Have you experienced maternal regret? You’re not alone

Have you experienced maternal regret? You’re not alone

Photography, Dylan Nolte,


Have you experienced maternal regret? You’re not alone

Motherhood is complicated. Yes, we often hear of the love and joy of having a child. But it’s not always positive. When the role of Mother causes suffering, how do you navigate the complexities of the journey while dealing with loneliness and internalized guilt?

Regretting becoming a mother may be a taboo subject, but once we start talking about it, the feeling is not as uncommon as you might think. The term maternal regret was first coined by Israeli sociologist Orna Donath, in her book Regretting Motherhood (2017), in which she interviews women from a variety of socioeconomic, educational and professional backgrounds. Donath treats regret as a feminist issue while exploring the variety of reasons women choose the path of motherhood, such as family pressure or saving a marriage.

When asked: "If, given your current knowledge and experience, you could go back in time, would you want a child?" all 23 mothers interviewed answered negatively. The awareness of having made an irreversible mistake and missed opportunities hangs heavy. The women’s overall negative assessment, drawn from their own experiences, is what characterizes regret.

Gaëlle, a mother of two, talks about her own experience with regret in the book. "I got pregnant with my eldest child 15 years ago… I didn't understand what this little being had come to do in our lives. I felt totally disassociated, and I couldn't talk to anyone about it, because I was afraid to tell anyone.”

Regretting the role, not the child

Astrid Hurault de Ligny helped open up the conversation, first on Instagram and then in an autobiographical account, Le regret maternel (2022). Like most of the participants in Orna Donath's study, she feels it is essential to clarify the subject of her regret: "I love my child more than anything in the world. It's the role of Mother that I don't like…”

However, separating the child from the role leaves mother Gaëlle questioning her feelings: "That's not my experience at all. I don't think it's possible to talk about maternal regret and think that it spares your child,” she says. “If you feel regret, it's because a child has turned your life upside down! It took me years to love my son. As a baby, he refused to look at me. By the time he was three, it was his father he was calling.” 

By making a distinction between the role of mother and having a child, are the women trying to mitigate the social stigma attached to their confession, which goes against our norms and beliefs?

"Regretting the transition to motherhood tends to be seen as an abject maternal experience and an object of incredulity. Even in feminist literature, it remains unexplored. [...] Regret is part of a prescriptive socio-cultural framework, which indicates when it is appropriate to experience it or not. It is predicted for women who say they do not want to be mothers, but forbidden for those who already are. The maternal experience is institutionalized as necessarily gratifying, and regretting it leads to being considered an unfit mother. Suspicions of child abuse quickly follow," explains Orna Donath.



Photography, Bethany Beck,

Elsa, a mother of two, has her own feelings about both being a mother and having a child. : "It's difficult to share these thoughts, because there's the fear of judgment. It's still very taboo. I'm afraid of being seen as a bad mother,” she says. “This feeling of regret might be understood as not loving your children, so you don't look after them, or you look after them badly, when that's not it at all. I often double my efforts, telling myself that if I'm going to be a mother, I might as well do it well. So I put even more burden on myself.”

The weight of daily life

This feeling of all-consuming motherhood is made more oppressive given that family logistics still fall overwhelmingly on women. "I signed a contract without knowing the clauses. If I don't take the reins, nothing gets done,” says Elsa. “When you want a child, you don't visualize it throwing a tantrum or yelling at you, you just want to hold a baby in your arms. I never expected all of the difficulties. That's my regret.”

The illusion of freedom

It’s important for people to question their desire for a child before going ahead with it. The feminist achievements of the 20th century, particularly in the field of contraception, may have given women the illusion of total freedom, and therefore of informed choice in their maternity, but unconscious social conditioning is still powerfully at work. Many are caught between the social imperative of self-fulfillment, particularly at work, and the pressure to procreate, which has not subsided. 

How do we stop the pattern before reproducing it and prevent possible regret? It's a loaded question because it lies at the intersection of the individual and social structures, but asking it can pave the way for more intentional motherhood.

Will we have this feeling of regret forever?

Does regret fade as our children grow up? According to psychologist Véronique Borgel Larchevêque, "if we agree to give up our previous life, then we can move forward. You have to look at working with regret as a process: you become aware of it, you name it and you express it. You look for the reasons. You try to change it. Regret may be there all the time, but the negative feelings associated with it can be temporary and worked on."

Gaëlle's second child, unplanned, offered her a completely different experience of motherhood. “I saw it as a second chance. Everything was easier. Today, I don't regret having children at all. But I do regret that it happened the way it did with my eldest. That's the only regret I have left.”





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Have you experienced maternal regret? You’re not alone