When I was pregnant with my first baby, there were plenty of people ready to give me advice.
Most of it related to how much my life was about to change ‘for the better’ once my baby was born.
There’s no doubt about it. Having children absolutely changes your life. And for most women, becoming a mother is the best thing they’ve ever done.
We expect motherhood to be different from how life was before. We know there’s going to be less sleep involved, our bodies will change, and the love we feel for our little one will buoy us up, through the long days and even longer nights ahead.
Motherhood Regret – Do Women Really Regret Having Children?
The truth is, society tends to gloss over one very important thing: motherhood is a lot more than just adding another member to the family.
Often we ignore the very important transition a woman makes from not being a mother, to being a mother. It’s a transformation that goes unnoticed and unacknowledged, often leading mothers to question the choices they’ve made.
But there’s something else we’re not talking about. It’s that group of women who don’t live in a post-baby bliss bubble. These are women who regret becoming mothers.
The Mythical Ideal Of Motherhood
Motherhood is socially and culturally held up as the pinnacle achievement of womanhood. Therefore it’s pretty hard for any woman to escape the expectation of becoming a mother at some stage of her life.
The maternal myth is woven into every human culture, with figures from the Virgin Mary to the Hindu goddess Durga representing the empowering and protective nature of motherhood.
Consider how women who are childless (or unmarried for that matter) have been treated historically. That’s not to mention the women who consciously decide not to have children, or the women who openly say they dislike babies and children.
Our culture holds tightly to its belief all women are hard wired to become mothers. This continues, despite there being absolutely no evidence to back up this concept.
In his book The Maternal Instinct: Mother Love and the Search for Human Nature, Professor Maria Vicedo-Castello reviews the history of scientific views about maternal instinct.
He concludes: “There is no scientific evidence to claim that there is a maternal instinct that automatically gives women the desire to have children, makes women more emotional than men, confers upon them a higher capacity for nurturance, and makes them better equipped to rear children than men”.
What we think of as maternal instinct is nothing more than a cleverly designed hook on which women are left dangling, generation after generation.
Children, particularly girls, are taught from a very young age the most important job of their life will to be have children. The notion of motherhood as a job is also a clever bit of disguise. After all, if society says motherhood is a vocation then its importance supersedes everything – despite the long hours and rubbish pay.
The Motherhood Lies
When we talk about becoming a mother, there’s plenty of advice around, about what is and isn’t acceptable.
Don’t drink, smoke or eat soft cheeses, to give your baby the best start to life. Make sure you exercise and get plenty of rest now, because you’ll have basically no chance for at least the first six months after the baby is born.
Make plenty of time for your partner because he will feel left out after the baby is born, when your attention span is limited to squeezing sleep out of the allotted time given to you, or anticipating the baby’s needs.
Forget having any time to read a book, see a movie or be quietly by yourself for the next few years. Don’t worry about it if you start to forget things or feel too overwhelmed to go to the shops. That’s part of motherhood too.
It’s no wonder most women go into motherhood expecting it to be hard work. But here’s the biggest shock – the critical turning point for most women:
Although society’s expectations demand we fit the motherhood mould, society is certainly not going to sit around and hold our hand while we do it.
Pregnant women are more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace than their male contemporaries. They are more likely to be made redundant. In many countries, paid maternity leave is nonexistent or not guaranteed, forcing women to return to work soon after birth in order to hold on to their jobs.
Childcare is expensive and often hard to access, and the simple fact that they have children renders most women less employable, because work outside the home is seen to be secondary to their ‘real’ job of raising their children.
Motherhood As A Real Job
And while we’re talking about that, what exactly is the real job of motherhood? Most women report they do most of the work of raising the children and the domestic chores. The job isn’t paid, there’s no superannuation, holiday pay or sick leave.
Women are expected constantly to put their own needs on the second tier, while they tirelessly attend to and prioritise the lives of every other member of the family.
Women are expected to play the motherhood gig and love it. If for one moment a woman feels like a failure, or thinks there should be more to life, she is conveniently reminded it’s all part of the sacrifice women make for their children, and it’s what she signed up for.
This attitude towards motherhood as women’s great sacrifice just pushes the problem further away.
The truth is, women are unsupported and feel isolated because they don’t manage to fit the ideal image of motherhood – the empowered and nurturing woman, who has a tidy house, goes to every school event, and is always present for her children and partner.
Society continually focuses on one part of women’s identity and ignores the larger part of who they are. That’s why many women feel alone and that they’ve failed.
How women see themselves often doesn’t match up with that smaller image held up as the ideal. At some point, as a result, most women will wonder what on earth they were thinking when they had children.
A woman only has to voice her regret at becoming a mother and people want to shut her down. No one wants to hear a woman say out loud that if she had her time again, she might’ve made different choices about becoming a mother.
Orna Donath, an Israeli sociologist who specialises in gender and women’s health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, brought the topic of motherhood regret out into the open with her 2015 study.
Donath interviewed 23 mothers, including five grandmothers, who all said they regretted becoming mothers. She asked two key questions: “If you could go back, with the knowledge and experience you have now, would you still become a mother?” and “From your point of view, are there advantages to motherhood?”
Every mother in the group answered the first question negatively. If they answered yes to the second question, they were asked a third: “From your point of view, do the advantages outweigh disadvantages?”
All the mothers responded with a resounding no.
There are many reasons why women feel they would’ve done things differently if they had their time again.
Motherhood isn’t simply about having children. Social expectations and demands are constant. A woman is expected to have a baby, bounce back and get on with caring for everyone else, and probably to take on paid employment as well.
Before having a baby, a woman might be financially independent, have a fulfilling career, interests and relationships. Afterwards, there is financial instability or dependence, a lack of mental stimulation, no energy for her interests and a huge impact on her relationships.
When I was unexpectedly pregnant with my third child, I struggled to feel positive about it. There weren’t many people who were willing to hear how desperately I missed my pre-children life, as I faced an additional five or six years of intensive parenting.
I was bombarded with constant reminders of how society didn’t want to hear my regrets. I was privileged to be experiencing motherhood and those pesky feelings of regret weren’t part of that picture.
When women say they regret becoming mothers, they’re not expressing a wish their children hadn’t been born.
Most women feel obliged to preface any statement of motherhood regret with a statement about how much they love their children, so they won’t be seen as ‘unnatural’.
Regretting motherhood is about women not liking the job they’ve been conned into thinking they were taking on. It’s a job they can’t quit – or at least if they do they are judged harshly.
Motherhood isn’t just about having children. Women are handed a baby and an extensive list of unspoken job criteria, which essentially become the badge of motherhood. There’s very little training beforehand and virtually no support afterwards.
The truth is, if women were valued, rewarded and supported in their transition to motherhood, they would be less likely to regret making the choice to become a mother.