Can we talk about parental regret?
WHAT IS IT?
While unpopular to express regret, it is not an unpopular sentiment. Research consistently debunks the myth that babies have a bonding effect on marriage or that children bring happiness.
From Ann Landers asking readers: “If you had it to do over again, would you have children?” where of the more than 10,000 responses, 70 percent said “no.” To robust university studies showing that having a children can interfere with parents’ happiness more than divorce, unemployment and even the death of a partner. Time and again, studies find parents more likely to be depressed than their child-free counterparts and people without kids are happier than any other group.
So, why are we so rarely talking about this? Unsurprisingly, women who express regret are often called selfish, unnatural, bad moms, or believed to ungrateful. It’s hard to admit your regret while your friends suffer from infertility but comparative suffering is futile. Gratitude and reluctance are not mutually exclusive. They can, and often do, coexist.
Why talk about it?
When we don’t talk openly about it, difficulties faced by mothers remain submerged. Silencing causes isolation, disillusion, depression, anxiety, and much worse. I personally felt ashamed, ignored, and cheated when I didn’t experience the “instant bond” so many had described when I had my son. I felt robbed and broken. I wasn’t prepared for the difficulties. Everyone talks about motherhood like it’s this wonderful thing and you’re going to love those children the second they come out. Few talk about how hard having children can be how exhaustion can affect you, and how sometimes love has to be developed. It was hard to be candid, even with our doctors.
This is precisely why brutal candor is required. Motherhood may be among the most important jobs a woman can have and we still can’t talk honestly about what it’s like to live with that pressures and those sacrifices. We need to embrace the notion that mothers can exist autonomously from their children.
Parental regret is deeply personal. I want to share my acknowledgments in an effort to normalize this sentiment. To let you know that you are not alone and to open dialogue for those who may have experienced some of the same feelings. For me, my regret stems from a number of factors.
I was born to teen parents.
My husband and I were both born to teen parents. Forty years later, that fact has lasting effects that influence my parental regret. We share the same generation as our parents. What does that look like in practical terms? While they may be “young” and “active” grandparents, it also means they are still working their way out of poverty themselves and completely unavailable as they all still work full time and stumble through thier own arrested development.
I am estranged from my own parents.
The traumatic childhoods of our parents lead them to be estranged from thier parents and siblings. In turn, we are estranged from them. There are times when I celebrate the boundaries that we have and experience relief from the “typical” pressures of running to every family gathering during the holidays. There are just as many times when I mourn the loss of this connection and wish we had our parents as partners to offer advice and support as we cross meaningful milestones with our own children.
I don’t want to die poor.
Despite our best efforts, we aren’t out digging our way out of generational poverty. While we have better education, jobs, and earning potential than all of our parents combined, we also have all of the debt and expenses to accompany it. We can’t rely on the social, emotional, or financial capital of our parents. Our earning feel like they will never eclipse the debt of our education or the expense of our children. Thirty thousand dollars a year to service our college debt, thirty thousand dollars a year to pay for daycare, thirty thousand dollars a year in mortgage payments. In a completely oversimplified illustration, that’s 90 thousand dollars a year, after taxes, in fixed expenses. By most standards, we live a very modest, low-frills lifestyle with a small house (80K dollars) and old (10+ years) cars. If we can get our children into public schools, and later scholarships, we may have a fighting chance.
I mourn my autonomy.
I feel oppressed by my constant responsibility for my children. I feel trapped and suffocated–like I’m constantly working and barely getting anything done. Someone is always underfoot. Their needs feel like demands, not requests, no matter how they are delivered. The maternal instinct is not innate or unconditional for me, despite social media’s best efforts to tell me otherwise. If I had read the job description. I probably would not have applied. I struggle with the fact that it feels like all of us are leading mediocre lives at the expense of my own–like “Yes, son, I share your disappointment. I never imagined that all of my advanced degrees and career path would lead me to a life where I drove you around every day, to your public magnet school, while you screamed at me for buying the wrong flavor of yogurt. Neither of us is living our best life. I’m sorry!”
I resent my partner.
Nothing, more than becoming a mother, has highlighted All. Of. The. Gender. Gaps. First shift: go to your paid job. Second shift: log into all the portals, do the housework, etc. Third shift: designated empath for the entire family. We aren’t nags. We’re just fed up. Grow the babies (including bedrests.) Nurse the babies. Cover the deployments. Now, cover the pandemic. Women are historically the ones that take a step back from career and the rest of life in order to care for the children. This holds true even during COVID19. My husband’s, and most men’s, identity is never collapsed into his parental one. Mine has been. If you’re a bad mother. You’re a bad woman. If you’re ambitious or career-focused, you’re selfish. If you have a hobby or sport, how do your kids get the enrichment they need? This a change that I have to make. For me, for my marriage, for my children. Even Michelle resented Barack but she found a way to have him stay home and she got to the gym!
I’m a recovering perfectionist.
In parenthood, there’s no plan A anyway. Being a perfectionist and a parent are incompatible identities. Enough said. Motherhood is not my singular or paramount identity (see above!) I am candid with my children, telling them that being a mother is not the most important aspect of my life. I care for them deeply and attend to (most of) their needs. I want to model good relationships and boundaries with them as well as with my ambition, my spouse, friends, family, neighbors, and employer. I want to foster independence. It is a challenge for all of us and requires difficult conversations. It is my sincere hope that this leads to them finding an equal partner for life and learning to care for and prioritize themselves.
I don’t feel sorry for myself. I acknowledge my choices and responsibilities. I admit my regrets in an effort to claim them and connect with others. I want you to know, you aren’t doing it wrong. It’s just this hard. I believe expanding the vocabulary of motherhood helps all women. We need to make it easier for mothers to be mothers! Motherhood is one of the most profound and complex human relationships. While sacred, It is not magically exempt from regret. Acknowledging regret as part of the maternal experience requires transformational thinking–that we are owners of our bodies, ambitions, thoughts, emotions, and memories—and are capable of determining whether parenthood and all that accompanies it, was worthwhile or not.
To feel seen, heard, and maybe even celebrated, check out these resources:
- Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution
- The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women,
- Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace.