Childless women — especially those past age 30 — are accustomed to answering questions about “if and when” they’re going to have a baby.
This is so routine that we don’t even remember to take offense at such a private matter. And although the evidence is piling up that having children makes American women less happy, we continue to feed the myth that one is “missing out” on something by choosing not to have children.
And though plenty of women have children and are completely tickled once they have them, becoming a parent is like many other “big” life decisions: We can’t know what it will be like — or what we will think of it — until it happens.
So what about the women who have children but then wish they hadn’t? Do those mothers exist? And what do we do about them? What do we think about them? Are women who wish they hadn’t had their children too awful to contemplate? And what can we learn from the women who have the courage to admit what is perhaps the worst thing a mother can say?
An Israeli study and book about regretting motherhood has started a debate in Germany over these questions. The author of the study, Israeli sociologist Orna Donath, interviewed dozens of women who became mothers and loved their children, but also reported feeling regret about their decision to procreate. (She distinguishes postpartum depression, a common but temporary condition, from the phenomenon of longer-lasting “mother regret.”) Though Donath’s work has been well-known in Israel for years, her recent research has had particular resonance in Germany, where debates about traditional parental roles are ongoing.
Donath, who is 39 and has chosen not to have children, argues that for many women, the decision isn’t predicated on a lack of optimal conditions or a partner, nor are they all “career women” who don’t have time for family. The choice not to have children, she says, is still seen as a decision in opposition to the norm, rather than a positive decision of its own. And there is little space staked out in our world, even today, for such a position. So it makes sense that some of the women who do have children for one reason or another later wish they had not.
“Recognizing the mistakes that we’ve made is an inseparable part of a life that has a beating heart, even when it’s not possible to fix or change what’s already been done,” Donath said in an interview last week with Haaretz. “Crying over spilt milk enables us to understand where we’ve come from, how we got to where we are, who we are now and where we’re going.”
She goes on about the milk: “And just as important, it’s the crying that enables us to ask: Whose hand was it that spilled the milk? Was it really only mine? Or did society’s hand, perhaps, also play an active part in it?” What she’s asking, of course, is whether women who don’t want to have children are having them because of societal pressure. It’s an important question to ask.
Last year, when a woman wrote a tell-all column for the Daily Mail — one of those salacious pieces tabloids love to print despite knowing they’ll bring terrible things to the authors — she faced a heated online backlash. Isabella Dutton, who has two grown children, wrote truthfully about the problem of being a dedicated, “good mother,” who still regretted having children: “It was not that I seethed each day with resentment towards my children; more that I felt oppressed by my constant responsibility for them. Young children prevent you from being spontaneous; every outing becomes an expedition. If you take your job as a parent seriously, you always put their needs before your own.”
What Dutton — and to some extent all ambivalent mothers — is saying is that she wanted to be a great mother if she had to be a mother at all. And attempting to live up to those very high expectations does mean placing the needs of the child before your own for most of your life. This can be a really fulfilling way to live if you want to, if you adjust to it, if you have a partner who supports you, and if you find a way to roll with the punches. But Dutton says in her piece that she “always knew” she didn’t want to have children, but she did it anyway because she felt pressure from her partner and from society. This backs up a lot of what Donath’s research found: Women who feel strong ambivalence about having children, but end up having them anyway, are the perfect candidates for truly regretting it.
No one should have to live with such regret. And while narratives of women wishing they hadn’t had children can empower other women to feel less like monsters for having the same feelings, we shouldn’t have too many of these stories: Women who have children despite not wanting them should be almost non-existent. Abortion should be legal and protected and available to all women, and society should make a place — a real one — for women who chose not to have children. There is a real cost to making these women feel as if there is something wrong with them, or as if they are missing out.
But none of this can fully account for all situations. What about women who truly believe they want to have children and then feel regret anyway? This is the most complex and saddest scenario, and also the one that’s impossible to correct for, beyond providing nonjudgmental support to those women who are in such an awful situation.
Studies show the phenomenon is quite rare, which makes sense when you consider the taboo attached. Can we even hope to get accurate numbers? After all, saying you regret having your child is taboo for a reason — the child, who already exists. Almost no one wants to be the one to admit they regret their living, breathing baby, even if doing so helps us as a society grapple with these issues. Ultimately, the goal is a lofty but unachievable one: to help women make the right choice from the start. To educate women about the realities of motherhood before they become mothers, and to stop stigmatizing women who say, “you know, I think I’m happy this way, just me.”