“I am a 21-year-old single mother of a two-year-old child. I’ve had feelings of regret since the day of her birth. I genuinely believe my mental health is becoming more unstable as a result of not being ready for parenthood. I love my child immensely, but I genuinely hate the task of parenting daily. My question is that for people who experience this, does the feeling ever change or will I always be silently miserable? And if it does not, how would I be proactive in finding a solution? I am trying to find what is best for both myself and my child, given the situation,” reads a recent (February 11) Facebook post.
A post such as this may elicit a range of reactions from people depending on which generation, region, caste and spectrum of ideology they inhabit at given times. For India, indeed the world, the very term ‘mother’ comes with a historical/cultural baggage spanning centuries (for instance, the proverbial Mother India and terming modern nations as ‘motherlands’). The reverence accorded to the term is deemed unquestionable, almost. But, confessions have always existed. If they were expressed earlier in soft-spoken murmurs to understanding friends, now, many of us have learned to make them on the virtual social, where the listener is a huge base of people, among them, the like-minded and the empathetic.
Thus, the taboos are breaking down and an increasing number of parents, especially mothers, are today confessing to feelings of regret about having children. Whether openly discussing the bitterness they feel about having had to sacrifice their own aspirations and careers in order to adjust to the demands of bringing up children, speaking about resenting the loss of personal space and freedom that parenthood entails or talking about the crushing disillusionment of parenthood, they are expressing their deepest emotions on the issue like never before. So much so that several surveys and academic studies as well as close to half-a-dozen books on the subject have appeared internationally, with experts in the fields of sociology and psychology calling it a ‘global phenomenon’.
“I was only 22 years old when my daughter was born and, at that time, I had regretted the decision,” says Mimi Raj. Twenty-four years later, even though the 46-year-old employee of a Calcutta NGO admits that it is her daughter, Shreya, whom she loves most in the world, she nevertheless confesses that those early feelings of regret have not completely disappeared. “I had to drop out of college to look after my baby. While my husband was going out with friends, partying, drinking and dancing late into the night, I had to stay at home and change diapers. It made me depressed, angry and resentful and to this day, even though I love my little girl, I feel that I was deprived of my youth.”
Another mother, Jhumli Bhattacharjee, a 41-year-old general manager of a luxury resort in Madhya Pradesh, recounts a similar tale of bottled-up grievances. She cherishes her daughter, Srestha Sinha. Yet 14 years ago, when Srestha was born, Jhumli’s life had turned so completely topsy-turvy that she immediately regretted the decision. “My marriage fell apart and I found myself having to raise the child alone,” says she. “My husband and I had disagreed on the timing to have children. He wanted to wait but I felt that I was at the right age. Also, I wanted to have at least two to three children so that ours could be a house full of laughter and the pitter-patter of children’s feet. But after our first child was born, he never stopped blaming me for imposing the ‘burden’ of fatherhood on him. We quarrelled all the time and one day he just left. I was saddled with the entire responsibility of bringing up our daughter with no support from her father. Suddenly, the idea of being a mother was not the delightful thing that I had imagined it would be. It became a lesson in why people should think twice before making this kind of a life-long commitment.”
And the feeling is shared by many. Another post on Facebook reads: “I have 10-month-old twins, and I hate my life. My husband is in the army, so he’s away a lot. I hate the monotony...since having them, I’ve become increasingly bitter, depressed and angry. I want to start over but my husband will not sacrifice his career and won’t have full custody. I don’t want to be a single mum. I’m not keen on adoption. As I’m in the UK, they (the children) would just be taken into the care system and I wouldn’t know if they were ok. Open adoptions are not legal here. Does anyone have any other options or advice? Starting to feel like my only option is to suck it up or hand them over to social service.”
One of the first to drag the taboo topic to the public domain was French author Corinne Maier, a mother of two children, who in her 2007 book, No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Be a Mother, delineated the downside of parenthood to a world accustomed to glorifying it.
It has taken India longer to come to terms with the fact that regret after parenthood is not an uncommon experience. “I thought I was the devil personified,” says a Calcutta mother. When she tried to talk to her mother and mother-in-law, they were horrified, so she kept the feelings to herself.
The difficulty for parents is to admit to these feelings, even to themselves, because of the associated guilt.
“Stigma is mainly the reason that parents don’t open up when they feel these emotions because society conditions us to believe that these are ‘unnatural’,” says consultant psychiatrist Dr Debashis Ray. “But pre and post-natal depression has existed before psychology could diagnose it. While these feelings could be temporary or intermittent, it could also be a lifelong experience.”
Of all the parents that Outlook spoke with, more mothers than fathers said that they experienced doubt and regret. Mimi’s husband, Sanjay Raj, for instance, spoke of an entirely different experience. “The only time I felt a tinge of regret was when I was dissuaded by friends from taking part in a high-speed motorcycle race. “‘You are a father now,’ my friends reminded me’, ‘You can’t lead the life of a carefree bachelor. If something happens to you, what will happen to your daughter?’”
The difficulty for mothers and fathers is to admit to these feelings, even to themselves, because of the associated guilt. “The fear that their children would misconstrue these emotions to mean that they are not wanted makes it doubly problematic,” says Dr Ray.
“The resentment is about my own unfulfilled dreams of going to college, pursuing a career,” says Mimi Raj. “I don’t blame my daughter for it.”
Jhumli Bhattacharjee agrees. “It was my choice to have a child and I should take full responsibility and I do. Yet, the circumstances under which I wanted to be a mother have completely turned on its head. It made me rethink motherhood. I am more disillusioned now. But Srestha is still the centre of my life.”