Link that sparked this musing: “I Regret Having Kids”
The piece is fascinating and heartbreaking, discussing the growing numbers of women who admit to regretting having children.
Many thoughts. First, it is so recent that women have had any real autonomy. For most of history the idea of a woman regretting having children would be incoherent. Reliable contraception is such a modern invention! Doors have finally been unlocked to do more in the world, doors which are harder to open when children are born. When I think of my life compared to my great-grandmothers or beyond, it’s laughable that I’d ever complain about anything. They just had such ridiculously hard lives. Workhorse lives, lives bound to their husbands or their children. It’s difficult to comprehend really. Here I am, more years of education than all my great-grandmothers put together, options for my life that they could barely even dream of, it’s mind-blowing.
Yet, with all those options, I never thought too carefully about having children. The desire to be a mother was fundamental and I took it for granted that acting on that desire was the right course. Which I think it has been, I hasten to add! Even in the doldrums of the first winter when I was getting no sleep and felt like the days were long and lonely, I didn’t regret having the little dude. But. I did wistfully think of my friends who didn’t have kids and were travelling overseas, and wish that the hard bits of motherhood got more appreciation. Wished I wasn’t invisible. Wished that people would look at me and say “thanks for taking one for team humanity and making a person and then looking after him, that’s pretty awesome, go you, we all really really appreciate the work you’re doing!” No-one ever says that except some of the coolest other mums.
I can see how some people might regret it. Not just the day to day of looking after them, the whole shebang of a relationship that completely alters who you are. It turns you into someone’s mother! Suddenly there’s this kid who looks to you for, what, like, everything? Whose interests you always need to consider. And it’s not a generic kid, it’s your specific kid, whose personality will shape yours forever more. I didn’t think through what it would mean, not really. And anyway how could you fully get your head around it… how could anyone prepare you for it? I’m still often overwhelmed by the volume of work and the volume of love.
My biggest struggle is feeling torn between the two kids. I crave more one-on-one with the little dude; but when I’m alone with both of them I look forward to my big boy’s days at creche so I can attend to bubba and have the nice baby moments that are starting to feel like they’re running out. I’m getting glimpses now of them playing together, and I know that’ll be the next big thing that expands my heart, seeing them enjoy each other’s company more and more.
Ah, my little darlings, my little loves. It’s the best thing ever if that’s what you’re keen on – but you can regret anything right? People get divorced all the time, people leave their careers and retrain, people move country then change their minds and move back.
And there’s no real payoff beyond the intrinsic joy of spending time with your children. There’s no expectation that your children will give back to you when they are grown. There’s no additional social status or tangible benefits from being a parent. This hasn’t always been the case, it isn’t true in all times and all cultures, and I sort of didn’t fully twig to it until I had kids and realised – oh, this is it. The reward is hand in glove with the daily everything.
The linked piece talks about the flak heaped on regretful mothers and explains it in relation to the necessity of the work, the corresponding necessity of the lie that the role is all joy all the time to justify it being unrecognised and unpaid.
Society’s decisive discomfort with these mothers gets at a larger discomfort with women overall—that we won’t do our fundamental jobs. And that even if we do, we may change our minds.
I think this is true. For many many women, part of the stress of new motherhood is feeling like if you step down, no-one else is stepping up. But also, it doesn’t completely explain the level of recoil towards women who regret having kids. There’s more to it – there’s the deep fear of being unloved, uncared for by our mothers. I have a pretty great relationship with my mother, yet nothing quite flusters me like her disapproval. And I somehow, despite being an adult, expect her to see my emotional needs more clearly than anyone else does. Ridiculous? Yes. Understandable too though. We blanch at the idea that some women regret motherhood because we were all once that kid saying “duddle me”.
I wonder, going on a further limb, if in a world where making it by ourselves is the highest praise, there is a perverse resentment of mothers. Buried disgust at our dependent young selves. We don’t want to acknowledge them and we definitely don’t want to acknowledge their vulnerability, their enormous potential for hurt, their enormous need for people to love them and care for them. So instead – hatred towards mothers who express regret at taking on that role. Who find themselves unsuited for it. Who feel inadequate, unable to meet their children’s needs, and wretched as a result.