Most mothers feel at some stage that they’d like a break from the endless demands of small people, to reacquaint themselves with who they used to be – or to just drink a cup of tea in peace.
But what if that feeling persists?
What if a mother suspects she has made a horrible mistake having children? In a society that idealises and sanctifies motherhood, it can be almost impossible to voice these fears aloud.
Yet Dr Orna Donath, research sociologist and author of Regretting Motherhood, says it is likely far more common that we realise. “Often [the regret] boils down to two main reasons; the experience of responsibility that never ends – even as grandmothers – and the knowing feeling that motherhood doesn’t suit them,” she says.
“Motherhood might change women’s lives in ways they could not have predicted up until one second before birth. If we don’t treat motherhood as a mythical kingdom, and if we treat mothers as human beings, then we should be able to comprehend that flesh-and-blood women might think and feel that they have made a mistake.”
Here, three women who have had second thoughts about becoming mothers tell their stories.
Graphic designer, mother of one
“Most days I don’t feel like I’m parenting, but shifting gears; doing the bare minimum to get my daughter to and from where she needs to be so that I can say I’ve done my job. It’s both the least I can do and the most I can do. My heart isn’t in any of this. I went into motherhood at age 33 excited about the future, and in my head everything looked like one big nappy cream commercial with a happy, bouncy baby and a cooing mum constantly hovering adoringly nearby.
Nothing could have prepared me for the reality of the constant demands, the damaged relationships or the loss of my freedom. Suddenly I was expected to be chained to this little human day and night, and although I knew that was the way it would be before I had a baby, thinking about it and living it year-on-year are two very different things.
At first people thought I had postnatal depression, but I knew it was more than that; deep down I just knew I’d made a terrible mistake and that I should never have become a mum. Some women aren’t cut out for it, and the unfortunate thing is that sometimes there’s just no way of knowing which way you’ll swing until you come home with a baby. And then it’s all too late, you’re trapped. And that’s exactly how I feel most days – trapped.
I was worried, of course, so I did the counselling thing and the medication thing, but by the time my daughter was four years old , I knew it had nothing to do with postnatal depression and everything to do with the fact that I wasn’t mum material.
You can’t tell people that, though, because unless you’re of the opinion that having kids is the best thing ever, you get crucified. So you learn to smile a lot and say the right things and do the right things in order to fit in.
I haven’t even told my husband because he’d probably think I’m a monster. That only serves to make me feel more alone in the world.
My daughter is 11 now and some days I feel like she’s onto me. She has a way of looking at me like she can see straight into my soul and I’m terrified I’m damaging her. I wish I could tell her it’s not that I don’t love her – I love her immensely and I’m so, so proud of the person she’s growing up to be – but it’s motherhood with all of its limitations that I struggle with.
I wish I could tell her that I’m just as surprised as she is and that I went into this with the best of intentions. But mostly, I think I would tell her that I’m sorry and that I would have wished better for her.”
Corporate lawyer, mother of two
“When I had my first baby at 35, I was what you would call the ultimate career woman. I had several phones, a calendar full of meetings and a husband who worked in same field – although I was always just that little bit ahead. I went on maternity leave confident I could just pick up where I left off, and of course my world just imploded.
For the past eight years, I’ve watched my husband’s career rise and rise while mine has deflated like a balloon, as though it popped out a baby and came crashing down to earth.
I went into motherhood without thinking too much about how much I wanted it personally, only that it was just something everyone was expected to do. I hadn’t been around babies before and had no idea what I was doing, so the sense of shock when I first held my daughter was overwhelming. Prior to motherhood, I was a runner – I left jobs when I didn’t want to work there any more and relationships when I no longer felt they were working.
Suddenly, here I was in this situation where I couldn’t run. Instead of that grand rush of love everyone talks about, I became aware that I was no longer free, and that quite possibly I had ruined a life that had been pretty great.
My daughter has special needs and that is tough on a day-to-day basis, but for me, the hardest thing has been the loss of my identity and the loss of agency. I began grieving for everything that seemed lost to me, and that’s not easily done because you’re grieving in a space where you’re not allowed to grieve, so there’s a real cognitive dissonance with everything around you.
When my daughter was four months old, I began working part-time again, but felt like I couldn’t do anything – my job or parenting – as well as I’d hoped, and that only added to my disappointment.
My husband and I thought giving our daughter a sibling to focus on would make things less intense and so our son was born five years ago. We are on the right track – things are better at home now – but careerwise, I still struggle with what is and what could have been.
I worked in my own business part-time for years, but it often felt like I was spending most of my time watching YouTube tutorials on how to fold fitted sheets. Every time I was asked, ‘Where is my dinner?’ I’d immediately think, ‘How did this become my life? Who am I?
Where did I go?’ Yesterday I was offered a job which is the equivalent of the work that I did pre-children, but part-time and earning a third of the salary I was on back then. I accepted it.
Today I can say my children are an absolute delight, but I don’t mind admitting it’s taken me many years and a lot of work on myself to get there. Acceptance of my situation has been key, as has very deliberately hugging my daughter for no reason. I don’t know why, but this simple act of human touch and connection has changed us both and while I still have days when I hate motherhood, it’s no longer every minute of every day. Some days are filled with pure joy.”
Public relations executive, mother of two
“Sometimes, when I’m doing the school run, or making dinner, I daydream about what my life could have been had I not had children so young. Would I have travelled? What kind of heights could I have reached in my career? But most of all, I wonder if I would be happier.
Getting pregnant at 20 was a huge shock to both me and my boyfriend. We’d only been together a year and were firmly in that whole going out and partying phase – a baby was not in our plans! But we decided it was meant to be and at the age of 21, I became a mother to a little girl.
To give you an idea of the mindset of somebody of that age, after I came home from hospital, I got a call from a girlfriend, not because she wanted to meet the baby, but because she wanted to ask if I was free to go out drinking. That was the moment I realised I was on a very different path to that of my friends and I suddenly felt quite lonely.
My resentment towards my partner kicked in around the three-week mark when I realised his life really hadn’t changed all that much. I tried not to pay too much attention to those niggling thoughts initially, but when I went back to work part-time when my daughter was 10 months old and I commenced the work-family juggle, I realised just how furious I had become with him.
I was trying to hold down a job, do the childcare run and keep the house afloat with the meals, laundry and cleaning and then I’d get, ‘I don’t know what you’re so upset about? You get to have fun at home for most of the week away from work.’ He just couldn’t understand what a blow motherhood had been to my sense of self, relationships and career, and we ended up in couples counselling.
Truth be told, a sense of regret has really only made its presence felt since our son was born two years ago. It wasn’t my choice to have another baby so soon, but I have to have a full hysterectomy soon, so the doctors informed me it was very much a ‘now or never’ situation.
The birth itself was fine, but as my son has grown older and his demands have become more constant, I’ve realised that they’ve worn me down. I would just like one day when I don’t have to hear, ‘I want’, ‘I need’ and ‘Do this’ but I know I’m not likely to get that wish for another 20 years, if ever.
I try to talk to people about how I feel, but they tend to shut me down – even the ones I know feel the same way. Maybe it touches too close to the bone, who knows?
It’s easy to focus on all the things you’re missing out on – sometimes I can’t help myself. I think about the jobs I can’t go for because I’m currently limited in what I can do, and the friendships that have fallen by the wayside.
I know I shouldn’t wish my children’s childhood away but I dream of the day they’re older and have more independence so that I can stop being just a mum 24/7 and go back to being me.
Names have been changed.
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