Updated at 11:30 A.M. ET on August 31, 2021
Carrie wishes that she’d never had children. She spent a few years feeling satisfied as a mother, but now locks herself in the kitchen and wonders, Who am I? What am I doing here? She can’t pursue paid work, because she has to shepherd her 12-year-old and 10-year-old to school as well as to therapy appointments for their disabilities. Carrie, who lives in the U.K., told me that she often fantasizes about visiting her friend in Hawaii and never coming back. Her words felt so taboo that she asked to be referred to by only her first name. But sentiments of parental regret are less rare than one might imagine.
When American parents older than 45 were asked in a 2013 Gallup poll how many kids they would have if they could “do it over,” approximately 7 percent said zero. In Germany, 8 percent of mothers and fathers in a 2016 survey “fully” agreed with a statement that they wouldn’t have children if they could choose again (11 percent “rather” agreed). In a survey published in June, 8 percent of British parents said that they regret having kids. And in two recent studies, an assistant psychology professor at SWPS University, Konrad Piotrowski, placed rates of parental regret in Poland at about 11 to 14 percent, with no significant difference between men and women. Combined, these figures suggest that many millions of people regret having kids.
Feelings of ambivalence about parenthood aren’t necessarily going to do harm to children. But when regret suffuses the parent-child dynamic, the whole family can suffer. Although the research on parental regret is still nascent, Piotrowski told me, some evidence looking at adolescent mothers suggests an association between regretting parenthood and a harsher, more rejecting attitude toward their children. Kara Hoppe, a family therapist and co-author of Baby Bomb: A Relationship Survival Guide for New Parents, told me her work with patients suggests that children might feel emotional neglect “if the parent consistently really does not want to be there.” Children are so focused on themselves, developmentally, that they can internalize lack of interest from their mother or father as a personal failing, she said.
Though neither Piotrowski’s studies nor the surveys directly asked parents what caused these feelings, experts believe that there are two major pathways to parental regret. One of them is burnout. Parents might be devoted to their children, but feel exhausted and inadequately supported. Like Carrie—whose children have autism—some parents used to feel like effective caregivers but ended up facing unexpected responsibilities and saying things like “I’m not cut out to be a mom” and “I love my kids, but I don’t have what it takes.” Isabelle Roskam, a prominent scholar in parental burnout at Belgium’s Université Catholique de Louvain and a clinician, told me that in this scenario, “they don’t want to be a parent, because they are not able to be the perfect parent.” In one of Piotrowski’s studies, perfectionists were more likely to have trouble seeing themselves as a parent, to burn out in the role, and to experience regret. He also found that severe financial strain, being a single parent, and a history of rejection or abuse in one’s own childhood could contribute to parental regret. Burnout can be temporary and unrelated to regret. But Piotrowski essentially concluded that as the gap between the resources available to a parent and the demands of caring for a child grows, the odds of regret increase.
Not surprisingly, parental burnout has risen during the pandemic, Roskam said. As-yet-unpublished data from a team led by Hedwig van Bakel, a behavioral-science professor at Tilburg University, in the Netherlands, estimated the global prevalence of parental burnout in 2020 at 4.9 percent (up from 2.7 percent in data collected in 2018 and 2019); parents who spent more days in lockdown and had to give more attention to children were particularly affected. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, the founder and director of the Trauma Stewardship Institute, told me that she has seen an uptick in parental regret related to the relentlessly taxing events of the past year, and an internalization of the resultant pressure. Parent after parent thinks, “I’m not enough. There’s something wrong with me,” she told me. They’ve started to question their identity as caregivers. Piotrowski pointed me to research showing that parents who are burned out may be more likely to become neglectful or violent toward their children; kids with burned-out parents are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The other key reason for parental regret is that some parents simply never wanted kids in the first place. Mary is a stay-at-home mother of two in South Dakota. (She also requested to be identified by only her first name, for freedom to discuss the subject.) In 2014, she accidentally became pregnant and experienced a stillbirth. Around the same time, her mentor died by suicide. Feeling that she wanted to prove she could do pregnancy “correctly,” Mary conceived again. “I let hormones and feelings and trauma trick me into having kids,” she told me. When her first son was nine months old, she accidentally became pregnant again.
“I hate it,” Mary said. “I just don’t like kids.” She reads aloud to her children, cooks for them, and generally adheres to textbook parenting strategies for well-adjusted children. But Mary also ruminates about what she could do and who she could be without them, and counts down the days until they’re totally independent. When her friends who have teenagers bemoan their babies’ growing up, she told me, “I’m like, ‘You lucky bitch.’” Roskam said that for many of her parental-burnout patients who regret having children, the feeling is not permanent—but Mary told me that her therapist has ruled out both postpartum depression and burnout. Her regret isn’t a phase.
Orna Donath, an Israeli sociologist and the author of Regretting Motherhood: A Study, confirms this second route to regret. In her research, she interviewed 10 fathers who regretted becoming parents; eight of them reported not wanting children but having them to appease their partner. Some of Donath’s female subjects had supportive partners and the financial resources to raise kids but still felt an “ever-present” burden, she wrote.
Piotrowski concluded that choosing parenthood is a predictor of adapting to it; he noticed apparently higher rates of regret in Poland relative to Germany, which tracked with considerably lower access to abortion in the former. Research from UC San Francisco supports this idea: In one study, mothers with a child born as a consequence of abortion denial were more likely to report having difficulty bonding, as well as feeling trapped or resentful, than mothers who had an abortion and subsequently had a child. Kara Hoppe has seen this reflected in her adult patients. One woman told her, “I don’t think my mom ever really wanted to be a mom,” and attributed the neglect and abuse she experienced as a child to birth control not yet being available for her mother’s generation. As a kid, however, she thought, “What’s wrong with me?”
Some people simply aren’t cut out for raising children, and their kids suffer as a result. But perhaps fewer parents would be regretful if society didn't make parenting so hard. Decreasing parental regret could be possible, with a host of structural shifts: access to reproductive choice as well as individualized treatment for parental burnout and change to policies regarding child care, family leave, work schedules, and the gender pay and promotion gaps.
People might also feel less shame in their regret—and more motivation to address it—if society held more realistic expectations of parents. Women in particular are told that the early years of parenting are tough, but that they will naturally adapt to motherhood; when the sacrifices don’t get easier, that’s supposedly because they’re selfish, damaged, or both. This research tells a different story: Parental regret is the experience of a sizable minority of mothers and fathers. Talking about it could decrease pressure on parents to raise children perfectly, on women to become subsumed by motherhood, or on people to have kids at all. After I spoke with Mary, she sent me an email. “I cried for like an hour after I got off the phone,” she wrote. “I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear that there really are other moms who feel this way.”