Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

July 27, 2017 by

Breaking the Taboo: Women Who Regret Motherhood

Orna Donath, an Israeli sociologist, anthropologist and author of Making a Choice: Being Childfree in Israel, has come out with a new study titled Regretting Motherhood. Applying a feminist lens, it interviews Jewish Israeli women who, as the title indicates, regret becoming mothers and discuss the ramifications of their regrets. Donath shows the difference between not wanting to be a mother and not liking children; the women in the study often talk about their love for their children and what they do for the sake of the children’s well-being, while saying that if they could go back in time, they would not want to be mothers. This groundbreaking study tackles a rarely discussed subject, often left unmentioned because of obvious taboos. Donath told Lilith why she decided to write about this aspect of women’s reproductive rights, the stigma around women who don’t want to be mothers, and how she sees the possibility of a positive paradigm shift.

Danica Davidson: Before Regretting Motherhood, you were already writing about reproductive rights and deciding not to be a mother. Why did you decide to write a book from this angle? 

Orna Donath: At the end of my first study (it was conducted between 2003-2007 about Israeli-Jewish women and men who do not want to be parents), I was left with one sentence that kept troubling me and that is the certain promise towards women mostly: “You will regret it. You will regret not being a mother.” It was hard for me to leave it at the dichotomous determination that decisively pins regret to being a non-mother by threatening women with regret as a weapon, while at the same time simply excluding any possibility to think of regret following motherhood.

 Since I was sure that there are women who regret becoming mothers, I decided then to write my Ph.D. about it (which later on turned out to be the book Regretting Motherhood). I didn’t want to learn about regretting motherhood “only,” but to study the relationship between society and emotions, and the political usage of them as well.

DD: You treat regret as a feminist issue. Can you tell us more about that? 

OD: Regulating maternal emotions is tied up with cultural ideas about regulating time and memory. Mothers are not only being told how they should feel, but what they should remember and what they should forget. As mothers are portrayed as naturally self-sacrificing, endlessly patient, and devoted to the care of others, they are being told to forget they have their own personalities and needs.

Society reassures mothers that the passage of time will lead them to joy in the future if they just put aside the hardships of the present. By making sure that women in general—and “good mothers” in particular—erase distressing moments and memories from their present lives in order to “keep up the hard work,” society maintains the illusion that current traditions of reproduction and child-rearing are ultimately beneficial for women.

Acknowledging that there are women who don’t feel at ease with motherhood, and regret it, lets women from different social groups have the liberty of being the owners of their bodies, thoughts, memories, emotions, desires and needs. And this is allegedly dangerous for a society that depends upon women’s collaboration to “do their job” without questioning it. And that is a feminist issue, of course. 

DD: Did anything surprise you during your study?

OD: I was not surprised to hear anything that the mothers who participated in my study have said—because to me it seems logical that there might be women who will look back and realize that for them motherhood was not worthwhile. We regret so many things in life, and motherhood does tend to change things.

What was interesting for me was to learn how deeply we treat motherhood as a mythical kingdom that resides beyond the human realm of regret; and how we treat regret in a dual manner: many societies resent regret in general. Regret is expected and welcomed following a crime or a sin, but other than that it is considered to be a very problematic emotional stance since allegedly it is an evidence of weakness and defeat; an unfunctional state that people should overcome as fast as they can.

This combination prevents us from acknowledging that we people do make mistakes. We people do look back sometimes while realizing that we should have done things differently. We people do experience life and life means that circumstances might change along the way, and we might change along the way.

DD: The study interviews individual women who regret being mothers. Do you think in the future you might be interested in doing a study on what percentage of women regret motherhood?

OD: No, this is not my intention. I am a qualitative researcher and numbers and statistics are not my language. My aim was never to prove that “most of the mothers are regretting” or “half of them”—but to create a public discussion about the existence of regretting motherhood and its political-feminist meanings; what regretting motherhood might tell us about our social perceptions regarding reproduction, parenting, time and emotions. 

I don’t think that we will ever know how many mothers regret.

DD: You talk about “choice” and how many women feel forced to “choose” motherhood. Can you say more about this? How can we better provide a woman with options so she can make her own decisions about being a mother and not face harassment?

OD: We are trapped in-between the language of “nature,” according to which women have no choice but to become mothers because it is their biological destiny; and a neoliberal, capitalist, post-feminist language, according to which women today have a greater degree of choice in determining their lives—and therefore, if so many women are becoming mothers, it proves that they did it following their own free will. By listening to what women themselves have to say about how they became mothers, we might see that the different paths to motherhood are far more complex: For example, there are women who become mothers because they are not being given an access to legal and safe abortions; there are women who have no other choice except becoming mothers due to social sanctions in their communities; there are women who do not want motherhood per se but wish to gain something by means of it; there are women who do not want to become mothers yet still consider it, due to their partner’s wish to be a parent; and there are women who are not sure retrospectively why they became mothers.

This diversity may teach us that it is not always clear whether motherhood is something women pursue or something that “just” happens to them or that they were forced into it. 

I truly believe that by talking about this diversity and acknowledging that it is not necessarily natural for women to want to be mothers just because they are females, more and more women will have a wider room to maneuver.

Otherwise, we will continue to face a limited, partial and misleading roadmap that doesn’t allow women to consider what they want, what they can or cannot do, and what frightens them more. Being able to imagine more than one kind of scenario (according to which women who will not be mothers will surely regret it while mothers will never-ever regret it) has the potential to undermine society’s manipulations and following that (maybe and hopefully) more and more women will be able to be the owners of this decision.

DD: For women who want to share their own stories on this topic, where can they go?

OD: There is a Facebook page named “I regret having children” and there are numerous groups on social networks today that allow women and mothers to express their complex and vivid experiences without being judged. Still, a lot more can be done to create accessible spaces to talk and listen and feel and think together.

 These days I’m starting to moderate two groups [in Israel] for women who are not decisive about whether they want to be mothers or not. In addition, I’m at the final stages of creating an international online and closed forum for women to discuss this topic.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.   


  • Sedna

    Though this is not at all what Dr. Davidson is addressing or endorsing, I do want to add the thread that mothers telling their children (especially their daughters!) “I never wanted to have you” is a very common justification of child abuse. “Child” abuse often continues into the adult children’s lives, and some savvy feminist mothers point to the oppression of women in patriarchal social structures to additionally justify their “right” to neglect and be embittered/abusive to their children of any age. Rebecca Walker (daughter of Alice) touches on this in her memoir. Of course, the problem lies with the misogynistic cultures themselves, not the mothers who are reacting to the suffering the cultures inflict upon them. Nevertheless, regretting motherhood has profound consequences for children of women who regret it and who make those feelings indelibly clear (and damaging) to their kids. This is such a complex, difficult, and painful topic for so many women. I have created a FB page and website for shunned & estranged daughters called Sedna’s Daughters.