Regretting motherhood is a dark secret many women hide. But pretending it doesn’t happen, or passing judgment when it does, are insidious ways of diminishing the truth about women’s lives.
So many of us already know that being a mother might not be easy. But it’s also generally accepted that parenthood is worth it. Women who don’t want to be mothers are often pelted with opinions about how much they will regret missing out. Yet what about the women on the other side of this childbearing equation—those who have actually experienced motherhood, and who now feel certain they made the wrong decision?
Pulling back the curtain on this taboo topic is something I’ve been working on since 2008, when, as a doctor of sociology and a social activist, I began conducting a 5-year study of 23 women in my home country of Israel, each of whom admitted that, for them, becoming a mother was a mistake. And in the nine years since, I have gotten many emails and messages from other women around the world who say that if they could go back in time, given the experience and knowledge they have today, they also would have remained “nobody’s moms.”
Because I’ve been working with this controversial subject matter for quite a while, I can predict that many of you will react with disgust or perhaps distrust to this very idea, believing that there is no such thing as regretting motherhood; that while motherhood might be difficult, no woman would look back and wish she could undo it. Yet, there are indeed women who do, and they come from a variety of socioeconomic, ethnic, educational, and professional backgrounds. They are women like Sky, a mother of two teenage children, who says, “If I could go back today, I’m sure I would not bring children into the world. It is completely clear to me.” Or Susie, a mother of two children now in their 30s, and a grandmother of three, who told me, “I don’t think I’m suited to being a mother. Every time I talk to my friends, I tell them that if I’d had the insights and the experience I have today, I wouldn’t have created even a quarter of a child. The thing that is most painful to me is that I can’t go back in time.”
Women are often reluctant to reveal such thoughts, but even when they do, we rarely take them at their word. It’s as if we simply cannot fathom that these sentiments could be true. Instead, we hear their regret and replace it with ambivalence, with the idea that the temporary difficulties of motherhood may feel like a hardship, but that still, nothing compares to it. So many times, I have witnessed how this interpretation erases the fact that these mothers are saying something else. They are not saying, It’s hard, but the smile of my child makes it worthwhile. But rather, It’s hard, and for me there is nothing in the world that makes it worthwhile.
The reasons for regretting motherhood vary as much as the women themselves. For some, it is not about the economic or familial conditions under which they raise their children, but rather a feeling that, “despite” being women, they were not meant for motherhood. For others, like Maya, a mother of two children who was also pregnant during our interview, it was reliving the trauma of her own childhood growing up in a racist society. “I see my daughter, and her appearance resembles mine: her skin is dark and she has curly hair. [My daughter] is going to school, and it makes me anxious. Will she be accepted? Will she fit in? Will she be miserable like I was?” she asks. “Do you know how heartbreaking it is when you sit with your child in the bathtub, when she’s three years old, and she says, ‘Mommy, it doesn’t come off. Here you’ve done well [Maya points to her palm, the white part]. Here it is too brown,’ [Maya points to the back of her hand and rubs it]…. I didn’t know what to do with myself; I didn’t know what to do with her. Suddenly all my anxieties from childhood came back to life.”
"I used to write, sculpt, draw. I loved creating. There is nothing of that left; I have nothing because I have no inspiration or strength."
Some women come to terms with their regret many years later. “If I look back today, I let life lead me along and did not set the rules and the path,” says Nina, a mother of two children in their 40s. “[A life without children looks like] a fantasy of freedom, of being responsible only for myself.”
For others, like Odelya, a mother of one pre-school-aged child, the sentiment is almost immediate. “During pregnancy, I already sensed regret,” she says. “I understood that it doesn’t matter whether he cries, whether I will get angry or not, or tolerate it or not—I am simply giving up my life. It is giving up too much, as far as I’m concerned.” For Carmel, the mother of a teenager, her realization came early on as well. “I felt panic the day I stepped out of the hospital with him in my arms. That day I started to understand what I had done. It intensified over the years,” she says. When asked what she realized, she continues, “That it is irreversible. It’s enslavement. It’s drudgery.” That feeling is echoed in different ways. Helen, a mother of two teens, describes it this way: “The problematic thing for me is this responsibility for raising a person. Not the responsibility of worrying…. It’s something that sits here [gestures toward the back of the head]—you are done with your freedom forever,” she says. “[Before motherhood] you were only responsible for yourself…but [when you are a mother] it’s as though you are never alone anymore, no more freedom in your head.”
Many mothers I spoke to felt that they not only lost their independence when they gave birth, but that they also lost themselves. “I can appreciate the efforts I am making but it is consuming me; it’s draining me; it’s tiring my body, my mind, and my soul. I do not have room for anything else,” Maya explains. “I used to write, sculpt, draw. I loved creating. There is nothing of that left; I have nothing because I have no inspiration or strength.” Rotem, a mother of two elementary-school-aged children, agrees. “After giving birth to my daughters, I felt that I was not realizing myself at all. In fact, I was faced with limits. That’s it. The world was not my oyster anymore,” she says. “I had a sort of feminist epiphany…. A woman, once she gives birth to a child, relinquishes many things that a man does not. And when making this decision, she should take that into consideration…. The cultural system in which we live is trampling us. It does not allow us to be what we want. Once you become a mother, you can’t do anything you want. We must create a system to fight that.”
For some, like Erika, the mother of four grown children, an absentee partner exacerbated an already difficult situation. “I never had one easy day raising these children—I got lost in other people’s needs. My husband didn’t contribute anything to the family, aside from his paycheck. He was like air,” she says. “I wish it had been different. And then maybe you and I would not be talking [about regretting motherhood] today.”
Many of the women I spoke with shared that, for them, motherhood had its advantages as well, like making them less superficial and more empathetic than they had been; that they’d experienced instances of overwhelming connection or happiness. But even for those who felt this way, the silver linings didn’t outweigh the negative aspects. Like Edith, who has two children in their 20s and two in their 30s. “When they are young it’s unconditional love; it is unlike any other,” she says. “But they take everything. They take everything from you.” Erika agrees. “For one day of happiness, for one moment of enjoyment, you have to suffer for so many years? So what is it good for?” she asks. Sunny, who has four children under 14, did not mince words. “Look, my investment does bear fruit. Thank God, there is a lot of fruit! And I started enjoying it a long time ago. [But] what does ‘worth it’ mean? I don’t know. I don’t see the sense in the comparison. It’s like saying, ‘A child’s smile is worth everything.’ It’s bullshit. It’s not true at all,” she says. “I don’t see any reason to suffer for a child’s smile. You can get a smile from a child in the street—you don’t have to go through pregnancy and birth and nightmares and all the rest of it.”
Clearly these women are resolute in their reasoning. So why is it so hard for us as a society to listen and believe that regretting motherhood actually exists? And, if we do believe that it exists, why is it so hard to refrain from treating these mothers as insane women who embody some kind of evil? One of the most painfully obvious explanations is that societies treat motherhood as women’s raison d’être; the essence of their existence on Earth. In 2017, we still lack a profound understanding that women have diverse identities; that we do not have the same dreams and needs just because we might have the same reproductive organs. Some of us will surely want to be mothers and appreciate it in retrospect, and others, well, won’t.
What a devastating thing for a child to hear, that her mother regrets having her, people say when they learn about these interviews. Indeed, many of the mothers who participated in my study said that there is a reasonable chance that their daughters and sons know and feel that they live in a home where motherhood is not fully embraced by the ones who brought them into this world, even if their needs—shelter, nutrition, clothing, care, and attentiveness to their well-being—are satisfied. These children might make the emotional conclusion that they are the ones who ruined their mothers’ lives, carrying a guilt that will always remind them that their existence was and is unwanted. But this is exactly one of the reasons why publicly talking about regretting motherhood is important. When mothers clarify that it is motherhood they regret and not the children themselves, then there is also an opportunity for children to relieve themselves of some of that burden.
Six years ago, a conversation I had with a student illustrated this exactly. She approached me after a lecture I gave to say that she now understood that she is a daughter of a mother who regrets, and that only now can she see her mother as a flesh-and-blood woman in a society that makes it very hard for women to determine whether they want to become mothers or not. She said it was the first time she could see her mother not as a monster, but as a human being, one who maybe does love her, but who also suffered from being trapped in a life that she didn’t want to live. It made her want to create a different dialogue with her, one less furious and hurt; a dialogue between two women in society, not only under the designation of “mother and daughter.”
"In principle, I always think and tell myself that when my daughter is old enough, I’ll talk about it with her."ADVERTISEMENT
Publicly talking about regretting motherhood might create more of these brave connections. It might allow women to be seen fully, as they are, without abolishing who they were, what they wish to be, and what they insist on remembering. “In principle, I always think and tell myself that when my daughter is old enough, I’ll talk about it with her,” Maya says. “She might have children and everything could be fine. But I know that my greatest failure would be if she had children and felt like me. I would know I had failed her, big-time, if she lived her life feeling like I feel.”
Susie agrees that examining all aspects of motherhood, and the path that leads women there, is a responsibility we have to the next generation. “We have to educate our children. If we have already ended up having them, it is important and necessary to slaughter all holy cows, all of the values, ideologies, and self-justifications we were raised on. To check ourselves when we fall into the webs of stereotypes and conformity,” she says. “To scrutinize, with a surgeon’s incisive precision, the aphorisms that have become so ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ to us, like the messages, ‘Children are joy. Children are a blessing.’ If we are not careful and conscious of the destructive power of these platitudes, they become part of our cultural DNA, and we are convinced that this is how it should be for all eternity. It is not a crime to express remorse for having had children…. It is a crime not to tell the truth to ourselves and to those we gave birth to. It is a crime to die with a dark secret that cannot be told, written, or revealed.”
In the end, the aim of my research is not to shed light on the dark side of motherhood—I’m not trying to gather evidence to say “You see? There are negative sides to motherhood!” Instead, my goal is to question the systems of power that present women with only one possibility: that those who do not become mothers will surely regret it, while those who do never, ever will. As a woman, as a daughter, as an aunt to three nieces, and as a feminist, I believe that all options should be equally available, and equally acceptable, to ensure that women are the only owners of our bodies, our lives, and our decisions. It is society’s responsibility to face up to the consequences of pressuring women into motherhood, and to look into the eyes of this regret, just as we were looked in the eyes and promised that motherhood is for the best for all of us. Being able to imagine more than one kind of future for ourselves might give us more room to consider our options and our capabilities, giving us the strength to undermine social pressure and, as a result, to reduce suffering and take better care of all women and children. Regretting motherhood will not disappear if we deny its existence. For the sake of children and women, we should continue to talk about it.
Orna Donath is an Israeli Doctor of Sociology and the author of the 2017 book, Regretting Motherhood: A Study, published by North Atlantic Books.
By Orna Donath
Illustrated By Stephanie Kubo
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2017 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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