A new article out in Marie Claire, Inside the Growing Movement of Women Who Wish They Never Had Kids, has ignited some heated discussions on social media. The author Sarah Treleaven reports on a supposedly new – or perhaps just now more outspoken – group of women who, even as their children have grown, say they regret choosing to be parents.
Marie Claire writes:
It's a huge taboo, admitting this kind of thing, but there's a growing and largely ignored group of mothers all over the world who are confessing their regret over having children. Day after day, as they change diapers, drive to soccer practice, and help with college applications, they fantasize about a life unburdened by dependents and free from the needs of others. A do-over.
Certainly parenthood isn’t for everyone – and not all of us are cut out to be mothers and fathers. And it’s fine, important even, to recognize this. There will always be cultural norms and preferences, but everyone still must make marriage and family decisions that make sense and work for them.
Most of the women interviewed and referenced in the article reveal feeling “trapped” and worry about their lost professional opportunities. And most of the women commenting about the article – who sympathized with this group – focused on the (very real) challenges of balancing work and family. Many said if men would step up and do more of the housework this wouldn’t be an issue.
But changing gender norms and the increase of women working outside of the home isn’t really the issue. As a working mother with three children, I can recognize it’s certainly something. As I’ve written many times, the juggle can cause even the most organized among us, on a perfectly sunny day, to fall into a crying puddle. (And I can say this with experience.) But this shrouds the larger point – that parenthood forces one to become utterly selfless. And that’s truly the source of the problem for many of the women in the article.
Nothing sheds the cloak of narcissism that we all wear more than having to care for another human being. For most of us this comes with parenthood – although it certainly could come later in life when one is in a position to care for an aging relative. Parenthood, by definition, creates limitations – less money, less time, less space, less travel, less time for personal pursuits. But parenthood – like marriage as Brookings Institution’s Justin Wolfers reminds us – is not only about the loss or costs. It seems self-evident, but it’s also (very much) about the gain, or the benefits. In fact, if it were all about the pain, the loss, the challenges, most of us wouldn’t choose to have children at all.
That’s exactly what actress and comedian Julia Sweeney said recently on a Ted Radio Hour where she spoke about motherhood:
I think if I really understood what parenting was going to take, I wouldn’t have done it. And I’m really glad I did it. It changed me completely. It changed my attitude about the world. It made me see everything in the world totally differently. And I needed to be a parent to see it. But if I knew what the price really was – which is basically a hundred percent of your mind and a hundred percent of your heart and soul – I don’t think I would have done it. So thank you, universe, that I just had no idea.
I remember when I was in labor with my third child, saying to my doctor, “Ah, I don’t remember that pain!” And she laughed and reminded me that’s why I was back for the third time. If any of us really remembered the reality of childbirth (even with the best of drugs!), humans would have died out long ago.
It’s likely that most of the women interviewed by Marie Claire would have been unhappy no matter what their life choices. Parenthood brings with it inherent difficulties — something I have to remind myself of all the time. But there is a deep, deep joy in creating, caring for, and watching a new life grow and develop, despite the challenges (both for the parents and the children as they get older). Perhaps the most important part of parenthood – and what would help the women in the article – is accepting and enjoying those tradeoffs.