The Things We Don't Discuss

Why does the very concept of parental regret engender such outrage?

1Last week (and into this one) a lot of people got mad at me for tweeting that I would love to read more essays and articles about women who regretted some aspect of parenthood, whether that was having children too early, having children with the wrong person, having children later in life, having more children than they may have wanted, or having children at all. Perhaps I am naive, but I was surprised by the level of vitriol and blowback. After all, the personal essay economy is huge, and women especially are encouraged to mine nearly every aspect of our lives for public consumption and discussion. That’s especially true when it comes to motherhood, which is an omnipresent if often shallowly-discussed topic in women’s magazines, on opinion pages, in women-centric fiction, and on and on. There isn’t a whole lot about motherhood that hasn’t been thoroughly publicly excavated — that is, except regret.

There are good reasons for that. First is the fact that, judging by my replies, maternal regret is among the most stigmatized topics around. I have pretty thick skin and a pretty high tolerance for being yelled at on the internet and told I’m a horrible person, and even I was truly shocked by the outrage leveled at the very question of whether people should speak honestly about regretting their reproductive choices. What mom is going to sign herself up for that? Second is that clear and unequivocal parental regret is probably relatively rare, at least if we conceive of it as an overwhelming and persistent emotion (which I’m not sure it is, but more on that later). Writing about regretting parenthood also poses a clear danger of deeply wounding your child, which most parents don’t want to do. Third is that maternal regret is complicated. A woman can regret being a mother and all that comes with it without regretting or resenting the existence of children she loves. Motherhood in the US is both socially venerated and functionally isolating; we push mothers out of the public square and into the domestic sphere, while holding up an ideal of maternity that is inward-looking, quiet, and selfless. Women face huge costs for violating that ideal, and it definitely violates the ideal to muse that maybe they would have done things differently had they more information, even if that observation is one made with nuance and thoughtfulness. And finally, there is the fact that our understanding of “love” is, for a culture so obsessed with it, remarkably shallow. We think about love as a thing you do or don’t have, an emotion you do or don’t feel. And if you do feel it, then “real” love is so absolute that requires all manner of sacrifice, and any attempt at staking out a more complicated position is taken as a lack of love. This is especially true of maternal love, which is supposed to be all-consuming and entirely selfless.

It was interesting to see a query about maternal regret being interpreted as a request for stories about women who hate their children, or at least don’t love them (one prominent leftist man compared mothers who carry regret or ambivalence to Andrea Yates, a woman with a serious mental illness who murdered her kids). I am sure there are women out there who don’t love their children, and there are definitely a lot of women out there who abuse and even kill their children, but that’s not what I was thinking about when I said I’d like to see the conversation about maternity expanded to include regret. I came in with the baseline assumption that even women who regret some maternal decision they made still love their children deeply. But holding those two things at once — loving a child more than any creature in the world, also having mixed, ambivalent, or regretful feelings about being a mother — seems impossibly difficult and even profoundly offensive for a wide swath of the population who prefer a simple and rosy story about mothers’ lives.

This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been some limited writing on maternal regret. There’s one book. There was a good article in Macleans three years ago. The British tabloid press occasionally covers the topic, often in the ugliest and most sensationalist terms possible. But mostly, there are anonymous Reddit boards and secret Facebook groups, and women who confide in each other with a sense of relief or shame.

Having now read many of these articles and Reddit posts, what’s clear is that maternal regret, where it exists, isn’t about a lack of parental love. It’s about a lot of women (and surely a lot of men) who adore their children but hate the way that parenting has upended their lives, and say that if they could get a do-over, they wouldn’t have kids. That shouldn’t be shocking, and yet a lot of folks do treat parents (especially mothers) who express regret with the same harshness they retain for women who drown their children in the bathtub. I’m not a parent, let alone a regretful one, but just expressing interest in an under-discussed and taboo part of human existence — something feminists have long done, and certainly part of the job of many journalists — merited all kinds of insults and accusations: That I’m sociopathic, abusive, someone with an empathy deficit on par with a serial killer. In this telling, I’m not a curious person with a life-long interest in the under-discussed aspects of women’s lives; I’m a pathetic childless hag projecting my own insecurities and hoping other awful women’s stories will make me feel better about the selfish decisions that have rendered my life meaningless.

One of the reasons parental regret fascinates me so much is that much of my reporting lately has been on women who are forced into pregnancy and sometimes parenthood. For the last several years, I’ve been working on a long-term project about rape survivors in conflict zones, looking at how their options and futures are invisibly shaped by political decisions made by men who are very far away and who they did not elect. One of the greatest gifts of being a journalist is the fact that people invite you into their homes and their inner lives, and you get to sit as a guest in their experience. Often, people will tell nonjudgmental strangers things they would never even tell their closest friends. Over three years and four countries, I’ve met dozens of women who were pregnant from rape and made all kinds of different choices: Some had abortions (some of them dangerous, most of them clandestine and self-managed, a very small number safe and legal); others were afraid to have abortions or were told that abortion was not a legal possibility and so gave birth, even though they would have made a different decision given the option; others tried to self-induce their own abortions but failed, and wound up giving birth; still others voluntarily carried their pregnancies to term. Among the women who terminated, all of them told me they felt tremendous relief and even happiness. Among the women who carried to term, either by choice or by force or by coercion, every one of them said that they now loved their child, even if life would have been better had they never had her or him. Many expressed both love and regret, trauma and resilience, grief and closure. In previous stories I’ve worked on, I’ve also met women who became pregnant from rape and told me that, early on, they considered killing their infants. I’ve interviewed those women as they nursed those very babies at their breasts.

Can we understand how maternal regret, resentment, guilt, and grief can live in tandem with maternal love when the maternity itself was forced and not consented to? Can we comprehend the fact that a woman can nurse a baby she loves on one breast, and a vision of a life stolen from her on the other?

And if we can extend our empathy and ability to understand the nuances of maternal experience to those lengths — and I would hope we can — can we also extend empathy and nuance to women whose lives may be luckier and more stable, but whose internal worlds are just as messy and complicated?

Parenthood is one of the only decisions a person ever makes that is impossible to take back; it is permanent in a way that is unique among big decisions. Nearly every other big decision, from getting married to buying a house to moving to a new place to taking a job, is undoable. Creating a new person isn’t. The permanence of the choice to become a parent would, you’d think, also make it a decision prime for regret and ambivalence. But maybe that’s also one reason discussing parental regret is so taboo — there’s little to be done about it, no way to throw the car in reverse and back on out of there without causing tremendous suffering. So what’s the point?

One point, I think, is to break out of a regressive model of family and parenting that positions women as universally happy as helpmeets and caregivers, that treats any government support of parents as undue and unnecessary interference, and that justifies maternal isolation and neglect by saying that motherhood is the most important job in the world and besides, all mothers are overwhelmingly happy to be mothers. A more complicated story, one that delves into the ways in which some women look at their pre-parenthood lives and say, “I wish I still lived there,” is both more honest and potentially more effective at breaking down the worst parts of the traditional way of doing things. Because a story of regret is not just a story about the amorphous and unconnected emotions women may or may not have; it’s a story about how some of the resentments and regrets mothers have might be avoidable if we made motherhood less financially difficult, less all-consuming, less self-sacrificial, less definitional, and less personally trying.

Another purpose of inviting maternal regret into the layered public conversation on parenthood is to better understand human experience, and to give all of us a fuller toolkit for life decision-making. The absolute best piece I have ever read on how to answer the question “should I have kids?” is this one by Cheryl Strayed, The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry, which I have passed on to many, many friends. In it, Strayed advises a man who writes in struggling with the do-or-don’t question of reproduction. He and his wife love their lives; they love their freedom, their ability to travel, their late dinners out and Sunday sleep-ins. But at the same time, aren’t they missing out on a crucial realm of human experience, on a relationship and a kind of love that is fundamental to our species and not replicable anywhere else? He writes: “At this point, we’re trying to tease out the signal from the noise: do we want a child because we really want a child or are we thinking about having one because we’re afraid we will regret not having one later?”

In her answer, Strayed departs from the usual advice on whether or not to have a kid, which encourages potential parents to put aside the question of regret, because good decisions aren’t usually made from a place of fear. She says the exact opposite, that actually, “will I regret this?” may be the best way to gauge which decision is the right one:

You say that you and your partner don’t want to make the choice to become parents simply because you’re afraid you “will regret not having one later,” but I encourage you to reexamine that. Thinking deeply about your choices and actions from the stance of your future self can serve as both a motivational and a corrective force. It can help you stay true to who you really are as well as inspire you to leverage your desires against your fears.

Not regretting it later is the reason I’ve done at least three quarters of the best things in my life. It’s the reason I got pregnant with my first child, even though I’d have appreciated another decade from the magic baby fairy, and it’s also the reason I got pregnant with my second child, even though I was already overwhelmed by the first. Because you are content in your current childless life, attempting to determine what you might regret later strikes me as the best way for you to meaningfully explore if having a child is important to you. So much so, that I suspect that whether you’ll regret it later is the only question you must answer. It is the very one that will tell you what to do.

When I first read this column many years ago, I was knocked back on my heels. Of course potential regret should shape your decisions. And of course regret is a multi-layered thing. Strayed uses the image of a “ghost ship” of your life, pulling from a Tomas Tranströmer poem. Writes Strayed:

Every life, Tranströmer writes, “has a sister ship,” one that follows “quite another route” than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the people we might have been live a different, phantom life than the people we are.

When it comes to a question as massive as whether or not to have children, the truth is that many people — I would even say most people in the history of the world — don’t give it a ton of thought. The timing of a particular pregnancy may be a problem, which is why you see abortion in just about every society that has ever existed, but the relationship between adulthood and parenthood has been less a Venn diagram than a perfect circle. Having children is what you do; it’s an assumed part of your future, a necessary component of a socially acceptable adult life. It’s only relatively recently, and still only in particular and relatively rare communities, that parenthood is seen as optional or a “decision” at all.

There are a lot of folks who do not want that to be true, who would like to return to a time when parenthood was compulsory and motherhood a woman’s primary role and full-time job. Women themselves have made that return largely impossible, but we still exist in this in-between state of idealizing motherhood while making it, in practice, often extremely difficult. As more of us are in the privileged, rare, and radically new position to decide if we want to be parents, the weight of potential regret should be placed on the scale along with, or in opposition to, a series of other concerns. But regret should probably sit on both sides, proportionate to its probability — not just “will I regret it if I don’t have kids?” but also “will I regret it if I do?”

There’s a whole lot of conversation (and lecturing) about the potential for regret if you don’t have kids. There’s a whole lot of conversation about the potential for regret if you wait too long to have kids (or if you wait so long it’s too late to have as many as you wanted, or too late to have them without spending a tremendous amount of money on difficult and invasive medical procedures). When women ask themselves “will I regret not having children?” there’s a lot of public information and discourse to pile on the “yes” side. There’s also a growing amount of public information and discourse to stack up on the “no” side: stories of child-free women whose lives are beautiful, enviable, and rich.

What there’s not is much in the way of open and honest discussion that might change the question entirely: “Will I regret having children?” And it’s not just that the dearth of discussion makes it harder for people to adequately assess their own future selves; it’s that the dearth of discussion makes it harder for mothers to adequately understand, process, and respond to their own feelings.

Feminists often talk about “aha” moments: Those times when someone puts a word on something you always had a general sense of unease about, but couldn’t quite explain. From Betty Friedan’s “the problem with no name” to consciousness-raising groups that said “the personal is political” to the way the #MeToo movement created a container within which women could finally fit stories many never even thought to tell, the work of feminism has long been to help women better understand themselves. If there’s little language for something and little space to discuss it, there’s also less of an ability to even identify it in yourself: A part of your life remains in the ephemeral area of felt but unknown. And from that springs dissonance, a sense of something wrong for which there is no name but must reflect deep personal failing.

Why leave this feeling largely unspoken? What is it we fear about women’s stories being complicated and messy? Why is the only moral motherhood one that is selfless and unreflective?

Every choice we make carries consequences. Often, the bigger the choice, the more profound and far-reaching those consequences are. And yet there is stunning silence on one potential consequence of what is arguably the most consequential decision many people will make in their lives.

It’s been fascinating to watch several of my close friends have children, and to observe what surprises them. Some friends aren’t “baby people,” and during pregnancy made peace with the idea the baby years would be tough; they assumed they would better bond with their child during their toddlerhood. What a fantastic surprise to find that they are delighted at how much they adore their baby, and how much more joy and connection they’re experiencing than they expected. Some friends say they were prepared for motherhood being hard, that they had girded themselves for the professional hits and the daily slog, only to be totally emotionally bowled over by how much fun having a kid was — that was the part no one told them about. Others are shocked by what motherhood did to their bodies, feeling like they’re now walking around in skin that isn’t theirs; others have talked about how doctors have treated them more like vessels than people, and how striking it’s been to have been refused necessary treatments or medications because of their pregnant or postpartum status.

Still others love their very wanted and carefully-planned children more than anything and have sacrificed hugely for them — giving up beloved hobbies and homes and relationships, seeing their careers shift in a direction they hadn’t necessarily wanted or anticipated — but also say, in their more honest moments, that despite being happy to do anything and everything for their children, the jury is still out on whether having kids when they did, or at all, was the right call. That’s not regret in the sense of “I wish my child had never been born.” It’s regret in the sense of looking at the phantom life you’re not living and wondering if it might be better on the ghost ship.

I do wish we could talk about this more. I wish there were a way to not conflate the necessary grappling with the choices we make with parental abuse — and it is abusive if a parent says to a child, “I wish you had never been born.” I am admittedly uncomfortable with the degree to which many parents write about their children for public consumption, or post their children’s faces on otherwise professional or political public Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts with tidbits about them. Yes, it’s sweet, and yes it’s a parent’s right, and on the most basic level I really enjoy seeing it. But I also wonder if children don’t have more of a right to privacy, if they don’t deserve to grow up without strangers on the internet knowing who they are, what they’ve said to their parents, what they look like, and on and on. I wonder if children deserve more of a right to construct their own identities into adulthood, even if (especially if) their parents are internet creatures.

And so of course there are ethical questions here, and there is a tension between mothers speaking about the truth of their lives, and the right of a child to not be defined by what a parent wrote about them on the internet. There’s also the question of how a child might feel should they discover that their mother regretted motherhood, no matter how much she emphasized that she loves them.

One way to solve this is anonymity, which is how most of these stories are already written. Another is to expand the depth of the conversation. For example, my mom only got pregnant with me because a doctor told her she was hitting 30 and needed to get started on baby-making ASAP. If she believed she could have waited longer, she would have. I know that story, but it’s never made me feel like I was somehow less wanted because I know my mother may have started having kids later if she thought that was tenable (I also know that my mother would hit the roof if I ever suggested she didn’t want me or regretted having me, and she reads this newsletter, so hi mom I love you and I know I am loved and was very wanted). But point being, had my mom been 29 years old in 2021 instead of 1983, she might have made different reproductive decisions. Those decisions likely would have resulted in me not being in the world. I find that 0% upsetting. We can talk about regret in a similar way: Yes, the outcome may have been different with a different set of options evaluated within a different universe of information, but that doesn’t negate a mother’s love for a child — even a child she might not have had.

It just means that, well, life is complicated, and there are few human relationships richer, more complex, and more fraught than those between parents and children. But those complicated spaces are where the interesting bits lives, if we’re willing to enter.

xx Jill

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