The Parents Who Regret Having Children

15 minute read
Kwon is the author of the novels Exhibit and The Incendiaries

No one regrets having a child, or so it’s said. I’ve heard this logic often, usually after I’m asked if I have children, then, when I say I don’t, if I plan to. I tend to evade the question, as I find that the truth—I have no plans to be a parent—is likely to invite swift dissent. I’ll be told I’ll change my mind, that I’m wrong, and that while I’ll regret not having a child, people don’t regret the obverse. Close family, acquaintances, and total strangers have said this for years; I let it slide, knowing that, at the very least, the last part is a fiction.

It is, unsurprisingly, a challenge to get solid data on the number of parents who regret having children. In 1975, the popular advice columnist Ann Landers asked her readers if, given the chance to do it all over again, they’d have children. Seventy percent said they wouldn’t; this result, though, came from a group of self-selecting respondents. “The hurt, angry and disenchanted” are more inclined to write back than contented people, as Landers observed in a follow-up 1976 column. But in 2013, a Gallup poll asked Americans 45 and older how many kids they’d have if they could go back in time. Seven percent of the respondents with children said zero. And in 2023, a study estimated that up to 5% to 14% of parents in so-called developed countries, including the United States, regret their decision to have children.

These studies align with what I've found in my personal life: While most parents don’t regret having kids, some do. Perhaps in part because I’ve written publicly about choosing not to have children, I’ve had people, especially mothers, confide in me about parental regret, and frequently enough I’ve lost count.

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Most of the time—whether I hear it in passing, quickly, from a stranger at a literary event, or late at night from a beloved friend—this kind of revelation arises from a place of anguish. Some of these parents talk about feeling utterly alone, like villains past all imagining. Several have noted that, afraid of being judged, they decline to be candid with their own therapists. If asked what I think, I reply that, from what I’m hearing, they’re not alone. Not at all. I hope it helps; I’m told, at times, it does. It’s a physic to which I’ve devoted my life: asked why I write, I often respond that books, words have provided vital fellowship during spells of harsh isolation, when I thought that solitude and its attendant, life-torquing evils—shame, guilt, the pain of exile—might kill me.

Meanwhile, I’m so often advised that I’ll be a parent that, though I’m sure I won’t, I still prod at this ghost self, trying on its shape, asking what I’d do if I felt obliged to adopt this spectral, alternate life as mine. For here’s the next question people tend to broach if I indicate I don’t plan on having kids: what does my husband think? I find this odd, a little prying—do people think I didn’t discuss this topic with him, at length, long before we pledged to share a life?—but the question also rings the alarm bell of one of my own great fears. If I respond with the truth, that he feels exactly as I do, here’s the usual follow-up: but what if he changes his mind?

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I have friends who long for kids, and I know the need to be potent, inarguable, as primal as my desire to go without. I’ve seen parent friends’ faces open with love as they watch their small children sing to living-room karaoke, the adults radiating joy as laughing tots carol and bop. Should my husband’s mind change, I can picture the rift that would open wide, dividing us. Either I’d deprive him of what he needs, or I’d give in, birthing a child I don’t want. Or, and this prospect is painful enough that it hurts to type the words, our lives would have to diverge. No bridge of compromise can quite traverse the rift: as King Solomon knew, there are no half-children.

This fear is so salient that I turned it into a pivotal tension in my upcoming novel, Exhibit: a celebrated photographer and her husband agreed they both don’t want children, but he wakes up one day realizing he does, and powerfully so. She’s certain she ought not be a parent; he’s pining for a child; they love each other very much. Short on joint paths forward, they have no idea what to do next.

Parental regret springs from a range of origins, not all having to do with privation of choice or means. In and before a post-Dobbs U.S., people have given birth against their will. The cost of raising a child runs high; for parents lacking funds and support, dire hardship can result. It’s a lack far too typical in the U.S., where there’s no federally mandated paid parental leave, and families are often priced out of childcare. But this regret isn’t a phenomenon limited to people in grave financial straits, nor to those forced into parenting. Other parents, all through the world, also wish they’d elected otherwise.

In recent months, as I waited for the publication of the novel I worked on for nine years, I kept returning to the plight I’d explored: I hadn’t yet finished wondering what I might do, how I’d live, if. And though I’d heard a range of chronicles of parental regret, as have other friends without kids, the stories were related one-on-one, in private. It’s a taboo subject, one made all the more difficult, punitive, by the ubiquitous belief that people who feel as they do either can’t or ought not exist.

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I’ve also thought about the isolating effect of silence, and what it can cost to live in hiding. I wanted to talk with parents who, if they could go back in time, might make different choices—and who’d also agree to be quoted. It was, again unsurprisingly, hard to find people willing to speak with me on the record about parental regret. I promised to alter the names of each parent I interviewed for this piece. Even so, people were skittish.

“I don't think that everyone is made for children,” says Helen, a high school teacher in her 40s. And telling people that their purpose is to reproduce is destructive, she adds. It’s what she heard growing up: though Helen wanted to take Latin in high school, her mother forced her to enroll in home economics instead. “I don't think I ever decided to have kids. I was pretty much just told that that's what you do. That's what girls are for,” Helen says.

As a result, Helen makes sure to tell her students that having children is an option, one that might not be right for them. She says the same thing to her kids, both girls. “I think that people need to know that just being themselves is enough,” she says.

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At this point, half an hour into a phone call, Helen has cried, briefly, a couple of times. Now, I’m the one tearing up. I tell Helen I grew up in a predominantly Christian Korean American community. The primacy of having kids is built into the Korean language: I knew most Korean adults only as “the mother of x” or “the father of y.” I might have felt less strange if I’d had a Helen at my high school. While I didn’t quite, at any point, decide against being a parent—I didn’t have to, since I had no inkling of the urge in the first place—I also never heard it said that there might be an alternative.

“And if you thought there was any other way to live, there's something wrong with you,” Helen says.

I ask what she’d do if she had more time to herself. “I would write. I would take walks,” she replies. “I enjoyed writing academic papers. I enjoyed writing them for my master's.” It used to upset her when classes were too easy. Given the chance, she would think for hours without interruption. She’d take up further studies.

And if she could inhabit the person she was before she became a parent? “I would have stopped that pregnancy before it happened.” But that’s the part Helen’s never said to her daughters, who, after all, didn’t ask to be born. She’s hell-bent on raising them well, not taking out any regrets on the girls. “I love them. I just don't love the choice I made.”

Each parent I talk to points out this dividing line: it’s possible to have strong, lasting regrets about a life choice while ferociously loving—and caring for—the fruit of that decision. Paul, a Canadian father of young boys, notes that though he could write a book on everything he resents having lost as a result of becoming a parent, he also would do anything for his kids. Paul’s boys are the loves of his life. Still, overall, fathering has been detrimental to his well-being.

“My body is constantly on standby, waiting for the next disaster,” Paul says. “As an introvert, I also deeply resent having no private time.” He’s fatigued and never at ease, finding all aspects of child-rearing to be stressful. It’s not a problem that would be resolved if he had more caretaking support. “I do have help with the kids from family, and I know if I asked for more help, I'd get it,” he tells me, but he often refuses help because he believes that, as a father, it's his job to take on the brunt of tasks that attend parenting.

Instead, what Paul lacks, in terms of support, is people with whom he can be honest. “I don't have anyone to talk to about parental regret,” he says. He wishes he had more spaces where parents aren't publicly shamed for feeling trapped or stifled. And though he’d felt ambivalent about becoming a father, and it was his husband who first decided he wanted a child, he hasn’t let this initial split in longing drive them apart. With his husband, as with the other people in his life, he's quiet about his regret: “As much as I might feel his desire to be a parent has led me to my decision, that decision was also my own.”

People have asked how I learned that not having kids might be an option. I live in San Francisco, where I’m hardly the only person with no kids—out of the major U.S. cities, San Francisco has the smallest percentage of children—but even so, for some people, having kids can feel so fated that they talk about not having imagined otherwise.

One friend who’s asked this question has told me she felt regret during the first years of her child’s life, but that, as her child got older, the rue left. For other parents, though, the regret proves lasting. Robin, who has adult offspring in their 40s, says that, to this day, if she could reverse time, she would “certainly not have a baby ever, not under any circumstances.” She notes that she’d had no notion of what being a parent can entail. Having grown up in an affluent, cheerful family, she was glad to have children with her husband, figuring that “it all just looked like a romantic, happy road.”

Instead, after electing to be a stay-at-home mother, Robin found herself in what she calls “the domestic gulag,” a life that consisted of being “a chauffeur and an arranger and an appointment setter and a social secretary and a party planner and a chef and a meal planner and a budgeter” and “an emergency nurse and a night nurse and a psychologist and a confidant.”

Robin also, like the other parents I spoke to, felt responsible for raising her children well, teaching them how to lead “good, honorable, happy” lives, striving to instill and model integrity and kindness. It was a daily, 20-year effort all the more crushing since, each morning, waking up, she’d recall the day’s to-do list and know that she didn’t want to do any of it.

Replying to my questions, Robin keeps having to pause to take phone calls from a nurse caring for her ill, elderly aunt. There’s no one else in Robin’s family who’ll fill the role, she says, so it’s up to her to look after her aunt’s well-being. I’m conscious that I’m telling you this because I’m alive to what at least some readers will think about Helen, Paul, and Robin: that the act of admitting to regret ipso facto convicts them as bad, unfit parents. As, that is, evil people. They know it, too, and are as afraid of being recognized as they are intent on telling people what they’re living through—hoping, with a fervor I recognize from my bygone life as an evangelical Christian, to prevent others’ misery.

Hoping to ease others’ solitude, too. Online forums aside, there are almost no spaces where a parent can discuss regret. Some of this is for good reason—no child should have to hear that they’re regretted—but what other human experience is there about which one will probably be judged a monster for having any regret at all?

One problem is that our culture wants just one kind of story about parenting, and it’s a story of “pure joy,” says Yael Goldstein-Love, a writer and psychotherapist in California whose clinical practice focuses on people who are adapting to parenthood. But, Goldstein-Love says, people often experience grief in the transition to being a parent, grief for the life they might have inhabited otherwise. “Part of what makes the grief unspeakable is that there's always a strand of this regret,” she adds.

While Goldstein-Love hasn’t had patients bring it up, she also has friends who confide in her about parental regret. I mention the alacrity with which people can lunge to say that no parent feels regret, that it’s impossible. I ask if, perhaps, this type of remorse poses an existential threat, belying an ideal picture of what we might be to our own parents. Is this an aspect of why people can be so quick to refute the notion that regret can, and does, happen?

Absolutely, she replies: Most people want to believe that our parents felt nothing but delight about raising us. “They never regretted a moment. They never hated us. And that's bullsh-t.” I ask Goldstein-Love what she’d tell parents who wish they had made another choice.

“To the extent that you can, and this is much easier said than done, try not to feel ashamed of this.” It’s tempting, she explains, to judge how we feel about life experiences, asking ourselves, “Does this make me a good person? Does this make me a bad person? Am I doing this right? Am I doing this wrong?”

But feelings aren’t inherently “truly ugly,” Goldstein-Love says. “They just are.” It’s what people make of their feelings that might be “ugly or not.” Some people don’t find joy in parenting, let alone pure joy, “and that’s also fine.” Regret is not itself a threat to a parent’s love for a child, and it can help to admit, even to oneself, that which might feel unspeakable. “I really would encourage people to realize that you are not alone in this feeling,” she says.

I think of the halting conversations I’ve been having with parents, and the difficulty with which people talk about regret. Few choices are more irreversible than deciding to be a parent: once the child is born, a person is here who didn’t previously exist. But I also wonder who’s being served well by a monolithic idea that no one regrets being a parent. Not these parents; not, as some of the people I’ve spoken with have pointed out, any kids who pick up on parental regret and think it can’t happen, except to them. If more people had the support to make reproductive choices based on their own desires and life situations, and if the monolith were spalled in favor of plural narratives that better reflect the complexities of human experience, what then?

I think of the people who have spoken to me about regret and isolation, including those I haven’t yet mentioned—a mother finishing nursing school in Mississippi, a mother of five in Nebraska, and all the privately confiding parents. One parent asks at the end of our conversation, “What have other parents said? Was it the same thing? Was it the same thing as me?”

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