The idea that a parent might regret having kids is a concept that is cloaked in shame. Parents aren’t supposed to feel that way, right? Well, while most parents don’t usually feel that way—or don’t feel that way for enduring periods—it’s not a totally uncommon phenomenon. 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). Combined, these figures suggest that many millions of people regret having kids. And this feeling is not uncommon as you may think.
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, 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 a lack of interest from their mother or father as a personal failing, she said.
What Are the Reasons People Regret Having Children?
- Timing: Wishing you had children earlier or later on in life
- Number: Wishing you had more or fewer children
- Sacrifice: Having to give up certain things, like time, money, work, or educational opportunities because of parenthood
- Partner: Regret over who you chose as a parent for your child
- External world: Regrets over having children because of outside circumstances in the world, like war or political tension
What to Do If You Regret Having Kids
Some parents deal with strong feelings of regret when it comes to having kids—feelings that they can’t shake and that seems to last. Other parents might experience more transient thoughts or feelings of regret. The truth is that almost all parents have thought at one time or another that their life would have been easier if they’d never had kids
Share your feelings with a trusted loved one or therapist
Connecting with other parents who may be struggling with similar feelings can also be beneficial. You may consider setting up playdates with other families, joining a “mommy and me” class, or reaching out to supportive friends and family. If you do not have a good support network or do not feel comfortable speaking with people you already know, you can also join a support group for parents. There are many different support groups both in-person and online that are specifically intended for parents dealing with these issues. These groups may be led by a mental health professional or a peer.
Recognize that perfection in parenting is impossible
Recognize that “Good enough” is where it’s at. Reevaluate what it means to be a good parent. Now that you are in touch with your feelings, avoid judging yourself for them. Thoughts like “you shouldn’t feel this way” or “regretting parenthood makes me a bad person” may enter your mind. Remember that there is no evidence for these thoughts. The reality is that any experience in life brings both pros and cons, and parenthood is no different. Permit yourself to have these feelings. Now that you are aware of how you are feeling and allowing yourself to have these emotions, you can take steps to address them.
Learn how to destress
Take small breaks when you can—even a five-minute walk around the block can help destress. Also, Self-care is the act of caring for yourself both physically and emotionally and is essential as a parent. When it comes to physical self-care, it is important to attend to your basic needs, like eating well, exercising, getting enough rest, and keeping up with your hygiene. When it comes to emotional self-care, you must carve out some time for yourself to do activities that help you to feel relaxed and happy. This can include reading, writing, doing art, or even getting your hair done.
Remember that these feelings will pass
While it may be discouraging to think that positive emotions also won’t last, impermanence can remind us to fully appreciate these emotions when we do experience them. The concept of impermanence is a helpful way to think about emotions. Impermanence means that nothing lasts forever, including our emotions. When we experience a negative emotion, we can remember that this feeling will eventually go away; it may return again at another point in time, but it never lasts forever. The same goes for positive feelings
Remember both pros and cons
Parenting has both pros and cons. When you are having a tough time, it’s easy to overlook the positive aspects of parenting. To help you remain in touch with these positives, create a list for yourself of the benefits and rewards of having children. This list can include specific memories, milestones, and daily events. Maybe it is a warm hug, seeing your child learn a new skill or a fun day at the park. Keep this list handy and regularly refer to it, especially during days when you may experience more negative emotions.
If you are experiencing regret about parenthood, you are not alone. While these feelings can be distressing, there are steps you can take to help cope with them so that they do not interfere with your life. You can still enjoy the rewarding aspects of parenthood even if it is challenging at times, and finding a solid support system to help you cope is the best way to move forward.