Maternal Regret: The Ultimate Self-Indulgence
Self-Sacrifice vs. Self-Responsibility
[Disclaimer: I wrote this with a wiggling 6-month old nursing in my lap, our almost-three year old pouncing on me repeatedly, a pre-teen and teenager arguing loudly in the next room, and a passionate Pokemon card trading session happening near my right shoulder, so please forgive the ever-present errors and typos.]
One of my favourite responses to the tiresome question of “How DO you handle all those kids, Yolande,” (other than the true, but uninspiring “I don’t—I have a husband and a whole team of support-people), is to smile sweetly, shrug, and say, “It’s either that I love them a lot and enjoy spending time with them, or I have a serious case of Stockholm syndrome”. (In fairness, the former, if not the latter also, is true too).
And yet, as the mother of nine children, with seven at home (and as someone who has up until only recently been the primary 24/7 parent, without much support at all, paralyzed for a long time by money-blocks and poverty-consciousness), I am in no way a stranger to those moments that every mother (and father) experiences from time to time, in which we question everything.
What the hell was I thinking?
The thing is though, we all have those thoughts no matter the endeavour—mothers and everyone else.
Small-business owners certainly question here and there why they ever considered launching their enterprise.
Married people at least occasionally, ponder how great their lives might have been had they never met their spouse.
And it might even be that the child-free even, once in a while, maybe, bemoan their choice not to have burdened themselves with breeding.
This is what choices do, after all: they pare away our lives, shaping our path, removing certain options, and unfolding other options into the realm of possibility.
While I’m sure there are a small minority of women in the world who have truly had motherhood forced upon them at every step, even violently, for most of us, becoming a mother—even if it was an experience we felt pressured into, or neglected to consider all of the implications of—involved multiple (thousands, if not an infinitude) of choice-points along the way.
I know a woman who became pregnant at 18, married the father, and ended up 50 years later living in a small town, working [too] hard to make ends meet, with four grown children and a bunch of grandkids—grandkids she loves and in whom she finds great pleasure.
I asked her once how she felt all those years ago, about marrying the young man, who was, I suspect, her first and only intimate partner. “You make your bed, you lie in it,” was her stoic reply. Is she bitter about all the opportunities motherhood ostensibly denied her?
I don’t think so. But maybe. If so, she doesn’t dwell on it, or whine about it publicly, in any case. I suspect this is because she is actually a grown-up.
Making one’s bed and lying in it is just one potential response to our life choices, of course.
Another option—and a popular one, apparently—is to complain bitterly about your life, and fixate on one particular object as the primary locus of your discontent.
Many women—increasing numbers of women it seems—place the blame for their dissatisfaction on, if not their children personally, the experience of motherhood in general… then proceed to write articles and novels and movie scripts about it, or at the very least, spend time on social media groups, protesting their fate.
It’s true that motherhood is widely scorned and that mothers and children are often isolated, lacking support in every way. Doing motherhood in a culture that does generally seem to dislike mothers and children can, indeed, be difficult.
However, the conditions that result in an atmosphere of tension and intolerance for mothers and kids is, I believe, a situation that is contracted into, and perpetuated in part because there is an irresistible deliciousness in accepting the invitation from the media and the industries that media organizations represent, to hate our lives, and motherhood especially, and to feel terribly sorry for ourselves.
The phenomenon of mothers who wish they hadn’t ever had children has even been codified with the term “maternal regret.” (I don’t think “maternal regret” has yet been added to the DSM-V, but I do see it frequently coupled with and used to bolster the now-ubiquitous “late-stage autism” diagnosis, the symptoms of which coincidentally describe every single mother I know…)
I do believe there is an active “agenda,” to vilify childbearing, erode families, emasculate men, and to undermine the innate power of women— to both pathologize our normal responses to an insane environment while normalizing the insanity, and ultimately to reduce the population of the planet (through a number of means, many of which are evidently quite nefarious).
One of the most effective ways of accomplishing population control over the long-term, is through valorizing self-indulgence and victim-consciousness.
But we don’t have to go along with it.
Love is a choice.
It’s a choice that we can make, or not, every day, in every interaction, and in every thought we entertain.
Strenuously proclaiming the privations of motherhood is a trend that is largely programmed. It’s programmed on several fronts, but the media plays a significant role in disseminating this programming, and we have to accept it, for it to “work” on us.
Feminism too, has been instrumentalized (maybe from its inception, at least to some extent) to promote the idea that motherhood is slavery.
Anti-natalist sentiment in various degrees of vehemence, is rampant in feminist “communities”, not to mention the glorification of abusive and harmful industrial birth practices (anything to avoid the ravages of biology, of course). No, it makes no sense, but that’s part of the point.
Despite how twisted, sad, and committed to victimhood I now recognize most feminist perspectives to be (I actually see most forms of feminism as a profound expression of internalized misogyny), I remain in a few feminist groups, mostly, at this point, out of curiosity.
In one of those groups, a review was recently shared, of a British film called “The Lost Daughter.”
The film is, according to article published in Stuff.co, “A rare depiction of a troubled and divorced middle-aged woman who describes herself as an “unnatural mother”…the movie received a four-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival and earned Coleman a best actress nod at the 2022 Oscars.”
The article claims that “[w]e live in a society that is saturated with depictions of devoted mothers whose children fill them with joy and happiness. But mothers who feel conflicted are forced to turn to dark corners to seek out parents who may also be feeling suffocated and lost. A YouGov survey* of 1249 parents carried out in the UK last May showed that one in 12 (8%) regretted having children."
This is a characteristic reversal of reality. Not the dark statistic, I’m sure it’s quite true that eight percent of women say they regret motherhood. But surely we can agree that popular culture is waterlogged with descriptions and testimonials—not to mention a plethora of fictional accounts—of women who cannot stand mothering. [I’m a bit tired now, and my kids have just now finally collapsed in a puppy-dog heap at the foot of my bed, so I’m not going to waste my precious sleep to come up with any specific examples—there are just too many to choose from—sitcoms, tv shows, memoirs, and all the wine-o-clock mums on the block.]
I will say that throughout my adult life (I’m 41) one of the central narratives consistently pushed ad nauseam by the media and entertainment industries, is how difficult, awful, draining, and unbearable it is to be a mother.
The prevalence (engineered or otherwise) of ”maternal regret” is a constant theme in our culture, and yet it’s always presented as a topic that is taboo in some way—one that is very difficult and even “risky” to discuss.
Except that it’s discussed constantly, and despite the fact that women who discuss it are widely praised for broaching this supposedly illicit topic as somehow immensely brave.
Declaring that motherhood as distasteful, mind-numbing, and self-obliterating is more than socially acceptable. It’s positively praise-worthy.
The taboo, in my experience, is to suggest that mothering is a joy.
Even more offensive is the assertion that we have the power to choose our thoughts about motherhood, and that those thoughts become the reality of our experience.
I have never been so widely criticized as when I’ve shared my view that mothering (let alone giving birth) is a total pleasure, or that it is meant to be easy, and that almost every mother can opt into that experience.
My life isn’t perfect by any stretch, and I am definitely not a perfect mother. I have had very very difficult times as a mum. I’ve struggled, I’ve made major mistakes, I’ve lived through losses that have almost broken my heart, and of course, I have my moments of irritation, frustration, and anger.
But there is nothing laudable or courageous about pandering to the encouragement to harp on about how we hate our lives as mothers. Doing so is not only to use our energy at the expense of building a better alternative, but it’s infantile, and further calcifies the state of arrested development that allows that belief to gain purchase. It’s also frankly damaging for our children, even if they’re not direct witnesses to this expression.
Again, I’m not talking about those relatively rare situations involving women who are being actively abused, but rather the middle-class moaners—the ones who have time to write op-ed pieces or film scripts, or hang around in chat groups, wishing their lives were different than they are.
It’s clear that these confessional declarations are rooted in very real (displaced) trauma, which the women who are discharging these feelings clearly need help resolving or healing.
But the tinge of almost prurient congratulatory glee with which such public expressions are received and encouraged as “authentic” and “courageous” has a dark, degenerate quality. The public appetite for this, and the social currency that admissions of maternal dissatisfaction garner is deeply disturbing. I see the notion of “maternal regret” turning into a veritable identity, which, of course, is the objective of the institutions that continue to groom women into assuming this position.
Again, we don’t have to. Buying into this drama is one of the most pitiful forms of self-sabotage I’ve come across, especially as it is undertaken at the expense of not only your children, but your own easily claimed happiness.
To hate mothering, as a mother, is to hate oneself and ultimately, life.
In “The Last Daughter,” Olivia Coleman’s character, Leda, states that “Children are a crushing responsibility.” I have not seen the film, so No, I don’t fully understand the context, but I don’t I need to in order to assert that on the contrary, having children is an invitation into ever-expanding self-responsibility.
The more kids I have, and the older I get, the more I do, in all earnestness, see my children as my greatest gift, and as the ultimate and only form of wealth, security, and value.
I also recognize that that the mistakes I’ve made as a mother—including the times when I’ve felt like a victim of my circumstances—were of my own creation, and that every single step in the process of bringing a child into the world and supporting their flourishing is designed to be a straightforward delight, and can be, if we choose it.
But if you don’t, no worries: time marches on, and in a blink, your kids will be tall, indifferent, and probably quite self-sufficient, and you’ll be free.
And then you’ll die.
There really isn’t much to lose in actively choosing joy.