Listen to me talk about Motherhood Regret on Hobart’s ultra106five >>>
The Sydney Morning Herald reported recently, with this interesting question: “What if a mother suspects she has made a horrible mistake having children?” As a result, the popular news-current affairs TV show The Project screened a similar piece about “motherhood regret” a few days later.
Dr Orna Donath, research sociologist and author of Regretting Motherhood, says motherhood regret is likely far more common that we realize. “Often [regret] boils down to two main reasons; the experience of responsibility that never ends – even as grandmothers – and the knowing feeling that motherhood doesn’t suit them,” she says.
When I mentioned this to Scottie Haas during my Friday morning Treasuring Mothers interview, he was horrified. (You can listen to his response in the audio above.)
His initial comeback was, “I cannot imagine that!” He tells the story of how he and his wife Marianne talked about having kids during pre-marital counseling. It’s a conversation he obviously remembers with some fondness. These days, Scott is a great dad and loves his wife and children to bits. Parenthood was not a surprise to him. And he relishes life with his five kids.
We are all conditioned about motherhood
But Scott is a dad. And while he clearly loves his children, he doesn’t have the same emotional response, or challenge, to being a dad as Marianne does to being a mother.
The thing is, most women, whether they admit it or not, had some type of inner desire to be mothers, from when they were little. From pretending to breastfeed a baby doll, to setting up tea parties, to dressing-up Barbies, girls are “trying on” motherhood from their toddler years. I noticed with amazement, that while my daughters had as much opportunity to play with toy trucks, or dig in the sand as my sons, I was more likely to find them wrapping a truck up in a blanket to put it to sleep!
Men respond to Parenthood very differently to women
Toys aside, we all receive a level of conditioning about the task of motherhood from our very early years. We are constantly exposed to rosy motherhood images, thanks to advertising moguls. Day and night, we are bombarded, with pictures of mothers happily preparing after-school snacks; overseeing attractive family barbecues on sunny days; and spreading golden margarine on lovely, soft bread. No wonder there’s an expectation this good-looking lifestyle should be every woman’s dream. And no wonder there is a sense of motherhood regret when the fantasy fails to materialize.
In contrast, men don’t experience this type of message when it comes to fatherhood. Very few men dream to become dads. And when parenthood finally happens, fathers do not uproot their lives to the same degree as mothers. In addition, our Western world has changed when it comes to women’s roles, over the last century. The hard work of many women over many decades, has resulted in it being very normal for women to be employed, often in high-powered jobs. These women receive a sense of satisfaction and recognition that our foremothers would envy.
The roll-out of unexpected emotions
So, for the most part, women sub-consciously anticipate the romantic motherhood ideal. What happens, then, to those who choose to have children, and assume it will be possible to move back to their career, without penalty? Or teen mothers who are still growing up, and yet have a dependent little creature to care for 24/7? What about those who excitedly anticipate their long-planned family, and without warning find there is a special-needs child to care for?
These scenarios make us do somersaults in our heads. This is where motherhood regret begins. Instead of the lovely fairy-tale, we are in unfamiliar territory. Other ugly emotions can rise their heads – Despair (Will I ever have a career again?); Jealousy (I can’t go and party with my friends!); Disappointment (I expected a life of cuddles and kisses); and the big one – Regret (This is a huge mistake. I’m not cut out for this!)
Let me qualify that mothers experiencing these emotions still love their children. That’s not the issue. The problem is, they had a great pre-baby life, and now they are stuck. It’s not possible to go back. Post-baby, life is not all it’s cracked up to be – and you can’t get your old life back!
Motherhood regret is a crisis – and no one talks about it!
New mothers suffer an identity crisis. Instead of the fairy-tale, first time mothers discover this is a never-ending cycle of broken nights, laundry, tears, managing childcare and balancing remnants of their working life – for the foreseeable future. Motherhood regret can set in like a cancer, crawling into every nook and cranny. Sometimes the loss of hope is life-shattering.
The terrible thing is, it’s not just a few women experiencing this sense of loss. To some degree, every mother has regrets. But because of those fairy-tale expectations, it’s not a discussion we can even have. Scott’s disbelief at the existence of the problem, is part of the problem! How can you talk about an issue that doesn’t exist?
A few things to realize . . .
Are women are hard-wired to become mothers?
Personally, I wonder if those early childhood fantasies of motherhood are hard-wired into our brains. It seems to start so young. That would make sense, because the long-term future of humanity depends on it. However there is lots of debate about this.
Do most women instinctively desire to be mothers? One study suggested that, “Most women viewed their desires [to be mothers] as positive and innate.”
Do women see motherhood happen, and therefore learn to be mothers? See this article about the way some women decide not to have children. It suggests that there is no real evidence to support the idea that biology creates a longing for a child.
In the end, the truth is probably a combination of nature AND nurture. But my feeling is, whether it’s biological or not, if most women didn’t desire to be good mothers, I’m serious when I say, humankind would be in serious trouble!
Advertising, full of motherhood fairy-tales, is rife
We can’t stop advertising which shows the fairy-tale mother. But, from a very early age, we can talk to our daughters (and our sons), to de-brief advertising. It’s good to create a healthy cynicism about ALL advertising.
Let’s call a spade a spade:
Motherhood is a shock, there is no doubt about it. Thrown in the deep end for the first time, no mother can 100% come to grips with the responsibilities and emotions of parenthood, until it happens. Just like pre-swimming lessons, ante-natal classes help prepare you for what is to come. But nothing can prepare you for the change in your own identity. In reality, all you can hope for is a lifeboat to help you stay afloat when you’re in over your head.
You can read some of my story about coming to grips with my identity change during my first pregnancy HERE.
Transition into motherhood required a significant change in my self-concept
When I had my first baby it took me a while to come to grips with the idea that I was no longer the little kid. No longer did I have only myself to think about. Having a child is proof you are adult. Plus, suddenly there was a tiny, defenceless individual who could die – no kidding – unless my husband and I looked after her. Being a parent is a huge responsibility. And not everyone feels up for it.
My employment status changed
Do you know anyone who returned to the workforce after a baby, and picked up her career exactly where she left off? It happens sometimes, but is quite rare. I didn’t succeed on that score. In fact I completely changed careers when I returned to work. For the most part, women are the ones who sacrifice their salaries, their careers, and their superannuation, for the sake of the children. It’s a big contrast to the way men experience fatherhood, and how little it impacts their employment.
My value and worth
Our Western civilization places a dollar value on our worth. This is quite a change to the post-war world our mothers and grandmothers grew up in. In that world, mothers stayed home and cared for their children. Their husbands supported them to do it. While we look back and de-cry this lack of freedom for women, there was at least one positive: motherhood was valuable, and it was worth it for a husband to support his wife and family.
These days, we women do have more freedom to work outside the home. And the more money we get, our Western culture tells us, the better sort of person we are. This is a lie. In reality, You are still important, even when there is no money associated with your work. More than that YOU – and your task of motherhood – are assets with so much value, they are PRICELESS! The value of motherhood to our world has not changed since the 1950s and 60s. It’s our attitude that has changed.
These days, it’s easy to believe our work defines us. Yes, work IS important. And Yes, what you do IS significant. But your work is not You.
Who You Are is far greater than the sum of your efforts. The trap is in thinking our identity is all about what we do. Men easily get caught up in this idea too. Just ask a male retiree, or someone who received a retrenchment package.
The million dollar question: Where should my identity lie?
It’s far better to have your identity focused on something that does not change. But what can that be? Many aspects of your life will change as time goes by, including your motherhood or fatherhood status, where you live, and the friends you have. Even your primary relationships will change, because one day you will no longer have parents here on earth. Someday, you will become part of the older generation! Everything changes.
However, there is one constant. That constant is God, who relates to us as my wonderful friend, Jesus Christ. This is one relationship that never changes. In the Bible it says, “He is the same yesterday, today and forever.” It is also says, “you are all children of God, through faith”. God is the only thing that will remain a constant in your life, from here to eternity.
How to avoid motherhood regret
Lots of people call it motherhood regret. But I wonder if it’s more accurately described as identity regret. How do you avoid it this terrible feeling? This sense of , “I’m not cut out for this, I want my old life back!”
Why not get out your journal (or begin one!) and write down your thoughts on all this. Think about your feelings of regret. All the things you lost, because you are a mother. Face those hidden thoughts you pushed away for so long. Write about your relationship with God. Do you know him? Do you want to know him? He is far more trustworthy than any job, man in your life, or relationship. You belong. You are God’s child. He loves you and you are important to him. In addition you are extraordinarily valued by those around you – even more than precious rubies.
Whatever you do, however life unfolds, whatever money you earn, whoever your friends are, the Almighty God is the one who keeps you from sinking in the rough and stormy waters of life, through motherhood and beyond. There IS a lifeboat to keep you afloat when you are thrown in the depths of an identity crisis.
You can depend on Jesus in the deep end of life.