At first glance, Amy* is like many busy young moms—she’s 34, lives in Alberta, works full-time and is devoted to her five-year-old. “I love my son with all my heart,” she says. “My life revolves around this child.” Four nights a week from May to June are spent at a sports field, she says. “All his schoolmates do it, so if he doesn’t, he’s left out.”
When discussing motherhood, however, Amy deviates from the maternal script: if she could make that choice over again, she says, she wouldn’t. She never wanted children (“I was very independent,” she says)—her husband did. “It would have been a deal-breaker.” Parenthood put an untenable strain on the marriage; her husband wasn’t as involved as she wanted; they separated. Life is difficult, Amy reports: “Our child has two homes and I’m still doing 90 per cent of it on my own.”
Amy’s candour is part of a growing yet contentious conversation about parental regret, one primarily focused on mothers. Social media provides one hub, from the 9,000-member Facebook group “I regret having children” (on which “Warren Chansky” posted: “I hated being a father and I don’t like the people my kids have become”) to a Facebook community with more than 2,600 members founded by Lauren Byrne, a 32-year-old ER nurse and mother of two who lives in Newfoundland. Byrne doesn’t regret having children, she tells Maclean’s, though women on the site say they do.
Byrne’s group is private and carefully monitored, a necessity given the criticism and judgment admitting regret can provoke. French psychotherapist Corinne Maier stoked an international firestorm and condemnation in 2008 with her manifesto No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children; her two children left her “exhausted and bankrupt,” and she couldn’t wait for them to leave home, she wrote. In 2013, Isabella Dutton, a 57-year-old British mother of two grown children created furor with a Daily Mail essay headlined: “The mother who says having these two children is the biggest regret of her life.” By 2018, however, Dutton and Maier are no longer freakish outliers; parental regret, or “the last parenting taboo” as it’s dubbed in the media has been covered by everyone from the BBC (“100 Women 2016: Parents who regret having children”) to Marie Claire (“Inside the growing movement of women who wished they never had kids”) to Today’s Parent (“Regretting motherhood: What have I done with my life?” by Lola Augustine Brown, a 41-year-old mother of three aged from two to 10 who lives in rural Nova Scotia).
The discussion has been stoked by the first scholarship on regret; Israeli sociologist Orna Donath thrust it into the spotlight with her 2015 book Regretting Motherhood: A Study, based on interviews with 23 Israeli women, all anonymous, aged 26 to 73, five of them grandmothers.
Unsurprisingly, women who express regret are called selfish, unnatural, abusive “bad moms” or believed to “exemplify the ‘whining’ culture we allegedly live in,” as Donath puts it. One commenter called Dutton “an utterly miserable, cold-hearted and selfish woman.” Even Donath has been savaged for her research: one critic suggested she be burned alive.
Discussing maternal regret raises ethical dilemmas but is necessary, says Andrea O’Reilly, a professor at York University’s School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies and the author of 18 books on motherhood: “I understand the protection of children, but if you completely enforce that you have no mother voices telling their story, and you don’t want that either.”
And what we’re learning about regretful mothers upends binary thinking that women who regret having children must be neglectful or substandard parents: it’s motherhood these women regret, not the children. Dutton expressed love for her offspring (“I would cut off my arm if either needed it”); it was maternal strictures she bristled against (“I felt oppressed by my constant responsibility for them”). In Today’s Parent, Augustine Brown called her children “the best things I have ever done” and assured readers she wasn’t “a monster” before expressing conflicted feelings: “What I’m struggling with is that it feels like their amazing life comes at the expense of my own,” she wrote, expressing remorse for “this life I wanted so badly and now find myself trapped in.”
Feeling trapped or suffocated is a common theme in Donath’s work; mothers felt “as if the metaphorical umbilical cord binding them to their children were in fact wrapped around their neck.” Many women said they felt pressured to have children. So did German novelist Sarah Fischer, author of Die Mutterglück-Lüge (The Myth of Mothering Joy: Regretting Motherhood—Why I’d Rather Have Become a Father), published in 2016, who writes she knew she’d made a mistake “when the contractions started.”
The premise that motherhood is not a one-size-fits-all role shouldn’t come as a surprise in 2018, given the rise of the “childless by choice” movement or an international decline in birth rates. Still, it’s received as an affront to the “sanctity” of motherhood and the entrenched belief that the maternal instinct is innate and unconditional—despite ample historical evidence to the contrary.
In pushing the boundaries of accepted maternal response, however, something else is happening: a small group of women are reframing motherhood, an institution increasingly idealized and commodified to near-absurd ends. June Cleaver has been replaced by Jessica Alba, the former actress who runs a billion-dollar organic baby goods empire and posts Instagram images of perfect airbrushed domesticity for her millions of followers. Celebrity tabloids are fuelled by maternity mania; Beyoncé’s 2017 Instagram post announcing twins (via a beatific photo of the performer framed by flowers, fecund belly on display) was the most shared ever on Instagram. Pressure on women to have kids is intense, says Amy. “I work with a lot of girls and, if they haven’t had kids, they’re told, ‘The clock is ticking.’ ” Predictably, one of the first interview questions fielded by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was when they’ll start a family.
Simultaneously, the demanding, exhausting, self-sacrificing and often thankless work of mothering—“the most important job a woman can have,” as Ivanka Trump put it in a 2016 campaign video—has never been more restrictive, scrutinized and questioned. Anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar, the subject of a recent New Yorker profile, even argues no one should have children on compassionate grounds given the painfulness of life. Add to that the notion that children bring self-fulfillment or self-actualization, and it becomes a breeding ground for regret.
But mothers voicing regret also signal something else: a larger groundswell of maternal reckoning, one Augustine Brown compares to the #MeToo campaign. “We still can’t talk honestly about what it’s like to live with those pressures and those sacrifices,” she tells Maclean’s. Response to her story was overwhelmingly positive, she reports, save one woman: “She told me I should see a therapist and that my children deserved a better mother.” Yet dozens of women wrote to thank her for making them not feel so alone—or abnormal. Donath’s book has also been a sensation. When published in Germany (an English translation arrived in 2017), #RegrettingMotherhood trended on that country’s Twitter.
Expanding the vocabulary of motherhood helps all women, Donath tells Maclean’s: “We need to make it easier for mothers to be mothers but to also rethink the policies of reproduction and the very obligation to become mothers at all.” Augustine Brown is more direct: “We’re angry, we’re fed up and we’re on the verge of something.”
Regret requires choice. So there’s little surprise that expression of parental regret mirrors the arrival of the pill, and with it the decision to delay or even forgo reproduction. The first indication came in 1975, when advice columnist Ann Landers asked readers: “If you had it to do over again, would you have children?” Of more than 10,000 responses, 70 per cent said “no.” The few attempts to quantify parental regret since have shown mixed results. A 2002-03 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that three per cent of parents disagreed with the statement: “The rewards of being a parent are worth it despite the cost and the work it takes.” A 2016 German study found eight per cent of 1,200 parents polled said they would choose not to have children again.
Traditionally, regret has been viewed as the purview of the childless. Thomas Gilovich—a Cornell University psychologist famed for research that indicates people are far more likely to regret things they haven’t done than things they have—examined people with high IQs: not one regretted having children; several reported regretting not having a family. That assumption has been challenged, however, by the “childless by choice” movement and research debunking the myth that babies have a bonding effect on marriage or that children bring happiness: a 2010 American Sociological Association study found that parents were more likely to be depressed than their child-free counterparts, and that people without kids were happier than any other group.
The notion that motherhood is a sacred role rather than one of the most profound and complex human relationships has made it somehow magically exempt from regret, Donath tells Maclean’s. In every other realm where regret is experienced, people soldier on, she notes. Her research even indicates that women who feel guilt over regret are more conscientious parents. “The more I feel [regret], the more I give them,” a mother interviewed by Donath said about her two children.
Donath views suspicion over the existence of maternal regret as consistent with a traditional rejection of women expressing negative responses to motherhood, pointing to the reluctance to accept post-partum depression until the late 20th century; before then, mothers reporting perinatal sadness were dismissed as “neurotic.”
Regret differs from more common ambivalence, Donath says: “There are mothers who experience ambivalent feelings but do not regret becoming mothers, and there are mothers who regret becoming mothers and are not ambivalent about motherhood.” Conflating the two precludes listening to mothers who lament having given birth: “If we rush into talking about the hardships of motherhood only, then we empty regret of any content and neutralize any ability to examine the axiom that motherhood is necessarily experienced as worthwhile by all mothers everywhere.”
Parental regret also highlights gendered asymmetry around parenting; while fathers are increasingly active in child-raising, most child care and housework is still performed by women, as data from StatsCan’s 2015 General Social Survey indicates. Donath has also interviewed men who regret fatherhood, and has found one difference is that most men who became fathers even though they didn’t want to did so because their partner wanted to be a mother, and they didn’t want to live without her. “They made their decisions without being threatened by divorce, as opposed to several women in my study.” Stephen Marche, author of The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century, often writes about fatherhood. He says he has never met a father willing to admit to regret: “I can think of only a few who might even have felt it,” he says. Fathers’ regret tends to be expressed with their feet, says York University’s O’Reilly. “They walk away.” While men are judged for doing so, they don’t face the same censure as women, she says: “Men’s identity is never collapsed into their parental one; if you’re a bad mother, you’re a bad woman. If a father is late at daycare, it’s ‘Poor thing, he’s busy.’ A mother who’s late is viewed as selfish and irresponsible.” That’s changing, O’Reilly believes, though she questions the extent: “Some men may feel their children are central to their identity but I’ve never seen it.”
Exacerbating gendered parenting imbalances is the fact that, as mothers entered the workforce in record numbers in the 1970s, parenting philosophies increasingly embraced hovering attachment. “Helicopter parent” was coined in the 1960s; “attachment parenting” was introduced in 1992 by evangelical physician William Sears based on three tenets—breastfeeding (sometimes into toddlerhood), co-sleeping and carrying babies close in slings. Once regarded as fringe, it’s now the dominant parenting mode among white, middle-class, educated women, says O’Reilly. “It’s like a cult.”
Time spent by parents with their kids has doubled in four decades, The Economist revealed in November; in an analysis of 11 wealthy countries, mothers spent an average of 104 minutes a day caring for children in 2012, up from 54 in 1965. Men do less, but far more than they did in the past: 59 minutes a day, up from 16.
Parenting standards have become “far more draconian” since O’Reilly raised her kids in the ’80s and ’90s, she says, pointing to a confluence of forces—the rise of materialism, consumerism, neoliberalism and social media—turning parenthood into a performance. Parents now raise children in a far more difficult, competitive world and are pressured to do more with far less, she says: “Expectations have been ramped up to such a point that standards are impossible to achieve.”
Declining fertility rates and older, more educated first-time mothers have also contributed to heightened expectations. The fertility rate in Canada has dropped from 2.1—the replacement level needed for the population to renew itself without immigration—in 1971 to 1.6 in 2016. Older mothers are used to autonomy. But children don’t go as planned, she says: “So much of motherhood is very much out of your control.”
O’Reilly points to another dramatic change: Where in the ’70s maternal control was structural, dictated from the outside, now it’s ideological, with women becoming their own gatekeepers. “I hear women say, ‘I have to quit my job because Johnny needs me 24/7.’ Or, ‘Of course I have to share my bed.’ Or, ‘Of course I have to breastfeed until he’s five.’ It’s more insidious.” The proliferation of mommy blogs has also introduced the terms “sanctimommies” and ceaseless “mommy wars” (breast vs. bottle, co-sleeping vs. sleep-training, stay at home vs. working outside the home) that somehow pits woman against woman as opposed to confronting the controlling institution of motherhood itself, as outlined in Adrienne Rich’s landmark 1976 book Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution.
The rise of “intensive mothering” has political implications; as Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels wrote in their 2005 book The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women, an increasingly powerful conservative subculture is determined to “re-domesticate the women of America through motherhood.” The words are prescient given the arrival of a U.S. administration that has imbued The Handmaid’s Tale with chilling relevance. Declining birth rates have also seen a surge in pro-natalism. In December, House Speaker Paul Ryan instructed women in the U.S.—where birth rates are at an all-time low—to have more children to ensure the future of Social Security and Medicaid benefits.
In No Kids, Maier’s depiction of parenthood as “an inward-looking prison focused on the child” was also intended as a rebuke to pro-fertility politics in France. And these, she noted, have far less to do with love of children than “a form of nationalism to enhance our identity.” Pro-natalism serves national interests, says Donath, hence messaging that motherhood is a matter of nature only—“that it is natural for women to want to be mothers because they are females; that it is natural that any woman who is considered to be physically and emotionally healthy would know what to do after the child was born (‘maternal instinct’); and that it is natural that any woman would evaluate motherhood as a worthwhile change in her life since this is the essence of her existence because she is a female.”
There’s an inherent paradox, Donath points out: Women are told they instinctively possess the tools to mother well while constantly being told how to conduct relationships with their children to be “good women” and “good mothers.” And that has come to mean child before all, as seen when author Ayelet Waldman famously received hate mail after stating in the New York Times in 2005 that she loved her husband more than her children; she parlayed the outrage into a 2012 book, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace. The belief that women are uniquely equipped to parent also marginalizes fathers: author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto was publicly shamed when she revealed she preferred not to be a full-time parent in her memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning. Now a non-custodial mother to two young sons, she has reported being “threatened with death and sexual violence by strangers.”
Taboos surrounding discussing maternal regret have made studying it difficult, says O’Reilly. The late feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick, author of Maternal Thinking, tried to publish a book on the topic, with contributions from scholars who were mothers, but had to shelve it. “Women didn’t want to out themselves,” says O’Reilly. “They were saying, ‘What if my child ever read this?’ They became irrational; these are scholars who had written on challenging topics.”
Even fictional mothers expressing regret are controversial, O’Reilly notes, pointing to We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed 2003 novel told from the point of view of a mother whose son went on a murderous rampage. Yet the mothers of children who kill don’t express regret, O’Reilly notes, pointing to the memoirs A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two boys who killed 13 at Columbine High School, and Aftermath by Monique Lépine, mother of Marc, who murdered 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989. “These are mothers who, if anyone, should feel regret,” says O’Reilly. “But Klebold writes that she has no regret—though she blames herself for not seeing the signs. It’s regret for what happened, not that she had a son.”
Women who express regret, or any critique of motherhood, typically have done so through humour, O’Reilly says, pointing to the explosion of parenting memoirs with titles like The Three-Martini Playdate, a joke that hinges on tacit acceptance that motherhood requires medication—from Valium, “mother’s little helper” in the ’60s, to wine, or “liquid patience,” today. Such a lighthearted approach only works when children are young, she says. As they get older, problems become serious—anorexia, addiction. “You can’t contain them with humour.”
Yet almost all writing about motherhood focuses on accounts of mothers of babies and toddlers, Donath says. There’s a lack of retrospective accounts from mothers of older children, which is why hearing from grandmothers is important. These mothers can afford to be more truthful, says O’Reilly. “Mothers of younger children don’t want to jinx it.”
Yet that too is changing, as mothers are showing their anger. In The Myth of Mothering Joy, Fischer, mother of a young daughter, paints an unsparing picture: “The reality of motherhood is incontinence, boredom, weight gain, saggy breasts, depression, the end of romance, lack of sleep, dumbing down, career downturn, loss of sex drive, poverty, exhaustion and lack of fulfillment.”
Such accounts highlight the sacrifices required to parent—and that self-fulfillment often isn’t anywhere on the menu. There’s clearly an audience eager for a more realistic portrayal of mothering, an antidote to what one mother calls “the perfect Pinterest mom.” The singer Pink has been declared a “mom crush” for her unvarnished, if still curated, depiction of mothering on Instagram; in December, the singer recounted on Twitter that a mother approached her to tell her: “she got strength from my parenting ’cause I’m not afraid to f--k up in public.” Popular entertainment has embraced the “bad mom”—a.k.a. the anti-“good mom,” seen in the Bad Moms film franchise and SMILF, a new Showtime series about a financially strapped, loving but sometimes selfish single mom.
Lauren Byrne can also be counted among those mothers who reject the idealized script, and with it the silencing of mothers. That’s why she set up her Facebook page, she says: “Everyone was talking about how fantastic it was. And I was, ‘Who are you people?’ I’m exhausted.” When she announced wanting to stop breastfeeding at nine months because her child was biting her, she was attacked. “I couldn’t believe the negativity. People said, ‘Formula is poison.’ I needed a place to say, ‘Yes, I love my baby, but this sucks.’ ” Even saying you want time away from your kids is verboten, Byrne says. “People say, ‘You shouldn’t say that. They’re blessings. You should feel lucky.’ But it’s not unicorns and rainbows all the time. But women can’t complain that ‘this is really hard’ because people think you’re a bad mom.”
Byrne has experienced maternal regret in a limited way, she says: “I don’t regret my children but I regret the timing of my children.” Her first pregnancy, when she was 24 and newly married, was unplanned: “Everyone was partying and still drinking and I was home, 50 lb. heavier than I was used to being, with the baby on my boob for hours, thinking, ‘How did this happen?’ ”
Difficulties faced by mothers remain submerged, Byrne believes: “So many mothers are on anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants or have secret post-partum lasting for years.” Silencing can allow systems to go unchecked, mothers ignored. Angela*, who lives in Newfoundland, went for months with debilitating undiagnosed post-partum after the premature birth of twins. She felt cheated, she told Maclean’s, when she didn’t experience the instant bond she was told mothers are supposed to have. “I felt I had been robbed.” She 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,” she says. “Nobody talks about how hard having children can be, how exhaustion can affect you and how sometimes love has to be developed.” She doesn’t feel she can be candid, even with health professionals.
Yet brutal candour is required, says Augustine Brown, if mothers are ever to be seen as independent of their children. And this is where the subject of regret introduces a radical new twist in the mother plot: It introduces the notion that mothers can exist autonomously from their children.
Augustine Brown says she’s candid with her children, telling them that being a mother is not the most important aspect of her life. “They know it ties with my work and who I am,” she says. They also know she enjoys her time away when she travels for work. “They cry when I leave but I feel it’s important for them to know they’re not the centre of the world.” Slowly, we’re also hearing from those assumed to be the victims of parental regret: the children of women who voice it. Last year, the Guardian profiled Victoria Elder, who posted about her feelings of maternal regret on the online question-and-answer site Quora (“I felt like, and still feel like, I made a mistake,” she wrote). Elder’s 18-year-old daughter, Morgane, told the paper her mother shared the post with her first. She has no doubt her mother loves her, she said: “She’s always been there.” She also expressed anger at the criticism her mother endured: “There were a bunch of people calling her a liar and a horrible mum, which really made me upset, because I know what she’s really like.”
Donath predicts discussion of maternal regret will remain polarized—“between rage and denying its existence, and acknowledging its significance and its social meanings”—even as more women come forward. There’s no catharsis, no happy ending, of the sort expected from women, she says. Recognizing regret as part of the maternal experience requires a sea change in thinking: that “mothers are owners of their bodies, thoughts, emotions, imagination and memories—and are capable of acknowledging whether all of this was worthwhile or not.” And that may be regretful mothers’ most lasting legacy of all.
* Requested that only her first name be used.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the source of data that most child care and housework is still performed by women; it was StatsCan’s 2015 General Social Survey, not StatsCan’s 2017 census.