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The myth of maternal happiness: how women live, for whom the birth of children has become a mistake

'04.05.2021'

Source: Lenta.ru report

It is generally accepted that motherhood is not only the destiny of every woman, but also happiness for her. However, Israeli researcher Orna Donat in Regretting Motherhood documented in detail the experiences of women who claimed that their motherhood was a mistake. Quite ordinary, non-marginal women admitted this: they are from 26 to 73 years old, they have at least one child (some have grandchildren), they work, study, many have husbands, housing and a well-to-do life. They are united by one thing - they are unhappy because they have become mothers.

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Why is this happening and is it possible to change society so that women stop suffering from the hardships of parenthood? About this at the request of "Tapes.ru"Journalist Daria Shipacheva spoke with Orna Donat.

Allowing women to be mistresses of their bodies is dangerous for society

When did you become a childfree? And did you encounter problems in this connection - public condemnation, pressure, criticism?

- In 16 years, I realized that I would not be a mother, and not that I would not have children. I specifically focus on motherhood, not on children, as if something was wrong with them. So I identify myself not as childfree, but as a woman who does not want to be a mother.

I never considered my unwillingness to be a mother to be a problem that needed to be addressed: it seemed logical to me that some women want to be mothers and others not. However, I soon discovered that society treats me as if I have a problem that needs to be solved, and it was this attitude that became my problem. It is not my unwillingness to be a mother as such.

Here in Israel, women who do not want to be mothers are still condemned - they are called fake women, unmarried, insane, infantile and self-centered.

How long have you been studying motherhood, fatherhood, and parenthood in general? And what are the main conclusions?

- I have been engaged in gender studies in the field of motherhood and fatherhood since 2003. In 2007, she defended a master's thesis on Israeli women and men who do not want to be parents - it was published as a book in 2011 (although in Hebrew only).

This study broadened and deepened my understanding of the social axiom, according to which motherhood is “by nature”: it is natural that women want to be mothers because they are women; it is supposedly natural that any woman who is considered physically and emotionally healthy knows what to do after the birth of a child, because she is a woman; and it’s supposedly natural that any woman will appreciate motherhood as a worthy change in her life and provide society with a “happy ending” to history, since this is the essence of her existence - she is a woman.

Allowing women and mothers to formulate their own stories, which are usually very diverse, may mean that society should rethink this axiom. And it is very useful for the state, economy, capitalist system, religious regimes and patriarchal heteronormative interests.

To admit that there are women who do not feel comfortable in motherhood and regret it means to allow women to be the mistresses of their body, thoughts, memories, emotions, desires and needs. And this is probably dangerous for society - because its prosperity is based on the fact that women silently “do their job”, not thinking that one can live somehow differently.

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Woman gives birth under threat of divorce

In the introduction to the “Regrets of Maternity” study, you said that you first wanted to conduct a survey of regrets about parenthood for both women and men, but then you decided to focus on motherhood, because it is very different from the experience of paternity. What are the main differences?

- In matters of attitude to parenthood, there are clear gender features. First: many men may feel less pressure to become fathers, especially since they can become fathers at an older age. In addition, to be considered courageous, it is not necessary to become a father. But motherhood seems to be evidence of femininity.

Second: there is a gender division in child care issues - women are expected to be the ones who will be mainly involved in raising common children. So many men may want to become fathers - and at the same time believe that they will be able to avoid obligations to raise their children.

I interviewed ten men who regret having become fathers. One of the important differences between them and the women with whom I spoke was that most of them did not want to be fathers, but the partner dreamed of becoming a mother, and they did not want to part with her. This is different from the situation when a woman gives birth under the threat of divorce - and several participants in my research had just such a case.

But I can’t make any global conclusions about the “regretting fathers” - more research is needed on this topic.

You mentioned in the study that it took you a long time to gather enough respondents precisely because the topic of regrets about motherhood is taboo. How long did it take you to prepare for the study? Did the respondents refuse to participate on the eve of the interview? If so, how did they explain the reasons?

- It took me a year and a half to find enough women to fully launch the study.

Three women canceled the interview shortly before we were about to meet - they refused to participate because they could not afford to say out loud that they regret motherhood. This does not mean that they do not regret it - they were confident in their feelings, it was simply unbearable for them to have a witness to their “shameful” experiences.

Where is our right to care?

In the study, you say that Freudian theories only aggravated the situation of mothers. Now any woman’s mistake is a lifelong trauma for her child, because all the problems come from childhood ... This creates an unbearable burden of responsibility for parents, which are mainly mothers. What can be done to somehow ease this burden?

“I think the first step is to recognize women as subjects, not objects.” I kind of say the obvious thing, but in the patriarchal way, it does not seem obvious to many that we are people of flesh and blood, which means that we can try our best to be perfect, but not succeed. It also means that we can be wrong.

How to achieve a universal understanding of the fact that a woman is a subject?

- This is difficult to do without the second step: recognizing that motherhood is a relationship. Not some kind of “sacred connection”, but just one of the types of human relationships in which we are all involved.

And like any other interpersonal relationship, motherhood can cause a wide variety of emotions: it is joy, and boredom, and hatred, and jealousy, and love, and rage, and - yes! - regret. And as in any other relationship, the main thing is to be attentive to another, to listen to him. When you act badly, take responsibility and apologize, and then, if necessary, try to do otherwise. If you apply all this to parenthood, then, probably, the behavior of the mother will not become a traumatic experience for the child.

How strongly do external causes and objective living conditions affect regrets about motherhood and how much is internal reluctance to be someone's mother?

- I do not have accurate data on which of these influences more and how much. But I can note that in my study, there were also women who seemed to have ideal living conditions in order to become mothers. For example, they had enough money to raise their children, a partner who was involved in raising children (sometimes more than these women themselves), they had enough time for themselves and so on - and they still regretted that they became mothers. In addition, five women who already became grandmothers took part in my study, which means that they no longer need to take care of children on an ongoing basis, but they still regret motherhood.

Of course, the primary obligation of society towards mothers is to provide conditions in which women from different social groups would have the opportunity to raise their children normally. The time has come to realize this, especially against the background of the fact that in many countries people are already panicking about low birth rates. However, it is not a fact that these conditions will help all women, without exception, get rid of regrets about motherhood.

In general, even the full involvement of a partner is not always able to eliminate the woman’s regrets that she became a mother. But still - how can a partner alleviate the burdens of motherhood at least a little?

- We, women, have been taught since childhood that we should take care of everyone: children, husbands, elderly relatives ... But where is our right to care? It is worth considering why a woman’s right to receive care, care, attention is less important than her obligation to give it all.

No, I am not opposed to taking care of loved ones, I just want to point out that society benefits from this division of “services” based on gender.

I want you to pay attention to the constant message that we women, simply because we are women, are naturally prepared to help everyone and everything. While men in this seem so incompetent - they are men! But nature has nothing to do with it: our history, social norms and personal histories suggest that it is precisely political interests that underlie such myths.

Now, if a woman gave birth and she did not like the experience of parenting, she seems to have no way out of this situation. She, of course, can leave the family, but this will be followed by a strong condemnation of society. Can you somehow change this situation?

- You can’t put the child back, and it’s impossible to stop being a mother. But the burden of motherhood can become less severe and destructive if society condemns mothers disappointed by parenthood less and does not ostracize them.

The situation can be improved if we do not initially persuade women to become mothers against their will, convincing that motherhood is undoubtedly the best thing that can happen to them. A similar statement is a fabulous myth. He does not take into account that women are different. And the fact that we have the same reproductive organs does not mean that we all would like to be mothers or that all women evaluate motherhood as a worthwhile experience in retrospect.

What can society do? Listen very carefully to what women and mothers say, without stigmatizing them as irresponsible, indifferent, and insane.

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What do you think, how many women in a society free from gender stereotypes would prefer not to become mothers? And how many women today regret their motherhood?

“I don’t know how many women would prefer not to become mothers in such a society, but I can definitely say that even in an equal society they do not always stop forcing women to motherhood.”

Let's take Norway as an example, a country that I think is closest to what we can call gender equality. From correspondence with a Norwegian researcher, I learned that despite Norway’s international reputation as a country where women's rights are protected, in reality, pressure on maternity is comparable to what exists in Israel.

She wrote to me that if in Italy, when a woman does not have a partner, at home, at work and does not have a baby, she is usually considered responsible, in Norway no one can escape pressure: since there is a good social security system, then, in principle, you can raise a child and alone. And such women are still expected to have a baby. There are practically no excuses in Norway!

Regarding the second part of the question - I don’t know how many women regret having become mothers, and I don’t think we will ever find out. Whatever research is carried out - in reality, an unknown number of women will always keep this a secret.

In your study, you say that many women were tormented with the decision to tell or not to tell their children that they regretted motherhood. Your opinion on this subject is interesting. Is it worth it to talk about, and if so, how to do it so as not to injure the child?

- I can’t say which option is better here. I just wanted to understand and convey the thoughts of mothers who are thinking of talking to their children about this someday when they get older.

They, among other reasons, distinguish between love for children and regret for motherhood and want to explain this difficult emotional state to children: yes, they really love children, but they regret having become mothers. In their understanding, this can remove the feeling of guilt from children's shoulders. Thus, talking with your children about your regrets is a way to protect them.

In addition, some mothers think it is worth informing their children that it is likely that parenthood will not be as joyful as the society promises you. For them, being a good mother means showing their children as many opportunities as possible to avoid potential suffering.

A few years ago, after a lecture, a student approached me and said that only now she realizes that her mother regrets that she has become a mother. She first realized: her mother was a woman who did not want to be a mother from the very beginning and was drawn into it by society. She said that she first saw her mother as a subject, as a person, and not just as a parent - and this allowed her to experience empathy with her mother, and not just anger, guilt, and disappointment. Therefore, I believe that a woman has the right to speak with a child not as a parent, but as a person with her own feelings - and be heard.

You say that regrets about motherhood and love for a child are two different things. Have you met such mothers who couldn’t love their child? How to live with it?

- Yes, I met women who said they did not like any of their children. This seems logical to me: to become a mother means to enter into a lifelong relationship with a person who does not even exist yet, with a person whom you do not know and cannot imagine what he or she will be.

Perhaps they will be very similar to you and will embody those of your features that you would not want to see daily. Or, on the contrary, they will be very different from you, and it will be annoying. In general, there are many logical explanations of why a woman may not love a child. And yet, even if this is logical, this does not mean that it is not painful - both for the mother and the child.

I have no idea how to live with this. I can only say that mothers should be able to speak openly about this and not hear condemnation. Perhaps if women have the opportunity to speak out and be accepted, some mothers will not feel like monsters and will find their own way to live with it.

Not all of us need this.

Judging by your research, in Russia — as in Israel — there is a very “prodigy” policy. It comes to the point of absurdity: we are discussing the possibility of removing abortion from the CHI system (or even completely banning it) and introducing a tax on childlessness. Do you think this is effective? And what fertility measures could work?

“I am horrified that women are being tried in this way to be mothers.” This is a real nightmare - I can’t even imagine how this can lead to "prosperity of the state and its citizens."

If countries want to increase the birth rate, they should take care of their citizens: first, treating them as individuals who have the right to make decisions, and secondly, providing them with normal conditions for raising children if they want to become mothers.

Any other means, such as banning abortion, means raping a woman. Not less. This can lead to the desired result for society - children will be born. But what positive can be in reproductive violence? How then can politicians face these women and their children?

Do you think it is advisable to raise the birth rate in 2019? Is this necessary for the development of society?

- No, I don’t think it is necessary to increase the birth rate. It will be easier for the earth to breathe if the population begins to decline. What states need to do is find creative ways to solve national and economic problems without encroaching on our bodies.

I want more and more women to be free to decide whether to be their mothers or not. And if they want this, I will only be glad for them, but I am against the forced "increase in demography."

What do you think is the most difficult time to be a mother, or were there worse times for motherhood?

“I'm not sure we can answer this question.” For many centuries, men spoke and wrote on behalf of women, so we do not have enough honest voices of women from the past where they would talk about their feelings and attitudes towards motherhood.

Nevertheless, books and poetry suggest that both decades and centuries ago there were women who were not satisfied with motherhood, but we won’t be able to find out if they would call their feelings regret or not.

I have a feeling that motherhood is contrary to personal happiness. This is confirmed by the statements of many mothers: they literally say that they exchanged their lives for the lives of their children or dedicated their lives to children.

And this is understandable if you look at our evolutionary past. Evolution was not interested in personal happiness - only in preserving the species and transferring genes. Therefore, the woman did not choose to be her mother or concentrate on self-development. But today there is such a choice - and how can one make such a difficult decision?

“I think that for many women, raising a child may well correlate with their desire for personal happiness.” Many women really feel and know that their main purpose in life is to be mothers and raise children. I would not want to exclude their experience and the opportunity to live a joyful life in parallel with raising children only to convey the idea that not all of us need this.

However, women should consider that motherhood is the road to the unknown. Many promise that "children are happiness", but in fact it is a lottery. You cannot know in advance whether motherhood will change your life for better or for worse.

I am not saying this to intimidate women and dissuade from motherhood — all roads must be open to each of us. I’m trying to say that if you want to become a mother, you should approach this with love, willingness and good intentions - that’s all.

What can we do to ensure that the next generation makes fewer mistakes regarding parenthood?

- I teach a subject on the effects of motherhood and abandonment of motherhood on society at several universities and colleges in Israel. For the past four years I have been conducting groups for women who are not sure if they want to be mothers. We meet for ten weeks and together discuss their feelings and thoughts about this. In addition, I started a new study: in it I will study the life of elderly Israeli women aged 70 to 86 years who have never become mothers.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote in the book “Freedom”: “What [freedom] tells us if we listen carefully? First, she tells us that in a state of freedom we can do things that in other conditions would be either impossible or risky. We can do what we want, without fear of being punished, thrown into prison, tortured, persecuted ... And she also tells us that living in a free country means doing everything on our own responsibility. You are free to pursue (and, with luck, to achieve) your goals, but you are also free to make mistakes. The first is complete with the second. Being free, you can be sure that no one will forbid you to do what you want. But no one will give you any certainty that what you want to do and do will bring you the expected benefit - or any benefit whatsoever. ”

So, I think, we can help the next generation by giving them the freedom to become parents if they want, and letting them also understand more complex things about parenthood that are far from the black and white perception of the world. These things include the understanding that for some people parenthood can be a mistake.

This does not mean that anyone who considers this a mistake renounces responsibility to their children - the exact opposite is true. And this also does not mean that we, as a society, must turn our backs on the one who made such a mistake, especially if it was this society that pushed the person towards parenthood by all means.

Summarize, please: why should not all women say "give birth soon, otherwise you will regret it, children are happiness"?

- This is a bad idea, because these statements cannot be true for all women. We are different, and our subjective experiences in relation to motherhood are very different.

Making such a universal promise is almost a criminal negligence: those who promise you happiness today, bunnies and lawns, will not come to you tomorrow to help raise children who are brought up on their advice.

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