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Friday, April 12, 2013

The Woman Who Regrets Having Children

Julie Owsik Ackerman

No, I'm not talking about myself. In case you haven't heard, the Daily Mail published an essay by 57-year-old Isabella Duncan, mother of two grown children. She says, among other things, “I never wanted to hurt Stuart - I only wanted him to prosper and thrive. There is no doubt I grew to love him very much, and indeed still do. But I always wished I had never had him.”

Wow. I hope Stuart has a good therapist.

It’s one thing to admit to how difficult parenthood is; it’s quite another to say you regret having your children at all. I’m tempted to diagnose her with some kind of depression. But putting her mental health aside, I’m interested in why her essay has struck such a nerve. It’s horrifying to hear someone admit they wish their children hadn’t been born. It goes against everything I understand about parenthood. No matter how hard it is, you still love your children. Right?

I’ll admit, in the first months after my son was born, I suspected a conspiracy of silence among parents to prevent people from finding out how much parenthood sucked until it was too late. I felt like all I did was nurse and comfort an inconsolable child who took and took and gave nothing in return. But once my postpartum depression was treated (Isabella, seriously, think about Zoloft,) and Daniel started moving and cooing and laughing, I realized it was just a tough patch.

No one could enjoy every moment of parenthood. Did I want to have a ten minute battle with my toddler about brushing his teeth tonight? Certainly not. Do I love when he starts wailing in a restaurant because I want to finish my meal and he wants to terrorize the people in the booth behind us? Not even a little. And no one likes to change diapers. Yet for me, I can honestly say that the whining, needy, strong-willed, quick-tempered boy is the best gift I’ve ever received. How could this be?

Sometimes Daniel wriggles up onto the couch beside me and says, “Next to mommy,” with absolutely transparent love. This morning, he entertained himself for ten minutes by pointing a flashlight at the ceiling and saying, “Look at the moon!” with enthusiasm I might feel if I saw Tina Fey on my front lawn. He stops many times on any given walk to point out tiny flowers in the grass, or birds in the trees. His wonder as he discovers the world restores my own buried sense of awe.

Duncan compares her children to parasites, saying, “Both my children would continue to take from me and give nothing meaningful back in return.” Which makes me wonder what she would find meaningful. Cash payment with interest? Unless she’s the most miserable person on earth, she’s being dishonest here. I can understand wishing you’d had a better career, or more time to yourself, or more money, but to say your children have given you nothing meaningful in their 30 years on the planet must be hyperbole.

It saddens me that some people don’t see the gifts parenthood offers. But reading Duncan's essay made me feel very grateful, both for my son, and for an attitude that finds beauty and laughter in motherhood among the crap and chaos.


  1. It's particularly sad to someone like me, who wanted yet never was blessed with kids.Sadly there are women that are born with no nurturing instincts at all...a lot of them have kids!Go figure. But I do give her points for being so brutally honest, knowing the criticism she's bound to exact. And frankly, I had a mother like this. It took me years to realize that her coldness had NOTHING TO DO WITH ME! Had my mother written this article when I was in my late teens or early twenties...I would have been relieved, knowing that it wasn't about me, and that the shortfall was hers and not mine. I hope that is how Duncan takes this.

    1. Thanks for this thought, Jacquie. I hadn't thought about it from that perspective, that it could be a relief for her children to know it wasn't about them. And yes, I admire her honesty too.

  2. Julie, I think you nail it with "for an attitude that finds beauty and laughter in motherhood among the crap and chaos"
    not just in parenting but in life at large, attitude makes such a different. I heard an interview last night with Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson's widow (who, is 90 and looks like 70) She has spent her life in service to others since his premature death, and could be the poster child for poise and serenity. she said something like, it all depends whether you see what you're given as a trail or an opportunity. Inspireing! Thanks

  3. I am with Jacqui on this... that Isabella's story is honest at least. Why she felt compelled to share it so broadly is another questions, but given the public appetite for "reality" nothing surprises me.

    I guess it's a good lesson to couples that they should have the talk about kids before they marry, because whether it's Mom or Dad who doesn't want kids, no good will come from forcing the issue.

    I chuckled at your memory of early parenthood being a conspiracy. Sounds like you quickly found the joys -- but beware of adolescence. From ages 14 till about 17 you may be feeling like you did post partem. It comes out well in the end.


  4. Mary Frances FoxApril 20, 2013

    What a loving testimony to motherhood, Julie! I believe your voice is more real that Duncan's. Though I have never had children, I have known a lot of moms. And I have seen a lot of love amid their "crap and chaos."

  5. Thanks, Broads. I've been reading a lot about mothers and women's issues lately, and feeling a lot more empathy for Isabella, who lived in a different time, and probably felt like she had less choices than women today. I do question to premise that motherhood is the best fulfillment for women. I'm glad I'm a mother, and also glad that it is more and more acceptable for women today to make choices that are best for them.