Recently, here and there over the past couple of years, in fits and starts, a conversation has begun to open up on a topic so taboo that the people featured in the articles will only do so under the cloak of anonymity, and to which readers have immediate visceral reactions that often tend toward evisceration of said anonymous subjects:
Mothers who regret becoming a mom.
It’s a heavy thing to consider. But I have considered it. Spurred by the secret confessions of women I will never know, the bold confessions of women I do know, and the compounded and cyclical angst of being not only a mother but a sometimes-broke single mother for whom things did not go according to plan, I have asked myself that question: Do I regret having children?
From early childhood, I knew having kids was in my future. I was taught motherhood was the highest and holiest calling in the world, that it was “the full measure of my creation,” and that it, above all other things, would bring me joy. So obviously, I wanted children. In fact, I used to think I wanted a whole gaggle of them.
The seventh of nine children, I grew up with a built-in play group, with big sisters who taught me about periods and let me drive their cars around parking lots years before I was legal, and took me out of the house when my fights with my mom left me locked in my room seething, and with brothers who stereotypically-but-effectively intimidated boys who were being mean to me, and let me tag along when their band played a house party, and drove me 300 miles to theatre camp, and danced to MC Hammer with me in the family reunion talent show.
There were a lot of messy things about growing up in our family but siblings were the best part of it. Of course I was going to give my kids a lot of those. At least, that was the plan when I was 20.
Today, I am 35. Instead of the little-league sized bundle of offspring I’d imagined, I have two kids. Just two — and truth be told, I’m often overwhelmed. Turns out, growing up with kids is a lot different than raising them.
Motherhood is complex. I love my kids like whoa, but the older I get, the more I realize that I’m not naturally well-suited for being a mom. I like having a lot of time to myself. I like quiet. I like working too much. I’d rather watch paint dry than watch a Disney movie.
These are things I didn’t know about myself when I was in my twenties. If I’d waited longer, I might not have had children. I would have realized that my needs deeply conflicted with everything that constitutes parenting. But I got pregnant at 24. On purpose. Motherhood was my divine calling, after all.
I do my best for these charming and baffling and maddening humans I created and I show up for them every day, no matter what, because I brought them here. I really do love them more than any human should rationally love another human. But when I’m hit with the ebb and flow of ruminating on my life, I’m honest enough with myself to know that if I’d fully known what having kids would entail — and if I’d known I wouldn’t have a true partner in parenting, and if I’d known having kids was really, truly optional — there is a possibility I would have opted differently.
And that is what I regret. I don’t regret having children, I regret not realizing that choosing to forgo it was an option. Some of you may dismiss that statement. “Of course not having kids is an option!” and perhaps to you, it was. That wasn’t the case for me, though.
It was always assumed I would have children. Always. As in, from infancy. I sang songs in church about my future motherhood and recited themes intended to help prepare me for it. When I wanted to pursue my education and career, I was cautioned by several people to think long and hard about how it would impact or delay my real purpose in life of marriage and motherhood.
The few women around me who’d stayed single or childless were whispered about amongst the group at large. Girls I knew who declared they didn’t want children were told they were selfish or would change their mind one day. Hell, even an actor as exquisite and accomplished as Helen Mirren gets questioned about how she can possibly feel fulfilled in life without having ever grown someone inside her womb. Add to this mix a big helping of conservative religious upbringing, and having kids isn’t an option — it’s the expectation.
My experience isn’t unique, either. From baby dolls to babysitting to caretaking jobs like nursing and teaching, girls are conditioned our whole lives by society to step into the role of mother — and within a certain timeframe. For me, it was within a year of getting married. (I got married at 21. TWENTY. ONE.)
The questions and passive-aggressive hints about starting a family were laid on thick. For friends of mine, it started when they began to flirt with turning 30 or after they finished their schooling, or when they began to reach career heights that made other people question if they had their priorities straight.
After all, having a brain is good and all but we all know women are really just vehicles for their uteruses and we can’t let those go to waste. We may be living until we’re 90 these days, but those damn uteri expire. Better to encourage early procreation across the board rather than waiting to see who’d choose it for themselves at some point, possibly too late.
What if we didn’t do that, though? What if we raised girls like we raise boys: to understand that becoming a parent is an option available to them, but not one they must avail themselves of?
What if we raised girls to pursue their goals and become self-sufficient, to accomplish things and understand themselves before considering motherhood? What if we treated our girls like they really, truly had a choice in this instead of like they are beholden to everyone else?
Perhaps then we would have mothers who don’t feel trapped and tricked.
Perhaps then we wouldn’t have women secretly suffering because they perpetually feel broken or inadequate, or we would be more able to listen without judging when they do.
Perhaps in those inevitable come-and-go-and-come-and-go moments of feeling broken or inadequate, mothers would be able to remember that they wanted this, and it would somehow feel more bearable or strengthen their resolve in the moments when it wanes.
Perhaps then women would also be afforded more freedom in parenthood, given space to pursue careers, hobbies, friendships, or mindlessness because it would be understood that this is not their only purpose in life, just as it isn’t their partner’s.
Perhaps if we gave women the space to make a choice instead of fulfill a pre-determined role, it would be better for everyone.
I want my children. I don’t regret them. But I regret the way I approached becoming a mother and I’m going to do my damndest to make sure my daughter knows her purpose only includes motherhood if that’s what she really, truly wants.