May 14

Mothers Who Regret Having Kids: Hard Confessions

Despite the risks and misunderstandings, mothers who regret having kids are coming out of the closet. Israeli sociologist Orna Donath: “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….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” (Bust).

Regretting motherhood for some is directly related to the social pressure to have kids in the first place. “Women, especially those over the age of 30,” states Donath, “are caught within a mind-game of threats and warnings: Your time is running out for making a family. You may think that you’re not interested in being a mother, but you are wrong; the desire will strike you eventually, but then it will be too late. You are going to regret this.”

In whatever ways a woman then reaches the turning point of becoming a mother, the pressures don’t stop: Now love the experience, or else.

Some relief can be found these days, though, on popular Facebook and Reddit forums. Sarah Treleaven, Marie Claire, asserts that one particular author helped usher in a trend of confessing mothering misgivings. “…Corinne Maier, a French psychoanalyst, writer, and mother of two in Brussels, wrote candidly about her own regret in the 2009 No Kids: 40 Reasons Not to Have Children. (Among them: being forced to adopt the ‘idiot language’ of children and inevitably being disappointed by your offspring.)”

About six years later, in 2015, Donath released her groundbreaking study, Regretting Motherhood. Interviewees who said they regret having kids offered a wide variety of reasons. “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” (Bust).

Notably, regretting motherhood is not necessarily the same as regretting the existence of one’s children, adds Donath:

…(M)any 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.

Eleanor J. Bader, Rewire, on Donath’s “forthright” conclusion: “Motherhood should be one choice among many, no more or less valid than other life options.”

May 08

Effects of Stress Not Always Bad

Two different nonfiction books that acknowledge the effects of stress while also recognizing that not all stress is bad for you: The 5 Resets: Rewire Your Brain and Body for Less Stress and More Resilience and The Upside of Stress.

I. The 5 Resets: Rewire Your Brain and Body for Less Stress and More Resilience by Dr. Aditi Nerurkar (2024)

From the book description: “For Dr. Nerurkar, the common misperception of stress as ‘bad’ needs reframing.”

A quote from her interview with PopSugar.com: “Not all stress is created equal — there’s good stress and bad stress. Everything in your life was created because of a little bit of healthy stress, the good kind. It’s what helped you graduate, make your best friend, move into your new home, get promoted. A life with zero stress is biologically impossible because you need a little bit of stress to get up out of bed in the morning and get on with your day. When stress gets out of hand, it becomes unhealthy stress. This is the kind that gives you anxiety and keeps you up at night. It makes you feel irritable, anxious, and hypervigilant.”

Nerurkar, a Harvard researcher on this subject, prescribes five “resets”:

  • The First Reset: Get Clear on What Matters Most
  • The Second Reset: Find Quiet in a Noisy World
  • The Third Reset: Sync Your Brain and Your Body
  • The Fourth Reset: Come Up for Air
  • The Fifth Reset: Bring Your Best Self Forward

The 5 Resets is all about managing stress with these tools. But, as NPR points out, Nerurkar has specific ideas about developing resilience. Her Resilience Rule of Two: Pick no more than two small changes at a time. “Anything more and our system gets overloaded,” she states (ThriveGlobal.com).

II. The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It by Kelly McGonigal (2015)

Selected quotes from The Upside of Stress:

Stress happens when something you care about is at stake. It’s not a sign to run away – it’s a sign to step forward.

Mindset 1: Stress Is Harmful. Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality. Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity. Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth. The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided. Mindset 2: Stress Is Enhancing. Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity. Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality. Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth. The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized.

Stress and meaning are inextricably linked. You don’t stress out about things you don’t care about, and you can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress.

Erin Enders, Bustle, lists the seven ways “embracing stress can make you happier and healthier,” per McGonigal. (Click on the link for details.)

  1. You’ll find the strength to pursue your goals.
  2. You’ll grow as a person.
  3. You’ll learn how to thrive in difficult situations.
  4. You’ll be able to transform a threat into a challenge.
  5. You’ll have more emotional support.
  6. You’ll be a stronger person.
  7. …And eventually you’ll view stress as a resource.

McGonigal spoke with Brigid Schulte, Washington Postabout shifting her own mindset: “For instance, last night, I got this email. It made me really sad and disappointed. It took me a few moments, but then I realized the disappointment and sadness were signs of how much I cared. And once you recognize that, it’s important to stay engaged, and to think about what action you can take that’s consistent with your goals and values.”

Examples of specific suggestions that can enable the needed shift:

    • Write or reflect on the connection between a specific stressor and something meaningful.
    • Take a “Bigger than Self”  perspective—find ways to recognize how common and/or human one’s situation is.
May 01

Tom Ripley: Psychopath or Sociopath? (“Ripley” Spoilers)

The core story is always the same: A wealthy man enlists fraudster Tom Ripley, his son’s distant acquaintance, to travel to Italy and woo his errant, playboy son back to the fold; but rather than returning Dickie to his family, an envious Tom disposes of him and assumes his identity. Other murders follow to cover the first. Carole V. Bell, NPR, regarding the various portrayals of Tom Ripley

Whether you’ve seen the new Netflix series Ripley or the 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley (or any other filmed or stage versions) or read any of the five novels by Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) that originated Tom Ripley, you may have wondered about his psychopathology. 

Opinions abound on the internet: he’s either a psychopath or a sociopath. But don’t we tend as a culture to throw these terms around without much forethought or knowledge? Also, as Kristen Fuller, MD, Psychology Today, has pointed out, “The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeably, which causes much semantic confusion…”

Guess what? Neither term made it into the DSM-5, the current psychiatric diagnostic bible. Instead, antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is the blanket term for both conditions. “Individuals with this personality disorder demonstrate behaviors that disregard the violation and rights of others and society.” Other traits can include lying and manipulation, impulsive behavior, irritability and aggression, a pattern of irresponsibility, and lack of remorse.

Bu, now back to common parlance. Winifred Rule, Psychology Today, recently stated, “Ripley has high psychopathic traits and generally exhibits a detached unemotionality as he plies his various schemes.” Indeed, Ripley’s creator herself called him her “psychopath hero.” Furthermore, she was, in fact, “openly enamored of her creation,” and not at all judgmental of him (NPR).

It may not be so surprising, then, that Highsmith was reportedly “a misanthropic and hateful racist with unrepentantly cruel views of basically every person she met….She referred to the Holocaust as either ‘Holocaust Inc.,’ or sometimes the ‘semicaust,’ because it killed only half of the world’s Jewish population” (The Ringer).

Having psychopathic traits doesn’t necessarily mean having full-blown psychopathy, though. Highsmith actually gave Ripley guilt feelings at times, Rule notes—which had the effect of lessening his degree of psychopathy and adding to his likability.

Speaking of guilt, those readers who wind up rooting for Ripley to get away with murder may deal with some of this.

Decades after the debut of Anthony Minghella‘s film The Talented Mr. Ripley, the best known of all the adaptations (which came out after Highsmith died), the psychopath/sociopath terms have continued, though with updated nuances. Hugh Montgomery, BBC, refers to young Matt Damon‘s Ripley as “a sociopath for our Instagram age”; Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “a psychopath made for social media.”

And now we have the new eight-episode Ripley. Among its generally positive critiques is some recognition regarding the character’s persona now being less likable, less sympathetic. (Also less youthful.) I have to agree. Regardless of which diagnosis you prefer, what matters most is that  Andrew Scott‘s Ripley is loathsome—attractive only on the exterior.

Christopher Willard, Medium, on the powerful ending all Ripley incarnations have: “Although Tom gets off scot-free, even financially set, goal obtained, he remains imprisoned by his sociopathy.” (Or whatever you now choose to call it.) “He’s a feral creature on the run…always beholden to his uncontrollable impulses.”

Apr 24

“It’s Not You”: It’s Your Narcissist

Clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula has a new bestseller: It’s Not You: Identifying and Healing from Narcissistic People. Previous titles by this expert that also tackled issues of narcissism are Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist and “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility.

Durvasula, by the way, not only has significant experience working with survivors of narcissistic abuse, she’s also confronted it in her own life.

From Kirkus Reviews:

Narcissists can be charming and seductive, often attracting partners with ‘love bombing,’ but soon their self-serving behavior surfaces. As her detailed case histories reveal, among the traits that mark a narcissistic personality are a craving for constant validation and admiration, delusional grandiosity, a sense of entitlement, and a lack of empathy. They abuse those close to them with behaviors such as gaslighting, dismissiveness, rage, threats, revenge, isolation, and betrayal. Victims of this abuse, she has found from her patients, tend to blame themselves and feel shame, confusion, depression, and anxiety.

Selected Quotes from It’s Not You

Identifying a narcissistic person is far less important than understanding what qualifies as unacceptable behavior and what it does to you.

I am tired of people calling those of us who get stuck in these cycles “codependent” or “addicted” to the narcissistic relationship. It’s not that. If you have any empathy, have normal cognitive functioning, and were shaped by societal and cultural norms and realities, it is not surprising that you would get stuck. The narcissistic relationship is like a riptide that pulls you back in even as you try to swim away. The intensity, attentiveness, and highs and lows are why you swim out to where the riptide is. The abusive behavior makes you want to swim away from the riptide, but the guilt and fear of leaving, the practical issues raised by leaving (financial, safety, cultural, family), as well as the natural drive toward attachment, connection, and love are what keep you stuck in the riptide’s pull.

Selected Quotes from Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The narcissist is like a bucket with a hole in the bottom: No matter how much you put in, you can never fill it up. The phrase “I never feel like I am enough” is the mantra of the person in the narcissistic relationship. That’s because to your narcissistic partner, you are not. No one is. Nothing is.

Gaslighting qualifies as a form of emotional abuse that involves denying a person’s experience and making statements, such as “that never happened,” “you’re too sensitive,” or “this isn’t that big a deal.

Selected Quotes from “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”

…(I)f a person leads with charm and charisma and plenty of confidence, sit up straight and pay cautious attention. Make sure that there is empathy, that entitlement is not at play, that the person is genuine, that there is respect and, frankly, that he or she has the goods to back it up. Don’t let the charisma and charm blind you and stop you from looking deeper for the rest of it.

Narcissistic and toxic relationships leave you feeling depleted in a variety of ways: feeling like you aren’t good enough, chronically second-guessing yourself, often apologizing, and/or feeling as though you are losing your mind, helpless, hopeless, sad, depressed, anxious, unsettled, no longer getting pleasure out of your life, ashamed, guilty, and exhausted.

In fact, the best narcissist repellant out there may not be yelling or screaming or revenge but simply indifference.

Apr 16

What Is Normal? Am I Normal? Are You Normal?

When it comes to the field of mental health, what is normal? And should we care?

Albert Camus once said, “Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” Trying too hard to be normal can be exhausting, in other words.

Most of us, though, do routinely wonder—in a non-energy-draining kind of way—if something we did or said or embody is normal. Am I normal? Is this normal? Is that normal? It seems it’s actually normal to wonder what’s normal.

So, if you’re someone who prefers some semblance of “normal”…what is normal, anyway? Some proposed definitions:

“Normal” as a phrase is a subjective opinion – it might be “normal” for one person to put their socks on before putting on their pants, but another person might view that as completely strange behavior; ultimately, neither person is wrong in their method but rather just different (Sage Neuroscience Center).

In psychology and psychiatry, it really means average or typical, but we too easily think of it as a synonym for how everyone is supposed to think and feel (Jim Kozubek, Scientific American).

The term “normality” describes actions that are common or expected in a group of people. It is the condition of falling within the range of what is normal or expected. Being adaptable, practical, and socially acceptable are characteristics of normal behaviour. It is behaviour that enables people to successfully interact with their surroundings and meet their daily needs (Mind.Plus).

On the other hand, these selected quotes indicate possible problems with the concept:

It is past time that we rethink what we mean by the words “normal” and “abnormal”…Indeed, it is a real question as to whether those words can be sensibly used at all, given their tremendous baggage and built-in biases and the general confusion they create” (Eric R. Maisel, PhD, Psychology Today)

There’s no such thing as normal. There is no definition of normal. Normal is subjective. You can’t—and shouldn’t—force yourself to want something ‘normal’ and stop wanting what you truly want. It’s a sure way to make your life miserable Alessandra Hazard, Straight Boy).

If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be (Maya Angelou).

Well, what about being normal in relationship to others? The Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples and What They Reveal About Creating a New Normal in Your Relationship (2013) uses the “normal” word twice in its title alone. I think it’s normal to speculate, therefore, that highly educated authors Chrisanna Northrup, Pepper Schwartz, and James Witte represent those who care quite a bit about this concept. If you too are in this category, you might want to check out their book. (I haven’t.)

Is it obvious yet that I lean in the direction taken by Holly Parker, PhD, Psychology Today, who lists five reasons to be careful about assessing normality?

  1. It might not always be so healthy to be “normal” by the group’s standards.
  2. “Normal” can be a moving, biased target.
  3. What you might think of as abnormal is actually quite typical.
  4. Abnormal can be wonderful.
  5. Trying too hard to be “normal” can get in the way of living your life.

Me, I often prefer “common.” As in In my professional opinion, that thing you do or feel or think is pretty common.

Or the concept of “health.” Such and such behavior is healthy, such and such not so much.

And I think my point of view is pretty normal, actually. 😉