The parents who regret having children

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock Photo: Alamy

"I love my kids but I sometimes I wish I was single and living the free life. Did you ever have these thoughts, too?"

That's the candid confession one woman has shared on the forum Stay At Home Mum - and she's not the only one admitting to motherhood regrets. 

"I wouldn't have kids if I had my life over again," said another. "I love them to death but having kids sent me on a life path that has not been good."

"Honestly... yes," said another. "They're just fleeting thoughts, but I do have them. Hubby and I actually talk about it together occasionally! Just tongue in cheek, but secretly I think we both know there's about one per cent, (maybe two per cent) truth to it."

Others admitted that while they didn't regret having their kids, they do dream about a child-free life. "I don't regret [my kids], but I do daydream about what my life may have been like without them," said one mum. 

The mums on the SAHM forum are not alone in sharing their feelings of regret. Over on Facebook, a community called I Regret Having Children boasts over 10,000 members. 

"This page is here to let all the mothers and fathers know that regretting having a kid(s) is not abnormal and shouldn't be a taboo subject," it reads. 

Stories are shared anonymously - and there's even a warning against soliciting babies for adoption.

In a recent post, a mum shares that while her baby daughter was planned - she "hates every single second of looking at her".

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"I've never been a kid or baby person but everyone always said you will feel differently about your own," she writes.

"THEY WERE WRONG!!! I thought if other people are having kids it must be great. NO!!! It's like other parents don't tell you how shit being a mother is because they want to trap others in the shitty parent world with them. I do love my daughter. It's not her fault that my hormones and society tricked me into thinking children complete your life."

But while the mum originally thought she might have been suffering from postnatal depression, the feelings haven't subsided.

"After taking antidepressants, doubling the dosage and speaking to a psychologist, it has confirmed my worst nightmare - that no amount of happy drugs or talking will ever fix the enormous regret I have to carry for the rest of my life."

Motherhood regret over the lifespan is a subject Israeli sociologist Orna Donath explored in research published in 2016. In her paper, she quotes the writer Adrienne Rich: 

"My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness." She also notes that motherhood itself is rarely associated with regret, unlike other life events and decisions, "and the potential presence of regret is disregarded".

As part of her study, Donath interviewed 23 women aged from mid twenties to mid seventies – all of whom regretted their choice to have children. What she found was that while most of the mothers stressed that they love their children, they hate the "maternal experience". 

"It's complicated because I regret becoming a mother, but I don't regret them, who they are, their personality. I love these people," one interviewee said. 

For many of the women in Donath's research, the regret was tied up with loss – loss of self, freedom and time. And while most could identify positive aspects of motherhood, for the majority of mums interviewed, "the disadvantages outweighed the benefits".

Speaking to Essential Kids last year, Sydney psychologist Jocelyn Brewer explained that feelings of regret can occur on a spectrum from mild longing for a life before or without kids, to significant psychological distress caused by parenting when circumstances might be complicated. So what can parents do to cope?

Brewer suggested that one approach is setting up systems or strategies to ensure parents receive some time out from parenting and respite from its demands, "to help them regain their sense of self, gather their energy, and maybe make a plan for how they can alleviate their stressors".

"Having friends and family who you can gather support from and talk with is also key to feeling connected and supported," she added. But where support from family and friends or venting in online groups or forums like Stay At Home Mum and the Facebook group I Regret Having Kids, isn't enough, more formal help may be required.

Brewer advised parents to seek professional help when feelings of regret are intense and/or frequent, to the degree that they are impairing their ability to care for their children. "If the feeling is persistent and significant it can require additional skills to help reframe and build new ways of seeing the situation and approaching the role," she explained.

"We put so much time and energy into preparing for birth of children," Brewer noted, "but when we have them needing support with parenting or attending parenting classes it's really stigmatised as something being wrong with the parent to need help and advice.

"I think birth is a relatively straight forward and temporary process - it's the next 18 years which we need the real guidance on," she said.