Child-free women like myself often feel apprehensive about sharing their decision with others, and for good reason.
This deeply personal choice is frequently met with confused, blank stares, assurances that I will “change my mind” and concerns about who will look after me when I’m older (to which the answer is hopefully a trained nurse).
But perhaps worst of all are those who genuinely think they are being kind, looking me in the eyes and asking earnestly: “But what if you regret it?”
No matter how many times I hear this, I’m at a loss for words as to how to respond. Is the small chance that I may one day feel differently really a legitimate reason to bring another human into the world?
The double standard is so striking that it’s almost amusing to imagine the shock and outrage that would follow if someone asked an expecting parent if they had concerns about regretting their decision to have a child.
I’ve always thought it seemed like an awful amount of pressure to put on a child, expecting them to fulfil you in every way because of the sacrifices you have made to birth and raise them.
Isn’t choosing not to start a family a far less permanent and irreversible decision? Isn’t it more responsible and less selfish to abstain from creating a human life just to fit in with social norms, or because I’m afraid I might someday be lonely?
People are often surprised at the conviction I have about not wanting children, seeing it as an extreme lifestyle choice. Personally, I find the idea of making an irreversible decision that transforms your existence forever without being certain it’s what I want more extreme.
Motherhood is undeniably an amazing, beautiful and fulfilling choice for many women. As is, I expect, being a politician or a brain surgeon.
That doesn’t mean that everyone who doesn’t pursue those paths is destined to lead a life of regret. Nor does having children make you immune to doubts, or moments where you wish you had made different choices in the past.
Do women ever regret having children?
If child-free women fear stigma and shame for their choices, it’s easy to imagine why existing or expectant mothers don’t speak openly about fears or regrets.
The idea that, once conceived, your child is not the centre of your world and an unlimited source of joy is quite taboo in a society characterised by pronatalism. The result is that many parents deny or ignore their feelings of regret out of fear of judgement from others or, indeed, themselves.
This is reflected by a small but growing area of research exploring the social and psychological factors that influence parental regret. Parents who admit to regretting having children, usually anonymously, often cite feelings of burnout, financial strain, and unexpected responsibilities as the reason for their doubts. These parents adore their children but find the role of caregiving more demanding than expected.
It’s no secret that parenthood is difficult, with the bulk of the expectations and responsibilities often falling mostly to the mother figure. It is important not to shame or further stigmatise women who are struggling with their childcare duties by assuming there is something less nurturing or dedicated about mothers who experience regret, be it sporadic or ongoing.
Matters of privilege also come into play regarding how ‘easy’ or fulfilling the experience of being a parent can be. Single parents, parents without adequate social or material support, parents with their own mental health issues or disabilities and parents whose children have unexpected health complications all face a much greater level of strain and risk of burnout.
It does not necessarily reflect less love or devotion to their children, nor a lack of skills at being a parent, to have regrets. Every family situation is different, and judging another mother by your own experiences and expectations only widens inequities and keeps already struggling women oppressed and unsupported.
How gender inequities contribute to parental regret
In addition to family-specific challenges that may cause feelings of remorse, the broader matter of gender inequity also has a role to play. Mothers are more likely to face the agonising choice between their career and their family, even if in theory they are free to pursue both.
Gender bias creates a greater expectation that women will raise children and maintain the household, even when they work as many or more hours than their partner.
Gender bias causes people to subconsciously judge the parenting skills of mothers more harshly than fathers, leading to high rates of perfectionism among women – a factor that is associated with higher rates of parental burnout.
When you think about it, this isn’t really surprising; if we expect women to be dedicated mothers, high-performing employees, expert homemakers, manager of the family, and do it all while looking like a supermodel, is it any wonder that some end up doubting if they are cut out for parenthood after all? Perhaps parental regret doesn’t reflect personal shortcomings at all, but rather a glaring lack of support for women to cope with the enormous weight of societal expectations.
Wondering what might have been doesn’t mean a mother doesn’t adore their child or enjoy being a parent. In fact, it might be a perfectly natural and expected response to childrearing in a world that seems determined to dwindle a woman’s full life experience into stereotypical roles of service: mother, wife, homemaker, caretaker.
Rather than asking what is ‘wrong’ with a person who regrets having children, perhaps it is time to zoom out and look at what supports are lacking for parents with less robust personal support networks. Ignoring the very real sacrifices made when children are born only perpetuates stigma and narrow stereotypes about how women ‘should’ feel and think about parenthood.
Even if you do possess certain levels of privilege, it is not a sign of poor parenting to miss things about your child-free life. Spontaneous trips, late nights with friends, or the ability to stay back at work to finish an exciting project or network with peers all become rare luxuries when you have children waiting for you at home.
Having moments of regret or even resentment is a natural emotional response to a serious upheaval of your lifestyle and priorities, which seem to be far more acceptable for men, who remain free to pursue their ambitions and hobbies even if they are also fathers.
Whether you are a child-free woman, a parent who has some niggling regrets, or a mother who couldn’t dream of living any other way, part of the solution is to drop the judgement of each other and ourselves.
We need to stop pretending that life isn’t complicated, messy and uncertain, and that having moments of regret about such an enormous, permanent and life-changing decision is something to be ashamed of.
It simply means that you are a human doing your best, just like the rest of us.
Do you need help?
If you are struggling with the challenges of parenthood, you are not alone. It is a sign of immense strength to reach out for help. Parentline is a statewide telephone counselling and support service for all Victorian parents and carers of children from 0-18 years. Experienced social workers, psychologists and family therapists can give you counselling and information around a wide range of parenting issues. Help is available from 8am to midnight, seven days a week, every day of the year, by calling 13 22 89.