Why don’t women talk about whether they might regret having children?

Child-free women like myself often feel apprehensive about sharing their decision with others, and for good reason.

This deeply personal choice is frequently met with confused, blank stares, assurances that I will “change my mind” and concerns about who will look after me when I’m older (to which the answer is hopefully a trained nurse).

But perhaps worst of all are those who genuinely think they are being kind, looking me in the eyes and asking earnestly: “But what if you regret it?”

No matter how many times I hear this, I’m at a loss for words as to how to respond. Is the small chance that I may one day feel differently really a legitimate reason to bring another human into the world?

The double standard is so striking that it’s almost amusing to imagine the shock and outrage that would follow if someone asked an expecting parent if they had concerns about regretting their decision to have a child.

I’ve always thought it seemed like an awful amount of pressure to put on a child, expecting them to fulfil you in every way because of the sacrifices you have made to birth and raise them.

Isn’t choosing not to start a family a far less permanent and irreversible decision? Isn’t it more responsible and less selfish to abstain from creating a human life just to fit in with social norms, or because I’m afraid I might someday be lonely?

People are often surprised at the conviction I have about not wanting children, seeing it as an extreme lifestyle choice. Personally, I find the idea of making an irreversible decision that transforms your existence forever without being certain it’s what I want more extreme.

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Motherhood is undeniably an amazing, beautiful and fulfilling choice for many women. As is, I expect, being a politician or a brain surgeon.

That doesn’t mean that everyone who doesn’t pursue those paths is destined to lead a life of regret. Nor does having children make you immune to doubts, or moments where you wish you had made different choices in the past.

Do women ever regret having children?

If child-free women fear stigma and shame for their choices, it’s easy to imagine why existing or expectant mothers don’t speak openly about fears or regrets.

The idea that, once conceived, your child is not the centre of your world and an unlimited source of joy is quite taboo in a society characterised by pronatalism. The result is that many parents deny or ignore their feelings of regret out of fear of judgement from others or, indeed, themselves.

This is reflected by a small but growing area of research exploring the social and psychological factors that influence parental regret. Parents who admit to regretting having children, usually anonymously, often cite feelings of burnout, financial strain, and unexpected responsibilities as the reason for their doubts. These parents adore their children but find the role of caregiving more demanding than expected.

It’s no secret that parenthood is difficult, with the bulk of the expectations and responsibilities often falling mostly to the mother figure. It is important not to shame or further stigmatise women who are struggling with their childcare duties by assuming there is something less nurturing or dedicated about mothers who experience regret, be it sporadic or ongoing.

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Matters of privilege also come into play regarding how ‘easy’ or fulfilling the experience of being a parent can be. Single parents, parents without adequate social or material support, parents with their own mental health issues or disabilities and parents whose children have unexpected health complications all face a much greater level of strain and risk of burnout.

It does not necessarily reflect less love or devotion to their children, nor a lack of skills at being a parent, to have regrets. Every family situation is different, and judging another mother by your own experiences and expectations only widens inequities and keeps already struggling women oppressed and unsupported.