Here's the thing about realizing that you shouldn't have had kids," says Laura*, 37, a journalist based in Los Angeles. "You can't take the decision back."
Laura once believed that she wanted to be a mother. She had little direct experience with children—no siblings young enough to need tending to, no babysitting jobs—and when she and her husband decided to start a family, she wondered if she knew enough about what that meant. "I asked some friends if we could get the basics from them and they ran us through the general infant care stuff in maybe 45 minutes," she says. "In retrospect, it was laughably insufficient. I really didn't know what I was in for."
Laura got pregnant easily. But once her son was born, she was overwhelmed and frustrated, prone to lengthy crying jags, and consumed by boredom and dissatisfaction.
Some might call this postpartum depression, but the cloud never lifted. Laura knew there was a different force at work. "The regret hit me when the grandmas went home and my husband went back to the office and I was on my own with him," she says. "I realized that this was my life now—and it was unbearable."
As more time passed, Laura felt convinced that she had made a life-altering mistake. "I hated, hated, hated the situation I found myself in," she says. "I think the word for what I felt is 'trapped.' After I had a kid, I realized I hated being the mother to an infant, but by then it was too late. I couldn't walk away and still live with myself, but I also couldn't stand it. I felt like my life was basically a middle-class prison."
It's a huge taboo, admitting this kind of thing, but there's a growing and largely ignored group of mothers all over the world who are confessing their regret over having children. Day after day, as they change diapers, drive to soccer practice, and help with college applications, they fantasize about a life unburdened by dependents and free from the needs of others. A do-over.
The movement got its (arguable) start nearly 10 years ago when Corinne Maier, a French psychoanalyst, writer, and mother of two in Brussels, wrote candidly about her own regret in No Kids: 40 Reasons Not to Have Children. (Among them: being forced to adopt the "idiot language" of children and inevitably being disappointed by your offspring.) The book was described by reviewers as "a selfish and cathartic display" and "incredibly distasteful."
But as often happens when one person gives sudden voice to your secret inner turmoil, more women began to—timidly or boldly or both—step up to the mic. In the United Kingdom, Isabella Dutton, 60, declared in The Daily Mail in 2013 that having her two children was the biggest regret of her life, noting that though she diligently cared for and loved both, "I know my life would have been much happier and more fulfilled without children." In Germany, novelist Sarah Fischer's recent book The Mother Bliss Lie: Regretting Motherhood tackles the idea that motherhood is a pretty miserable existence when compared to the detached experience of many fathers.
Not surprisingly, the movement has gained most of its traction on the internet, in anonymous chat rooms and on buried message boards, vestiges of safe spaces for women online. There are sub-communities on Quora and Reddit—even a Facebook group called "I Regret Having Children"—with mothers tapping out desperate messages of shame, disappointment, and fear. "I am 30 years old and since I was very young I always dreamed about having a family," one anonymous commenter writes. "I wish I would never had kids [sic]. I realize I am not mother material, and I am terrified thinking how I am going to be forced to take care of it."
Sometimes that fear is a sense of missed opportunity. "I wonder if my accomplishments would be more spectacular," says Ananya, a 38-year-old freelance writer and editor who divides her time between the United States and Singapore. "Would I have written my second or third book? Would I be able to travel to chase that elusive story? I feel motherhood has slowed me down so much." She envies friends not for their spontaneous vacations and naps, but for the time and space they have to think. "I hold a lot of data in my head," Ananya says of constantly keeping on top of all the details that go with small children: doctor's appointments, weight, height, most recent allergies, toys they want, foods they will eat. "I long for a life without this mental clutter," she explains.
Of course, not every mother gets to decide when to become one. Carrie, an American living in Mexico, married when she was 22 and got pregnant while on the pill. "I was devastated," she says. Talking about that time, and how it felt, is still hard today. "I wanted university, travel, and more of my own life before a child entered it." Carrie was pressured by her mother-in-law, among other family, to keep the baby, despite her desire for an abortion and then, later, adoption. "I was surrounded by people who adamantly opposed my choices, so in some way I felt I had no choice at all." Carrie and her husband split up soon after she gave birth, leaving her to raise their daughter alone. Suddenly she was the sole provider for a child she never actually wanted in the first place.
Carrie describes her early motherhood as selfish and resentful, full of an acute sense of sacrifice. "I like to say I tried my best, but the truth is I didn't," she admits. "My daughter was left to raise herself in many ways. I've always said that she succeeded not because of me but in spite of me."
Now 46 and the mother of a 22-year-old herself, Carrie reflects on her path with searing clarity. "I don't regret her, I regret the fact that I never should have been a mother at all," she says. Time and therapy have helped, but she's still fixated on what could have been. "I see her growing, exploring, taking off on a whim. I can't help but think she's living my life."
Honesty this surprising and inconvenient breeds harsh backlash wherever it goes. In response to Dutton's Daily Mail story, some comments were vicious. "What an utterly miserable, cold-hearted and selfish woman," noted one. Another was astonished "such a vile creature could exist." Some have even accused these mothers of committing child abuse for daring to utter such thoughts.
Despite the fact that we have officially entered the age of oversharing—documenting anything and everything on social media from children's births to family deaths—there are still things women are not supposed to feel, and certainly not to openly discuss. Regretting motherhood is the biggest to date.
When author Ayelet Waldman declared in The New York Times in 2005 that she loves her husband (fellow author Michael Chabon) more than her four children, she was promptly flamed and even booed by an audience full of mothers when she went on Oprah to defend herself. But Waldman stirred controversy for the sake of expressing one of the fundamental frustrations across women who regret having children, and even those who don't: motherhood should be your primary identity above all others.
Do we expect the same of men? Of course not. Fathers, Susan Rohwer wrote for The Los Angeles Times in 2014, are permitted "multifaceted identities, and are even patted on the back for being involved parents." With mothers, it's simply expected that you will be an attentive, highly-involved caretaker, and there is no praise when you are. Not to mention that your parenting is up for critique by all those who come across it: According to a recent study, 48 percent of moms say they feel judged by strangers, versus only 24 percent of dads.
This judgment runs deep. The mother-child relationship is supposedly the ultimate unbreakable bond; deviations from that norm are rarely understood or tolerated. Sources for this story—all of whom requested anonymity—were deeply concerned about both stigma and the potential impact of their statements on their children. "My daughter is becoming an amazing human being," Ananya explains. "I don't want her to know that I have imagined her out of existence."
But these women are hardly the isolated outliers they think they are. While their feelings are so frowned-upon that they have yet to be quantified on any large scale, one small German study published just two months ago found that 8 percent of its 1,200 participants regretted becoming parents.
Society's decisive discomfort with these mothers gets at a larger discomfort with women overall—that we won't do our fundamental jobs. And that even if we do, we may change our minds.
"This is allegedly dangerous for a culture that depends on women's collaboration to 'make children their life' without questioning it," observes Orna Donath, an Israeli sociologist and author of Regretting Motherhood, which involved dozens of interviews with regretful mothers. They lamented to her a life of responsibility that never ends ("once a mother always a mother") and conveyed a general sense that motherhood was a bad fit—that it's not always, without question, good for every woman.
And Donath is right: For many countries, raising a family still constitutes a vast landscape of unpaid work that falls almost wholly on women's shoulders. It's a societal infrastructure that innately depends on women cheerfully embracing the experience, even if every impulse tells them otherwise.
Here in the U.S., a lot has shifted professionally in the last few decades—women are now expected to lean in both at work and at home, never missing a board meeting or ballet recital. A 2015 study found that American mothers now spend 13.7 hours a week with their children, compared to 10.5 hours in 1965–even though a significantly larger percentage of mothers also now work outside of the home. The combination, for many, is exhausting.
"Today's mom is a domestic throwback to the '50s, combined with the '80s-era working mom," says Avital Norman Nathman, editor of The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality. At every stage, she says, there are expectations for the right way to mother. "Because of this, it's really hard for women to speak out about their horrible experiences, from a miserable pregnancy to a bad birth, because you're supposed to be this loving, glowing Mother Earth person," she explains. "It doesn't leave much room to process actual feelings."
Younger women are wising up and planning—or, perhaps more accurately, not planning—their families accordingly. Millennials just don't want children as much as previous generations did: A 2012 survey from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that just 42 percent of students planned to have children, compared to 78 percent from a similar survey in 1992. The change is actually already happening: In 2015, the number of live births in this country fell to the lowest number on record. Americans, it seems, aren't as interested in parenting anymore.
For Laura, things have gotten easier as her son grows up—she doesn't feel quite as chained to his every need—but she still believes she made the wrong choice. She's been open with her husband about her regrets, which has led him to take on a more active parenting role to accommodate her struggle. But that doesn't necessarily make her day-to-day—her conviction that she's locked into a life she didn't realize would be what it is—any easier.
"I had to grit my teeth and live with the results at first, and now it's just my reality," she says. "This is my new normal."
*All names have been changed.