‘Their existence undermined mine’: why more women talk about maternal regret

“Children are an overwhelming responsibility,” says Leda, Olivia Colman’s character, in The Lost Daughter. A rare portrayal of a troubled, divorced middle-aged woman who describes herself as an “unnatural mother”, the film received a four-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival and won Coleman the Best best actress at the 2022 Oscars.

We live in a society saturated with images of devoted mothers whose children fill them with joy and happiness. But mothers who feel conflicted are forced to turn to dark corners to seek out relatives who may also feel suffocated and lost. A YouGov* survey of 1,249 parents conducted in the UK last May showed that one in 12 (8%) regretted having children.

An academic is synonymous with the non-parenting movement. Based on interviews with 23 Israeli mothers who (anonymously) regretted giving birth, the 2015 study Regretting Motherhood by Israeli sociologist Orna Donath argued that motherhood “can be a source of personal fulfillment, pleasure, love, pride, contentment and joy”, but it can also bring “distress, helplessness, frustration, hostility and disappointment… oppression and subordination”.

Donath’s controversial research has sparked an ongoing debate under the hashtag ‘Regretting Motherhood’ and several books have since been published on the subject, including The Lie of Maternal Happiness by German novelist Sarah Fischer, one of the few to have regretted to become a mother.

* The mother of all jobs: the reality of being a single mother
* Maternal responsibility: why women still assume parental responsibility
* Regretting motherhood does not make you a bad mother

Basically, Donath’s study distinguished between regret over the children and regret over the maternal experience. Most of the mothers interviewed stressed that they loved their children and that their regret at being a mother had nothing to do with the children themselves.

Fischer also said her regrets didn’t mean she didn’t love her daughter Emma, ​​to whom she dedicated her book. Donath herself said that she knew from a young age that she never wanted to have children.

“Their existence has undermined mine”

“You are not alone, I promise you,” reads the Facebook community banner I regret having children. The page has 44,450 subscribers. Strict rules are clearly stated at the start: “this is not a debate page; no humiliation of parents/non-parents; no solicitation of adoption; no jubilation without children”.

The brutally honest stories posted on this page go almost daily beyond illness or divorce or a pandemic or a war, because for the mothers who (anonymously) pour into the forum, motherhood itself is the tragedy.

One mother wrote: “Please don’t reveal my name. I think I hate my kids. I don’t love them like I should love them. I get irritated by the little things they do and I yell at them, yell at them and even spank them. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

Another wrote: “I am so happy to find this space to say what I feel. Having children ruined my life. My relationship. My identity. My health. My body. My sense of accomplishment. I lost my creativity and my freedom. I feel trapped. Claustrophobic. I feel like I will never achieve anything again. And I’m drowning in the guilt of not being good enough for anything anymore and feeling selfish about it. The children are good, lively little humans of whom I am proud. But their existence undermined mine.

New Zealand's fertility rate in 2020 had fallen to 1.61 births per woman, its lowest level on record for the 10th consecutive year, and well below the population replacement rate of 2.1.  Source: Statistics NZ

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New Zealand’s fertility rate in 2020 had fallen to 1.61 births per woman, its lowest level on record for the 10th consecutive year, and well below the population replacement rate of 2.1. Source: Statistics NZ

A quick search of online forums such as Mumsnet, Reddit and Quora reveals similar threads from desperate and regretful parents. This question was recently posted to Reddit.com’s “Ask Women” group: Women on reddit who regret giving birth. Why do you regret it?

One replied, “I wasn’t ready to almost die or lose my uterus or raise a disabled child. I love my son so much, but damn it…I would never have chosen this life for him – for any of us. I feel naive and stupid for thinking I was ready for this – for convincing my husband that we were ready for this.

“I love your honesty,” one commented. And another: “Having my children set me back at least 10 years professionally. I’m slowly catching up on some of that time, but it’s still just as difficult.

“There are many ways to live well”

Karen Nimmo, a Wellington-based clinical psychologist, credits the traditional role of the devoted, nurturing, contented mother at home as a symptom of a patriarchal society, but points to a more tolerant and diverse modern trend.

“I don’t think that sense of duty is that strong in the current generation of young women. Those I have seen are convinced that they have options and that they don’t need to have children to thrive… There are many ways to live well and some of them don’t involve not to have children.

Regarding the taboo of honest mothers about missing their children, Nimmo says there is a time and a place for honesty.

“Once you’ve had kids, it’s psychologically damaging for them to let them know you didn’t want them or that you always did. I’ve often heard the fallout from therapy — from kids who knew they were unwanted, neglected, or punished by a parent’s bitterness — and it’s sad.

It’s best to express your regrets, struggles, and despair in a safe place, such as in therapy, to a trusted friend, or in a closed community, such as a closed online group, where members share their experiences. This is why support groups can be so helpful.

“She did it just to be cruel”

UK-based Sarah Brandis knew she wasn’t wanted by her parents from an early age, while her younger sister was “adored”. She endured years of coldness, resentment and emotional abuse.

“My mum had a favorite game that she played where she took my stuff away,” recalls Brandis, 41. “My favorite toy was taken and thrown in the trash. I fell asleep crying and she was totally okay with my distress. She just did it to be cruel.

Brandis said when she saw how loving her friends’ parents were, she felt resentment, cutting ties with her family after leaving home when she was 16. Six years later, Brandis self-published her memoir Life as an Elective Orphan about her experience. like an unwanted child.

“It’s important to say that not all unwanted children will feel like me,” says Brandis, who never discovered the reason for her neglect. “Some parents suffer from regret and still show up for their children.”

All 23 Israeli mothers interviewed by Orna Donath said the disadvantages of motherhood outweighed the advantages. Their reasons for becoming mothers ranged from “it was automatic” to “never considered otherwise” to “massive pressure” to “the natural step after marriage”.

In 2011, Donath wrote: “Israeli women who don’t want to be mothers tend to be blamed in various social circles. Their humanity, femininity and sanity are questioned, and they are inundated with messages suggesting that they will naturally adapt to the motherly experience.

While women are often told they will regret not having children, if there is a progressive reason for mothers to “rock the cradle” publicly and risk a backlash, then what is it?

To treat maternal regret as “untouchable” is to dismiss another mother’s narrative as “unworthy” and places it outside the culture of parenthood, which it is not, Donath concluded.

“Including mothers’ testimonies of regretting ‘what was done’ can lead to social remedy by providing another lens in the ongoing inquiry into reproductive politics…Regretting motherhood tells a story important sociopolitical matter that needs to be listened to carefully and dealt with in more detail.

“The Childless Choice”

According to Childfree by Choice author Dr. Amy Blackstone, today’s trend of “honest parenting” is good news for women who have chosen a life without children. When the US-based sociology professor married 25 years ago, everyone said motherhood was the natural next step. Blog co-creator we’re {not} having a baby, Blackstone was no stranger to negative responses when she told people she neither had nor wanted children. She says the “stigma” of the childless woman has dropped significantly since 1995.

“I think one of the most important things about the growing number of conversations happening today around parental regret and childless choice is just that we’re having those conversations,” Blackstone says.

“They happen privately in our homes, publicly in the media, in our schools and other social institutions. The more we talk about parenthood as a choice rather than an inevitability, the freer people will be to make informed choices that are right for them. And, as these conversations move from private forums to more public ones, the stigma associated with choosing childfree diminishes.

Nimmo would like to see mothers relax their expectations and be nicer to each other. Social media is a “huge” source of parental pressure, she says, and the “hidden emotional work” of parenthood responsibility and worry falls largely on women, studies show.

“Comparing yourself to other parents is stressful and mentally taxing. It can make you feel like you’re failing when you’re not. Women put a lot of pressure on themselves.

“Trying to be the best parent ever is futile. You’ll make mistakes…and that’s okay.

About Nicole Harmon

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