The Women Who Really Regretted Having Children
Choosing not to have children has always been a sensitive topic, and while no doubt childless women everywhere are still putting up with intrusive questions about their plans; anecdotally at least, it would seem that society is more accepting now of the idea that not all women wish to procreate.
Choosing childlessness is becoming more normal – in the US nearly one in five women ends her childbearing years without having borne a child, compared with one-in-ten in the 1970s, according to a 2010 report from Pew Research Center. And here in Ireland, the statistics are similar – a 2014 OECD report shows that 18pc of women over the age of 45 don’t have children.
We still have a long way to go, but deciding against having children is not quite the taboo it once was.
As a human and as a mother of three, I can absolutely understand people who are not sure that they want kids – it’s a huge decision and brings with it huge responsibility; much hair-pulling (self- and child-inflicted), regular agonising over choices, daily worrying about behaviour, hourly panicking about getting it all wrong, years of sleeplessness, and a consistently empty bank account.
But once you make that decision and go down that route, the upside is pretty damn amazing, so we can get past the hair-pulling and the agonising most of the time.
But what about parents who can’t get past it – those who ultimately regret having their children? A small German study published in 2016 found that one in five parents polled would prefer to live their lives without children. Admitting to regretting parenthood is not new – back in 2007, French writer and mother of two Corinne Maier wrote No Kids: 40 reasons Not to Have Children about her own regret, and urged would-be parents to reconsider, because child-rearing is endless drudgery, the planet’s already overcrowded, and your children will ultimately disappoint you.
In 2015, Israeli sociologist Orna Donath published a study in which she interviewed 23 mothers who regret having children. Each was asked, “If you could go back in time, with the knowledge and experience you have today, would you be a mother?” One woman is quoted as saying “If today I could go back, obviously I wouldn’t have children. It’s totally obvious to me,” while another says of her three children “They couldn’t possibly understand it, even when they’re fifty, maybe then, but I’m not sure. I’d forgo them, totally. Really. Without batting an eyelid. And it’s difficult for me to say that because I love them. Very much. But I’d do without.”
And on social media, there’s a Facebook page called I Regret Having Children, for people who want to admit anonymously that they wish they’d made other choices. There are mothers who have children through unplanned pregnancies, parents who are at home with ill children, and people who have been through traumatic births, like this poster (posts published with permission):
“I love my son dearly but had I known how hard it was going to be I wouldn't have had him. People keep telling me I don't really mean that, it's the depression talking. Or they ask me when I'm going to have another and when I tell them I can't face that again they say you'll change your mind in a few years. How do I raise my son simultaneously loving him and knowing that he was the worst thing that's ever happened to me.”
Some posters are in bad relationships:
“My kids are beautiful, intelligent, funny, artistic and kind human beings. I suppose I do not actually regret their existence, but I regret that I am now tied to the person I hate most in this world.”
There are dads posting on the page too, like this father whose relationship has come to an end:
“I'm here with this little boy raising him on my own. He is a sweet enough kid which at times makes me feel like shit, but I’ve given up everything. My career which I can't work because daycare would leave me with jackshit monthly. I was forced to move back in with family.”
And then there’s this post, which echoes some of the comments in the Donath survey:
“I love my daughter, and I have many wonderful memories of her childhood and we continue to have great times as a family. I would die for my daughter. But honestly, if I could go back in time I would not have a child. I feel like I gave up some part of me. As the years went by, dealing with childhood sickness, school issues, finances, teen drama, worrying when she started driving, boyfriends, her back talking, college, etc., all of it chipped away at me. I know it was all "normal stuff" and nothing earth shattering. I always put her first and wanted her to be happy. I suppose there was this resentment trickling into me... How my body, time, career, money, marriage, etc., was not my own anymore… She's a wonderful young woman; my sweet girl is smart, fun, attractive, and kind hearted. But being a mother is so difficult and heart-wrenching that I regret ever doing it.”
Reading through some of the posts – particularly from parents who sound frustrated about being at home all day cleaning up after children – it’s tempting to suggest, “Just get a job! Or a hobby!” but it’s not always that simple. I remember watching Oprah once, back before I had kids myself when a mother wrote in to say she was bored out of her mind at home with her small child and if she had to do Play-Doh one more time she’s stick pins in her eyes (I’m paraphrasing). The response from viewers was to explain to her that some people can’t have kids even though they desperately want to – that some people would give anything to be sitting on the floor playing with a small child, and that she should appreciate what she has. So, of course, she tearfully promised to stop complaining and appreciate her child. I’m sure that lasted a day. We’re human – no matter how many heartbreaking stories were heard, no matter how often we hug our children close because of an awful story on the news, it doesn’t mean diffusing a supermarket tantrum is any easier the following day.
Telling someone they should appreciate what they have because not everyone can have it is just papering over the cracks. And perhaps for some, those cracks can be fixed with a job or an interest, or with professional help for the adult or the child. Or with more support from a partner, or even just the passage of time. But for other parents, the regret is very real, and telling them they’re bad people for feeling it doesn’t make it go away. That a page such as I Regret Having Children facilitates anonymous posters who need the opportunity to let off steam might seem sad to those who can’t imagine regretting having children, but ultimately it has to be a good thing that it’s there for those who need it.
What I do find hard to understand are the open admissions – parents like Corinne Maier who publicly write that they bitterly regret having children.
Or mother of two Isabella Dutton who wrote of her regret in the Daily Mail, saying, “I know there are millions who will consider me heinously cold-blooded and unnatural, but I believe there will also be those who secretly feel the same.”
I don’t know that many will think it cold-blooded not to want children (she didn’t but her husband did) or to regret having them, but perhaps writing about it in a national newspaper is the part that’s difficult to swallow.
When I was researching this article, I made a bookmark folder called “Regretting having children” but then changed the name to “Regret” – in case one of my kids looked over my shoulder and thought I was wishing them out of existence. I don’t want them to know that that’s even possible. So while I understand parents on every stage of the spectrum – from those having a bad day or a bad month to those who truly regret having children – I can’t understand those who would write about it publicly. But ultimately, whether it’s anonymously or publicly discussed, acknowledging it’s real is crucial for those who find themselves in that position and worry that they’re completely alone.
Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not writing her first novel, or looking after the kids, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.