When parents regret having children

It's seen as a taboo subject, but some parents regret having children.
It's seen as a taboo subject, but some parents regret having children. Photo: Getty Images

While many of us can relate to experiencing transient feelings of, "I don't want to be a parent today" for some mothers and fathers those feelings go much deeper. In fact, a growing number of parents are taking to forums and social media to voice their regret around having kids, sharing that if they had their time again, they'd choose not to have children at all. 

One such community is the Facebook page "I Regret Having Children". Designed to "let all the mothers and fathers know that regretting having a child or children is normal and shouldn't be taboo", parents post their stories anonymously and receive support from those facing similar challenges.

"Do I regret having children? Hell yes I do," writes one commenter. "I love them, but I gave up everything for them, including my identity. Now I want it back. I even sacrificed my own happiness and did not date again. I regret making those sacrifices. I regret having as many as I did."

Another writes, "How do I raise my son simultaneously loving him and knowing that he was the worst thing that's ever happened to me?"

"I am the father of a beautiful 7 month old girl who I love dearly.... but am completely miserable," one dad shares. "The highlight of my days is when everyone else is asleep so I can play video games for an hour before I have to go to bed…"

"I often wish I'd never had her," writes one mum. "I LOATHE getting up before 8am but I feel it really really deep inside like they've taken away my rights. I could have money, a decent job, a sex life, sleep...! I MISS my other half …I miss ME."

Mothers, in particular, who regret having children was the focus of a study conducted last year by Israeli sociologist Orna Donath. "Motherhood may be a font of personal fulfilment, pleasure, love, pride, contentment, and joy," she writes, adding that for some women, however, it may also be a "realm of distress, helplessness, frustration, hostility and disappointment …"

And yet, Donath argues, while we can regret not having children, deciding not to have more children, or not spending enough time with our kids, "motherhood itself is rarely associated with regret, and the potential presence of regret is disregarded."

As part of her research, Donath interviewed 23 women aged from mid twenties to mid seventies – all of whom regret becoming mothers.

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Like the Facebook group where parents generally reinforce how much they love their kids despite their feelings of regret, the women in Donath's study often expressed a similar sentiment.  "Most of the mothers stressed that they love their children but hate the maternal experience," she said. In other words, while they regret becoming mothers the regret has nothing to do with the children themselves.

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".

So just how common are these feelings? Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer says 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. 

"There might be moments of families feeling overwhelmed and burnt out with the demands of parenting which is relatively normal, " she says, "but for some having a very deeply negative response, not to their children per se, but what they might see their kids as representing can be more long term and entrenched. "

For some men, she says, resentment and remorse might occur around accidental conception of children or in situations when they didn't feel they had a choice.

What can parents do to cope with feelings of regret? As Brewer notes, it all comes down to the situation. "Sometimes for mums whose kids remind them of abusive ex-partners they need help to differentiate their child from the father of the child by working on developing a new, unique relationship and considering the child as separate to their pure biology,' she says. 

In other cases, Brewer explains that it might be about 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 adds.

In certain circumstances, however, support from family and friends, or venting in online groups just isn't enough. Brewer advises 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 explains.

Sometimes, Brewer continues, regret can manifest as difficulty with managing children's behaviour or changes in an intimate partnership. "Getting help to address underlying issues will help parents develop or re-establish healthy attachments to their children," she says.

"We put so much time and energy into preparing for birth of children," Brewer notes, " 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 says. 

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