Regretting motherhood does not make you a bad mother
OPINION: Everyone has secrets and, as a child, I was expert in finding them out through careful eavesdropping. A lingering lurk here, a crouch behind an armchair there or even a strategic nap where no sleep was had so I could be close to the adults spilling their secrets.
The main secret those women shared as they traded cups of tea and Alpine cigarettes?
If they had known motherhood was going to be so hard, they would not have become mothers at all.
This is the simple truth Dilvin Yasa revealed in her excellent article, "The women who regret becoming mothers". Mother after mother shared their stories, of thwarted expectation, of muscle-sapping fatigue and a life lost they could never recover.
Reaction to this has been mixed – a combination of recognition and personal revulsion towards the women. When we hear something veer off from society's tightly-held script, there's always an immediate emotional reaction which seeks to minimise the shock. Surely there is something wrong with these women, hushed shock that anyone could question the benign glow with which we paint motherhood.
Invariably, these women are painted as mentally ill, because people can think of no other reason they would find fault with motherhood. It must be the mother, who must have post-natal depression that has somehow lasted for 9 years or more. It's the mothers who are judged, and not the systems that oppress them.
But here's another truth: motherhood is a bum deal and these women are glorious examples of fraught and exhausted honesty. It's not them who are the problem: it's how we treat mothers.
Imagine being primed for a job since birth. You're given toys that tap into the job description: dolls to tend for and miniature kitchens and cleaning tools to look after the home. The books at your school show mothers who are smiling, indulging figures (except when they're snarling stepmothers). You're taught at high school women are responsible for pregnancy and may be told there's a small window of time to achieve that milestone lest your life become empty because apparently motherhood is the one thing that can fulfil women.
The message is clear for women: they are primed to become parents in ways men never have to fathom. Men aren't plied with toys to become fathers or consider a short moment of fertility. Parenthood is presented as a milestone they should achieve, but never with the same weight endured by women.
Now primed with the urgent directive to become pregnant, women face the cruel truth: society prepares you to want motherhood but it wants nothing to do with helping mothers.
Motherhood is an apex of discrimination and silencing. Pregnancy discrimination is so prevalent, it has been tracked by the ACTU for years with increasing complaints of reduced hours and pay and sometimes redundancy.
While on maternity leave, women are often the first targets during redundancy drives. If women manage to make it back into the workforce, they'll be questioned if their salary actually covers the cost of childcare, and face reduced hours, money and career progression because their careers are seen as secondary to their "real job" as a mother.
And that real job of motherhood is doing the majority of child rearing and home chores. You won't be paid for it, you won't be respected for it and it won't pay into your super. This doesn't even factor in heightened rates of physical, psychological or financial abuse women face in the home they're expected to maintain for people whose lives are prioritised above their own.
Not only are women expected to do this, they're expected to love it. This is despite the fact women are often unsupported and feel isolated if they don't fit the ideal picture of motherhood – the woman who can attend school meetings at 2pm, has a clean home, dotes on her children and anyone passing by. Who wouldn't be isolated by an identity that ignores who they are but continually judges what they can do for others?
Reaction to women who regret becoming mothers immediately shifts into concern for their children, again a telling sign we won't focus on the structural forces that make women resent the job. It's reminiscent of "refrigerator mothers", a discarded 1950s theory that blamed allegedly cold mothers unable to fit the maternal dream for their children's wellbeing (and for disorders such as autism).
When a woman tells you she regrets becoming a mother, she's not telling you she dislikes her children. She's telling you she dislikes the job. How many times have you worked with co-workers you loved but hated the job? It's the same with motherhood but it's a job no woman is allowed to quit.
Anyone shocked by women who regret motherhood isn't listening to women.
It's time we question what society demands of women who become mothers, and not mothers who fail society's impossible demands.