According to the 2014 U.S. Census, nearly 48 percent of girls and women between the ages of 15 and 44 have not borne children. Some, of course, have adopted offspring or become stepmoms or foster parents. Many, however, have opted out of parenthood, bucking a social convention that has long dictated that women’s primary roles were to be the devoted wife of a man and a selfless mother.
Needless to say, some women in the United States and other countries have always refused both roles. Nonetheless, the idea that a woman is incomplete if she does not have at least one child has long been part of the social contract, with many a shaking head greeting those who make clear that they have other plans for their lives. “You’ll regret it later,” they hear. “Who will care for you when you grow old?”
Sociologist Orna Donath, author of Regretting Motherhood (released this summer), is herself childless by choice and has repeatedly had these assertions and questions hurled at her. She’s found this troubling but at the same time acknowledges that the questions pushed her to interrogate the opposite: Do some women have kids only to later regret having done so, she wondered?
The question nagged and eventually led her to conduct an in-depth, five-year study that involved 23 pseudonymous Israeli women. Donath is Israeli and conducted repeated in-person, telephone, and online interviews exclusively in her home country, and also mined several closed online chat rooms on the topic for additional data.
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Among other things, she found that the idea that some women wish they’d never procreated is still met with widescale fury and derision, “meaning that mothers who regret are branded as selfish, insane, damaged, and immoral human beings who exemplify the ‘whining culture’ we allegedly live in.”
Donath’s subjects ranged in age from 26 to 73 and included single, divorced, and married women of all class backgrounds and education levels. All had at least one child; offspring spanned from toddlerhood to middle-aged adults. Five of the women were also grandmothers, and while all were Jewish, the majority self-identified as either atheists or secular.
Donath’s conclusion is forthright: Motherhood should be one choice among many, no more or less valid than other life options.
“Motherhood,” she writes, “should no longer be treated as a role, but rather be understood as one human relationship among others—a relationship within which mothers are subjects who examine, weigh, evaluate, and make balances” that meet their needs and desires.
The book opens with the chapter “Paths to Motherhood” and explores the reasons the women interviewed had children despite not wanting to. Some told her that they’d always known they did not want to reproduce; others, however, came to that conclusion only in retrospect. Still others were misinformed about birth control, had little access to it, or felt pushed by their partners to have at least one child. Another group felt pressured to continue a generational legacy that would link them to their mothers and grandmothers, and they thought that having a family would somehow bind them to “normalcy.”
Debra, a mother of two, explained: “Even if you are a nonconformist in every other way, having kids brings you into the mainstream on some level. It makes your life easier.”
Several interviewees told Donath that becoming a parent was not debatable in their communities. One told Donath that when she became pregnant, she and her partner simply “went with the flow.”
Rose, a mother of two, is a case in point. “I did it automatically,” she told Donath, “without understanding there was room for thought and deliberation .…We had already been married for two-and-a-half years, and I felt I needed to [have a baby].”
Donath frequently heard this type of reasoning, as if having children was a necessary and natural step in every life trajectory.
Sometimes, she writes, this message was conveyed more subtly. “For many, the transition to motherhood is like crossing a bridge: On the other side, we hope to find acceptance into our community from which we had previously felt excluded or to which we did not belong before getting pregnant and giving birth.” Improving one’s social stature through parenthood seems like a straightforward goal and for those who keep their misery to themselves, it often works.
Those who refuse to play along, however, typically face repercussions. That said, social class does not give every woman an equal shot at sidestepping the mommy track. “The possibility of remaining nobody’s mom,” she writes, “is not equally available across cultures and social groups; for example, women who publicly declare that they don’t want children are often white, educated, secular, and upper middle class, all factors that might provide them with the social conditions to bring forward their oppositional attitudes.”
What’s more, some sectors of Israeli society—especially the more overtly pious—are less tolerant of deviation from motherhood than more liberal, irreligious strata. In fact, several interviewees told Donath that they felt forced to marry and then bear as many children as possible. One observant woman reported being continually molested by her spouse. “It was an awful feeling of rape. Quite simply rape,” Doreen, a mother of three, confided. “And I let that rape happen.” It’s heartbreaking.
Then there’s the issue of actually rearing the children once they’re born. Many of the women lament the everyday tasks of motherhood, whether changing diapers, providing homework supervision, or disciplining rowdy teens.
However, most of the women expressed unwavering love for their offspring while simultaneously wishing they’d never had them. Donath poignantly dubs this the intersection of love and regret.
Tirtza, a 57-year-old mother and grandmother, is particularly blunt. “When I go visit the grandchildren, I have a relationship with them, but it really doesn’t interest me …. All the while I’m thinking: When will this be over so I can go back to bed and read a book, watch a good movie, listen to a program on the radio? These things are more interesting to me, better suit me, are more like me.”
Should Tirtza utter these feelings aloud, she knows she’ll be harshly condemned, a realization that kept many of the interviewed women from revealing their parenting displeasure to friends or family. Donath acknowledges that while all mothers are judged, some—especially single moms, lesbians, immigrants, women of color, and women on welfare (whether in the United States or in Israel)—are typically scrutinized more closely than their white, educated, middle- or upper-class peers. In the latter cases, an evident lack of investment in parenting is more likely to get a pass from child welfare agencies and even their families.
Privilege, however, cannot entirely dull the pain of regretful moms, which is worsened by the silence that generally surrounds this issue. To a one, everyone in Donath’s study told her they felt relieved after unburdening themselves to her. As she points out, unlike regrets about other things—like dropping out of school, marrying a jerk, taking or leaving a job, getting a tattoo, having impulsive sex, or getting a nose job—talking about regretting motherhood remains almost universally taboo.
Perhaps this is out of concern for the children. Do they know, she asks, that their mothers wish they had never been born? If so, how does this affect their self-esteem and development?
Responses ran the gamut: Carmel has told her teenaged son that she is glad he is an only child. Saying more than that, she argues, would potentially destroy the loving bond they share. Susie, the mother of two teens, speaks in more general terms. “I tell them that having children is not necessary.” Maya, also a mother of two, told Donath that “my greatest failure would be if [her daughter] had children and felt like me—that would be my worst failure. I would know I had failed big-time if she lived her life feeling like I feel.”
These conversations, in which a parent temporarily cedes the parental role so that their children can know them as adult human beings, require compassion, honesty, and maturity. It’s potentially fraught turf. But Donath argues that if we are going to truly advocate for reproductive choice, talking about the fact that some women regret motherhood—even if the conversation is approached in general, rather than specific, terms—needs to come out of the shadows.
Much more is needed. Donath astutely points out motherhood might be easier if better social supports were in place. Still, she argues that even if longer paid maternity leave; subsidized infant, toddler, and after school care; and more egalitarian child-rearing within families became an international norm, it would not necessarily ease the burdens of motherhood on women who feel constrained by it.
“Whereas patriarchy might push women toward motherhood, capitalism pushes us to constantly progress in the spirit of the free market, creating a binary that leaves no room for women to consider themselves and be considered by others to be human beings with the ability to determine what is meaningful in their lives on their own,” Donath concludes.
So yes, while many women around the world now feel that it is possible to live fulfilling lives without becoming mothers, sexism, sexual harassment, homophobia, and misogyny flourish. As feminists, we’ve long claimed that the personal is political. Donath’s Regretting Motherhood exemplifies this theorem and continues to push the boundaries of sexual politics. Since the issue of parenthood exists at a complex intersection—one in which gender, social expectations, class relations, and reproductive justice collide—if we can begin to speak openly about regretting motherhood in the context of real reproductive choice, we’ll have expanded the world for everyone.