Regretfully Yours: The Shifting Language of Motherhood

Maybe every pregnant woman is not as full of ambivalence and regret as I am, but I know I am not alone.
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How did I wind up here, pregnant and so unsure?

Nicholas and I had been trying to conceive for six months. Determined to do it naturally and not go the fertility-treatment route, I quit smoking, and stopped consuming alcohol, caffeine and sugar. I took an arsenal of vitamins. We scheduled sex as the calendar dictated. We worked hard for this.

I am 42 years old.

Four years ago, I sold all my belongings and moved halfway around the world, leaving NYC, family, and friends to resettle on the tiny island of Mallorca.

I had given up on conventional plans for a future, and in doing so my life broke open.

The move seemed to be the right one. I had never been so happy. I met the man of my dreams and felt free: comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life.

And now I was pregnant. The End. I should have been ecstatic. Instead, I was overwhelmed with sadness. I felt I had made a terrible mistake; my beautiful life suddenly was being truncated ― closed in by high chairs and diapers.

In confidence, I expressed my ambivalence and regret to an open-minded friend.

She lowered her voice when answering.

“Don’t be so negative, be positive,” she whispered.

“I’m trying, but I just can’t,” I said.

“Try harder,” she urged.

Deep in mourning for my soon-to-be-gone independent life, I found myself listening to Ryan Adams songs and wishing I was back in the East Village. I started talking about moving to India, where I had always dreamed of living. I read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In and began to apply for “serious“ job positions back in the States, determined I would not let having a child get in the way of my professional career.

I also spent my days searching the Internet, seeking like-minded mothers-in-waiting who would verify my feelings. I was dumbstruck by what I found. Certainly, there were endless earth mama blogs talking about what a beautiful experience expecting is, and a diatribe of rules: nail polish and hair coloring? Absolutely not. A sip of red wine, debatable. Yogic sun salutations, mandatory.

I found hundreds of personal stories in blogs: cheery mommy types detailing every doctor’s appointment and explicating their synchronicity with their unborn fetus.

True, I also read countless discussion groups in which women ask their anxious questions about pregnancy, childbirth and parenting, but never once did I find an admission of ambivalence or regret about the pregnancy itself.

I noticed, throughout these discussions, articles and blogs, pregnant women are depicted in just two ways: as goofy cartoon figures, caricatures of pregnant women being forgetful, clumsy, and craving ice cream. Or as young fresh faced (primarily white) women holding their bellies and looking demure.

Being unsure about a pregnancy was relegated to abortion discussions, not part of the mothering conversations. I felt isolated, freakish.

I turned to memoirs where I finally heard voices I related to.

In Mary Karr’s “Lit,” the author writes of drinking herself into oblivion every night to avoid her feelings of disenchantment with motherhood. Joan Didion’s “Blue Nights” also comforted me, confirming my suspicion that you never know fear until you become a parent, and that once you have children, you are terrified every minute.

These women assured me that motherhood is not all finger-painting and hair braiding ― and that I was not alone in my feelings of nostalgia and mourning for my old life, my solo self.

Women are told, starting at 35, by gynecologists, mothers, friends, and the media that IT IS TIME, the clock is ticking.

“How old are you?” my gynecologist had asked, with a raised eyebrow. “You better get on it or you should freeze your eggs.”

As each year passes, the inquiring increases, and the social pressure is enormous, until, around 40 when people stop asking.

It is fairly safe to say, if you wait until your 40s, you have successfully resisted the pressure to have a baby. Perhaps you’ve had breakups over it. Perhaps you’ve determined it is not for you and had abortions. Or perhaps you’ve just never been sure it is for you.

And then perhaps you change your mind.

As a woman in my early 40s, I am part of a generation of woman choosing to have children later in life, and many are doing it very differently then our mothers did. We’re told that anything is possible. We have more choices! We live longer! We can have it all!

All this is creating a shift in what it means to be a mother. We have had long and interesting lives without children. We work harder to have children (it requires patience or science or both to get knocked up in your 40s). We are older. We are presumably wiser. And we’re revising the paradigm of what it means to be a mother.

However, in attempting to explain our feelings and experiences we are relegated to old language and very old ideas. The truths about motherhood have changed, but the way we talk about our experiences has not. We are still only independent women until we become mothers, and then this apparently supersedes the latter.

For two decades before I became pregnant I watched my generation of women make very different decisions about marriage, children and family then our parents have.

I have heard confessions of doubts about motherhood in restaurants, at parties, and the gym: always in hushed tones or via texts that are guiltily deleted.

To me, motherhood always sounded like competitive martyrdom, so much pressure to do for your child. Who would not long for their old lives, full of sleep and sex and freedom? My good friend Gillian became a mother at 40 and put it this way; “Dream vacation? To go somewhere alone.”

Those of us who have waited have watched friends raise their families, and heard first hand from our peers about the difficulties of motherhood. But I’m not talking about good parenting—the real issue is how to be a mother who maintains her own identity without guilt. Men manage this. Perhaps, as Jennifer Senior imparts in “All Joy and No Fun,” being a little more neglectful as mothers in fact, would be better for our kids as well as for us.

Fifty years after the second wave of the feminist revolution, why is our idea of what it means to be a “good” mother, so narrow, so contrived? Why is there so little talk about how moms can be great examples for their children without necessarily perfectly mothering? Wasn’t that what the feminist revolution was about, in part?

The truth is, maybe older mothers are more selfish, more intolerant, less giving. Maybe we hold onto our identities as women and don’t want to trade them in wholesale for motherhood.

Take Samantha, 40, a psychiatrist, and a brilliant woman. She has two small kids, a loving husband and is financially well off. When I told her I was pregnant and miserable she told me, “I get it. Sometimes, when I am headed home, I just want to make a U-turn. There is something wilder, braver, freer out there for me.”

She had tasted another life pre-motherhood and naturally, mourns for it.

The recent controversial study of 23 Israeli mothers by German sociologist Oran Donath “Regretting Motherhood” says of regretful mothers: “by wishing to undo the maternal experience they [the subjects] are opposing the very essentialist presumption of a fixed female identity.” Her article has inspired a #regrettingmotherhood movement internationally that has led to anonymous threads in which mothers share their mixed emotions about motherhood, and their honest regrets.

As women have children later and later in life, what they give up to be parents becomes greater, and the corollary of mixed emotions is eminent. Socially, regret is used to uphold cultural norms, therefore regretting motherhood is regretting being a woman, somehow.

But to understand regret as a rejection of motherhood is to oversimplify its meaning. The regret is symbolic of the loss of freedom, loss of self that comes with becoming a mother. “Regret” has its roots in the Scandinavian word grata, meaning “to weep,” and specifically to weep for something that has been irretrievably lost.

However, Donath in her groundbreaking work on motherhood has cracked the code; she has redefined regret into something more complex then just wishing away a choice.

As Donath brings to light, our definition of regret is over-simplified. The regret women feel around motherhood is mourning for the loss of identity that comes with becoming a mother, a social construct that is quickly evolving as women choose motherhood later in life.

The only way we can come into our own as twenty-first century mothers is to understand that part of how we define our equality is through allowing honest feelings around the subject of mothering. Maybe every pregnant woman is not as full of ambivalence and regret as I am, but I know I am not alone.

This is an incredibly confusing and contradictory time we live in. As our life expectancy lengthens, so does our opportunity to bear children, what this means is yet to be seen.

But talking openly and honestly about our real feelings is creating a new vocabulary for women choosing motherhood, women who want to maintain their independent selves and be mothers both.