At first glance, Amy* is like many busy young moms—she’s 34, lives in Alberta, works full-time and is devoted to her five-year-old. “I love my son with all my heart,” she says. “My life revolves around this child.” Four nights a week from May to June are spent at a sports field, she says. “All his schoolmates do it, so if he doesn’t, he’s left out.”
When discussing motherhood, however, Amy deviates from the maternal script: if she could make that choice over again, she says, she wouldn’t. She never wanted children (“I was very independent,” she says)—her husband did. “It would have been a deal-breaker.” Parenthood put an untenable strain on the marriage; her husband wasn’t as involved as she wanted; they separated. Life is difficult, Amy reports: “Our child has two homes and I’m still doing 90 per cent of it on my own.”
Amy’s candour is part of a growing yet contentious conversation about parental regret, one primarily focused on mothers. Social media provides one hub, from the 9,000-member Facebook group “I regret having children” (on which “Warren Chansky” posted: “I hated being a father and I don’t like the people my kids have become”) to a Facebook community with more than 2,600 members founded by Lauren Byrne, a 32-year-old ER nurse and mother of two who lives in Newfoundland. Byrne doesn’t regret having children, she tells Maclean’s, though women on the site say they do.
Byrne’s group is private and carefully monitored, a necessity given the criticism and judgment admitting regret can provoke. French psychotherapist Corinne Maier stoked an international firestorm and condemnation in 2008 with her manifesto No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children; her two children left her “exhausted and bankrupt,” and she couldn’t wait for them to leave home, she wrote. In 2013, Isabella Dutton, a 57-year-old British mother of two grown children created furor with a Daily Mail essay headlined: “The mother who says having these two children is the biggest regret of her life.” By 2018, however, Dutton and Maier are no longer freakish outliers; parental regret, or “the last parenting taboo” as it’s dubbed in the media has been covered by everyone from the BBC (“100 Women 2016: Parents who regret having children”) to Marie Claire (“Inside the growing movement of women who wished they never had kids”) to Today’s Parent (“Regretting motherhood: What have I done with my life?” by Lola Augustine Brown, a 41-year-old mother of three aged from two to 10 who lives in rural Nova Scotia).
The discussion has been stoked by the first scholarship on regret; Israeli sociologist Orna Donath thrust it into the spotlight with her 2015 book Regretting Motherhood: A Study, based on interviews with 23 Israeli women, all anonymous, aged 26 to 73, five of them grandmothers.
Unsurprisingly, women who express regret are called selfish, unnatural, abusive “bad moms” or believed to “exemplify the ‘whining’ culture we allegedly live in,” as Donath puts it. One commenter called Dutton “an utterly miserable, cold-hearted and selfish woman.” Even Donath has been savaged for her research: one critic suggested she be burned alive.