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Regretting Motherhood:
A Study

by orna donath
north atlantic, 272 pages, $15.95

In March, a self-help author tweeted that whereas he once intended to have many children, now, after putting in a few years on his first, he had decided that one was enough, and more than enough, and if he had it to do over, zero would have been better. The blast radius extended far into social-conservative Twitter. Rod Dreher commanded, “Repent, you poor bastard.” The regretful father tweeted in self-defense that he loved his son and cared for him as attentively and laboriously as a father would who had no regrets; only he did not derive enough pleasure from the performance to recoup what it cost him. The plea did not improve his ratio. He was condemned (unanswerably) for sending the tweet in his own name, almost guaranteeing that his son will see it someday.

The women of Orna ­Donath’s ­Regretting Motherhood ­confess a more ironic regret: how loving their children has made them regret having borne them. Children are a burden these mothers accept unsentimentally, not uncomplainingly. Their complaints subvert the ad copy about parental love, and expose what it ­obscures.

Regretting Motherhood is a qualitative sociological study of Israeli mothers who answered “No” to the question, “If you could go back, with the knowledge and experience you have now, would you still become a mother?”, and who either saw no advantages in motherhood or judged that the disadvantages outweighed them. The study’s Israeli setting is interesting. As Donath observes, Israel is the most articulately pro-natal society in the West; and though she does not observe it, Israelis are less lugubrious than Americans. The mothers in her study are identified by their first names, and biographical information is attenuated. Many were anxious about confidentiality, dreading that their children should learn of their regret. A few had already broached the subject with their children, for good or ill.

These mothers’ regret cannot be ascribed to the extraordinary difficulty of their ­circumstances, for they are middle-class women with statistically ordinary lives. The difficulty is that motherhood means “the death of the previous self and the creation of a new, different one”—and though the new self had been advertised as more fulfilled than the self it succeeded, these mothers have ­experienced “disappearing” and emptiness, and look back on their prematernal selves as fuller and more satisfied. No doubt most women register some loss with the transition to motherhood, measured in productivity, leisure time, looks. These mothers are concerned with a more totalizing change: “Once a mother, always a mother”—always and everywhere. Sophia is mother of two children aged between one and four. Her theme is the inescapability of motherhood:

Even if—God forbid—they die, they will still be with me all the time. Mourning for them, the memory of them, and the pain will be intolerable. To lose them now—of course it would bring some relief, but there would be more pain than relief. Because they’re here, there’s nothing I can do about that. . . . My husband asked if we had a million dollars and an au pair—it doesn’t matter. You are the parent. . . . The responsibility and the suffering are on you.

Other mothers similarly find that their children are “with [them] all the time.” Sky is mother of three, aged between fifteen and twenty-four:

It’s just an unbearable burden for me. I can’t relax . . . When the kids are here I’m not relaxed; when they’re not here—like now, I’m not totally relaxed. Because maybe they’ll come back soon. But it’s not just that they’ll be here soon but . . . the constant guilt that comes with every little thing.

Edith is mother of four grown children, and a grandmother: “They take everything. They take everything from you,” even after they’ve left home. Naomi is mother of two grown children, and a grandmother: “There is something that is very difficult for me, and that is my responsibility for the children, even though they are grown up. It won’t come off.” Sophia again: “It’s absurd. Because I don’t want them . . . I really don’t want them.” Doreen, mother of three, aged five to nine, delivers the ugliest quote in the book: “I would never say it to them, but I bite my tongue and say to myself, Dear god, I wish they would disappear. Why are they here? Who are they? Really. I tell myself that they are in my way, that they should leave.” Sophia (“wisdom”) again: “But they’re here. They’re here.”

Now that they’re here, their mothers will not abandon them. None of these women, even among the divorcées, has fobbed off her kids on someone else. Odelya, mother of one child between the ages of one and four, is fighting to deny visitation rights to her ex-husband, whose house she considers unsafe. She laughs during her interview, and calls the situation “absurd,” since logically she ought to grant her ex-husband not only visitation rights but custody. But damned if she’s going to hand over her son to someone who won’t take care of him properly. “There’s nothing you can do about it, I brought him into this world—it’s my responsibility to take care of him . . . and I am not about to renounce it.” One doubts she would hand him over to anyone. Nor will these mothers scant their kids. Like most other middle-class mothers, they practice intensive parenting. Sophia:

I truly am a good mother, really. I feel embarrassed to say so. I am a mother to whom her children are important. I love them, I read books to them, I receive professional guidance, I try to do my best to educate them and give them love and affection. . . . They have a good and happy life.

These women pull off convincing performances of contented motherhood, yet their motivation is a distinctly negative sense of obligation, shading into guilt. Sophia: “I did something—I brought them into the world—and now I have to face it, even if it means that my life is gone.”

“Dying to self” is one way of characterizing self-sacrificial love. And these mothers protest their love. They believe failure to love would be morally culpable, whereas regret is not. Their efforts to understand and articulate the distinction make for fascinating moral drama—which Donath, perhaps out of an egalitarian reluctance to ­acknowledge the uniqueness of motherhood, plays down. She denies that there is any “paradox” here. For a mother to love her children and regret her motherhood is no more strange, she says, than for a woman to say of an ex, “I still love him, but I regret I ever met him.” In each scenario, love brings suffering rather than happiness. But the comparison is not otherwise apt. For in regretting a romantic relationship, a woman does not logically wish away her ex’s existence. Nor is her ex’s existence contingent on her will: He does not need her to feed and clothe him; she did not bring him into the world.

Donath’s subjects, less-perfect feminists, struggle with the paradox Donath denies. For Doreen, “It’s like I’m two people. Sometimes I feel as though I have schizophrenia.” ­Charlotte is mother of two, between the ages of ten and nineteen:

Look, it’s complicated, because I regret becoming a mother, but I don’t regret them, who they are, their personalities. I love these people. . . . So yes, it’s not something you can really explain. Because if I regretted it then I’d not want them to be here. But I wouldn’t want them not to be here. I just don’t want to be a mother.

Fantasy is not answerable to logic. These mothers’ regret is continuous with the fantasy of abortion—if you kill them early enough, they won’t have existed in the first place—except that they are all too aware that their children already and irrevocably exist (“Even if—God forbid—they die, they will still be with me”), and they act accordingly.

In doing so, they exemplify the distinction between love understood as willing the good of the beloved, and love understood as affectionate or ardent feelings toward the beloved. The former, of course, is love proper; let’s call the latter sentiment. In the ideal (and one hopes ordinary) case, the two coincide. But where a parent has love but lacks sentiment—a positive affective engagement with her kids and with the tasks and duties of raising them—regret ensues. And where a parent has sentiment but lacks love, what ensues is rather more insidious.

Mothers are expected to follow a script. The women of Regretting Motherhood occasionally show that they know what their next line is but refuse to say it, with a distinctly Israeli intolerance for bullsh**. Sunny, mother of four between the ages of five and fourteen, is asked whether anything can make motherhood “worth it”:

What does “worth it” mean? I don’t know. What is worth it? I don’t see the sense in the comparison. It’s like saying, “A child’s smile is worth everything.” It’s bullsh**. It’s not true at all. One has nothing to do with the ­other—what’s the connection?

She is right to object to the cliché about children’s smiles. It seeks to rectify the affective experience of motherhood, to deny that mother­hood could ever be, on balance, unpleasant. One hears it most often in the early months of a child’s life, when he is testing out his “social smile,” after weeks of doing nothing but fuss and scream (hence, “bundle of joy”). It is the sound of a woman sticking to the script.

Donath writes, “Not only must [mothers] love their children, they must do so within a narrow range of acceptable ways.” This is barbarous style but accurate insight. We recognize a certain (by no means transhistorical) definition of parental love, and from it follows a script. Definitionally, parental love is selfless, ­unfailing, and unconditional. Selfless: The good of the child is set above the good (or desires) of the parent. ­Unfailing: Parental love never expires, nor is any action taken in respect of the child except to aim at his good. Unconditional: Parental love is not conditioned—inflected or heightened or lessened—by any quality in the child, tangible or intangible, and parents love all their children equally. Every aspect of this definition is contained in the bromide, “Everything she does, she does for her children.”

By contrast, consider romantic love: Jealousy, resentment, and vengefulness are written into the script. Romantic love is not definitionally selfless, but in large part desirous, seeking pleasure and possession. And so it is not definitionally unfailing, but classically accommodates unloving acts—almost entails them, in proportion to its intensity—and though most wedding vows still include “till death do us part,” eros fleets. For romantic love is not definitionally unconditional, but responsive to tangible and intangible qualities in the beloved. Not so parental love!

Please. In 2005, Canadian researchers presented a study that suggested, as the New York Times headlined, “Ugly Children May Get Parental Short Shrift.” It was a pretty devilish experiment, with dodgy methodology: The authors had tailed parents with young children down supermarket aisles, rated the children for cuteness or homeliness, then observed whether or not the parents had buckled their toddlers’ seatbelts in the shopping cart, and whether they kept the ambulatory kids close by or let them wander out of sight. It turns out that in these narrow terms, cute kids are more attentively looked after by their parents. The study ignited a minor controversy, as its findings scandalized our pieties about parental love.

Despite the outcry, the behavior of these parents was quite banal, and hardly blamable. It turns out that parents are people, too. As they interact with their children, aesthetic, social, prudential, what-have-you factors come into play. Shopping-cart seatbelts are, after all, a trivial matter (even the cute kids were buckled in only 13 percent of the time). Parents even, yes, have their favorites: the smart one, the sporty one, the sociable one, the offspring of the marriage that lasted.

A parent’s sentiment is quite distinct from her constancy in willing the child’s good. When the two are confounded, the performance of parental sentiment may mask a lack of parental love. For it really is not the case that all parents love their children ­selflessly, unfailingly, unconditionally, or indeed at all. If the women of Regretting Motherhood have love but lack sentiment, far more common is the parent who has sentiment but lacks love. As ­Donath observes, we don’t like to concede this. It is ­axiomatic that parents—at least, parents who look like us—love their children, and in defense of this axiom, some of our most sentimental rhetoric is deployed. Hence the notoriety of Casey Anthony, the Florida mother who may or may not have murdered her two-year-old daughter, and whose trial inflamed the nation in 2011. Anthony had to be stigmatized, exoticized, and made a monster, lest she too much resemble us and reveal that ordinary American mothers may be capable of not loving their kids, even of aiming at their destruction.

For is the unloving mother really so rare a monster? If we stipulate that parental love minimally entails aiming at the preservation of the child, then we must bear in mind the sociologically significant number of American mothers who procure abortions every year. Many or most of these mothers have or will have other children, for whom they profess love, and whose preservation and flourishing they aim at, perhaps intensively: supplying food, clothing, shelter, piano lessons, a 529. They are not Medeas; they are mothers who love their children or aim at their destruction, pending circumstances. They are way, way off-script.

We paper this over by appealing to abortion “for the good of the child.” We are told that children deserve to have parents who are happy, who perform the scripted sentiments. A parent who is incapable of parental sentiment had better not accept parenthood. In this case, parental love entails the destruction of the beloved child. If one were to question whether abortion really is a loving act, one would be admonished to “Trust Women.” This slogan from Ireland’s abortion referendum is, as John Waters has written, a perversion of the Irish mother-cult, a moral fetishization of the woman, so that no act of hers can aim at anything other than the good of her children. It is a profound trust that we must repose in women in order to take on faith that scraping a child from the womb, ripping his limbs off, snipping his spinal cord, or vacuuming his brain out conduces to his good, but people do insist. Electoral majorities go in for this because much of our ostensible piety toward our children is in fact piety toward ourselves as parents.

Under the sentimental dispensation, avowals of the all-importance of the child are more important than the all-important child. Since the sentimental script can be read even during the performance of unloving acts, parental sentiment easily provides cover for neglect or cruelty. “For the good of the child,” babies are split in divorce. After all, children deserve parents who are happy. Provided the parents avow that their children are the best thing that ever happened to them, and prize visitation rights, no one may doubt that the home was broken for the good of the child.

Still more insidious are extravagant parental displays of putting the child first. Helicopter parents—with their safety paranoias, their objections to teachers’ grading practices and umpires’ calls—breed fragility in their kids. Their hyper-involvement ostensibly promotes the kids’ flourishing; certainly it allows the parents to preen and domineer.

Pedophile panics display extreme and exemplary ironies. In these ­cases, parental love is often taken as dispositive in favor of an allegation, on the theory that “No parent wants to believe—.” But the classic pedophile panics are abominations unto logic and physiology, allegations only a mother could love. Read much about McMartin Preschool and its copycats, and you’ll start to ask dark questions about parents—about nice, bourgeois parents, whose hyper-­performance of parental love (“Witness how eager I am to suspect others of intending harm to him!”) makes you wonder what they’re compensating for. When you see them desiring (I see no way around it) the sexual violation of their children, you observe how cruel sentimental “love” can be. (It remains incredible to me that the psychologists and social workers who incepted false memories of sex abuse during the 1980s and 1990s remain at liberty. They inflicted severe injuries on their patients, worthy of the bizarre coincidence “the/rapist.”)

Tell me you’ve never observed intensive parenting—engineering for academic, athletic, and social achievement—practiced in a manner and to an extent that undermined the good of the child, that may have been dressed-up cruelty. One mother I know had the legs of her seven-year-old daughter surgically broken and realigned, condemning the child to weeks in a wheelchair and months in hip-high casts, in order to correct her slight pigeon-toe. The child’s gait improved, but everything else fell apart. The parents in such cases always loudly, badly, “wanted children.” But what did they want them for? What is billed as parental love is often parental sentiment—and parental sentiment is a lot like other sentiments: inconstant, conditional and conditioned, often fake or masking hostility, pettiness, a desire to dominate.

What shall Cordelia speak?

In my fortieth week of pregnancy, my husband and I lunched with Martin Mosebach and his wife. When I mentioned that I expected to complete my novel manuscript during my maternity leave, the Mosebachs were charmed and told me of ­Martin’s analogy of the Joyful Mysteries to the process of getting a book out.

In my forty-first week of pregnancy, I experienced variable deceleration—unpredictable decreases in my son’s heart rate, caused by compression of the umbilical cord during contractions, depriving him of oxygen. I gleaned later that “decelling” during labor is common, though my nurses seemed flustered by my case, which must have been trickier than average. I was in an up-to-date maternity ward, but the remedy prescribed was unnervingly low-tech: Roll over. Every time his heart started dragging its feet, I had to unkink the cord—left side, right side, all fours; tangling with wires and tubes, including one that delivered Fentanyl into my spine and one that delivered into my veins a drug whose side effects included quaking in every limb.

At the lowest moment, nothing was working. As the thumping of the monitor slowed—and slowed—I thought, not for the first or the last time, “So he will be stillborn.” In popped a glamorous doctor I had never seen before, who had seen the bad news on a screen and was here to “tickle the top of the baby’s head.” It worked, this One Weird Trick to jump-start your baby.

The nurses continued to coach my breathing: “You’re giving oxygen to your baby. Take deep, slow, calm breaths [or he will die].” Not a problem. When our son appeared in the room, a surreal creature, slick as a seal, gray as the moon, my husband felt for an instant out-of-body, as in an opium swoon. He told me about it later. “And,” he said, “you looked so relieved and happy when they put him on your chest.”

“Honestly,” I said, “I felt ­nothing.”

Our Lamaze instructor had crowed, “Everybody cries!” We were watching a childbirth video. While labor was vicarious, I had the luxury of getting verklempt, and I thought then, “Yes, I will cry,” I will stick to the script.

I thought then, too, that I would refuse anesthesia. No principle was at stake, merely a point of pride that is also a class marker. The medical question—whether epidurals are marginally bad for babies—was never settled to my satisfaction and now seems totally dismissible. Class is where it’s at. Natural births, home births, and hypno-births are increasingly essential among women of the professional class. How wealthy must one be to pretend to be poor? How secure, to court risk? The opposition to epidurals arises, in part, from a prizing of maternal sensation: The pain of labor intensifies the stress, the joy and relief, the realness of the ordeal. You need all the feelings, up here and down there, for your supreme maternal performance. (“Everybody cries!”) In the event, given the alertness and agility demanded of me, I feel rather lucky to have broken my pointless resolution. My son has a pulse.

Feeling returns. Some of it is pleasant, and I am conscious that, as the supermarket study foretold, my doting is conditioned by my son’s appearance. It occurs to me, if my son were homely, how much more I would resent his demands. But in these early months, the feelings are mostly pity (“striding the blast”) and fear (when he gets his first cold). A stuffy nose, innocuous in an adult, is a domino-line disaster in a newborn. It revives the pre-industrial horror of night: ­Everyone who could keep vigil with you or take a phone call has gone to sleep; technology is useless (rare is the Uber driver who will pick you up when your destination is the emer­gency room) or worse than useless (google “newborn cold worst case scenario”).

Pain returns. When his witching hour hits, I have to crook my wrists in order to carry him in the peculiar ways that soothe him. When he is on my lap, as he too often must be, I have to crook my wrist another way to span the keyboard with one hand. Writing is slower—but it was always slow. John Henry Newman wrote, “The composition of a volume is like gestation and child-birth. I do not think that I ever thought out a question, or wrote my thoughts, without great pain, pain reaching to the body as well as to the mind.” It was the pain of bodying forth what did not want to emerge, some crosswise thought. Newman’s sermons scrutinize and discredit our sentimental notions about what counts as love of God. It is strange procedure for the rhetorician: to censure his auditors’ ready sympathies, rather than exploit them. Perfectionism, literary and moral, cannot afford an unfitting word, a decorative or bathetic phrase, when forswearing what we all know we know, what all are pleased to say we feel.

I type this sentence with two hands. After another day of cobbling together ten minutes here, ninety seconds there, five seconds there, two seconds there, I am free to work until midnight because my son is sleeping. Like most mothers, perhaps, I both wish that he would never wake and hope that he will never die. I am not distressed by the dissonance, for it does not really matter what I feel. He’s here. He’s here.

Julia Yost is senior editor of First Things.

Photo by Caitlin Regan.