'The Fantasy That He Dies Is a Terrible Burden': The Women Who Regret Motherhood

Breaking a taboo, author Orna Donath asked mothers whether they would have children again if they could go back in time

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Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn in a scene from 'Bad Moms.'
Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn in a scene from 'Bad Moms.'Credit: Michele K. Short/AP
Maayan Goldman
Maayan Goldman

“Bekhiya Ledorot,” by Orna Donath, Yedioth Books, 272 pages, 98 shekels (English-language version: “Regretting Motherhood,” translated from the German by Academic Language Experts, North Atlantic Books, 272 pages, $16)

“Stop whining. You’d better stop whining like a baby. Be grateful and enjoy your motherhood. It’s difficult for you? So hire a nanny or recruit the grandmother. You have no clue how much it can help. Enjoy your life and don’t let the little prince control [you], otherwise you will not stop whining and will screw [up] the little prince’s life as well. He will turn into a spoiled baby, [like] you are. Also, wait and see how much joy [it brings you]. And when you forget how hard it is (as everyone does), you will have a second child.”

– Response by “Mark” to “Miki,” a mother who shared her total regret over her motherhood in comment to an article by Orna Donath on the Ynet news site, and reproduced in the book

It’s an odd choice to begin a review with this quote, considering all the options that are available in sociologist Orna Donath’s book about women who regret having made the transition to motherhood. Odd, because the voices of the 23 women interviewed for the book (under aliases) are far more meaningful and innovative than the voice of “Mark,” with which we are very familiar. His voice is there, within us and outside us, pushing the infantile, pathological image that gets attached to those who find motherhood unsuitable; the rejection of every departure from the expected maternal range of emotion; the contradiction-rife promise concerning the way in which, ultimately, suitability will ensue; and the between-the-lines panic. Especially the panic.

'These fantasies that he dies – it’s a terrible burden, and it’s there all the time. All the time.'

“My need to be more normative is stronger than my need to be a grandmother or a mother and so forth.”

– Naomi, mother of two children in their forties, and a grandmother; from the book (as are all the quotations that follow)

Of late, popular feminism seems to be stretching boundaries to accommodate attitudes of resistance and ambivalence about motherhood. For example, in a number of revealing interviews in different countries with female actors and celebrities about the complexity of their motherhood; in the Israeli sitcom “Irreversible,” which stars comedian Adi Ashkenazi; and in the 2016 American film “Bad Moms,” starring Mila Kunis and Christina Applegate. The movie, which was the subject of much public discussion, depicts women who rebel against the perfect-parent model of the American upper middle class. They curse, screw up, get drunk and say awful things about their children.

But a close-up look at the course of events that unfolds in that film reveals that in the dialogue about motherhood there’s room only for a breakdown on the functional level, of the sort that provides an opportunity to give expression to the problem, to become aware of it, and hence to correct it. The message of “Bad Moms” is that mothers who have a hard time performing the role that’s expected of them can go to pieces and get it out of their system, only to remain within that system, so as not to undermine the absolute good that is inherent – so the promise goes – alongside the difficulty, in the maternal experience.

“These fantasies that he dies – it’s a terrible burden, and it’s there all the time. All the time.”

– Carmel, mother of one late-teens child

In contrast to “Bad Moms” and other works like it, Donath examines a completely different emotional situation: feelings of regret that do not restore those who experience them to the “right” place by the sheer virtue of being exposed. The feelings are simply there, existing along with the existence of the children and with motherhood. Donath distinguishes between motherly expressions of ambivalence and even suffering, and blatant regret for the transition to motherhood; not only hardships commingled with satisfaction, but the assertion, “If I could, I would have done it differently.”

One of the categories she formulated in order to distinguish between these approaches involves a hypothetical journey in time: If the interviewees could go back, would they become mothers again? “If you could go back, with the knowledge and experience you have now, would you still become a mother? Achinoam answered before I even finished the question: ‘I wouldn’t have children.’”

The weirdness of this question, in an academic study, stems in part from the system of beliefs that we bring to it, and from the way we imagine the dimension of time. After all, what is the point of asking a question that involves a return to the past, when the eventuality it raises is obviously impossible?

'It is completely clear to me that if I didn’t have children, my life would be much better'

In recent years, the regularizing functions of time and our perception of time as a linear, progressive axis have been reconsidered in the field of queer theory. For example, Lee Edelman’s 2004 study “No Future” (Duke University Press), demonstrates how the image of “the child” has become a symbol embodying “heterosexual time,” a future that glorifies productivity and reproduction (as differentiated from “queer” time, which stands still). According to Edelman, this symbol has been put to use by both anti-abortion movements and efforts to enact anti-homosexual legislation, whose supporters put forward the argument that they are defending the future of children and the family in order to justify themselves. Donath adds an important element to this sphere of research in her book by positing the constant looking back that regret can evoke on this axis, which goes in only one direction.

So much of our worldview is based on the Western belief that time possesses a particular function and movement aimed at propelling us ahead toward a future laden with the promise of betterment, growth, happiness and continuation. Without the dominance of this specific temporal conception, what would become of the nuclear family, Western psychology and empirical science, not to mention colonialism, monotheistic religions, Hollywood movies and more – all of which espouse, in different ways, redemption, a happy end and the pursuit of happiness in order to justify their existence?

'Madame Roulin and Her Baby,' Vincent Van Gogh, 1888.
'Madame Roulin and Her Baby,' Vincent Van Gogh, 1888.Credit: Robert Lehman Collection, 1975

In light of all this, women who regret having become mothers, who refuse to repress that regret and “move forward,” are seemingly rebelling against the laws of physics, or, more precisely, against social and political conventions. They are turning their back on the deep conviction of the commenter “Mark” and of many others, which equates children with a better future, and insists that whether you wanted children or not, if you wait long enough you will see that in the end “it will be alright” and you, too, will fall in love with motherhood.

“It’s difficult for me to say that, because I love them. Very much. But I’d do without. There was a long period of time when I was seeing a psychologist. And it’s funny. If there’s something I feel utterly [definite about], it’s [this] feeling. The process of becoming a mother isn’t complete for me – but I feel entirely [definite about] what I’m saying. And [about] the dichotomy of, wow, I’ve got children and I love them,  but I’d forgo them. So in answer to your question – if I could choose otherwise, I would.”

– Doreen, mother of three children under the age of 10

Most of the mothers in Donath’s study love their children, but not the task of being a mother. That’s a contradiction that most of us find difficult to get a handle on, but Donath is a scholar who’s gifted with a special sensitivity for contradictions. She uses them as an effective tool in her articles, in this book and in her previous book, “Making a Choice: Being Childfree in Israel” (Hebrew, 2010), which is about women who don’t want to have children.

'They say we’re supposed to love all our children? I don’t love them all.'

While creating a protected space for the contradictions in the interviewees’ experiences and the contradictions inherent in the stance of regret itself, Donath is also sharply critical of the contradictions she identifies in the system of messages conveyed by society and its institutions. She is very good at describing the catch in the neoliberal approach, which on the one hand promises freedom of choice to be who and what we want, “liberated” from the burden of biological determinism, but on the other hand demands that this choice lead us to opt for children, as “wise consumers.” In other words, women are permitted to be included in the rhetoric of free choice, but the result always seems to be the same: Whether women are perceived as being obligated by nature or liberated from it, they are obligated to be mothers.

An unbearable burden

“They take everything. They take everything from you.”

– Edith, mother of four children in their twenties and thirties, and a grandmother.

“It’s just an unbearable burden for me. I can’t relax When the kids are here I’m not relaxed; when they’re not here – like now, I’m not totally relaxed. Because maybe they’ll come back soon. But it’s not just that they’ll be here soon but the constant guilt that comes with every little thing. I can’t see that it really does anything good for my life. Today it is completely, completely clear to me that if I had the option today, with what I know today — that if I didn’t have children, my life would be much better. I have no doubt about it. What advantages can you think of in my situation?”

– Sky, mother of three in their teens and twenties.

Orna Donath (archive photo).
Orna Donath (archive photo).Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Pursuant to feminist thinkers from Adrienne Rich to Anat Palgi-Hecker (author of the Hebrew-language “The Mother in Psychoanalysis: A Feminist View,” 2005), Donath raises such questions as who can be an independent subject in the oedipal relationship that places the good of “the child” at the center – namely, what is the meaning of being a mother? Is good motherhood even possible? Does the devotion that is demanded of mothers bring about a situation in which motherhood, as an ideal, contradicts the individual existence of the mother herself?

By the intelligent placement of these contradictions successively in her book, Donath arouses a deep desire, childlike or perhaps not even conscious, on the part of her readers – an infinite yearning for a situation in which these contradictions will not be able to exist. Nevertheless, she leaves them there, clashing and oppressive, and leaves us to wallow in them. It’s mainly for this reason that reading “Regretting Motherhood” is unpredictable, painful and, as “Mark” illustrates, generates panic.

Why panic? Because we would like so much to believe that if we only “choose” correctly, the future will work itself out in our lives on a straight and logical axis. How fervently we hope that there exists certainty of some sort, an inner logic and constancy that are working in our favor. That it’s inconceivable for a woman to love a child and also not want that child to exist. That it’s inconceivable that pressure to have children is brought to bear on women so aggressively, without the possibility of alternatives, or of there being someone else who is ready to accept responsibility for it along with the mother; that it’s inconceivable for the hard-to-digest reality of regret over motherhood to be the collective responsibility of us all, men and women, and not necessarily the product of some sort of “spoiled” (not to say depressive and crazed) “whining.” Above all, that it’s inconceivable that we are liable to find ourselves in an irreversible, unwanted situation that will cause eternal misery. Everlasting regret (the book’s Hebrew title). Please, please, let someone tell us that it’s inconceivable. But there’s no one to tell us. Because, as Donath writes and as her interviewees say with such crystal clarity: Regret for motherhood exists.

When I found out I was having twins I went completely off the rails. It was an awful feeling, of rape. Quite simply rape. Rape. And I let that rape happen.”

– Doreen, mother of three under the age of 10

From the moment that space is given to regret, it fills up, as though from within itself, with additional feelings and outlooks that we don’t normally hear about. Along with mothers who are fed up with their role, other women in the book identify totally with motherhood, devote themselves to it and yet still regret it. Who could have imagined that possibility? Doreen, quoted above, likens her experience of pregnancy to rape, and another mother compares motherhood to a trauma on the scale of that presumably experienced by Gilad Shalit, the Israel soldier held prisoner by Hamas for a total of five years. Yet another interviewee regrets her motherhood mainly because of one of her daughters: “They say we’re supposed to love them all? I don’t love them all.” Others simply feel pure disappointment, another emotion that’s rarely mentioned in relation to the motherhood.

Movies like “Bad Moms” purport to mediate for viewers experiences of this kind with a certain extroverted, all-revealing daring – but in practice they don’t even touch the edges. “If mothers are coerced into telling their stories only while contained within frames, or hidden behind masks, none of us will ever know a more complete story about motherhood,” Donath writes.

The prevailing belief, expressed by some of the interviewees as well, is that the difficulty – certainly the regret – must be concealed, for the sake of appearing “normative” and protecting the children. As Donath shows, such a sophisticated method of silence is created primarily to safeguard the policy that urges childbirth; that is, to protect the institutions that are dependent on this policy: religion, army, market forces. Do we women want to play the role of guardians of these institutions? Do we have a choice? And, as Donath asks: While we are protecting them, who is protecting the mothers? That last question actually has an answer: I think Donath wants to protect them.

The extraordinary dialogue she conducts with her interviewees and what they are capable of relating within its framework, is a product of deep intimacy between women, which can spring only from an approach of radical empathy. Donath’s empathy is radical because of the totality of her identification, compassion and protection. It’s also radical, simply, by virtue of the social realities that surround her and her extreme anomalousness within them.

If time does not move forward along a progressive linear axis, then the life reality of women also does not necessarily progress on an optimistic track toward some revolution. No feminist “tikkun” is waiting around the corner. Still, if any of us has the hope of minimizing the use made of regret as a political and institutional weapon aimed at women who don’t want children (“You’ll regret it, you’ll see”), it would be worthwhile to suspend the inner voice of “Mark” – despite the panic – and read the interviews with the women in “Regretting Motherhood” with an iota of the radical empathy that Donath offers them.

Afterward, perhaps, we’ll go on from there.

Maayan Goldman is a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University, working on the development of a non-reproductive reading theory in the university’s women’s and gender program.