Regretting Motherhood? I'm a psychotherapist; believe me when I say you're not alone, and here are five ways to respond to this feeling

‘I have never said this out loud or written it in black and white, but sometimes I feel like I regret having kids’ - anon

The depression woman sit on the floor
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Regretting motherhood is far more common than you’d think. From fleeting thoughts as you daydream about simpler kid-free times to a deep lingering questioning as to whether you’ve done the right thing.

As a Psychotherapist, I have sat with people as they grapple with the conflicting feelings that come with parenting. Verbalising conflicting thoughts around parenthood can feel like a big thing to do, but I’m here to tell you that sometimes the most powerful way to find more enjoyment in parenting is to give yourself permission to feel quite the opposite.

Please note

In this article, I talk about those who experience feelings of regret in parenting. Still, I want to acknowledge those for whom, instead of ‘moments’ of regret, they carry a deep, lingering sense of regret at entering into parenting. If you often find that you’re consistently feeling low and resentful of your parenting, struggling to bond with your child, or feeling claustrophobic in your own life, then please do seek therapeutic support. Sometimes, needs can go so chronically overlooked or identity so lost that some gentle guidance can be transformative in finding more support and fulfilment in this stage of your life.

I am going to share three of the many reasons that you may regret motherhood and then my five tips to help next time those conflicting feelings arise. But before I dive in, I’d like you to remove all judgement around your own thoughts of regret. This sheds the taboo of feelings that often sit in the shadows, and frees you, and others up from related feelings of shame and loneliness.

Regretting motherhood

Feelings of regret can occur for many reasons. Here are three of them:

1. You feel mis-sold motherhood. Nobody was honest with you about some of the nuances and challenges within motherhood, so you feel unsure of what is ‘normal’. ‘Nobody told me about intrusive thoughts,’ shared a client. ‘I thought there was something wrong with me as I had all these horrifying thoughts about what could go wrong. I felt like I shouldn’t be a mother. One night, I read an article that explained everything. I felt relief. I wish people had told me about these things.'

Since I became a mother almost a decade ago, there has been an uprising of parents who speak publicly about parenting challenges. I admit that when I fantasized about having a baby, my daydreams didn’t extend beyond the chubby-cheeked phase. I didn’t consider toddler tantrums, teenage years (and the teenage problems that come with it) or beyond. Now, a bounty of social media accounts share the balanced realities of parenting, but we’ve still got a way to go.

2. You don’t make space to grieve a version of life you enjoyed. We often acquaint grief as a process that follows the loss of a person, when in truth, we can grieve the end of eras, seasons, relationships, life stages, things, houses, and jobs. We can grieve even if we appreciate the change, the learning or the new things that followed. You can grieve leaving one home as you move into a new one with excitement. Parenting, for many, is a loss of sorts. And sadness and excitement can intermingle.

"I have thought to myself 'what have I done' on more than one occasion since my son was born 10 months ago" - anon

‘I travelled once a month for work and whilst it was exhausting, I loved it. When I had my baby, I felt tethered and claustrophobic. My old life was a memory. Before the baby I had freedom. Afterwards I felt stuck and I didn’t know who I was anymore’

Perhaps, like my client, as you stepped into parenting, you stepped away from a career you loved or a lifestyle you enjoyed. Allow yourself to grieve what was. It’s okay to be sad at the loss of good things. As we feel this sadness, we make space for a fresh acceptance of what is.

In truth, life changes immeasurably when you become a parent. Imagine yourself going from an assistant role in an organisation to coming into work one day to find yourself having been given the role of CEO. Indeed, you’d have a huge number of conflicting emotions, from gratitude to fear, from wishing you could simplify life and step back to pressuring yourself to step up as if you knew what you were doing. It’s understandable when we think of it like this.

3. Your experience of motherhood isn’t represented in those around you. As humans, we have a deep need to have our experiences reflected and validated. ‘My child was born with a hard-to-diagnose genetic condition. I would see my friends going to baby groups, and I was just in and out of hospital with Fion. I felt jealous. I felt awful every time I wished I could go back in time and get my life back,’

My client’s experience shifted drastically when she discovered an online community. ‘They were so honest about their challenges, and I no longer felt alone in how I felt anymore.'

If you face particular challenges that aren’t echoed by those around you, please do try and find those who ‘get you’, be it online or offline. Finding a community welcomes a sense of acceptance of your circumstances and emotions.

5 ways to respond to feelings of regret

So, now we have injected some compassion and understanding into those feelings of regret, here are my top 5 tips to help when you next feel those emotions arise.

  1. Use the 'and'
  2. Consider which of your needs feels most overlooked
  3. Drop the caveats and the 'shoulds'
  4. Seek those you can be honest with
  5. Find your joy (no matter how small)

1. Use the 'and'

The little three-letter word ‘and’ packs a powerful punch when expressing many of the conflicting emotions of parenting. Think about times you’ve uttered the word ‘but’ when verbalizing emotion: ‘I’m exhausted but grateful.’ The word ‘but’ somehow diminishes the words that came before it, drawing focus to the more positive statement that followed.

Consider your emotions as sections of a pie chart. One section is overwhelmed, the other loving, one regretful, the other grateful. All co-exist within the very same pie! Boredom and gratitude can sit side-by side, just as you can resent a partner, whilst still loving them.

"Parenting is... going from an assistant role in an organisation to the CEO, overnight."

As you recognise that emotions are just simply a response to what is happening in and around you, you can refuse to consider them as statements of how much you love and value your child or parenting role.

I have worked with those who have had a rough journey towards bringing their child into the world, and therefore feel that the usual overwhelm, exhaustion, boredom and frustration should be eclipsed with perpetual gratitude that whispers ‘but I should be grateful’. Perhaps if it was more accepted that we’d continue experiencing the full, human spectrum of emotion after having a baby, rather than expecting ourselves to leave the delivery room in an eternal haze of gratitude, we’d cut ourselves some slackS

2. Consider which of your needs feels most overlooked

Wishing for our old life pre-kids can be a sign that some of your needs are unmet. It was undoubtedly easier to meet your needs for time, space, comfort, nutrition, movement and balance when you didn’t have children. It’s okay to miss what was good! How can you let this feeling prompt you to explore new tools and boundaries to get more of what you really need?

You might fantasize about jetting off to a remote island, or an uninterrupted night’s sleep, and perhaps neither of those things are even a possibility right now. But enquire a little further. What do those fantasies tell you about your needs? Perhaps you need space or rest, and if so, how might you seek a little more of this in your life or day?

Matrescence illustrated by woman and new baby

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Perhaps you ask a friend or family member to take the reins in the house so that you can have an hour to yourself, cut some corners to buy yourself some time, or you shun the to-do list whilst your baby sleeps. For those of you who are yelling at the screen right now saying ‘but Anna, you don’t know how much I have to do’, I encourage you to hold this phrase in mind ‘it’s not forever, but for now’.

Sometimes we have to drop our standards, hold new boundaries, cut corners that challenge our perfectionistic ways, or ask for help when it feels easier to do it ourselves. But in truth, if you’re wishing away a life you once dreamed of, then it’s time to summon the Calvary and find ways to make things a little smoother for yourself. This is the way to avoid parenting burnout and the route to feeling more like you’re thriving instead of just scraping by in survival mode (link to parenting burnout article?).

3. Drop the caveats and the 'shoulds'

Keep an eye out for the ‘should’s when it comes to feelings. ‘Should’s can alert you to rules, expectations and restrictions that have been placed around certain emotions by yourself or culture. ‘I should feel grateful, I should be better at this, I should never fantasy about pre-kid times when life was simpler and my needs were easier to meet’.

When we feel boredom, and chase it quickly with shaming statements like ‘I should be happy, this is everything I asked for’ we overlook the data that the boredom may be providing us with in the first place. When we feel overwhelm and chase it with a self-criticizing ‘I should be finding this easier’, we miss the needs that are vying for attention.

So, next time you find yourself chasing a valid feeling with shaming or criticism statements, just name the feeling and follow it up with ‘and that’s okay’. For example, ‘I feel resentful because I’m so exhausted, and that’s okay’.

4. Seek those you can be honest

A client shared a powerful moment with me; ‘I remember being so fed up that when the kind old lady who served the coffee and biscuits at playgroup said ‘oh isn’t he cute. Isn’t parenting such a wonderful thing?’ I broke down into tears and said a strong ‘no’. It just came out of me. I thought she looked shocked and I wanted to take the words back. But she came over to me and put her arm around me and told me that once, she left her screaming baby with her husband in the middle of the night, and sat in the garden for an hour in the cold, wondering what she’d done to her life. Needless to say I cried even more, but in a good way’.

Take small risks of vulnerability with those who have shown to be kind and supportive and see what happens. You may visibly see someone’s shoulders drop as you have inadvertently given them permission to open up too. Yes, perhaps some may not respond with an echo of how you feel, but it doesn’t mean your emotions aren’t valid. Some may judge, but they’re struggling to validate their own variety of emotions. The most important thing is that you choose not to judge yourself.

Finding 2-3 people in your life, online or offline, who you don’t feel a need to follow ‘this is hard, I miss my old life’ with that cascade of caveats, can feel liberating and validating. Sure, they might not be able to change your situation or remove a physical burden, but you’ll know you’re not alone within the challenges, and that can feel like a huge relief.

5. Find your joy (no matter how small)

Often, when you’re in the thick of it, and fantasizing about a simpler, pre-kid life, it’s a sign that your own joy and happiness might have taken a back seat. ‘I don’t even know what I enjoy anymore’ shared one client. ‘I don’t have the motivation or time to do the things I used to like. I don’t feel like that person anymore’.

Take some time to think about what you might like to engage in and what might invite that sparkle back into your eye. You may well have to do a smaller or lesser version of that thing for now, but do it all the same. Sometimes you may need to get creative about how you fit in the things that bring you joy or happiness, but it’s worthy of shoe-horning in, or re-jiggling your priorities in order to do so.

The early years of motherhood can feel the hardest, remember you're not alone if you hate playing with your kid, struggle with toy rotation or if you don't want mum friends.... you do you. And know that no matter your choices or style, we promise you're not alone in it.

Anna Mathur MBACP Accred
Mother, Pyschotherapist and author

Anna Mathur is a mum of three, psychotherapist and bestselling author. She's passionate about taking therapy out of the therapy room and sharing her own personal and professional experiences to support mums through motherhood. Psychoeducation is a big passion of Anna’s as she believes that knowing yourself and understanding your thoughts and feelings is a huge part of enabling change.