Megan* was 24 when she was pressured to have her first child. She was a member of her local Church of England parish church, and her partner was the vicar’s eldest son. Young and in love, they decided to get married so they could consummate their relationship, but Megan was soon being pushed by her now husband and his family to have children. “I felt that it was my duty, and I had no choice,” Megan tells me. “I wasn’t made aware of my obligation to have children straight away. If I had been, I wouldn’t have gotten married.”
Megan had always been on the fence about whether or not she wanted to have children, but she knew that she was not ready to become a mother in her early twenties. “I would have liked to have spent more time enjoying the simplicity of our marriage as a couple, travelling and getting to know each other,” she explains. “I’m not even sure he was, or is, the right partner for me. We get on, but it feels forced – a rushed decision. We’re now more like good friends trapped in a lustless marriage.”
A decade and two children later, Megan says that if she could have her time again, she would “put her foot down” and not have children. Now 34, she is part of a growing group of people, particularly mothers, who live with parental regret. While abortion was never an option for Megan, it was available. The prospect of more women having to face up to parental regret, though, has certainly increased in the US with the American Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade.
The ruling effectively overturned half a century of the legal right to an abortion, and several states have since implemented trigger laws making abortion illegal. There will almost certainly be women in those states who are forced to carry out unwanted pregnancies. In the UK, there is a fear that anti-abortionists will seize on the decision to try to reverse the 1967 Abortion Act in Britain, with the row already spreading to parliament.
Tales of women being pressured to continue with unwanted pregnancies were commonplace online even before the Roe v Wade ruling was struck down. In a Facebook group called “I Regret Having Children”, which has 42,000 members, there are several stories from women who are suffering from parental regret after carrying out unwanted pregnancies.
One anonymous user, a 21-year-old woman, details how, when she became pregnant at 18, her mother and sister decided that she would keep the baby despite her wanting an abortion. “I cried every single day until I was seven months along. I was picked up and dropped off at school, tracked so that I could not get the abortion. I was miserable,” she explains. “I couldn’t attend the school I wanted because of my child and childcare needs. My life was on hold for two years, which meant I regretted having him even more.”
Yet, the seeds of regret can take root even in those who have chosen to be parents. Sarah*, 42, says that while she does not regret having her son, having him through IVF to raise as a solo parent was much harder than she had ever anticipated. “I had simply run out of options,” she says of her decision to use IVF. “My ovaries were literally dying and I had to make a decision based on how I’d feel in five years’ time. I’d always wanted a child and I had never imagined my life whereby I didn’t become a mother, so I had to try.”
I wasn’t made aware of my obligation to have children straight away
However, she explains that “nothing” can prepare you for the realities of having a child. “Having a child is like having a 24/7 job which you can’t resign from,” Sarah says. “It is relentless, and on reflection I took my life for granted in many ways before. I can’t go anywhere without considering or taking my little boy. It’s like your life is no longer your own.”
Parental regret is more common than you may think. A study published by YouGov last year, which surveyed 1,249 parents aged from 25 to over 55, found that one in 12 British parents regrets having children. And the age groups whose members most often say that they currently regret, or have previously regretted, having children are the 25- to 34-year-olds (21 per cent) and 35- to 44-year-olds (18 per cent).
Further studies have shown that it’s not just a UK phenomenon but a worldwide one. A 2013 Gallup poll from the US found that seven per cent of parents wouldn’t have children if they could have their time again, and a 2016 study from Germany found that 20 per cent of German parents would not choose to become parents again – even if they love their children.
For most (74 per cent) of the German parents who admitted parental regret, they cited “restrictions on personal development” as the reason. The same number of parents said lack of childcare was a factor, and 44 per cent of mothers and 20 per cent of fathers said their careers would have been better had they not had children.
A 2016 study found 20 per cent of German parents would not become parents again
The impact on her career is one of the reasons Megan regrets becoming a mother. “I feel robbed of the opportunity to have made the most of my degree that I worked so hard for,” she explains. “I had to give up my career dreams to act as the primary carer for our children, which is so often the case [for women]. If it had been my choice, setting myself up securely on my career path would have been my priority.”
High-maintenance children, lacklustre partners, and feeling forced into parenthood are just some of the reasons for regret cited in the Reddit group “Regretful Parents”. The group, which has 43,000 members, hosts daily discussions between people who regret or resent their decision to have children. Stories from parents in the group include a woman who says the “only time she enjoys herself is when she’s sleeping away from her son”, and a 26-year-old mother who says that she will “forever wish that the Plan B [morning after pill] had worked”.
“I think if we are honest, most parents on some level regret having children,” Counselling Directory member Mandy Mitchell tells me. “Parenting can be tough, and we are in a society that tells us we should have children and our family is not complete if we do not have them, but this isn’t true.”
Psychologist Maja Tomse adds that parental regret is something that “comes up often” during her work with new parents. “Becoming a parent and being a parent is one of the hardest things in life, and it is natural to struggle to find joy in parenting,” Tomse explains. “We often think about bereavement, loss and mourning in the context of dying, but we can feel bereft for different kinds of reasons. Every change in life inevitably brings some feelings of loss, and sometimes even an experience of becoming a parent can trigger these feelings.”
Feeling regret or resentment towards your child is a normal feeling, she continues, but it’s something that is not often talked about. “For most, it is very hard to dive into this and explore it, especially as parents feel guilty for feeling this way in the first place, so they often feel reluctant to share these emotions and thoughts,” says Tomse. “Often, they think it is very unusual or even unnatural to feel this way. Therefore, I assume, parental regret is fairly common, but it is still a taboo.”
For Megan and Sarah, part of their regret stems from the lack of support available to them. “I’ve learnt that it would be helpful to have a ‘village’, to have support, and to have people around you that have your back,” Sarah explains. “The reality, though, is often the opposite – the invites dry up in most cases.”
Megan adds: “We’ve forgotten how to support each other, and it does take a village to raise a child – but more often than not, one female carries the weight of the family and makes sacrifices.”
Tomse explains that parental resentment mainly builds when a parent doesn’t have enough time to themselves any more, but she adds that acknowledging the resentment or regret is key. “Your rational brain knows the object of your resentment isn’t to blame – in this case your child – but your feelings in that moment are too intense to change the way you feel,” she explains. “By exploring feelings of resentment, we might begin to think more rationally about what’s happening, and feel the emotions which have been pushed aside.”
She says the best way to move past parental regret or resentment is to think of your feelings as grief, and embrace each of the five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Tomse is clear, however, that these stages are “not stops on some linear timeline of grief” and will change from person to person.
Some of the best and hardest working mums I know secretly regret having children
Because, when it comes down to it, grief and loss are the root causes of parental regret. For Megan, it’s the loss of what her career could have been, and for Sarah it’s the loss of her identity. There can be other factors at play, too, such as postnatal depression, the breakdown of a relationship, or even the financial burden of having a child. For the women who were pressured out of having an abortion, the “What if?” question will always represent their biggest loss, especially when studies show that 99 per cent of women feel relief, not regret, five years after having an abortion.
“Children are not returnable, and we owe it to them and ourselves to do our best,” Mitchell says. “I think coming to terms with the responsibility of parenthood is easier if we focus on the day to day if we are feeling overwhelmed. Try to understand what feels so difficult, and why, and see if there are any practical steps you can take to help.”
For Megan, the first step towards tackling parental regret is to talk about it more. “Some of the best and hardest-working mums I know secretly regret having children. I think there is this idea that if you wish you were not a parent, especially as a mother, you must be a dreadful parent; but this isn’t true. I love my children, want the best for them, and work incredibly hard to give them the best opportunities,” she says. “But when you become a parent before you are ready, it’s hard to let go of the opportunities you feel you lost out on.”
If you have been affected by any issues in this article, or are experiencing postnatal depression, you can call the free PANDAS helpline on 0808 1961 776
*Names have been changed