Around the world, parenthood is sacrosanct. It is regarded as the main purpose of life, and the most fulfilling thing a person can ever do. This sentiment is especially true for women, who have long faced the predicament of either having children or being socially marginalized.
Given the glorification of parenthood, it has been taboo to talk about one’s regrets associated with having children. Yet in a recent Gallup poll, 7% of parents in the United States reported that if they could do things over again, they would choose not to have children. At the time this survey was completed, 86% of Americans over the age of 45 had children, so that 7% is a sizable minority.
What do parents regret about having children? What do they wish they could redo or undo? These questions were the focus of a new study by professors Julia Moore and Jenna Abetz of the University of Utah and the College of Charleston, respectively. In order to investigate this inquiry, here’s what the researchers did. They drew on user-generated comments on Reddit, a global online community in which users interact by creating and commenting on threads in dedicated “subreddits.” Subreddits are pages about a specific topic. Users can upvote and downvote threads within a subreddit, as well as upvote and downvote comments within a thread, which reorders the comments such that the most highly-rated ones come up first. Since users are advised to comment anonymously, they can express their feelings about the most sensitive of issues. In other words, Reddit is a forum where people can speak the unspeakable.
Professors Moore and Abetz then posed questions about parental regret, and searched the site for existing threads on the topic. This approach generated 12 threads from six different subreddits, which produced a total of 12,053 comments about parental regret. The investigators then focused on the first-level comments across the 12 threads, which allowed them to reduce the unwieldy number of comments and focus on first-person accounts of regret. In the final tally, Professors Moore and Abetz analyzed 286 first-level comments that referred to or implied parental regret, in which a user reported that they felt regret, missed something, or wanted something different with respect to having children. The researchers also identified 107 mothers, 95 fathers, and 84 users of undetermined gender.
What did Professors Moore and Abetz find? Two major and distinct categories of parental regret emerged: 1) regretting circumstances associated with having children, and 2) regretting having children.
Regretting Circumstances Associated With Having Children
This form of parental regret referred to having positive feelings towards their children, but negative feelings about certain external circumstances. Thus, this expression of regret gave users the space to affirm being a parent, loving their children, but regretting situational factors related to their experience as parents. The authors note that because these parents didn’t regret their children, these were socially acceptable expressions to share with other users.
Timing. Users expressed that looking back, they wished they had children sooner or later than they did. This sentiment was expressed by those who had planned and unplanned pregnancies alike. For the most part, this regret revolved around missed opportunities, but also referred to financial and educational considerations. One commenter remarked: “My only regret is having my children when I was so young. I wish I had them a decade or two later. I love them to death, but I was not ready for them in terms of my education or career, I didn’t have time to get my life in order. Now I am working the same job for the last decade, and I am too afraid to try new jobs that don’t have good benefits and job security. I want to be a good dad, so I spend all the time I can with my kids.”
Number. Some users wished that they had had more or less children. One user reflected, “Sometimes I regretted that I had so many, four total and two were twins, but I felt that more when they were young. Now that all of my kids are adults, I have no regrets.” The authors point out that this comment is an example of how regret can change over time. Moreover, they say, it falls within the bounds of social acceptability because the regret has waned and is no longer relevant.
Sacrifice. One parent described this type of regret as “the loss of selfish things,” including time, money, and education. Parents also emphasized the lack of sleep and intimacy upon having children. Moreover, users compared how much easier their life was before they had children, in which they could sleep late, travel more easily, engage in hobbies, and relax on the weekends—which stands in contrast to the ever-present responsibility and demands of parenthood. As one father put things, “I could never regret my son, but I definitely miss the freedom (and money!) I had before he was born. I only have a few friends ... hearing how much fun they had at a music festival or even just that they were at the bar gets me a little jealous.”
Partner. Many parents regretted whom they had children with. The reasons were wide-ranging, including the physical tolls of parenthood (i.e., weight gain), low libido levels, and wanting nothing to do with their child’s other parent. Mothers tended to regret their choice of partner because of fathers’ personality and minimal parental involvement, while fathers more often regretted the psychological and emotional consequences of not living with their children or having the “bitch” mother in the lives. One mother remarked, “I don’t regret her, but I regret the situation involved. My daughter has no family, really, besides me. She will never have a father ... I hate my ex-husband so much for rejecting her.”
External World. Some users mentioned that the world had become a less safe and positive place since they were childen, and regretted the world that their children were inheriting. For one parent, the U.S. terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, was a crossroads: “No regrets with regards to my children. The only regret I had about having kids was after September 11 when I realized that my kids would grow up in a world that was much more terrifying than I could have ever imagined. I would never have chosen to bring children into the world after 9/11. I would adopt maybe, but not create a new life, no.”
Regretting Having Children
There were fewer parents who regretted having children than those who regretted circumstances related to having children. This form of regret reflected negative feelings about having children and parenthood more generally. These parents also expressed guilt and shame about their regret, and that the socially unacceptable nature of their feelings inhibited them from discussing it with others.
Difficult Children. Many users stated that their regret stemmed from their child as a person. Some parents disliked their child, citing their difficult personalities. Other users regretted having children because of their child’s physical or intellectual challenges. These parents often expressed love for their child, but couldn’t help but feel regret. One mother reflected, “Yes, I regret that I had my kids …You should know all the issues your children may genetically inherit from you and your partner. I have two girls with high-functioning autism and attention deficit hyperactive disorder. One has depression and the other has oppositional defiant disorder ... I can’t wait until they move out and have their own life in the next few years.”
Self as Bad Parent. Some users regretted having children because, after they had children, they saw themselves as bad parents. For example, some users referred to their own mental health challenges that made parenting difficult:
"… Because of my severe social anxiety and various other mental health issues, it makes taking care of my own kids difficult if not damn impossible. I have a family member who is raising my two kids, and my husband left me due to my inability to take care of them like a normal person should ... in a way, I do regret having children. I was incredibly selfish to not think about things long term."
Parenthood Disdain. Some users admitted that they regretted having children because they hate parenthood and the losses that accompany it—this was especially true for mothers. One mother wrote:
"I miss my old life and while I don’t miss everything about it I absolutely hate how everyone feels that I should have had some magical change of outlook on life. I would turn back the clock in a heartbeat. I find parenthood or specifically motherhood unfulfilling and intellectually demeaning ... I often feel like I’m talking to people with monointerests or a monolife where there is no moment of their life not filled [with] their kid(s)."
Childfree Desire. A small number of users shared that had wanted to be childfree, but either had children by accident or because of pressure from their partner. One father stated:
"I never wanted kids, ever, and was very clear about this with my (now ex) wife from the day we met ... Sometime later, my wife unexpectedly fell pregnant. She’s always said it was a surprise, and that it was the one in a million chance of our birth control failing. I’m not convinced, but I’ve never been able to prove anything ... I tried to stick at it for just under four years, but it was awful. I felt nothing for the child, it was like an object to me ... I couldn’t take it anymore and filed for divorce. I happily granted full custody to my wife, and moved away to seek employment elsewhere. That was six years ago and I haven’t seen her or the child since."
The results of Moore and Abetz’s study contribute to a small literature on parental regret. Among their recommendations for future research, they suggest that better understanding the shame people feel about their regrets would help illuminate this taboo topic.
What Do Parents Regret About Having Children? Communicating Regrets Online. Julia Moore and Jenna S. Abetz. Journal of Family Issues 2019, Vol. 40(3) 390–412.
U.S. Gallup News. Retrieved from http://news.gallup.com/poll/164618/desire- children-norm.aspx.