The Cries by Mothers With Their Babies

Parenthood is glorified.

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Most TV shows have a “happily ever after” scene: a short clip showing the main character married to their love interest, living in a white-picket fenced house with a large backyard for children to run around. The media has glorified parenthood. It has pushed the image that, despite the lack of sleep, vacation, and official sick days, the small moments of watching your children take their first steps or say their first words supposedly trump all.

Society has taught us that parenthood, specifically motherhood, is an expected route to take on. For many women, having kids isn’t a choice. It’s a duty that needs to be fulfilled. And though this ideology has become outdated in many places such as America, it is not the case for other countries and cultures. For most Israeli women, “motherhood is the chief ideological icon and primary identity.” In 2010, 70 percent of unmarried Japanese women agreed that couples should have children if they get married.

Furthermore, even if women push back on the idea that they must have children, they are often met with criticism and a lack of understanding. For example, Israeli women who do not want to be mothers tend to be isolated from various social circles. In addition, their humanity, femininity, and sanity are often questioned, and they are told that motherhood is naturally adaptable over time. It is because of this social presumption that many women feel pressured to have children and then face “parental regret,” the experience of lamenting the birth of their children.

Parental regret is much more common than you may think. In a survey published by YouGov, eight percent of British parents said that they regret having kids. This trend is not limited to the United Kingdom, either. A 2013 Gallup poll found that seven percent of US parents wouldn’t have children if they could do it over again, and a 2016 survey found that 20 percent of German parents would not choose to become parents again. Combine all these surveys, and there are millions of parents all over the world who regret having their children.

But let’s get it clear: regretful parents are not bad parents. In most cases, unhappy parents regret the actual phase of parenthood and not the existence of their children. Many mothers feel ambivalent about their motherhood journey and sometimes about their children as well. While this ambivalence isn’t necessarily a huge issue, it’s when these feelings affect the parent-child dynamic that the entire family can suffer. The amount of research done on this topic isn’t extensive, but evidence has shown that there is an association between parental regret and a harsher, more rejecting attitude toward children. Over time, children can feel emotional neglect if their parents consistently display a lack of emotions toward them. In addition, because children are still in their development stages, they can often internalize the lack of interest from their mothers or fathers as their own fault. This perception can then lead to lifelong childhood trauma. In fact, a national study found that childhood emotional neglect could show up in adulthood as a distorted sense of self, inability to trust others, and stress internalization, possibly causing mental health disorders such as depression, substance use, and personality disorders in the long run.

However, if society didn’t make good parenting so hard in the first place, there wouldn’t be this many regretful parents. Parental resentment and regret often occur when a parent does not have enough time for themselves or enough support available to take care of their children. In order to alleviate the manifestations of parental neglect, there needs to be a whole set of structural changes. Access to reproductive choice, so that women actually have the power to choose whether or not they want to carry a pregnancy to term and raise a child, is a must. Evidence has shown that higher rates of parental regret are associated with lower access to abortion. Additionally, mothers whose children were born as a consequence of abortion denial reported feeling difficulty bonding and feeling trapped in their situation.

There also needs to be individualized treatment for parental burnout and greater awareness of this issue. People need to know that they are not alone in feeling regretful about their children. Only after recognizing their own feelings can people make the proper changes. Furthermore, new policies need to be put in place regarding childcare, family leave, work schedules, and gender pay. Currently, no federal laws require paid family or sick leave, and without accessible childcare or economic support, low-income parents often suffer from financial insecurity. This situation can lead to greater amounts of stress and regret for having children.

Feeling parental regret shouldn’t be a shameful topic. Society needs to be more open about this feeling, as it will only help address the issue at its core and circulate more realistic expectations of parents. It is only then that parents will feel less pressured to raise their children perfectly and not allow themselves to be subsumed by the expectations of parenthood.