The Mothers Who Regret Having Kids

Research shows that 97 percent of moms believe the rewards of being a parent outweigh the cost. But what about the 3 percent of mothers who disagree?

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May 6 2016, 4:00am

Still from 'Mad Men.' Photo via IMDB/Lionsgate Television

On paper, modern motherhood can seem like a raw deal. Infant care costs more than college in some states, moms are routinely shamed on social media for looking either too pregnant or not nearly pregnant enough, and America is still the only developed nation that doesn't offer paid maternity leave. But for all the economic, emotional, and physical strife associated with bringing kids into the world, few mothers would ever admit to regretting their decision to do so.

"Saying you regret having your kids? It just seems so profoundly norm-violating," says Robin Simon, a Wake Forest University sociology professor who specializes in the mental health effects of parenting. "I don't think that very many parents do regret it, in part because the ideology is so powerful. They don't regret it. They're just like, Wow, I didn't know it would be this hard."

Feelings of regret among mothers aren't just culturally taboo—they're also incredibly rare, according to one study conducted by the US Department of Health and Human Services between 2002 and 2003. Of the more than 7,000 mothers surveyed, an overwhelming 97 percent said they agreed with the statement: "The rewards of being a parent are worth it despite the cost and the work it takes." But the data raises the question: What about the 3 percent of mothers who disagreed?

"R" is one of those mothers for whom the turmoil of parenting far outweighs the rewards. Afraid to tell anyone she knew about her parental remorse, she turned to the internet for answers and in July 2012 founded a Facebook group for parents who regret having children. Four years and nearly 2,000 members later, she now knows she's not the only one who feels this way. "We get countless people who thank us for the page, because we are accepting, and we show the brutal reality of parenthood—that parenthood isn't just smiles and laughter," Zephyr, a co-moderator of the group, wrote to me in a Facebook message. (Both he and R wished to be identified only by their first names or initials.)

For many of the group's members, who submit their confessions via Facebook messages for Zephyr and R to repost anonymously, the community is the only socially acceptable forum to utter the kind of feelings most parents would consider unfathomable—and even online, it can be tough to open up.

"The parents are very nervous about coming forward with their confessions, mainly because they don't want their families to look down on them, or their children finding out, and having issues arise," Zephyr told me. Their anxieties are not without merit: The Facebook group has been repeatedly attacked, spammed, and reported by "happy parents," as Zephyr calls them, or people who see the page as offensive, demeaning, and even abusive.

"The comments range from the typical sexist 'You should have thought about keeping your legs closed' comments directed at the mothers to [threats] directed at parents about being 'doxxed,'" Zephyr explained. Others have threatened to call protective services on members of the group, based on their confessions.

When studying parents in comparison to their childless counterparts, researchers have found that "parents, and mothers in particular, do not report greater happiness, greater health, greater psychological well-being than people who have never had kids," according to Simon, who is herself a mother and grandmother. She insists motherhood can be an incredibly pleasurable, fulfilling experience, but "it's just that those benefits are elusive," at least from a scientific perspective. "It's very hard for researchers to put their finger on it. I mean, it's really sad," she said, adding that the lack of financial and social support for families in the US doesn't make things any easier on parents.

When it comes to parenthood, women can often face even greater challenges, in part due to workplace biases. In a study published in 2014, University of Massachusetts sociologist Michelle Budig found that women typically experienced a 4 percent decrease in wages for every child they've mothered; men, on the other hand, saw a 6 percent wage increase after becoming fathers. Not only that, but mothers are typically hired for lower pay and receive fewer raises and promotions compared to their childless counterparts, studies show. Researchers have dubbed it the "motherhood penalty." But for all the attention paid to the psychological and professional downsides of motherhood, very few researchers have actually investigated mothers who regret motherhood.

Orna Donath, an Israeli sociologist specializing in gender and women's health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is one of the few academics to tackle the subject. Last year, she conducted interviews with a group of 23 mothers, including five grandmothers, who all said they regretted giving birth. She determined regret by asking 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?" All of the mothers in the study answered the first question negatively, and if they answered yes to the second question, they were asked a third: "From your point of view, do the advantages outweigh disadvantages?" They all responded with a resounding no.

Donath says the study—and the book it inspired, Regretting Motherhood, which was published in Germany in February—isn't intended to be a generalization of all mothers, nor is it representative of an average population. "On the contrary, the aim from the outset was to sketch a complex roadmap that will allow mothers from diverse social groups to locate themselves on it in order to allow a variety of subjective maternal experiences to exist," Donath wrote to me in an email. As a woman who always knew she never wanted to have kids, she says she conducted the research in part to address the dearth of scholarship on the taboo topic.

"The existence of regretting motherhood tends to be denied and therefore, allegedly, there is nothing to study about," she wrote. But her focus groups prove otherwise, and the research has opened up the possibility for deeper analysis among larger sample groups, and at the very least, more open conversations among mothers about having regret.

When Isabella Dutton wrote about regretting motherhood for the Daily Mail in 2013, she received a storm of criticism online. The most "liked" comment on the article called her "an utterly miserable, cold-hearted, and selfish woman." Backlash aside, the article also resonated with parents who identified with Dutton's regret—and admired her honesty. A Google search of her name today reveals pages of blog posts, essays, and online forums from parents celebrating, defending, and pledging gratitude to Dutton for saying the previously unspeakable.

Others besides Dutton are coming forward, too. In March, mother Simone Chubb wrote an article for XO Jane titled, "I Love My Baby, But I Regret Becoming a Mother," in which she detailed her physically grueling pregnancy and her post-partum lack of sex life and self-confidence—not to mention depression and lack of sleep. As well, anonymous forums like Reddit, Quora, and Whisper are riddled with threads from mothers attempting to reconcile their own regret. They might discover they're not alone in feeling it.

Follow Jennifer Swann on Twitter.

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