Babies cry a lot. There is a cross-cultural pattern within this chaos of noise. Infants cry more and more over the first couple month of life, then gradually cry less as they grow older. Researchers have called this pattern the “normal crying curve.”
There is some good news for parents within this unalterable pattern. First, there is hope—it gets better. Second, every parent encounters inconsolable crying in their baby and may feel guilty or incompetent as a result. The knowledge that some infant crying behaviors are outside caregiver control can be a liberating realization.
But why does the normal crying curve exist at all? No one knows for certain, but it appears to be an evolved behavior, since it is common across cultures and even among other mammalian species. Babies may have evolved this crying behavior as a way of eliciting life-saving adult care. We tend to think that “mother love” is totally reliable, that mothers “naturally” care for their babies, and those who do not are somehow monstrous.
However, this is more ideology than biology. In reality, evolution has forged human parents who are discriminating in their parental investments. Human babies cannot assume that they will be cared for. Indeed, modern scholars have charted a long history of infant abandonment and infanticide worldwide. In much of ancient Greece, for example, infanticide was an accepted means of dispensing with an unwanted or defective baby.
The decisions about whether to keep a baby or dispense with it are shaped by a variety of personal, environmental, social, and cultural factors. In general, babies are more likely to be welcomed into the world if they are born legitimately and without obvious disabilities to parents who feel well-supported by their communities to engage in the monumental task of child-rearing. It also helps an infant to be male – and it sometimes helps a lot. Once human parents have decided to invest, they often invest totally, and then something like reliable “mother love” kicks in.
Since there is a real risk of abandonment, how does a baby elicit the care needed to survive? It helps to be cute. Adults find juvenile features (like big eyes and fat cheeks) cute, and this engages their desire to care for babies. Our responsiveness to “cuteness” even elicits care for the young (and old) of other species.
Moses’s mother was motivated to divest herself of her baby. She was a slave and, as a boy, her baby is condemned to die. However, she sought to hide and protect him because “she saw that he was tov.” This expression closely parallels the repetitive formula in Genesis 1: “God saw that it was good.”
The interpretation of Moses as “good” shapes rabbinic reception of this story, and his infantile goodness prefigures his moral character and prophetic status. However, the Greek translation renders this term with asteion, which has a range of meanings including “well-mannered,” “cosmopolitan,” and “cute.” This striking translation choice (usually, tov is translated into Greek as agathos, “good”) evidently shapes a Greek tradition emphasizing the cuteness of the baby Moses, and then his beauty and intelligence as he grows.
The Greek rendering captures something about tov often lost in translation: tov does refer elsewhere to the physical cuteness or beauty (Gen 26:7; 1 Sam 16:12; 1 Kgs 1:6; 20:3). This verse likely means that Moses’s mother spared her son’s life in part because he was cute and seemed vigorous and viable. This beautiful baby was worth protecting because he was not likely to die in an ancient context of high infant mortality.
In addition to being cute, babies engage in various behaviors that motivate adult care. They instinctively grasp fingers, track movement with their eyes, smile, and cry. This last behavior provides a “negative” incentive for caregivers who want the crying to stop. Crying can elicit care for a baby that might otherwise be left to die. People, including young children, respond to infant cries with empathy and desire to provide care. When Pharaoh’s daughter finds Moses in the basket, he is crying. She recognizes that he is a Hebrew, but feels pity (hamal) for him and rescues him from death.
The abandonment of Ishmael unfolds similarly. Like Moses’s mother, Hagar only reluctantly abandons her baby. Although the chronology of Gen 17:25 would make Ishmael a teenager, the immediate story assumes he is an infant whom Hagar can carry, and who is not able to move himself from under a bush. Hagar moves herself a “bowshot” away so that she does not hear his cries, and she weeps. God, however, hears the crying infant and alerts Hagar to the means of saving him. The angel speaks to Hagar about God’s attention to the cries of her baby but makes no mention of Hagar’s tears. God responds to the weeping of the baby.
The narrative in Ezekiel 16 uses infant abandonment as part of a metaphorical story. It is not clear whether this text reflects an accepted Israelite practice of infant abandonment or a non-Israelite practice. It may provide insight into how Israelite babies were welcomed into the world: the umbilical cord was cut, they were washed with water, rubbed with salt, and wrapped in cloth. In this story also, God rescues the baby and provides the pity (hws) and caregiving (hamal) that no one else does.
In contrast to the Hebrew Scriptures, Greek texts preserve many stories of infant abandonment. I have examined 19 of them. These stories and other Greek sources indicate the Greek acceptance of this practice. Most Greek infant abandonment stories reflect the social reality that abandoned babies were likely to be born illegitimately to mothers who consequently lacked social support. However, almost all the infants in the stories are male, even though historically most abandoned babies were female. In the Greek stories, the fathers of the abandoned babies are often deities who have raped or seduced human women. Distressed mothers or their (typically male) relatives decide to abandon the baby and an agent often does the “dirty work” of leaving the baby somewhere to die.
In many Greek stories, the baby left in the wilderness is rescued by the wondrous care of animals and subsequently taken up by human witnesses amazed at the animal involvement. The cuteness and viability of the babies also contribute the decision of adults to rescue and foster the babies, but infant crying is rarely mentioned.
Infant crying is instrumental in the above Hebrew stories. In Greek stories, however, infant weeping is almost always absent (the exception is the detailed and emotional narrative of Cyrus’s birth as told by Herodotus). This difference may reflect a difference in Hebrew and Greek cultures. Infant abandonment was generally accepted and widely practiced among Greeks, so infant cries may not have been seen as compelling motivation to rescue an infant because all babies cry. In the Greek stories, babies are rescued due to fantastical animal involvement and their own viability.
Hebrew stories may invest infant cries with greater power because infants were less likely to be abandoned in the first place in a society that disapproved of the practice. We have very little evidence about ancient Israelite attitudes, but clear evidence from Hellenistic times shows that Jews opposed the widespread pagan practice of infant abandonment. Christians inherited this ethical stance. Although we have no certain knowledge about more ancient Jewish ideals, it is possible that Hellenistic Jews inherited their pro-natal convictions from more ancient ancestors and that the infant abandonment narratives in the Hebrew Bible assume an abhorrence in their audiences for this practice.
My research on parental investment has influenced my understanding of what human beings are. In the West especially, we like to think of ourselves as autonomous agents who freely decide our fates. However, my research has shown me that we are “cooperative breeders,” which is just one manifestation of our deeply dependent and communal nature. As cooperative breeders, we do not raise our children by ourselves, but rely heavily on a range of others to help us. Or as it is often expressed, “it takes a village to raise a child.” But what if the village does not want to help you raise your child? What if your community tells you to leave it in the woods because it is defective or because the village just can’t afford another child right now? What if the boyfriend is willing to pay for an abortion, but not to invest in fatherhood? Any mother (or father) might comply with these pressures as Moses’ mother did.
The realization that we are cooperative breeders informs our sense of what it means to love our neighbor. We are the village. What do we say to the pregnant woman? How do our actions, public policies, things said and done, or left unsaid and undone, affect how she sees the choices before her? And for those who have made choices we don’t like, do we recognize our responsibility for those choices?