Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Woman Says Having Kids is Her Biggest Regret

Isabella Dutton says that having her two children (now grown) was the biggest regret of her life. She calls them "parasites" who took from her without giving anything back. 

She admits that she "always hated the idea of motherhood" and that she had the children primarily to appease her husband, who always wanted them. She says that her children "interloped" on her peace and that she has never gotten it back, even now. Part of this is because her now-adult daughter has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and she still cares for her. 

There's been a lot of discussion surrounding this article. Here's a response one man wrote that focuses on how irresponsible it was for a woman to have children when she knew she didn't want them. Femamom admits that she's appalled by the story, but wonders if she would react the same way if a father had penned it. The comments in this post at Mamamia are particularly interesting, with many commenters admitting to similar feelings themselves or, at the very least, voicing sympathy for Dutton's position. 

I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to say that I was sympathetic to this woman who took on the role of mother because it was culturally assumed that she would do so even as she knew that it wasn't a role she wanted. Sometimes it seems that there isn't much room in our social norms for a woman who doesn't want children even today, and her husband certainly seemed to ignore her insistence that this wasn't the life she wanted, assuming she would change her mind as time passed. 

LC-USZ62-26741 Baby Carriage 1912

Some people saw her as presenting herself as a martyr who sacrificed her own individualism for the sake of her children despite knowing how much that sacrifice would cost her. 

What struck me the most, though, wasn't the martyrdom so much as the smug superiority. Dutton doesn't just admit that she regrets the choice she made to become a parent, she makes sure that her readers understand that after she made that choice she made all the right ones and that if we don't make the same ones, we're bad parents. At one point, she even explicitly says that her decision to have children she didn't want and never enjoyed having was morally superior to us parents who have children and then allow "someone else" to "raise them" by using daycares or nannies. 

This piece is drawing a lot of ire for the coldness with which this mother approaches her children's well-being. In fact, it seems written in a way to draw just that ire. When her son was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, he was whisked away to receive medical attention. Dutton admits she felt no apprehension and didn't even bother to ask the doctors if her son was okay:
I did not really think about Stuart at all, until Tony returned after work and asked where he was.
He was fine, of course, but when they wheeled him back into the ward I did not experience that sudden leap of the heart that new mums are expected to feel. Instead I sat down with a cup of tea and thought bleakly, 'What have I done?'
Another such passage reveals that she left her three-week old son outside of a store with the dog while she bought bread and then forgot them both there. It was the dog's absence that made her realize her mistake:
I missed the dog before it even occurred to me that I'd left Stuart outside the shop.
I can't say, even then, that I was worried. I just rang the baker to check Stuart and the dog were still outside, retrieved them and came home.
She recounts frustration with strangers cooing over her baby and saying how cute he was, thinking to herself that it was a lie.

These passages lead me to think that Dutton not only expects but relishes our rage. She knows that she is saying things that she's not "supposed" to say, and she's choosing anecdotes from her parenting that specifically illustrate that point.

Hidden amongst these anger-inducing snippets, though, is a more insidious thread. Dutton has a very clear picture of what it means to be a mother, and--in her estimation--she met the mark in every way.

Real Mothers Don't Use Daycare

Dutton says that she knew that she would never leave her children in someone else's care because that's not what a mother is supposed to do:
I cannot understand mothers who insist they want children - especially those who undergo years of fertility treatment - then race back to work at the earliest opportunity after giving birth, leaving the vital job of caring for them to strangers.
Real Mothers Don't Only Have One Child 
Two years and four months after Stuart was born, I had my daughter Jo. It may seem perverse that I had a second child in view of my aversion to them, but I believe it is utterly selfish to have an only one.
Real Mothers Breastfeed 
Back home, I resolved to breastfeed. I knew it would be best for Stuart and I think every mother should do it. But even during this intimate act, that elusive bond failed to form.
Ultimately, Dutton admits to her superior opinion on the way that mothering is supposed to be done:
And here, perhaps, is the nub of it: I would not take on the job of motherhood and do it half-heartedly. Unlike so many would-be mums I thought hard about the responsibilities of my role, and, I believe, if more women did before rushing heedlessly into it, they might share my reservations.
She doesn't care if we're judging her because she's too busy judging us. We're the ones doing it wrong. Those of us who are buying toys and showing love and not forgetting our children outside of store fronts have it all backwards. We're supposed to be utterly miserable while we parent and if we're not miserable, then we're not giving enough.

That, ultimately, is why I can have no sympathy for Dutton's admissions. I think that it's valuable for women to be able to admit that motherhood can be overwhelming. I think it's incredibly valuable for women to be able to admit that they don't want to be mothers at all, and society needs to accept that. I want to be on Dutton's side, but she ultimately paints a picture of motherhood that is so bleak, so cruel, and so harrowing that I cannot condone the message she's sending in any way.

The saddest part of all to me is that she recognizes in her husband a great father. She admits that she guarded her child-free time and did no child-rearing duties when her husband was around. He was the one chasing children and taking care of what we often think of as "motherly" duties. Framed a different way, their arrangement could be one of equally shared parenting where both parents have time and space to pursue their own interests as well as parenting. Framed the way Dutton frames it, though, he is allowed the life he wants while she gives up everything except the fleeting moments where he distracts the children from bothering her.

Finally, she ends with this line:
And that, maybe, is the paradox. I am a conscientious and caring parent - yet perhaps I would have resented my children less had I not been.
She seems to think that it is precisely her high standards for parenting that made her so miserable. In many ways, I agree with her. If she had been willing to allow caretakers to help with the day-to-day duties of raising a child, she wouldn't have felt so isolated. If she hadn't felt it was "selfish" to have only one child, maybe she wouldn't have felt the pressure to bring another person she didn't want into the world. She has taken the worst of the stereotypes we have about what makes a "good" mother and combined them into a prison of her own making. She thinks that she has upheld the standards, that she has met the goals, but the truth is that the myth of the "perfect mommy" is just that: a myth.

What do you think about Dutton's piece? Do your own standards for a role you play make it harder for you to actually play that role? How do you resolve the conflicts in your roles?

Photo: Children's Bureau Centennial 


  1. I didn't read her piece (and I don't want to, after reading the little bits in here) but I have something to say. Just because she "did all the right things" does not mean she did them "right." If she breastfed, but didn't form that bond, the child picked up on that, I'm sure. Children, especially babies, are very intuitive and pick up on energy. If she was doing "all the right things" without love in her heart for those babies/children, she has no right to feel so superior morally. When it comes down to it, if you're not giving the child love, first and foremost, everything else doesn't mean much at all.

  2. YES! My problem is not that she regrets having kids. I do think she's right, that there are probably a lot of parents out there who regret having children, but are too ashamed to admit it. The problem is that she uses her regret as a platform to judge other parents in a harsh way, to tear down others in the service of admitting her regrets. The moral superiority is the problem, not the regret.

  3. Oh my god Jane. YES. She knows exactly what it is to be a mother and she judges us along the way. She did everything so perfectly and had such strict notions about it all--she'd never not take care of her kids, except for the burden that it was. Including taking care of her daughter who has MS. The woman is a martyr. No interest in change, only interested in making others feel like shit.

  4. I admit I did not read her article. Just from the title, I knew it would make me angry. I cannot have children and so far have not been able to adopt even though adopting is my life's goal. I cannot abide people who are able to have children and so flippantly despise them. It stabs me in the heart to see such unworthy people so blessed.

  5. Excellent point. What is her criteria for doing things "right?" If her criteria is to make sure she breastfed and didn't use a daycare, but her children didn't feel love, affection, and warmth from her and grow up emotionally detached, I would say she actually did everything "wrong."

  6. I thought about that, too. I have friends struggling with fertility issues and I wondered how seeing Dutton's comments would make them feel. I am so sorry to hear that and hope that your adoption plans go more smoothly.

  7. Right! And that's not edgy or new. There are plenty of articles designed to make mothers feel like we're failing already. She's just mean on top of it!

  8. I wasn't riled by the piece, or her opinions on motherhood, so I can't be sure if she intended to shock/enrage, but I do agree there's judginess in some of the things she says. Double standards as well. Why is leaving the kids with their grandparents once a week acceptable, but daycare somehow isn't?

    I can somewhat understand how she got the idea that she shouldn't use daycare or somesuch to give her more personal time. People who enjoy raising their children probably like the time off to themselves, so that something they love doesn't feel as much like a chore. To someone for whom raising children is always a chore, an unpleasant job... daycare probably feels like shirking.

    I don't think she's an accurate representation of women who don't want to be mothers. Most people, childfree people included, would be a nervous wreck over the health/welfare of even a strange child not their own with an umilical cord wrapped around them, or abandoned at a shop. Her lack of caring just seems... odd. False. I would guess either she's a very detached person with everyone, or she has more malicious feelings towards her children than she's letting on.

  9. I read this post yesterday, and something was nagging at me that I couldn't quite put into words. You have done that perfectly--articulated what I was thinking but couldn't quite find the words to say.

  10. I think the first thing to remember is that the piece has been edited to maximize the emotional impact of what she is saying. She may come across as blunt and forthright, and she may actually be so, but the written word on a piece publishing by the Daily Mail (which is considered a rag in England) cannot be taken at face value.

    That being said, I think that withdrawing support for her because she comes across as judgmental seems a bit odd. It comes across as "tit for tat" - 'she's judging me so I'm going to judge her.' Yes, she may have made a rod for her own back by refusing outside care and insisting on caring for her children in a manner in which she felt optimized the quality of their upbringing. My guess is that she did this not because she had such strong beliefs, but rather as an unconscious reaction to her indifference toward being a mother. She didn't feel she honestly and deeply wanted her children, but she did raise them as if she felt in such a fashion regardless.

    It seems she did what it took to perform her duty without any residual guilt for not wanting them. Because of the choices she made, she can look back and say she did everything she could, even when she didn't necessarily wanted to. Ironically, her indifference may have made her a better mother than those who profess to really wanting kids because her sense of fulfilling her obligations may have been more powerful.

    As someone who didn't have children by choice, and has a husband who once wanted children, I know how she felt. I grew up not wanting kids and not really "liking" them and I made this clear when I met my husband. When I told other people how I felt, they would tell me that it would be different when it was my own kids and that I'd change my mind. New parents would gush about how you "fall in love all over again" when you have a baby and that all of the unsavory aspects like changing diapers wouldn't matter. Well, I am still in love with my husband (and always have been, still passionately, madly and deeply so) so I didn't need to fall in love "again" and I never saw the charm in babies. It's just not in my personality.

    Given all of the pressure I experienced about having kids and all of the parents who talked about some sort of magical transformation in attitude toward a baby once it popped out of you, I can see why Ms. Dutton gave in to her husband's request. Fortunately for me, my husband eventually changed his mind and we are both delighted that we never had children because we know that our lives would have been far worse off in terms of personal growth, experiences, and the quality and depth of our relationship. That is not to say it is or would be that way for other couples, but that is how it would have been for us.

    Ms. Dutton speaks the truth about what you lose and can't get back. I remain grateful that I didn't make a choice that would have forced such losses on me. The fact that she has rigid notions about how parenting should be done doesn't undermine the value of those truths nor cancel out the ability to have sympathy and empathy for her circumstances.

  11. I think that your personal story shows exactly why this piece could have value. There is a lot of pressure on women to become mothers and we tell them that everything will be wonderful and full of love if they just go ahead and have some kids. That can be a really hard message to stand up to, and--as you point out in your own case--some people truly do not want children. People should be able to make that perfectly valid choice and live their lives without feeling shame or pressure. Dutton's decision to share her story could help those people have ammo to stand up against the barrage of "just do it anyway" voices.

    However, she chose not to just share her own story and how it impacted her, she chose to turn around and do the exact thing that her story could have been used to fight against. Motherhood is already put into very narrow constraints. Women are constantly told that if they do x (put their kids in daycare, put them in a stroller instead of carrying them, don't breastfeed, co-sleep, don't co-sleep, breastfeed too long, spank, don't spank, etc.) then they have failed at motherhood. It is exactly those rigid lines that made Dutton's own foray into motherhood so (by her own admission) miserable. Instead of using that experience to stand up against the oppressive view of what motherhood "should" be, she chose to use her voice to reinforce that oppression.

    I'm sorry, but rejecting that message is not "tit for tat." I am not judging Dutton's parenting decisions, yet she is judging mine. Calling that out is not trying to get even. It's refusing to allow the patriarchal definition of "good" motherhood to be subtly reinforced under the guise of "bad" motherhood.

  12. We all know that parenting is a really exhausting and demanding job--there are even days when I feel like giving up. But everytime I come to think about these things, I always remember their adorable smiles, their small hugs, and sweet kisses and it somehow gives me the strength to go on. I never wanted to be a mom when I was a bit younger but now, I will never trade the joys of motherhood for anything else.

  13. I read Dutton's article. Most people are going to think that she is cold-hearted and selfish. I completely respect her views, and she has a right to feel the way she does. I'm glad someone expressed these feelings. Although they're brutal words, it's honest. I'm twenty years old, and I always get looks of disappointment and disgust when I say that I never want to have children. Motherhood just isn't appealing to me,and I don't light up when I think about being a mother. People need to realize there is nothing wrong with feeling this way. It's just against the social norm in regards to young women and children. Yes, children and motherhood and families are a beautiful thing, but I think women (and men) who claim that they want to start families really need to evaluate if they are truly capable of taking on the demanding responsibilities of children. Having children and starting a family is not always a glamorous, joyful, "happy-go-lucky" lifestyle. My point is, if you know you're not completely capable of raising children, DON'T HAVE THEM. Whether it's financial capabilities or emotional capabilities, if you lack any of these, you should reconsider having children.

    Even though Dutton is conscious of the fact she never wanted kids, she still took on the responsibilities of parenthood.

  14. So do you agree with Dutton that using a daycare or only wanting one child or choosing not to breastfeed means you lack--as you put it--"emotional capabilities" to parent?

    I have NO problem with someone deciding they don't want to be a parent, and I absolutely agree that society needs to make it easier for people to make that choice if it's what they want. What I have a problem with is Dutton's narrow-minded (and very patriarchal) view of acceptable motherhood.

  15. I don't think anyone is mad at Dutton for not wanting children. If you don't want children, that is fine. But if you know you don't want children, why would you give into the narrow social construct that makes you do it when you know it is the wrong decision? Dutton isn't standing up for people who are childless by choice, she is supporting the system that says it doesn't matter what she wants and that she had to sacrifice herself to do what was expected of her instead of what was best for everyone. In this case, society isn't even the "villain" for creating the construct, she is the failure for not fighting back and standing up for herself and her family.

  16. For me this piece was awesome because it was honest. The author expressed her true feelings and beliefs in a way that does not make her look very good to anyone, and that is extremely powerful. She is judgy, and unfeeling, and everything a "mom" shouldn't (and many argue CAN'T) be, but she is them anyway. It did not seem like this piece was for your agenda or my political satisfaction or anyone's Properly Formed Emotional Responses because the piece was not supposed to be palatable, nor was it designed for a particular political agenda. It just sounded like total honesty that was tired of hiding itself for the comfort of others. She's writing all the things she felt and believed that she is not supposed to as a "good" mom.