Maternal Regret Is a Taboo We Need to Examine

Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

“I hated, hated, hated the situation I found myself in,” a 37-year-old mother confesses to Marie Claire. “I think the word for what I felt is ‘trapped.’ After I had a kid, I realized I hated being the mother to an infant, but by then it was too late. I couldn’t walk away and still live with myself, but I also couldn’t stand it. I felt like my life was basically a middle-class prison.”

Indeed, in the viscerally readable new feature by Sarah Treleaven, a host of anonymized women detail the regret that they feel about bearing children — dreams deferred, responsibilities shouldered, life courses irreparably altered.

The anecdotes wrench the heart. As in:

• “I am 30 years old and since I was very young I always dreamed about having a family,” an internet commenter writes. “I wish I would never had kids [sic]. I realize I am not mother material, and I am terrified thinking how I am going to be forced to take care of it.”

• “I wonder if my accomplishments would be more spectacular,” said a 38-year-old mom. “Would I have written my second or third book? Would I be able to travel to chase that elusive story? I feel motherhood has slowed me down so much.”

Yet, if questioning motherhood is profanity, then regretting it is heresy. Treleaven recalls the tale of author Ayelet Waldman, who in 2005 wrote in the New York Times about how she loved her husband (author Michael Chabon) more than her kids. (“Yes, I have four children … But I’m not in love with any of them,” she declared. “I am in love with my husband.”) Then she went on Oprah and got yelled at by an audience full of moms. Then she wrote a book about it.

Indeed, there’s a movement of maternal dissent in the air. American journalist Jessica Valenti came out with Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness in 2012. French essayist Corinne Maier caused a furor in Europe with her No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children. In Germany, Sarah Fishcher published Die Mutterglück-Lüge (The Mother-bliss Lie): Regretting Motherhood – Why I’d Rather Have Become a Father. Last year, Israeli sociologist Orna Donath published a paper interviewing 23 Israeli mothers about their regrets about having kids. Yes, Ornath admits, motherhood may transform and liberate you, but it can simultaneously harbor distress, disappointment, and subordination. While the “motherhood is hard” trope is very much out there, Ornath argues that people don’t recognize enough that those tensions can lead women “to foreground an emotive and cognitive stance of regret toward their motherhood.” Indeed, when it’s discussed at all in the mainstream discourse, regretting the transformation from nonmother to mother is often seen “as an abject maternal experience and an object of disbelief,” she writes. “But this disregard is not found only in media and mainstream discourse. It also appears in feminist and sociological literature, and it continues to be an unexplored maternal experience.”

Indeed, perhaps because of that taboo, it’s an understudied emotion and perspective. (Not unlike how singledom or divorce.) Treleaven cites a German survey of 1,200 parents that found 8 percent of respondents regretted becoming parents. Other recent related research sheds more light. Science of Us has reported on how in the case of 187 newlywed Dutch couples, both mothers and fathers had a sloping decline in self-esteem after having children (the study was over a five-year period, so the post-kids period averaged about three years).

Cracks are starting to appear in America’s “pronatalist” culture, where it’s assumed that after you check the boxes on getting a job and a spouse, the next errand is childbirth. There’s a growing body of work around “child-free” couples, those who decide not to have kids, as epitomized in the title to the book of essays Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. A qualitative, sociological 2016 study asked open-ended questions about people who decide to go child-free, and the main themes that came up were that it was “conscious” and a “process.” Women gave interpersonal explanations, saying that they didn’t want to alter their relationships or that they didn’t want to bring the kid into an irrational world. Men were more individualist, saying they wanted to be able to pursue meaningful projects or enjoy greater freedom. “It’s a rational response to what it means to have a kid and what impact [being a parent] has on the rest of your life,” was one primary example.

The gendered asymmetry around parenting plays a role with maternal regret, too. While it’s pretty normalized for men to abdicate their parental responsibilities (hey Dad!), it’s not so much for men. “With mothers, it’s simply expected that you will be an attentive, highly involved caretaker, and there is no praise when you are,” Treleaven writes, while if a man is an attentive father, he’s a superstar. Quite interestingly, a sociologist told me that the reverse applies for breadwinning: Culturally, it’s shameful for a husband to not do it, and exceptional for a wife to do it, so men who are sole providers feel lots of pressure — and anxiety — compared to their more egalitarian peers. The social expectation of domestic perfection, then, only adds to the mother angst.

It seems like the consciousness around the choice of whether or not to have kids (and what gender roles you’d like to perform) in a relationship is very important. The child-free people who cited their life goals as a reason for not having kids could probably nod in recognition with the moms who felt they sacrificed theirs. But that’s not to say that it’s impossible to have it all: Shirley Jackson set American literature ablaze while rearing four kids, Jane Jacobs raised three and raised hell against the forces trying to pave Greenwich Village.

What seems to be the key, amid all this, is choice, and whether the choices you and I make are the reflection of some received blueprint for life that we get from collective society and resentfully acquiesce to, or whether the answers to the questions of whom to partner with and whether to reproduce arise from some deep source within yourself, as positive psychologists, existential philosophers, and romantic poets would hope for us. As Rainer Maria Rilke advised, that’s where you find your answers: “within yourself, you one-time-child, within yourself.”

Maternal Regret Is a Taboo We Need to Examine