This morning I woke up to this article on my fb newsfeed. I think this is a conversation that needs to be had!
First, a note. I’m not writing for the women who don’t have children, nor for the women who never wanted children, nor for the fathers who may have similar experiences. I’m writing this as a mother who experienced profound sadness alongside the joy at becoming a mother, and is trying to know her own mind better. I speak for myself and my beliefs, and I hope that my thoughts resonate with others who may have experienced similar feelings.
I really like the way this article gets the conversation started, but I feel like it’s not quite right in the way it discusses the idea of un-wishing motherhood, so to speak.
The article speaks of the regret mothers may have over becoming a mother. The main point of the article is that mothers have trouble talking about such feelings because those feelings are considered by society to be taboo feelings to have. But I feel that there is a missing connection between the moms’ regrets for the life change and the expressed love they feel for their children regardless that is missing from the article.
And that connection is grief.
If I were to characterize how I feel about motherhood, grief would be a key factor. How can I explain what I mean?
I love my children deeply. I do not hesitate to step between them and danger. I want to make them smile in joy and delight and understanding more than anything.
But sometimes I also feel like I hate them. And I have been trying to figure out what exactly about them makes me feel this way. Is it the way they act out? Is it the way they sometimes don’t listen until I scream? Is it that they often seem to disregard my needs? Is it the child-induced exhaustion of the last 6 years?
While I may have been naive about the degree to which these kinds of things would happen, I can’t say they were unexpected. Even considering these, I still wanted children. And, from the other side of childbearing, I’m still glad I have these little people in my life.
But do I feel some regret?
I do not feel like regret is quite the right word to express the negatives I feel alongside the positives. I would characterize regret as sorrow over lost opportunity. Maybe I lost other opportunities as a result of having children, but do I feel sad about losing those opportunities?
I can’t say I do. I can’t say I regret my past choices because those choices have made me the person I am today. Am I the best version of myself I could be? Probably not. But the perspectives I’ve gained through my life experiences, even the horrible ones, have given me new awareness of where I could be better. Seriously, how can you fix something if you don’t even realize it’s broken?
Having children has made me aware of many places where my character is lacking, moreso than anything else I’ve experienced. Children make you confront your character flaws in a ripping-off-the-bandaid kind of way. And, however painful, my character has improved for having gone through the child-bearing and child-rearing experience.
So, then, what do I feel sad about? I’ve considered this for years. What do I most miss?
I miss myself.
I had an identity for myself. They way I looked, the decisions I made, the interests I pursued, the people I spent time with, the work I did, the freedom I had…
I did not realize how abruptly nor how completely those aspects of myself would be altered. Permanently.
I want those things back sometimes. This distinction is rather fine, so bear with me. I do not feel sorrow for the opportunities I’ve lost. I do not wish I could undo becoming a mother. I do not regret the experience of parenting, however exhausting it can be.
But I do feel sad (and sometimes angry and frustrated) about the loss of what seemed to be integral parts of myself. I miss being able to go out without the complicated dance that is finding a babysitter. I miss making decisions where the only person to consider is myself. I miss being able to complete a task without having a million mostly inane rapid-fire questions constantly breaking my concentration. I miss being efficient. Geez, I even miss the privacy of my bathroom habits.
It’s like my self-identity, that which I considered important about myself, died. And what I feel about that is grief.
I am in mourning for myself.
A new self-identity slowly arose, phoenix-like, from the ashes of my former self-identity. But, even so, I struggle with letting that dead and gone vision of my previous self go.
What’s getting me here is that the only way to overcome grief is to face it. To feel it. To understand the way in which your life has been completely rocked by the loss. To be able to accept that that which was lost is never coming back.
But, as the original article pointed out, feeling sadness about becoming a mother is not allowed!
How can you face and overcome that which you aren’t allowed to admit you feel in the first place? If the five stages of grief are supposed to be denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, doesn’t it seem like society is trying to keep us in the first stage?
A particular problem with denying that there is indeed a loss that happens alongside the gain in motherhood is that we all go along assuming our previous identities.
That is, while still telling us that motherhood is the ultimate feminine purpose and satisfaction, society simultaneously expects us to handle things with the same level of support as our old selves. Societal support for a woman does not increase as her burden increases.
Consider the lack of paid family leave in the US. Women are expected to get back to business as usual as quickly as possible. Paid maternity leave is for the sake of the baby trying to adjust to life outside of the womb, but that’s usually limited to 6 weeks, if it happens at all. A 6 week old baby still needs to be held for hours and hours a day. A six week old baby has only just learned how to smile.
Paid paternity leave, on the other hand, is for the sake of the mother! She is trying to adjust to the physical and hormonal roller-coaster that is having a baby! That’s right. I said it. A part of the reason for paid paternity leave to exist is bonding with baby. Another part is rest for the new father because baby’s are exhausting. But it’s main purpose is so that the mother has the 24/7 support that gives her the space to recover. Full bodily recovery (not to a pre-pregnancy body, but, still, physical healing) from pregnancy and birth takes years. I’m not saying paid leave should last for years, but, geez, by the 6 week mark, for example, the average new mom has probably managed to have gotten, at most, 4 showers total, is probably still eating about once a day, is probably still getting woken up 2 to 4 times per night, and probably still cries over stupid stuff at least every hour.
But how common is paid paternity leave? It’s practically nonexistent in the US. Many people scoff at the idea that it’s a good idea, let alone necessary. Paid family leave is a good example of the ways in which society fails to support parenthood, let alone motherhood.
We don’t get the space to mourn properly.
As I said at the beginning, I’m glad this conversation is finally happening! I’m so over the environment of suppression that pervades the lives of women.
I’m frustrated that a rejection of the loss one can feel in becoming a mother is usually conflated with a rejection of the children themselves. The latter is NOT what is happening for women like me or the women in the above article. But the conflation of the two ideas is how society guilt-trips us into silence.
I want the space to grieve properly so that I can fully let go of my old self and move on. Among other things, this means that I want to feel the respect that doing such a hard and often thankless job deserves. I still want to be seen as a person in my own right, and not just as an enabler of my children’s success.
I want society (and my children for that matter) to recognize that my needs still matter.
Well, anyway, this is a long and rambling-ish essay on my thoughts about regret and grief and love and motherhood. I hope, as always, that I’ve contributed something insightful to the continuing human conversation. Although, I’d settle for contributing something useful…