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Why We Have Children

What about our need to conform?

In 1968 psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané devised an experiment that showed the power of social cuing. The two psychologists had an actor stage an epileptic seizure to a group of naive bystanders. Their question: Who would come forward to help? What they found: no one. They hypothesized, and later proved, that we take our cues from other people. That's why when you pass a homeless person, you often don't stop to offer a hand; after all, no one else is, and we humans hate to break social codes.

Darley and Latané's findings can also be applied to why we have children. If we are creatures of social cuing, then it makes sense that part of our urge to reproduce is simply to keep up with the Joneses. The very fact that a woman without children is a woman in a minority provides strong impetus for most females to choose children, and the more women continue to follow the trend, the more difficult it becomes to resist. "We are impelled to have children not only by genes, but by the social pressures to fit in," says Susan Maushart, whose book, The Mask of Motherhood, examines the complexities that underlie maternal love.

My sister, a mother of three, sees that part of her complex motivation for becoming a mom had to do with social pressure. "While there were all sorts of reasons that compelled me to have three kids," she says, "like how much I loved my babies, loved having them, loved caring for them in their infancies, I would also have to admit that a part of my desire came from being around many moms and families and wanting that."

It makes sense that as biologically, psychologically, and socially complex an act as bearing and rearing young kids would have at least several skeins running through the forces that motivate it. To say we have children in part for social reasons, or in part because our genes are driving us to do so, in no way diminishes the power of reproduction.

In the end, why we have children may not matter as much as the fact that we do. Here they are. Towheaded, dark-haired, screamers, and smilers, they fill up our lives, for better or for worse. As I write this, my daughter tugs at my shirt; the unborn one does flips and swishes in my belly. I think about him; we plan to call him Lucas, and if he ever asks me why I, at the ripe old age of 40, went ahead and pushed him into the world, I may show him this article, or I may simply shrug and say that in the end, it's more mysterious than what any woman can explain with words.

Names and locations in this article have been changed.

Lauren Slater is a psychologist and award-winning writer. Her most recent book is Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the 20th Century.