Of all human projects, what is greater than creating and raising a child? Humankind is held by many to be a blight upon the earth, but procreation is a marvellous thing, bringing to life a unique human being whose baby face the mother and father can only gaze at in wonder.
On the other hand, what is sadder than a parent who comes to look upon their child with regret, as a mistake and a burden that can only be endured? Yet this happens, and more often than you might think, according to a recent article in The Atlantic.
The effect on children is an obvious concern.
Looking at a handful of surveys and studies from America, Germany, Britain and Poland, author Gail Cornwall finds that, at levels between 7 percent (US) and 14 percent (Poland) of parents, the number could add up to “many millions” of people worldwide.
They fall, she says, into two categories: people who started off well enough but then suffered burnout; and those who never wanted children but were landed with them anyway because, in some cases at least, they couldn’t get an abortion.
There’s an air of inevitability about this story. Decades of propaganda against human fertility, motherhood and the nuclear family produced the “childfree” brigade. Regretting the kids you already have fits right into this gloomy picture, especially in the circumstances of the Covid pandemic when families have been confined together for weeks or months on end.
Regretting parenthood also fits a political context where “abortion rights” in America are facing the greatest challenge since they were created five decades ago. There’s also a battle in Poland over a recent abortion ban; there, research referenced by Cornwall conveniently shows, parental regret is running high at 11 to 14 percent, compared with 8 percent in neighbouring Germany (where abortion laws are quite restrictive anyway).
She seems to be arguing that if we want fewer miserable mothers, we need more abortions.
Perfectionism, burnout and regret
It’s true that raising a family can be tough, even for people who wanted children, when financial stress, illness, disability, divorce or the complete absence of a father (or mother) enters the picture.
Cornwall cites the case of Carrie, whose children, aged 10 and 12, are both autistic and have to be shepherded to therapy appoints as well as school. The British mum is unable to pursue paid work, and fantasises about going to visit a friend in Hawaii and never coming back. There’s no mention of the children’s father or any other emotional support, things that should make a positive difference.
Today’s social climate doesn’t help. As marriage rates fall and families shrink, parenthood can appear as a perfectionist’s project that only the social elite (who still marry) can do well. The public policy and media focus on paid work and careers could also discourage women ambivalent about motherhood and domestic commitments.
At the same time, media images suggest that if you are going to have a family it should be a perfect one – a perfect little family in a perfect house – and some people need no encouragement to aim for that. However, the Polish research cited by Cornwall showed that perfectionists were more likely to have trouble seeing themselves as a parent, to burn out in the role, and to experience regret.
That sounds about right to New Zealander Monica Devine, the mother of a large family who ran a popular playgroup for almost 20 years, giving her a close-up view of many mums and dads and their relationship with their children.
“I think there is some merit in the argument that perfectionist individuals may suffer from regret,” she says. “Parenting is messy and complex and there are myriad opinions on how to do it right.
“I had a friend who couldn’t breastfeed, saw this as a failure and concluded she was a bad parent. This affected her attitude to her child and her husband and led eventually to her sudden departure from the family. The best became the enemy of the good. Other regular parents have lower expectations of themselves and the parenting experience and avoid this pitfall.”
Lack of spousal support is an obvious risk factor for regret, she adds. But even with a fully engaged husband she found it difficult when their fostered teen daughter went through a rebellious phase.
“This helped me realise how crucial the early bonding period was. It’s not that biological parents don’t experience rebellious teens, but they experience it differently on so many fronts. Our situation could have been exacerbated by the age our foster-daughter was when we took her in and the fact that we also had a brand new – and first – baby.
Previous miscarriage and abortion can also affect bonding, Devine notes.
Is ‘reproductive choice’ the answer?
Yet in The Atlantic article, access to abortion (“reproductive choice”) heads the list of “structural shifts” that could decrease parental regret. (The others are: access to treatment for burnout, changes to policies around childcare, family leave and work schedules, and attention to gender pay and promotion gaps.)
In support of more abortion, one piece of research based on the US Turnaway Study is cited. In the derivative study, data from 161 women denied an abortion and followed for five years were analysed, and 15 women were interviewed at the end of the period. The researchers summarised their findings thus:
Results: Survey participants reported both negative and positive emotions about the abortion denial one week after. Emotions became significantly less negative and more positive over their pregnancy and after childbirth. In multivariable models, lower social support, more difficulty deciding to seek abortion, and placing the baby for adoption were associated with reporting more negative emotions. Interviews revealed how, for some, belief in antiabortion narratives contributed to initial positive emotions. Subsequent positive life events and bonding with the child also led to positive retrospective evaluations of the denial.
Conclusions: Findings of emergent positive emotions about having been denied an abortion suggest that individuals are able to cope emotionally with an abortion denial, although evidence that policies leading to abortion denial cause significant health and socioeconomic harms remains.
Sounds like missing out on the abortion wasn’t a bad thing in the long run. Society can do something about a mother’s health and socio-economic situation if concern about her wellbeing and that of her children is sincere; but we cannot do anything about a dead baby.
In terms of structural shifts, Monica Devine suggests a few that are overdue.
“As a society we should encourage earlier marriage and parenthood. Complications causing bonding issues can only increase the longer parenthood is postponed. Carrying a baby, giving birth, feeding and caring for a baby at 40 is so much harder than at 30.
“And we need to increase both societal and communal esteem for parenting and the work of the home. The social pressure to achieve income, asset and career goals – the constant ‘when are you going back to work’ nag – is corrosive of maternal confidence and family life in general.”
As one of 10 children whose mother died at 50 and whose father was largely “absent” working two jobs to provide for them, Devine says this has influenced her parenting style “for better and for worse”.
Many people bring inadequate “scaffolding” from their original families to the job of being parents, she observes, but the extended family can make a vital contribution to making a mother, especially, feel valued and supported. “In my own case, my mother had passed away but my mother-in-law stepped in to encourage and guide my early parenting forays.”
All this highlights another shift that needs to take place – at community level, primarily, though with government encouragement: education for marriage and parenthood, along with mentoring and other support. This becomes more necessary as those raising children become more isolated or disconnected from their extended families.
‘We’d do it again’
Finally, it’s important to remember that most people do not regret their children, and most still want to have kids.
A 2013 Gallup poll showed that, in the US, the desire to have children had remained since 1990 at over 90 percent of adults, and that 75 percent of Americans had children. Only 7 percent of those aged 45 and up said that if they had their time over again, they would not want any children.
In a YouGov poll of British parents this year 8 percent of the same age group said they regretted having children: 6 percent of them to a small extent, 2 percent to a moderate extent and just 1 percent to a great extent. However, only 4 percent of all parents said they would not have children if they could do it all again. It was much more common for people to wish they’d had more children, at 29 percent.
This tends to confirm Monica Devine’s view that, “Mothers and fathers can feel discouraged from time to time but rarely in an enduring way. There is too much to celebrate in parenting to cause lasting regret, even with the most difficult children.
“I would add that, in this time characterised by fear that borders on mass psychosis and despair, a new baby is a sign of hope.”