I remember a very stressful shopping trip with my toddler and 2-month-old. I realized after it was too late how hard it was to reach in the cart while wearing a baby carrier. Compounding, this was trying to keep my toddler’s demands about pushing credit and scanner buttons to a minimum. I started to feel sweaty and anxious about the whole experience.
At this moment, I was surprised when the elderly couple behind me offered to unload the cart for me. Pausing for some context, I’m from Minnesota, and we have a specific set of norms on how you respond to an offer of help. First, you say, “Oh no, I’m fine, thanks.” Then the offeree says, “No, I don’t mind.” After this goes on for a painfully long period, you eventually say: “Okay, your right, thank you, that is so kind,” and except said help. This scenario also works when someone offers you a bagel or brownie. Except, of course, if it is the last or only piece, then you better make sure you accept and cut it in half.
Moving on, I remember thinking how nice and helpful this was and felt so grateful. There were many instances like this when I was out and about with an infant that made me feel good about people. Since I started having these pleasant feelings, I aggressively offer help to new or pregnant moms. The question I would like to answer is:
“Why do babies bring out the best in people?”
Well, as it happens, several biological, hormonal, and psychological theories help explain this behavior. Three being: altruism, allomaternal caregiving, and empathy. But could it be something else?
Maybe, people don’t suck. Let’s explore.
I admit it. I love to fall right into a YouTube rabbit hole of heartwarming animal videos. I can’t look away from a whale saving a sea lion from orcas, a leopard adopting a baby baboon, or an elephant attempting to get a baby rhino out of the mud.
There is one adorable thing these examples point out, altruism in the animal kingdom. According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, “Altruism is when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves.” So, one key characteristic of altruism is the individual receiving help is the sole beneficiary. Not only this, but in doing altruistic behavior, the helper is possibly putting themselves in peril.
In my shopping example, the couple helping me is not benefiting at all by helping me. This couple was wasting precious energy. The couple should preserve energy in case a velociraptor is waiting in the parking lot. When looked at, without the rose-colored glasses I tend to wear, a lot of altruistic behavior can be explained away by some selfish goals.
For example, maybe the elderly couple just wanted to hurry the checkout process along and helping me ultimately benefited them by getting them to their next destination on time. Regardless altruism is a well-documented behavior in mammals like primates, whales as well as birds.
The other animal behavior that helps explains some of my experiences is allomaternal caregiving. In the article “Who Cares? Between-group variation in alloparental caregiving in sperm whales,” the authors Shane Gero, Dan Engelhaupt, Luke Rendell, and Hal Whitehead explore this behavior in whales. They explain, “Alloparental care can be defined as any behavior by a nonparent which benefits the young and which would not be performed outside the presence of the young.” It is altruistic behavior that relates to especially caregiving. It is used by researchers to understand adoption and even fatherhood.
For example, according to Marianne L. Riedman in “The Evolution of Alloparental Care and Adoption in Mammals and Birds,” scientists have repeatedly observed orphaned penguin chicks as being adopted by other adult penguins with no genetic relationship. Without this genetic bond, there is no apparent evolutionary answer for such behavior.
Back to my example, the elderly couple is investing in the survival of my children. Most likely, because of humans’ highly social or cooperative group structure.
Now, of course, we would be missing the more significant point if we didn’t point out the elephant in the room, empathy. From personal experience, this is, of course, one reason I help out parents in the store, especially with young children, I empathize.
Being a parent is hard. There are hormones and anxiety that can make the time right after the birth of a new child just hard.
In this way, I feel what this other parent feels. I can recognize the signs of distress from another mom. I can realize the disheveled appearance, the clenched teeth, the exhausted tones. The helper handles this and wants to do whatever they can to relieve these parents’ stress.
There is one other idea that I couldn’t correctly categorize but combines all of the above and includes one hopeful design about people. Maybe the baby breaks down the barrier that allows this empathy and helpfulness to shine through?
Perhaps it is more socially acceptable to help new moms for the reasons explained above, and that allows the stranger to offer help and kindness as they always wished to do.
In other words, people are just walking around unconsciously looking for nice things to do, and a baby is just the excuse that our complex social structure offers. In this way, motherhood has helped change my view of people entirely.
The majority are kind, and I am not sure I would have come to this realization if I never had babies. In this way, motherhood has given me tremendous insight into people I never expected.