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. Olga Dornath, author of Regretting Motherhood (Bust)
Regretting motherhood: The idea is controversial but a concept, an experience, that exists and is of interest to many. There are now online forums, including a Facebook group, as well as articles in mainstream magazines and published research on this topic.
Sarah Treleaven, Marie Claire, asserts that perhaps the current trend toward admitting mothering misgivings actually began around 10 years ago “when Corinne Maier, a French psychoanalyst, writer, and mother of two in Brussels, wrote candidly about her own regret in 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.)”
And just a few years ago Israeli sociologist Orna Donath released Regretting Motherhood: A Study (2015), a book “based on interviews with 23 Israeli women, all anonymous, aged 26 to 73, five of them grandmothers” (Anne Kingston, Maclean’s).
What are some of the reasons Dornath found for regret? From her research (Bust): “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.”
Regretting motherhood, notably, is not the same as regretting the existence of one’s children, states Dornath:
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.
According to Eleanor J. Bader, Rewire, “Donath’s conclusion is forthright: Motherhood should be one choice among many, no more or less valid than other life options.” If more women felt this to be true, more women would give themselves permission to remain childless in the first place.