I was 19 when I first began to seriously think about whether I should have kids someday. In truth, I’ve never had much of a maternal instinct, but there was always something undeniably magical about creating a human life. I was reassured by literally everyone that my maternal instinct would inevitably kick in when I got older. But it didn’t. Not at 20. Not at 25, and not at 30. So then the story changed, and I was told that my stubbornly elusive maternal instinct would come in one sweeping rush the moment I held my baby in my arms for the first time. But by that time I began to consider the terrifying possibility that they might be wrong. What if, holding my precious first born in my arms for the very first time…I felt nothing? What kind of a parent would that make me? Would I regret having children? Is that even possible?
Whenever I tried describing how I felt I was met with the same reaction, “don’t worry, you’ll be a great mom!” There was always a sense of inevitability about it, like this was one ride I couldn’t choose not to take, that I shouldn’t question it, and simply trust that everything would turn out perfectly. It began to feel like it didn’t matter how I really felt about having children, it simply wasn’t ok for me to form an opinion about parenting before I had gone through the process of becoming a parent. It was only by becoming a mother that it would all come together for me. And if it didn’t? Well then I’d have to keep quiet about that too, because what kind of a monster would regret having children, right?
For those of us who are still undecided about whether or not to have kids, the biggest dilemma is usually the creeping sense that we may live to regret not having them. The big fear is that, by not having children, we are denying ourselves one of life’s most magical experiences, and that we will die never having known what true unconditional love feels like. And it’s for this reason that most people who plan their pregnancies take the plunge into parenthood, whether or not it’s something they truly want. They are rarely given a chance to reach a conclusion for themselves. It’s easy enough for those who are certain they either do or do not want to have children, but the decision is a lot more difficult for those stuck somewhere in the middle.
THE ELUSIVE MATERNAL INSTINCT
Contrary to what many of us believe, the maternal (or paternal) instinct may never manifest itself, no matter how many kids we have, or how much we sincerely love them. Research shows us that it’s possible to adore the baby you have, but regret having made the choice to have a baby in the first place, and that maternal instincts aren’t so instinctual after all.
Anthropology professor at UC Davis, and author of Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy believes that what we frequently refer to as maternal instinct is nothing more than learned behavior, a kind of social convention by now hardwired into our cultural consciousness. Hrdy’s research suggests that a parent’s “motherly instincts” are proportional to how much they want to be parents in the first place, and how much time they’re willing to devote to bonding with their kids. “A woman who is committed to being a mother will learn to love any baby, whether it’s her own or not,” the author explains, “a woman not committed to or prepared for being a mother may well not be prepared to love any baby, not even her own.”
But it needs to be said that any parent who falls in the latter category is a statistical phantom. The stigma against being anything but perfectly content with becoming a parent is so great, the threat of public shaming tends to wipe relevant data from any study being conducted on parental satisfaction. Researchers routinely have to trick parents into revealing how they really feel in order to approximate the truth. Not surprisingly, few would admit to feeling unfulfilled by parenthood, and especially to being plagued by feelings of regret over having kids. But cloaked in the anonymity of the online world, the unhappily parented are coming forward to tell their stories and find support from others who also regret the decision to become parents.
“I hate almost every moment of fatherhood,” a man wrote anonymously on Confession Post, “I’m so so depressed and no one knows, I try to keep it in. As far as everyone is concerned Im just the cool, fun dad. I should get an Oscar for my performance. I hate my life.” Another parent wrote: “I hate being a mum too. I mean I love my son, who’s 11 now, and I have made it this far. But, Man, I have loathed all the bloody repetition of constant mess and housework. I hate that I cant go anywhere as I have to be back by 3pm every day. I hate that everything nice or new or cleaned, just gets trashed by kids lack of thinking about what theyre doing. I feel like Im awaiting the end of a very long arduous jail sentence…And the worst part is… I hate feeling this way. I want to be a happy mum. I want to enjoy this journey more.”
“They love me and think I’m the greatest mom in the world, and I try very hard to be that for them. They have no idea that I can’t stand them.”
Unhappy parents like these are part of a growing online community of people who struggle to come to terms with this wildly taboo feeling of regret over having children, as well as looking for ways to cope with the immense sense of guilt that naturally accompanies that regret. And it’s not just those who’ve always had an inkling that they didn’t want to be parents, but those who’ve wanted and planned their pregnancies as well.
“I planned my one pregnancy and thought I desperately wanted to have a baby,” confessed one Quora user, “I figured out pretty close to immediately after her birth that I had made grave errors…to be clear, I LOVE my daughter and have referred to her as my magnum opus. If anything were to happen to her, I would be inconsolable. Forever. I would want to die with her if she died. My mistake was not because I don’t love her or because I don’t want her…what it feels like more often than anything else is guilt. I feel guilty all the time that I’m not the parent she deserves…because I regret being a parent. Not because I failed as a parent, because I don’t believe I have, but because I don’t want to be a parent. I can’t even really explain why I feel that way, I just do.”
In a bizarre evolutionary plot twist, it appears to be quite possible to be an adequate parent while remaining deeply unhappy and dissatisfied as a parent. It’s a revelation my younger self would never have believed was possible. Shouldn’t there be some sort of biological safeguard against things like this? A genetic switch that’s flipped the moment your child’s eyes meet yours? A switch that makes your child’s midnight screams sound like Moonlight Sonatas? In a sense, there is. It just doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to. Harvard psychology professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert explains that when most people are presented with a choice they can never take back or change, they tend to be happy with it. It’s only those who have a strong sense of “what could have been” who are most unhappy with their choices.
In a bizarre evolutionary plot twist, it’s quite possible to be an adequate parent while remaining deeply unhappy and dissatisfied as a parent.
Historically, socially, culturally, and even psychologically, having children was simply another milestone in life, like your first kiss, graduation, first job and apartment. It was simply something you did. But that’s changing, and with the change comes a massive shift in how happy we are with our decision to become parents rather than, say, spend the rest of our lives traveling the world or building schools in Africa.
And so, ironically, it could be that the more viable and socially acceptable the decision not to have children becomes, the higher the incidence of regret will be. At least, until we learn to be honest with ourselves before we take the big leap. Unlike the happily parented who take things in stride and welcome the responsibility of parenthood, the unhappily parented find themselves thinking a little too much about their pre-baby past and the distant post-baby future, a time when their kids will be all grown up and they’ll once again be free of the immense responsibility of having to raise them. It’s less about actually living with and accepting your decision to have kids, as it is waiting for the consequences of your decision to pass.
“I hate never being able to go anywhere new, see anything new, do anything new,” an anonymous parent wrote on Experience Project, “School, meals, naps, sleep. I can’t wait for them all to grow up and go away to college. Until then, I’m responsible for them. I’ll be 52 when the last leave the house…I’d say half my life will be gone, and I’ll have nothing but regrets…I usually stay up late and deprive myself of hours of sleep, just because I know that the sooner I go to sleep, the sooner another day of dealing with my children will start for me.”
THE SECOND SHIFT
Nearly every frustrated parent who has admitted to regretting having children emphasizes their immense sense of guilt, and clarifies that when they say “I hate my kids” or “I hate being a mother” they’re specifically referring to the job of parenting, not the fact of becoming a parent. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. Becoming a parent can be one of the most rewarding experiences you could have in life. The same cannot be said of the job that comes with it. Becoming a parent deals with the fundamental emotional facts of love, commitment and family, while the job of parenting deals with questions like, how much TV is too much? Should I just let my kid cry or should I comfort them right away? How do I properly punish my child for bad behavior?
It is the job, not the fact of parenting that has many people choosing not to have more than one child. In fact, studies have cited “the continuous and intense nature of childrearing” as a major reason why life satisfaction goes down for many people after they have a baby. “Being a parent? It’s pretty much a full time job on top of your regular job,” a frustrated father explained anonymously, “Would you take on another full time job on top of your current life and just give all of the income away to someone else? Would you work every night and every weekend for no potential benefit to yourself? If you like kids and want kids, then the job is its own reward. If you don’t, the hours suck and the work sucks.”
In the 1960s, a time when the vast majority of American women were stay at home moms, women actually spent four hours less time per week providing childcare than today’s working moms.
In Jennifer Senior’s fascinating first book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, she argues that the reason so many parents are secretly unhappy is because of a historical shift toward “child-centric” parenting. According to the author, most of the frustration and misery stems from the fact that parents today compulsively make their children the center their universe and make themselves the keepers of their kid’s happiness and self-esteem. Senior stresses that this level of self-sacrifice is extremely toxic – most of us spend our whole lives trying to figure out a way to raise our own self-esteem and happiness (often unsuccessfully), how can we expect to be responsible for someone else’s? “I’m not sure that it’s even realistic,” the author told Time Magazine in 2014, “I think happiness is a false god to be worshiping.”
“Every generation of parents probably sees itself as exceptionally dedicated, but careful measurement confirms that parental effort is at an all-time high,” explains economics professor Bryan Caplan in his book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, “Stay-at-home moms used to just tell their kids to go outside and play. Now, moms and dads tag along with their kids as supervisors, or servants. When we think about the effect of a child on our lives, then, we automatically picture the Spartan schedule of Today’s Typical Parents. We have to give up our hobbies and nights out, we have to make our lives revolve around our kids’ activities, and we have to handle all the extra cooking, cleaning, and babysitting ourselves.”
In other words, we’re trying to do too much with the little we have. The unspoken expectation is that parents must do it all. Just consider the fact that in the 1960s, a time when the vast majority of American women were stay at home moms, women actually spent four hours less time every week providing child care than today’s working moms. When you set yourself up to achieve the impossible, it’s no wonder that you’re going to become frustrated and unhappy.
“Too many of us now allow ourselves to be defined by motherhood and direct every ounce of our energy into our children. This sounds noble on the surface but in fact it’s doing no one– not ourselves, or our children — any good,” writes Judith Warner in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. “When we lose ourselves in our mommy selves, we experience this loss as depression. When we disempower ourselves in our mommy selves, we experience this weakness as anxiety. When we desexualize ourselves in our mommy selves, it leads us to feel dead in our skin.”
This is especially distressing considering the possibility that, after all that work and self-sacrifice, at the end of the day parents have a lot less influence on how their kids ultimately turn out anyway. Professor Bryan Caplan believes that parenting doesn’t have to be such a big deal. In his book he references adoption and twin research to show that, as long as parents provide their kids with a safe and loving environment, any further parenting has an insignificant influence on a kid’s personality and future prospects. He argues that it doesn’t matter if parents take a tiger mom, helicopter parent or a free-spirited bohemian approach to raising their kids, their children will turn out about the same in the end. “Instead of thinking of children as lumps of clay for parents to mold, we should think of them as plastic that flexes in response to pressure—and pops back to its original shape once the pressure [i.e. applied by you the parent] is released.” In other words, nature prevails.
A likely reason some parents regret having children is because they are sacrificing too much of themselves to be objectively “good parents” by society’s standards.
Both Bryan Caplan and Jennifer Senior offer an insight into why so many parents may carry the heavy burden of regret over having children; they are simply sacrificing too much of themselves to be objectively “good parents” by society’s current standards, giving everything they have to raise a brilliant child-prodigy with exceptionally high self-esteem, when it would be just as good to simply focus on creating a safe, loving environment and fostering kindness instead. But this is easier said than done, as the following parent made clear:
“I hate parenthood because it doesn’t have anything to do with my kid or any kid, it’s all about posturing,” a parent wrote anonymously on Reddit, “I feel like too many of my immediate peers (the ones I’ve interacted with) have lost sight that you’re raising a independent, unique, adapting and evolving human being, not a trophy to show off. Parenthood to me is just another version of keeping up with the Jones’ and I can’t buy into it. I love my child and all, but I never thought parenthood would mean having others expect me to leave my brain at the door. I believe in being able to be both a person and a mother. I believe in adult time and space, just like kids need their own time and space.”
A BABY FAIRYTALE
Most parents will tell you that having children, while yes, extremely difficult, is also the ultimate realization of one’s potential as a human being, a kind of domestic enlightenment that naturally springs from the unconditional love you feel for your child. And who wouldn’t want the chance to feel that way? Who would willingly skip out on the opportunity to become a fully realized person, right? Sign me up! Even if it means sleepless nights and a perpetually messy home. But is it possible that this idea of parental “wholeness” is an idealization kind of like the notion of a fairytale marriage? Everyone dreams of meeting their soul-mate one day and living happily ever after, and for many of us, becoming a parent comes with the same sense of “fairytale ending.” Having a baby not only means unconditional love and personal fulfillment, it means creating a mini-me that will be devoted to you, heart and soul, for the rest of your life. But we know from experience that this isn’t always how it works.
We now look forward to having our kids the way Jane Austen looked forward to marriage. We have all these expectations of parenthood and the happiness it will bring us. ~ Jennifer Senior
“All I ever wanted to be in life was a parent. I thought it would be the best thing that ever happened to me,” explains one disillusioned mother, “It’s great, and I do love my kids to death, but it’s really not as great as I thought it would be…I long for the days when it will be just my husband and I. I look forward to their independence and I don’t feel those diehard feelings of complete devotion that I hear so many people I know talking about. I love my children, I take care of them to the best of my ability and I’m teaching them how to prepare for life. I’m actually pretty good at being a parent and it definitely has it’s breathtaking, amazing moments. But I’m not the kind of parent I thought I would be. I don’t feel like I can’t get enough of them, I am not the susie-homemaker type, I hate arts and crafts and I don’t like to be cuddled on the couch most of the time. Sometimes that makes me feel incredibly guilty.”
There are no guarantees in life, and certainly no easy answers. Your child may love you, but they may not like you very much. They may respect you, but may not want to spend time with you. They may feel an obligation to you, but may not actually care about your general comfort and happiness. To put it bluntly, just because you decide to have children (and feel whole as a person for doing so), does not mean you won’t die alone and lonely. Not everyone experiences having children the same way, and if you think about it, it’s completely crazy that we’d ever expect them to.
“Not one part of me thinks you need to have children in order to be whole, or that there are parts of yourself that cannot be revealed any other way,” explains activist and writer Anne Lamott in Maybe Baby, “Some people with children like to believe this. Having a child legitimizes them somehow, completes them, validates their psychic parking tickets. They tell pregnant women and couples and one another that those who have chosen not to breed can never know what real love is, what selflessness really means. They like to say that having a child taught them about authenticity. This is a total crock. Many of the most shut-down, narcissistic, selfish frauds on earth have children. Many of the most-evolved–the richest in spirit, and the most giving–choose not to.”
The bottom line is that parenting, as a unique human experience, isn’t going to be the same for everyone, and that reality should be both accepted and understood. At least if we intend to become more compassionate people.
UNHAPPILY EVER AFTER?
A slew of highly publicized (and highly polarizing) studies suggest that overall life satisfaction drops when people become parents. In 1981 Dr. Norvald Glenn and Dr. Sara McLanahan published The Effects of Offspring on the Psychological Well-Being of Older Adults in which they wrote that “as long as children remain in the paternal home they have, on the average, a negative effect on their parents’ psychological well-being.”
A study from San Diego State University, as well as a report by Harvard Business School, further reinforce the findings that the presence of children in a couple’s life tends to be associated with an increased chance that they will feel “dissatisfied with life.” In fact, one group of researchers have found that becoming a parent for the first time accounts for a more severe drop in overall happiness than divorce, unemployment, and even the death of a spouse. Stats like these are enough to give anyone with even a marginal hesitation about becoming a parent nightmares.
Understandably, when the above studies were published, droves of parents flooded the comments to object the results and defend the merits of parenthood. It can be extremely difficult to hear that something you’ve devoted your whole life to makes some unhappy. And that’s the problem with these studies: Most people interpret averages as sweeping global conclusions that include all members of a certain group. Studies like these merely point out that some statistically significant number of people feel stressed out and unhappy after having children. That does not mean all parents feel stressed out and unhappy. But even if the conclusions drawn aren’t true for everyone, they should still give us pause. After all, isn’t knowing what you’re getting yourself into before taking the plunge into a life-long commitment the responsible thing to do?
No matter how far we’ve come as a society, choosing not to have children is still widely perceived as a selfish decision. But selfishness takes on many different forms. As Oscar Wilde pointed out, “selfishness is not living as one wishes to live. It is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” If we’re not willing to talk about becoming a parent as a choice that may not be right for everyone, we will continue force people into a life that makes them deeply miserable. When did having children become a black or white issue? Why does it have to be either bliss or misery? Either total domesticity or total freedom? Why is it so hard to imagine that not everyone is built the same, that not everyone seeks happiness in the same way? And above all, why is it so hard for us to imagine that a life with kids has to follow the same path as everyone else’s?
Why You Won’t Regret Having Kids
The most powerful argument for having children remains that they simply give our short little lives meaning. Incidentally, this also happens to be the one justification for having kids that people struggle with the most, especially if they’re young and have their whole life ahead of them. There’s a lot of pushback, I myself have dismissed the argument for years simply because I refused to believe that my life could ever change so dramatically that anything, let alone kids, would bring me more joy than the seemingly limitless amount of freedom and independence you tend to have as a childless person.
It is extremely difficult for your average 25 year old to imagine what life will be like at 65. It is difficult to visualize, let alone understand, how the slow decline of not just your looks but your whole body, the fading away from cultural significance, and dwindling social life would feel. How can a person in the summer of their lives understand the experience of a person who has largely been deemed as irrelevant by culture as a whole (and if you find this hard to understand, just try to conjure up how often you see seniors modeling fashion, recording a top 40 track, or starring as the lead in a Oscar nominated movie). How can you, beautiful, young and surrounded by both friends and admirers, imagine a time when having a cup of coffee with your adult daughter brings you more happiness than anything you did in your 20s. There’s no way for you to imagine the incredibly powerful way life can fundamentally change you as a person.
As long as we’re young, these incredibly complicated things seem so simple. But time has a funny way of changing your values as dramatically as it changes your face. Before you know it, all the things that seem most meaningful to you now, being able to go to a coffee shop whenever you want, spending your extra income on designer shoes instead of diapers, amassing likes and followers, dancing all night, all the things that currently make you feel like you’re living life to the fullest might one day feel shallow and irrelevant. With time you learn to the very core of your being that the only thing that truly matters is love, and that without an abundance of love in our lives, we start to wilt like flowers.
But psychologically getting to that point takes a certain level of maturity. Some people reach it sooner than others. It’s a matter of waiting for life to give you an opportunity to look into the future and plan for the person you will become, rather than assume you will always be the person you are today. Some people seem born with the knowledge that they want a family, but parents who regret having children very likely had kids long before they had the opportunity to fully mature as individuals, and find out for themselves how important being surrounded by love is to human health.
As far as love goes, you can find it in all kinds of places, having your own kids just happens to be the most convenient. This is why those who want kids find those who don’t want kids so confounding. In their view it’s kind of like you were given a winning lottery ticket (that had some challenging but not impossible conditions before you could cash out), but you chose to pass on millions of dollars because you couldn’t see passed the immediate discomfort of those conditions. That’s NOT to say that they’re right. It’s just one way of looking at the situation.
“We’re reluctant to have more children because we think that the pain outweighs the gain,” economist Bryan Caplan writes in his book, “When people compare the grief that another child would give them to the joy that the child would bring, they conclude that it’s just not worth it.” BUT, despite all that, Caplan strongly argues that it is in the average person’s enlightened self-interest to have more kids for the simple reason that it really isn’t as bad as it seems. And perhaps that in itself is a good enough reason.
In the end, of course, no one can tell you what the right decision is. No matter what the answer, it should feel right to who you are and what you want to accomplish with the little time you have on earth. Whether you want a kid, or half a dozen, whether you want to become a foster parent, or just a doggy mama, the choice is fully yours. Give yourself the breathing room you need to decide, but know that anything you chose will be come in equal parts of awesomeness and discomfort, joy and sadness, satisfaction and regret. As long as you’re prepared for the road ahead, you’ll never really regret a thing.