data from studies of traumatic stress and women's health.

    I'd like to see the agencies start passing out this literature to women being pressured to give up their chidlren.

  10. Yet another link between the first mother's community and the infertile community. How interesting! And yet there still remains so much hostility between the two.

    I really wish that the two groups could come together and share wisdom and not just barbs.

    I am a recent first mother (relinquished in 2009) and am now suffering from secondary infertility. Honestly, I have found more help from the infertility community than I have from the first mother community. They are certainly more welcoming and helpful.

    Can't you find a way to bridge the gap??

  11. There is no doubt in my mind that almost all first parents grieve deeply for their lost children and it affects them in many ways, some not always discernible even to themselves.
    But where does this this research say, if anything, about those women who do go on to have children, sometimes many and often soon after relinquishing? Surely they can't all be dissociated or compartmentalizing. Perhaps, as you suggest, they produce less oxycontin (If so, I wonder if that would add up to them being less maternal, although somehow I don't think so) or if they simply process grief differently.

  12. God, I do love scientific research that proves we not just all crazy!

    I returned form relinquishing and went directly into early childhood education. Quite a jump form the previous decade of my life where I was nothing but an art major as long as I could remember.Of course, that had NOTHING to do with relinquishing, right?

    So I sat around with children the age of my own lost son. I ached to hold a newborn boy again and baby sat one within the first year? Hours rocking him, smelling another woman's child's sweet breath. I read my toddler class "Where the Wild Things Are" and pretended I was reading to my Max. Knew the words by heart, still do, and tried not to cry. Masochistic? A method of survival? Forced grief expression? Maybe an oxytocin junkie? I have no idea, but the link is definite. I also dated an adoptee immediately after too.
    And I was pregnant again within 3 1/2 years.. pretty much as soon as I got out on my own and could pull it off. Never worked with other's people's kids again.
    Wish there was a way to measure the levels now.. would be very interesting to see where one falls on the spectrum and could explain so much.

  13. I am feeling angry today- at our depersonalized society-and at my part in this impersonal process called adoption. I was watching the coverage of the baby panda at the Washington zoo.(Baby animals don't upset me since I surrendered but baby humans do) Every time the zookeepers tried to take the baby bear away from its mother to examine it she snatched it back and it took several days before they could pry it away from her. Yeah,way to go. By the way,I don't consider myself or my reaction to what happened to me to be on anyone's "spectrum" nor will I be used as a tool to advocate for abortion. I am happy I had my baby, but should have been told the truth about surrender and helped to keep him(not that I don't take responsibility for my actions-but I was naive and clueless about life and have since learned not to appear weak or vulnerable or someone will come along and take advantage of you and steal whatever they can from you.

  14. Anon:

    I had the same reaction to the baby Panda story, about the zoo keepers desperate to see if the cub was normal. So irritating. And like you, I don't find animal babies problematic, just human babies.

    Who knows about the women who do have other children. If the oxytocin release is an issue in secondary infertility, the women who have other children process it differently. Read Jane's comment above--she had three other daughters but had thoughts and reactions afterward that are different from the norm, especially in the beginning. I would guess you can go through the process and override the bad feelings. Lots of women do. The reaction to the hormone is of course personal, and certainly wouldn't lead to an automatic response. But as the post says, oxytocin may explain the high incidence of no second pregnancies or children in a statistical analysis.

    I also heard of one woman tell her ex-husband, my friend, that until she had her second son she didn't feel that maternal love at all. I know the father of the first son quite well, and know that not only did he get immediate custody of a small child when they divorced, the mother was hardly involved in her son's upbringing. Yet she and her son share many characteristics, such as the natural ability to speed read and have amazing retention. He does not have much of a connection today with his biological mother, but a good one with his step-mother, who really raised him. She was the child's baby-sitter. Yes, all true.

  15. This is just a guess and not scientific, but I think that breastfeeding my subsequent babies helped save me from the bad post-partum depression I suffered with my first. And of course the fact that I got to keep and raise the others.

    My firstborn went right into foster care, was later adopted. I did not even think of breastfeeding him. When I had my next son at first I thought I was getting my baby back, but as soon as he was born, realized he was another child to love, but my first was still gone. I was very attached to my babies, never let them out of my sight the first year and greatly feared losing them to SIDS. They all nursed until they weaned themselves as toddlers. Did the hormones associated with breastfeeding help me? Maybe, I do not really know. I was just relieved to find I could be a decent mother.

  16. I gave birth to my firstborn 29 years ago yesterday, and lost her to adoption immediately after. After a miserable and emotionally traumatic reunion, I developed heavy menstrual bleeding that would not stop. During the procedure to try to get it under control, I don't know what happened, but I was hurt and it has never stopped hurting..like a toothache in my vagina! I have been in excruciating pain for over 4 years! I KNEW it was related to my grief over losing my daughter, the articles you linked seem to confirm it! I'm miserable...

  17. @Lorraine I had plenty of maternal feeling when my son was born-and before-so much so that the social workers were annoyed at me for being so happy. In fact, I asked to breast feed my son but they shot me up with some drug to prevent it. Maybe if I had acted contrite or at least like I thought I had done something wrong things would have gone better for me. It wasn't until afterwards when my son was gone that the feelings set in At first I got a job on the midnight shift which delayed the onset of the depression and,anyway,I was still high from the birth and feeling like he was still with me. When it hit, it hit hard and I wound up in the hospital ,but the idiot doctors either thought,like everyone else ,I was just bad and deserved what I got or they didn't see any connection. Mostly, they couldn't have cared less about me.Like that Panda mother I tried to snatch my baby back,asking for him 3 times before they started in with the personal attacks and finally got him away from me.


  18. Anon at 8:07 (oh folk,s please use some kind of name, it makes it so much easier, just hit Name/URL and you don't need a URL)

    When did you have your child? Era, year? and where? Just curious, that sounds like brutal treatment.

  19. @Claudia Your comment reminded me of the happier times right after my son was born I always loved children The first guy I dated after having my son was someone I worked with who had lost an arm in Vietnam I guess I was so caught up in my own pain I wasn't sensitive to his His wife had left him with the cutest 2-yr old little girl and I can remember taking her to Great Adventure, seeing the wild animals, going on rides with her and hugging her as if she was mine. My feelings didn't get so warped right away. It took 2-3 yrs. Anyway, after a few months he picked up and moved to California and left his little girl with his Dad. I guess he had his own demons to deal with

  20. Another great article, Lorraine.

    Martha - After reunion I too developed a benign ovarian cyst -9 lbs - bigger than my daughter when she was born. And I believe the fact that I never had more children haunts her.

  21. So so true for myself: turning away from babies and young children. At the time I had little insight. I must be healing because I can engage with a baby or child albeit with regret and remorse.



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