Admitting that you regret your children is like confessing to a crime. And those who do are certain to be met with insults, usually along the lines of “why did you have them then you selfish…!” Others will accuse you of ingratitude; just look at all those poor people struggling with IVF, and here you are complaining! Nevertheless, many do have such regrets.
When people feel this way, they usually assume it will pass: the baby that cries all night will change into a sweet toddler, the sulky adolescent into a happily married daughter, and so on. And obviously these feelings often do pass. Many, however, stand by their regret long after the children have left home. In 1975, the advice columnist Ann Landers asked her readers the following question, “if you had to do it over again, would you have children?” Over 10,000 parents responded, and a shocking 70% said no!
The reasons will be familiar to most. Children exhaust you. Babies constantly wake you up, toddlers bicker with their siblings or throw tantrums, teenagers come home late and slam the bedroom door when you ask where they have been. Another common complaint is the simple lack of time. Children demand constant attention, and that means putting your own life on hold. Parents can also be shocked by how selfish and ungrateful a child may be. How often have you seen a mother or father remind their teenager of “all the sacrifices I made for you” only to be met with a sneer or roll of the eyes!?
Perhaps the single biggest regret is the effect children have on one’s relationship. Exhausted parents, without the time to talk or make love, often drift apart. Instead of flirty texts, one partner now sends the other an angry rant about the baby being sick or the toddlers quarreling over toys. Men often grow jealous, complaining that the baby is the center of everything and that they no longer feel appreciated. When he says this, his exhausted, fractious wife reminds him that she isn’t his mother and urges him to grow up. Women who give up a career often feel taken for granted. They may also feel patronised. Highly educated women are appalled at the way others now treat them. Instead of asking whether she has read the latest novel, friends ask solely about the baby.
In general, those with some kind of artistic or craft skill find the loss of time hardest. Many find this kind of joy and fulfillment in raising their children: moulding and shaping them as one moulds or shapes a work of art. But some do not. Instead, they yearn for intellectual stimulation or the thrill of creating. Frankly, many find their children boring and the whole business of parenting monotonous and unfulfilling.
Temporary and Permanent Regret
First, a distinction needs to be made between phases of regret and the sort that persists, unwavering, down the years. Some know they’ve made a mistake almost immediately. And that persistent regret, the sort that lingers even in the good times, is certainly rarer.
People sometimes complain that they were pressured or even tricked into having children. Deep inside they felt no urge, and now they know they should have heeded that. Women in particular feel pressured by family or friends. The clock is ticking, they remind them, and you will regret it if you don’t. Later, when they have the child and feel unhappy, they accuse their parents of wanting grandchildren or their friends of wanting them to endure the same financial pressures.
More generally, people feel pressured by society itself. Even today, well into the 21st century, many single or childless women feel second class, even outcast, for not reproducing. Often, they overhear spiteful comments about how selfish they are. In many cases, those with children exert pressure on them because they resent their freedom.
Of course, people do not raise the same child. Some children are placid and easy going, others impossible to control. Those children who do go off the rails do not always do so because of poor parenting. The truth is that having a child is a lucky dip – you never know what you are going to get. Just look at any large family and you will be struck by the differences between the siblings.
How to Cope
First, cut yourself some slack. You are not a freak or a monster, and you are not alone. Many parents feel the same way – they just won’t admit it. Others live in denial, repressing such thoughts and feelings altogether. Indeed, you have probably met parents who seem to try that bit too hard, whose enthusiasm seems forced and artificial. In such cases, they may be trying to escape their regret and guilt by overcompensating.
Even those who love being parents occasionally yearn for the life that’s gone: the romantic dinners with their partner, the lazy Sundays, the long soak in a hot bath. And no one likes having their smart apartment covered in smelly diapers and plastic toys! But, though an occasional moan about sleepless nights or teenage tantrums is acceptable, admitting you wish you’d never had them is taboo.
That said, you must accept the reality of your situation (the old joke about not being able to send them back is true). And that means really facing up to things; it does not mean resentfully going through the motions. There is a difference between accepting something at a conscious, rational level, and truly accepting it deep in your gut. Many people who harbour regret say “of course I know there is no going back,” when deep down they believe that maybe, somehow, they can.
Above all you must not take out your anger or bitterness on your child. To do so would be an unspeakable act of cruelty. People who feel unwanted or unloved as children carry the scars for life, often feeling worthless and unloveable even as adults. That does not mean lying to yourself; it means doing the best you can.
Though it may sound trite, focus on the positive. Watching a child’s life unfold can be immensely rewarding. As with so many things, the more wrapped up you are in yourself, the more miserable you will be. For example, study her face the first time she experiences snow or sees an elephant at the zoo.
You must also be realistic about other parents and the lives they live. Start by reducing the amount of time you spend on social media. Going on Facebook and scrolling through the photographs of old school friends and work colleagues is foolish. Social media is fantasyland. Never forget, the photos are the highlights of people’s life.
For example, you are having an awful time with your teenager. You then go on Facebook and see an old friend has taken her 15-year-old daughter on a European vacation. Obviously, she is only going to post pictures of them smiling in front of Buckingham Palace or the Eiffel Tower. You won’t find any of her daughter sulkily texting friends about how bored she is, or throwing a tantrum because her hair-straightener got broken during the flight. But that is the reality for everyone.
And be wary of the people you spend time with. Those who love being parents will make you feel isolated and guilty, while those who chose not to will remind you of the life you could have had. The last thing you need is to sit in a cafe with some tanned friend as she tells you about her plans to backpack around India.
Instead, reach out to those who understand. Try searching for an online support or discussion group. Nothing helps more than chatting to people going through the same thing. Parents who feel regret often say they want to scream. This is especially true when the child is young. All day they are surrounded by in-laws or fellow parents telling them how lucky they are, while all they want to do is run away. They then find themselves living a kind of double life, saying one thing and feeling another. In the end, their whole existence becomes a sham: pretending to laugh, pretending to be excited, and so on.
Ideally, meet someone face to face. That does not mean sitting in a cafe all afternoon talking about how much you loathe family life and long to run away. It simply means finding someone who empathises. This kind of regret often leaves people lonely and ashamed. Loneliness begins when we lack intimacy, or when we feel misunderstood and unable to connect with others.
Don’t allow this to become a dark secret. Try discussing your unhappiness with someone who understands, someone who also seems to struggle. And raise the matter tentatively; don’t just blurt out “God I hate being a mother, don’t you”? Remember, even if they do feel the same way, they are likely to be filled with shame and guilt. And that may provoke angry denials. Being able to talk in this way, honestly and frankly, will make you a better not worse parent. If you cannot find a good friend, try therapy. You need some way of easing the tension and stress.
A word of warning, however. When people regret having children, they often feel lonely and frustrated. They long for the life they had before, and they long to feel like their old selves. At this point, they are ripe for an affair. People often have affairs because they want to feel different. They are attracted by the sense of excitement, by the prospect of something different to home life, with its diapers or sulky teenagers. Above all, they want to feel like a sexual being again rather than just a mother or father.
If your children are a little older, try building a new life away from the family home. You must claim this time and space. Teenagers can be incredibly selfish and often forget that their parents are individuals with desires and interests of their own. Talk to your partner and see if some kind of arrangement can be made – just one evening a week when you go to a French class, or simply have the house to yourself.
You cannot help the way you feel. Some people yearn to be parents, and some do not. Some quickly adjust to the reality, and some don’t. There is no simple answer. All you can do is try your best.