Maybe Mum

For all the Maybe Mums out there wondering whether motherhood is for them

Paralyzing fear of regretting not having children

Paralyzing fear of regretting not having children

The paralyzing fear of regretting not having children. A reader of my Dutch website Twijfelmoeder; wrote this impressive story. In my opinion, recognizable for many women who do not want to become mothers but are uncertain if that is the right decision.

“Doubts about choice of study. Fear of quitting a job. Making the decision to end a relationship. Fear of regret has more than once been a driving force for me to endlessly weigh options before daring to make a choice. During the thirties dilemma, I believe that nobody is a stranger to decision-making stress and fear of regret. And yet, regret seems nowhere as loaded and significant a topic as when it comes to the choice of whether or not to have children, especially.”

Never having children

“When I was 32, a wave began around me where everyone started settling down, getting mortgages, and having babies. Not me, because my tumultuous six-year relationship had ended with a huge dramatic bang. The last thing I wanted or could even think about was a new relationship, let alone settling down and all that comes with it.

Furthermore, I had always loudly proclaimed that I never wanted children. As a child of divorced parents – and having witnessed my mother start a second family up close during my teenage years – my idea of the fairy tale was significantly adjusted. I realized at a very young age that raising children is definitely not an easy task and requires sacrificing a lot. Now, with the end of my relationship, the naivety that ‘love should always be enough’ was also pierced.”

Older partner with teenage children

“I promptly fell head over heels in love with a man 17 years older, who had two teenage children. It quickly became clear that he actually didn’t want any more children and wanted to discuss and assess where I stood on the matter. Since I had always been convinced that I never wanted children, I immediately stated that this was not a problem.

Then suddenly, everything started to churn in my mind. What if he (most likely) passed away before me, leaving me without a family? And what if we were to break up when I’m already over 40 years old? Then both my fertility and choice would be taken away, leaving me without a relationship and no option for children anymore! What if I start feeling the urge for children at 37, and then have to bid farewell to a great love in a rush to find another sperm donor in time? And what if that sperm donor doesn’t compare to the great love I left behind? Would I be happier with a child, but still miserably unhappy with the sperm donor? In other words, what if I regret my decision to not have children later on?!”

Paralyzing panic

“Suddenly, my conviction of being child-free became much easier to believe when there was still a crack in the door and I didn’t really have to make a definitive choice yet. Now, for months, I lay awake endlessly pondering how convinced I truly was of that decision, and I was consumed by utterly paralyzing panic at the thought of regretting it later on.

The environment certainly didn’t help, as most people were riding high on the (potentially impending) wave of baby announcements and could only highlight the beautiful aspects of having or getting children. When I mentioned being child-free or expressed a desire to not have children, I was looked at as if I came from another planet.”

‘You’ll regret that for sure, girl!’

“That’s when it struck me: with almost every other aspect of life you’re pondering, people can join in your considerations and understand your doubts. But almost exclusively when it comes to the topic of children, people without any inhibition ask, ‘Aren’t you afraid you’ll regret it later?!’ Even a complete stranger, with whom I was casually chatting in a bar (and he showed me a photo of his super cute son), bluntly remarked, ‘You’ll definitely regret that, girl.’ It almost felt like a threat!

For women, having children naturally comes with an expiration date, resulting in a sort of doomsday scenario. After a certain point (usually somewhere after your forties), you can never go back on this choice. The irreversibility of that decision creates a sense of urgent now-or-never feelings, which everyone seems to think requires an extra warning about the impending doom of not being able to change your mind. When my panic about regret reached a new peak because of this, I did the only thing I could think of: I sought therapy.”

‘Regret is an elusive concept’

“During therapy (by the way, with a top therapist, highly recommended for everyone), I worked hard to dissect the phenomenon of ‘regret’ for myself. If I was so terribly afraid of regret that it could keep me awake for months, what exactly is regret?! Regret is indeed quite an elusive concept. You can’t see it or touch it. It’s never easy to predict beforehand whether it will arise, and it’s not even a concrete emotion. In the dictionary, it is described as ‘the realization that you shouldn’t have done something’ (interestingly, not as something you should have done!). In English dictionaries, you’ll find similar terms, although one of the definitions in the Merriam-Webster dictionary describes regret as ‘an expression of distressing emotions (such as sorrow),’ which may be closer to the mark.

The more rationally you look at the vague term ‘regret,’ the more absurd it sometimes seems that this word can have such an impact on your thought and decision-making process! Especially when you consider that regret apparently is also seen by society as an absolute-to-avoid and dangerous endpoint. As if, if you ever feel regret, life ceases to exist, and everything afterward becomes meaningless, and you might as well give up. No wonder the concept instills so much fear in so many people, particularly women who are doubting whether to have children.”

Honest questioning session

“If so many women are afraid of regretting having children and it’s such an important topic in the decision-making process, there should be many women (and perhaps also men) who later genuinely feel they made the wrong choice and can tell me exactly how awful their lives are now that they regret it, right? What do these regretful experts say? Of course, it’s far from a comprehensive population study, but after an honest questioning session in my fairly extensive network with people aged 50 or older, with and without children, nobody really expressed regret (except perhaps those who desperately wanted children and couldn’t have them, which is obviously very sad).

In both groups, people are aware of the consequences their choices have had, see the pros and cons, and sometimes wonder what life would have been like if they had chosen differently. Some have experienced temporary moments of regret. What struck me was that feelings of regret often led most people to be motivated to approach life differently and better, or resulted in experiences described afterwards as ‘sad but invaluable.’ Current regrets may sometimes even be a positive stimulus to make different and better choices. But nowhere did I hear that regretting the choice to have or not have children became a permanent state of unhappiness, or led to life feeling meaningless, or resulted in enormous dreadful misery.”

Terrifying Monster

“After extensive online research on (inter)national forums, blogs, and well-founded population studies (such as Gabb et al., 2017 or Glass et al., 2018), this consensus appears to be largely the same. Exceptions aside, the immensely threatening, all-encompassing, terrifying monster of ‘regret’, which I had a deep-rooted fear of and thought would lead to a meaningless and hopeless, unhappy life, hardly seems to exist. Man, what a relief that was!

To conclude with the words of my top therapist (all credit to her!): the question of whether you will regret having or not having children later on is actually not important. It is much more relevant to consider how you, if this regret arises, are able to deal with those feelings yourself. Regret leads to sadness, pain, and in some cases perhaps to depression and prolonged unhappiness. That’s not fun, but it’s not insurmountable and certainly not the end of your life or the world. That sadness can also lead to new experiences, insights, inspiration, and the forging of new life paths.”

New Turn

“These days, I sleep like a baby again, live in the moment, and still want a child-free life. I enjoy my friends (with and without children), hobbies, work, and of course, my – still after five years – great love and our modern family life with teenage children. And if I do end up regretting not having children later on? Well, then I am now convinced that I will find my way out of it and, despite the sadness, use the regret to give life a beautiful new turn. I won’t be afraid anymore, and I certainly won’t let the fear of later regret play a leading role in my choices now!”

Photo: Pexels – vrouw-die-zwart-hemdje-draagt-3356489 – pexels-engin-akyurt-3356489.jpgMy English is not very good, so I’m translating this with the help of Google Translate and ChatGPT.