Regretting Motherhood

“Do you regret having children?”

Kim (has a partner, is still undecided on whether to have children): In an episode of this season’s House of Cards, Claire Underwood is talking privately with the wife of her husband’s opponent in the presidential race. Their conversation seems informal and relaxed until Claire mentions the other’s son. The opponent’s wife then asks Claire whether she regrets not having children, and immediately apologies for being too “personal.” Claire, seemingly cool, counters: “Do you regret having them?”

The former question comes across as personal, but socially acceptable, while the latter seems downright cruel. Why?

A study recently carried out by an Israeli sociologist, Orna Donath, about mothers who regret becoming mothers, finds that this, although a taboo topic, is not an uncommon phenomenon.

The women who regret becoming mothers at the same time very much love their children and are no cold, heartless women. What they do feel, however, is a loss of self, time, freedom, and control.

And they feel that the disadvantages outweigh the benefits. Donath’s goal with the study was to let mothers who feel this way know they are not alone and “to learn from another angle how deeply society is invested in obstructing roads from being taken by women, such as non-motherhood, and how deeply society is invested in forbidding emotions from being felt and spoken.”

The study has gained a lot of attention and generated substantial debate in Germany in the last few months, even generating the hashtag #regrettingmotherhood. Women often feel they should work harder to have it all, and also need to prove that they are fit to be mothers. German discussions use the term Rabenmutter (“raven mother”) to criticize mothers who work and are unable to give their undivided attention to their children. Of course no equivalent exists for absent fathers.

For me, then, the situation of regretting motherhood and the deciding on whether to have children are linked. Regretting motherhood is socially stigmatized. Actively deciding against motherhood is still rather stigmatized. What I wonder is:

if deciding against having children were more socially accepted, would we maybe have fewer mothers regretting motherhood later on?

Jia Jia (always loved being single but suspects she’d eventually want a child): At first I didn’t get what was meant by “regretting motherhood.” I conceptually understand regret and I conceptually understand motherhood, but I don’t understand how the two relate to each other. Because surely no one regrets motherhood. You might not want it, but if you do want it, you won’t regret it, right?

That’s why the conversation stirred by Donath’s research is such a good thing. Whether or not women think privately about regretting motherhood, the subject is never aired publicly. And it needs to be, at a time when women technically have access to both work and family, but in reality have to make some tough choices and prioritize what we want and what we’re willing to give up. In doing so, we’re often wondering to ourselves which choices we might regret. I constantly wonder if I need to get married and have children soon because in the future I may regret not doing either or both, even if right now I’m having a ball of a time doing my own thing in NYC.

I also love Donath’s insistence in the interview that there’s a difference between not wanting motherhood and regretting it.

Regret is a complex state. As Donath says, it forces us to discard binary views and recognize the complex and potentially contradictory nature of our feelings: women can be great mothers who love their children while also regretting motherhood.

It broadens the conversations around women’s identity from motherhood-or-not to the lived experiences that follow from our decisions. In time, I hope this will extend the boundaries of what’s a socially acceptable topic for discussion, and foster dialogue about the difficulties and rewards of navigating our own diverse experiences, not limiting the conversation to what women should or shouldn’t do.

What do we mean by “regret”?

Abdul (would one day love the prospect of his own child but realizes that his busy life would need to change): I still find it difficult to bring in the word “regret.” I think we know what regret means in general. But how can one regret motherhood itself? Regret is so opposed to motherhood when considering the social status of motherhood. I think motherhood itself has such a sacred position within society. It represents some of the purest values of humanity, such as absolute selflessness, enduring support and unconditional love. Some values of motherhood even transcend species, making the “task” of being a mother and caring and nurturing your child the highest form of purpose in life, whether you are a leopard, an elephant, or a human. Then how can regret be reconciled with the “instincts” of a mother?

Kim: Well, I do believe there is such a thing as a “natural urge” to have children. But at the same time, our lives as humans are now so far removed from a natural state that non-parenthood may seem just as desirable or “natural” — for some — as parenthood does for others. I certainly know of many women who do not hear a “biological clock” ticking.

Jia Jia: Exactly. We’re far removed from a natural state. Plop me in nature and I will expire faster than a rabbit.

Abdul: A point. Going back to the word “regret,” though,

I think in this context it not only affects the mother, but also represents some form of rejection towards the child, which to me makes regretting motherhood even more difficult to understand.

Some points in the German debate on this topic are around preservation of the mother’s identity when regret is brought up. One could argue if the preservation of the mother’s identity is or should be potentially at the cost of the child’s.

Kim: Although I still think the point about which question (whether women regret becoming or not becoming mothers) is more acceptable is legitimate, I do concede that there is one crucial difference: in the latter case there are actual (and not only hypothetical) human beings involved. Like you say, Abdul, in a sense regretting motherhood feels like rejection of the child.

That is an obvious reason why women who do regret motherhood must navigate between their own legitimate feelings of regret, and the potential hurt they may inflict on their children if they are too vocal about their regret.

Joy (single with no children, might like to change one or both of those, but generally ok with her life): I also think the point on the word choice of “regret” is interesting. I feel like every major life choice I’ve made (and, damn, parenthood would certainly be one of the more major ones) has had a measure of joy and sorrow. Even if I feel it was the right move at the time, you know you’re closing off possibilities, other paths, and sacrificing some things. It sounds totally legitimate to say there are things you miss about not being a mother (or parent in general). But regret sounds too much like saying you’d prefer to dial back the clock and undo your decisions, which can be a really hurtful discussion if you’re talking about people. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who regretted their children. It seems always closer to Donath’s research, sadness/frustration/irritation about motherhood.

And, in that sense, if we talk about “motherhood” we’re talking about the socially meaningful category, with all of its attendant patriarchy.

Motherhood is about having to make career sacrifices that don’t accompany fatherhood. It is about people assuming things of you, of your intelligence, competence, character, etc., that fathers don’t have to deal with. It’s about your children being a logistical and financial burden because of the way society is structured.

Monica (with partner, would love to have children or one child someday–getting ready for it slowly): The whole “it takes a village” to raise a child is something that I would really want applied to me if I become a mother. There is a fear of being isolated from your friends and previous life the moment a child comes into one’s orbit as it is a monumental life changing event.

Also it’s hard to raise a child as a women even with a partner in a capitalist society that’s still overwhelmingly patriarchal and bound to treat production over reproduction as more important.

Jia Jia: Going back to the word “regret,” though — it’s tough isn’t it? I think that Donath chose it for that reason. In her paper she explains regret in terms of cognition and emotion, as in, “I wish my life could have been otherwise and I actually imagine what this other life could have been.” The women she interviews are brave enough to acknowledge that, even though they love their children, their regret of motherhood does mean that, if they could go back, they wouldn’t have the children. So in this sense, they regret their children by extension but not by intention. I think it’s very bold for Donath to press this point and brave for these women to admit it to themselves (by the way, they stress that they’d never tell their children). Society wants to sugarcoat anything to do with motherhood, including feelings against it — Donath doesn’t let you do that. And it’s a lot of pain for a mother to know that she loves her children yet wishes that she’d made a choice that would have negated their existence in the first place.

But it’s human nature and experience in reality, not in an idealized social narrative.

The complex reality of motherhood

Zi (recently married and would like children, if possible): Things change, too. Just like any relationship, how one feels about motherhood may change over time as the child ages. When the child grows from infancy (relying on parents for everything) to a toddler (running around to make sure they don’t bump into something) to elementary school (now focusing on education) and so on, a mother’s feeling may change.

Jia Jia: Feelings evolve, particularly about life-changing and life-long experiences like motherhood.

Which is why I think that decision-making is hard enough without society telling you what’s right and wrong.

It may also vary depending on how many children the mother has. I find there is some stigma against having an only child in the U.S. just because you have the freedom to have more. However, there should be no shame if you choose only to have one child.

Abdul: Also, I think it is worth noting that mothers live under many different circumstances and some mothers may not have the means to care for their child the way they feel necessary. Some might not even be mothers by choice. I think to regret the circumstances of motherhood is entirely different than regretting motherhood itself.

Kim: True. Also, there are many potential reasons for deciding against parenthood: social reasons like the cruelness of our world, overpopulation, and environmental sustainability, or more personal reasons like careers or other goals. But what young woman (or man) hasn’t faced the question or expectation about when he or she will become a parent?”

Joy: The expectation certainly isn’t limited to women, and it seems like all genders, sexualities, etc. can regret things like deciding/being able to have a family or not to have a family.

But what frustrates me so deeply is the super special social weight that gets put on straight women, and all of the implicit expectations and judgment around being a mother.

I think we could learn a lot from queer politics about how much of this is a social construct, and how we can value the very real and beautiful mother/child bond while freeing it of some of its social baggage.

Counter-narratives to motherhood

Jia Jia: I’m also thinking about your question on whether fewer women would regret motherhood if deciding against having children were more socially acceptable in the first place. Yeah, I’d think so, not necessarily because women would make the “right” choice (because I don’t think we’d know until we had made it) instead of the socially mandated one, but because the stakes for choosing are lowered.

If not having children and having children were equally valued, you can’t make a wrong choice; you can only make a choice that does or doesn’t pan out as you’d hoped.

I think the paper does a good job of showing the difference between the narrative of society and an individual’s actual lived experience. As a society, we might think that motherhood’s a wonderful thing but the reality is that some women simply regret their experience of motherhood.

Kim: It goes back to the question we’ve talked about before: do we need to do “everything” to have full and fulfilled lives? Do we need both careers and big families, and can we prioritize without being judged for it? With increasing options for how to live life, wouldn’t it be normal for parenthood to simply be one out of several options?

Jia Jia: But right now the positive narrative of motherhood is so strong that it’s the only narrative permitted. So much so that non-conformity is seen as abnormal, morally deviant, dangerous. This sort of stigmatization reminds me of society’s attitude towards non-heteronormativity.

And I think that at its core, it’s the fear of difference and inability to influence and control difference.
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