Parental Regret: the Undisclosed Downside of Having Children

You’ve probably been given an overly romanticised version of parenthood and that leaves a lot of people unprepared. Being a parent isn’t always as great as it’s made out to be. With children come huge financial and emotional responsibilities which, if you’re not ready for, can really put you in a bad place relative to those who stay childless. Even if you feel like you’re ready for it, you might find out that you overestimated your readiness. This will be exacerbated if you’re a single parent and even more so if you’re away from family or friends who could act as extended caregivers. If you’re a woman then you also have the risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth. Those two things can already be incredibly difficult and once your child is with you, as a woman you will likely deal with the majority of child-related tasks.

Reading the information above, you can see how regrets might form. Especially if someone isn’t ready. The regret of parents has been kept relatively quiet due to fears of possible backlash but more and more people are speaking up. Comments from these people include: “I asked some friends if we could get the basics from them… it was laughably insufficient. I really didn’t know what I was in for”; “The regret hit me when the grandmas went home and my husband went back to the office and I was on my own with him”; “After I had a kid, I realised I hated being the mother to an infant, but by then it was too late. I couldn’t walk away and still live with myself, but I also couldn’t stand it”; “I know my life would have been much happier and more fulfilled without children”. These are valid and persisting feelings that parents have, it is important that their story is heard without judgement. If someone you know who is a parent feels like they can talk to you about their parental regret and be accepted, you will do wonders for their mental health. Even more so if you can occasionally help to look after their children so that they can reclaim even a little freedom.

In a German study, when participants were asked if they could decide not to have children anymore, 11% of participants said they agree and 8% said they strongly agree. That’s 19% of a sample of parents which regret having children to some degree, a significant amount. Why might people come to regret having children? Apart from the financial, emotional and temporal commitments children create, there are other reasons. A meta-analysis from 2006 showed that from pregnancy to 11 months post-birth, both men and women showed small drops in relationship satisfaction while other data shows moderate declines. However, this decline was similar to newlyweds yet later research shows that the decline is much more gradual in childless marriages, suggesting that pregnancy and becoming a parent cause the reductions in relationship satisfaction to be steeper, up to twice as steep in some samples. If the pregnancy is unplanned, the decline becomes even steeper. It has been found that steeper declines in relationship satisfaction in married people leads to a higher chance of divorce yet, findings have shown that new parents are less likely to divorce, perhaps due to the obligation felt to be a “whole family” for the children. The burden of having children does not escape those that are unmarried either, they experience the same effects. Relationship satisfaction has also been shown to moderate and be correlated to life satisfaction, a key determinant of well-being. So with a drop in relationship satisfactions comes a drop in life satisfaction. There is a well-recorded myth that having a child will bring a couple together, particularly in younger people, yet this is not the case.

When considering gender, dissatisfaction is disproportionate. Gender-stereotypical parenting leads to an imbalance in how the children are cared for. This means mothers often do a higher percentage of childcare and housework while fathers are spending time away from the home, typically at work. This results in frustration and guilt. Once children grow up and move out, some marriages improve while others realise they have few shared interests and nothing keeps them together. This may be due to the time-consuming nature of parenting, in which little time is left alone for parents to think let alone pursue interests by themselves or with a partner. It appears that people are becoming increasingly aware of the negatives of parenting too, with higher and higher numbers of people, women particularly, deciding to forego having children.

The aim here wasn’t to scare people out of having children. I want to balance out the discussion around having children as this conversation isn’t often had in a negative context. Armed with more knowledge, people can make informed decisions and reduce the likelihood of regret over a life-changing decision.




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