Regretting Motherhood: A Sociopolitical Analysis
Over the past few decades motherhood in Western societies has been
widely discussed, challenged, and polemically reworked in gender and
queer studies and in feminist scholarship.
The bodies of knowledge
produced by these intensive inquiries have made it possible to discuss the
mother and motherhood as cultural and historical constructs by which
women are treated as a natural caregivers and through which womanhood
and motherhood are considered to be synonymous ðMcMahon 1995;
Arendell 2000Þ. Whereas within this ideological construct, “the mother”
connotes a falsely pan-class, pan-ethnic, pan-gendered phenomenon, the
works cited in note 1 have conceptualized the diversity of mothers as ﬂesh
and blood subjects, with their own feelings, needs, and desires along in-
tersecting axes of race, ethnicity, nationality, disabilities, religion, and
class, and in relation to heteronormative and queer social arrangements
ðe.g., Collins 1994; Kocher 1994; Park 2013Þ.
This proliferation of literature, and the thorough conceptualization that
followed it, has contributed to more realistic portrayals of motherhood and
has assisted in deessentializing mothers as a uniﬁed category, indicating that
“mothering is neither a unitary experience for individual women nor expe-
rienced similarly by all women” ðArendell 2000, 1196Þ. That is, there is no
sole connotation or uniﬁed experience of motherhood ðMcMahon 1995Þ
and no single emotion that children inspire in their mothers ðArendell 2000Þ.
According to these nuanced portrayals, motherhood may be a font of
personal fulﬁllment, pleasure, love, pride, contentment, and joy ðArendell
2000Þ. It may be one of the few interpersonal relationships that women
from different races, ethnicities, and social classes view as a source of power
See, e.g., Beauvoir ð1949 ½1993Þ, Firestone ð1970Þ,Richð1976Þ, Chodorow ð1978Þ,
Ruddick ð1989Þ,Snitowð1992Þ, Collins ð1994Þ, McMahon ð1995Þ, Hays ð1996Þ, DiQuinzio
ð1999Þ, Forna ð1999Þ, Arendell ð2000Þ, O’Reilly ð2006Þ,andParkð2013Þ.
I especially wish to thankthe women who participated in thisstudy for their trust.I am grateful
to my supervisors, Hanna Herzog and Haim Hazan, for their generous support throughout
this project, and to the anonymous reviewers and the editor of Signs for their illuminating com-
ments on an earlier version of the article. This research was funded by the president’s fellowship
for excellence at Tel Aviv University and by Jonathan Shapira’s scholarship for excellency in PhD
studies, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tel Aviv University. The research received
no speciﬁc grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-proﬁt sectors.
[Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2015, vol. 40, no. 2]
© 2014 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/2015/4002-0008$10.00
and support, as a site of afﬁrmation against oppression ðCollins 1994; Aren-
dell 2000; hooks 2007Þ, where they can assume a feminine and moral
identity ðMcMahon 1995Þ. Motherhood may be a resource for transfor-
mation ðMcMahon 1995Þand liberation and a way to dislodge heteronor-
mative notions on kinship ðPark 2013Þand challenge the political order
ðRuddick 1989; O’Reilly 2006; Park 2013Þ. Nevertheless, motherhood
may simultaneously be a realm of distress, helplessness, frustration, hostility,
and disappointment, as well as an arena of oppression and subordination
ðBeauvoir ½19491993; Rich 1976Þ. It was Adrienne Rich ð1976Þwho ex-
pressed this conjunction of deprivations and abundances so profoundly:
“My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any ex-
perience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation be-
tween bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratiﬁcation and
Yet while it has been well acknowledged that the landscape of moth-
ering may be replete with dialectical tensions ðArendell 2000Þ, there has
been little recognition that these tensions may lead women to foreground
an emotive and cognitive stance of regret toward their motherhood. In
mainstream and media discourse, this stance of regretting the transition
from being a nonmother, and the wish to undo motherhood, tends to be
seen as an abject maternal experience and an object of disbelief. But this
disregard is not found only in media and mainstream discourse. It also
appears in feminist and sociological literature, and it continues to be an
unexplored maternal experience.
In this article I seek to contribute to the ongoing inquiry and growing
body of literature regarding the various ways individual women experience
motherhood by addressing this empirical and conceptual lacuna. In what
follows, I shall present an interpretive sociological and feminist framework
for the accounts of twenty-three Israeli mothers—some of whom are al-
ready grandmothers—who regret becoming mothers.
There is a dual purpose to this article: First, I hope to establish regret as
a distinct stance from other conﬂictual and ambivalent maternal emotions.
The second is to suggest a sociopolitical analysis of regretting motherhood
that will adhere to earlier deconstructive explorations of maternal emo-
tions that dispute pronatal imperatives and the good motherparadigm ðe.g.,
Rich 1976; Quiney 2007; Hager 2011Þ. In this analysis I suggest that the
It should be noted that while Rich ð1976Þrefers to her despair about being destined to
carry out an unﬁtting role, she does not conceptualize this in terms of regret. Some writers,
such as Patrice DiQuinzio ð1999Þ, have mentioned the possibility of regret over motherhood,
but the issue has not been elaborated.
participants’ accounts of regret negotiate with systems of power governing
maternal feelings in two ways that indicate the intensity of the social and
cultural mechanisms that institutionalize the path toward good woman-
hood and good mothering: First, participants’ accounts create a categorical
distinction between object ðthe childrenÞand experience ðmaternityÞin their
target of regret, which utilizes the cultural structure of mother love in ac-
cordance with the maternal feeling rules. Second, by wishing to undo the
maternal experience, they are opposing the very essentialist presumption of
a ﬁxed female identity that, come what may, naturally beﬁts mothering, or
progressively adapts to it and evaluates it as a worthwhile experience.
Obviously, focusing on these deﬁned aspects of regretting motherhood
does not tell the whole story, and it may raise questions that cannot be
answered within the scope of the current article. This article will not en-
gage with aspects such as maternal temporalities, maternal practices con-
sequent upon regret ðe.g., continuing to have more children, or refusing
to continueÞ, and the emotional work following the discrepancy between
being mothers and regretting motherhood. Likewise, the participants’ in-
trospections regarding maternal moral responsibilities and the relations
between regret and the notion of accountability and agency will be ad-
dressed elsewhere. Nevertheless, I believe that the narratives that will be
presented from this data set, and their suggested sociopolitical analysis, do
have the potential to mark some starting points for further analysis and
Regret in various social realms
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word “regret” has its roots in the
Scandinavian word grata, meaning “to weep,” and speciﬁcally to weep for
something that has been irretrievably lost ðLandman 1993Þ. As it bridges
the past and the present, the actual and the desirable, regret is a counter-
factual emotion consequent upon actions as well as inactions. It is “an ex-
perience of felt-reason or reasoned-emotion” ðLandman 1993, 36Þthat
incorporates both cognitive elements ðsuch as imagination, memory, judg-
ment, or evaluationÞand emotional aspects ðsuch as sorrow, grief, or painÞ
following what are perceived as losses, transgressions, shortcomings, or mis-
takes ðLandman 1993Þ.
Similarly to other emotions, regret incorporates another dialectical pro-
cess, namely one that ﬂuctuates between psychological and social dimen-
sions. In Western thought, emotions are largely understood as internal
states and as a private psychological matter ðLandman 1993Þ. But emotions
are not presocial entities lacking in cultural signiﬁcance. They are formed
S I G N S Winter 2015 y345
in the context of the society, and they can demarcate the cultural ethos,
norms of behavior, and gendered ideologies. This trinity—subject-society-
emotion—can be seen in subjects’ efforts to regulate their emotions and to
act in accordance with society’s feeling rules, that is, the “rules about what
feeling is or isn’t appropriate to a given social setting” ðHochschild 1990,
122Þ. Such an emotional regulation frequently offers social rewards such
as honor, esteem, and acceptance ðHochschild 1990Þ.
Regret—which is considered to be one of the moral emotions, alongside
shame and guilt—comes equipped as well with cultural norms, or feeling
rules, prescribing when it is required or unfounded, appropriate or unrea-
sonable. In religion and law, for instance, regret is seen as essential for me-
diating between crimes, transgressions, and sins in the pastand the possibility
of a more moral future. It is considered a necessary condition for forgive-
ness, rehabilitation, and preservation of the social order.
In other social arenas, a dominant cultural ethos demands that we not
look back ðas in the expressions “let bygones be bygones” and “don’t cry
over spilled milk”Þ, unless our gaze is nostalgic or one that can improve the
future. Looking back in anguish, and not nostalgically or with the aim of
improving the future, tends to be viewed as violating the requirement to live
in the here and now and might be seen as a paralyzing,and thus even socially
dysfunctional, state the subject must overcome ðLandman 1993Þ.
In practice, regret is thought, felt, and expressed in different social
spheres following decision making in different aspects of life such as edu-
cation, employment, leisure, friendships, health, and ﬁnances ðRoese and
Summerville 2005Þ, as well as in the realms of reproduction and the fam-
ily. Studies have shown that regret is felt after the medical procedures
of tubal sterilization ðHenshaw and Singh 1986; Ramanathan and Mishra
2000Þ, vasectomy ðJequier 1998Þ, and abortion ðAppleton 2011; Hoggart
2012Þ, as well as after a surrogacy agreement or the surrender of a child
for adoption ðAppleton 2011Þ. It is felt regarding the timing of childbirth
ðJeffries and Konnert 2002; Dijkstra and Barelds 2008; Hoggart 2012Þ
and regarding decisions not to have more children ðJeffries and Konnert
2002Þor not to have children at all ðAlexander et al. 1992; Jeffries and
In the context of parent-child relationships, studies have pointed to re-
gret regarding the practices of child raising and education: it has been felt
as a result of overly strict education, of imposing limitations on one’s chil-
dren’s freedom, and of punishing one’s children, especially physically ðRuff
2006Þ. Regret has also been expressed for not having spent enough time
with one’s children or for not spending that time on enjoyable and playful
activities ðJeffries and Konnert 2002; Roese and Summerville 2005; Ruff
These studies—each in its own way—indicate, inter alia, that “emotion
vocabularies serve social functions” ðMorell 1994, 96Þ, meaning that emo-
tions, including regret, tend to be constituted and prescribed in a way that
sustains and endorses cultural systems of values and beliefs. As such, for
women who choose not to be mothers, the assignment of regret is almost
impossible to escape. Regret is used as an effective instrument to threaten
women with fearful images of living outside the norm and to provide them
with gloomy scripts for a future in which they will inevitably lament their
decision and long for their unborn children ðMorell 1994Þ. As in a vicious
circle, the usage of regret as a powerful reproducer of the ideology of
motherhood may indeed cause older nonmothers to experience regret, as
they may judge their lives by a culturally constructed standard in which
having children is their calling, since motherhood is still considered to be
the taken-for-granted path any woman should follow and integral to the
notion of a life well lived ðAlexander et al. 1992Þ.
But what about regretting a normative act, meaning motherhood itself?
In Israel, as in other countries, such a stance is unacceptable to the point that
its very existence tends to be disavowed. Motherhood itself is rarely associ-
ated with regret, and the potential presence of regret is disregarded. Women
considering motherhood do not have to reckon with discourses that intim-
idate them with future regret if they become mothers ðMorell 1994Þ,since
maternal experience is institutionalized as a rewarding and worthwhile ex-
perience despite the difﬁculties, come what may. In sum, whereas modes of
regret may be evoked following any retrospective evaluation of life experi-
ence that entails human relationships and decision-making processes, since
“misfortunes, losses, and mistakes are an inevitable part of life” ðLandman
1993, 34Þ, motherhood is framed in many societies, Israel among them, as a
mythical nexus that lies outside and beyond the human realms of regret.
Politics of reproduction in Israel
The social presumption that every woman should want to become a mother,
or needs to become a mother at some stage in her life, is deeply embedded
in various countries, including Israel. As Larissa Remennick ð2006Þputs it,
“Motherhood is the chief ideological icon and primary identity for most
Israeli women” ð25Þ.
Total fertility rates in Israel are the highest in the developed world, and
another indication of the centrality of childbirth in the Israeli society is the
S I G N S Winter 2015 y347
intensive use of reproduction technologies.
Israel is a global superpower
as far as reproduction technologies are concerned, since it makes a greater
use of them than any other country.
This situation “is sustained by an
unprecedented public health policy, posing hardly any restrictions on the
eligibility of Israeli citizens for infertility treatments within the National
Health Insurance ðNHIÞsystem” ðShalev and Gooldin 2006, 151Þ.
An equivalent government policy that supports women with such be-
nevolence and afﬂuent subsidies after childbirth is rare, emphasizing that
the exalted status of motherhood is mostly emblematic. The literature
teaches us that motherhood in Israel has held a place of honor in the public
discourse from the prestate period; all through the 1950–70s, when in-
ternal class and ethnic discourses shaped a differential fertility policy for
Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews ðHashash 2004; Melamed 2004Þ; and up to
the present day.
The obligation to be a mother is present in religious
commandments, such as “be fruitful and multiply,” which have been given
secular ideological validity as well, and is present in militaristic, nationalist,
and Zionist ideological decrees. As the power of women’s childbirth in
Israel’s Palestinian population has also been politicized, and motherhood
is anchored in nationalist discourses ðKanaaneh 2002Þ, the cultural belief
systems relating to Jewish women’s reproductive abilities are deeply rooted
in the memory of the Holocaust and in a consciousness of conﬂict and wars.
Within such a social climate, most Jewish women’s reproductive abilities are
exploited by the state to advance a nationalist plan.
Their wombs are per-
ceived as a “national womb,” to be recruited for the greater Jewish good.
According to data published by the Central Bureau of Statistics ð2013Þ, on average an
Israeli woman will give birth to 3.03 children ðthe total fertility rateÞ. This rate is higher than
the average for member states in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Devel-
opment, which stands at 1.74.
See Remennick ð2006Þ, Shalev and Gooldin ð2006Þ, Hashiloni-Dolev and Shkedi
ð2007Þ, Gooldin ð2008Þ, Teman ð2008Þ, and Ivry ð2009Þ.
The ethnic deﬁnition of “Mizrahi” is commonly used in Israel to refer to Jews of Middle
Eastern and North African origin; “Ashkenazi” is commonly used to refer to Jews of Euro-
pean origin ðMizrachi, Goodman, and Feniger 2009Þ.
There are exceptions in the Israeli reproductive discourse, as there are women who are
exposed to degrading attitudes about their maternal abilities, such as blind women ðHammer
2012Þ, or are discouraged from having “too many” children, such as Ethiopian women ðEyal
While the view of the womb as a national asset has a local rationale and character, it is not
unique to Israel. In 2004, for instance, Australian ﬁnance minister Peter Costello issued a call
encouraging Australian women to have more children for the sake of the country on account
of low birth rates and the increasing costs of pensions: “‘One for the mother, one for the
father and one for the country.’ ½Heinstructed them ‘to go home and do your patriotic duty
The ideological impetus to be a mother is also expressed in liberal
imperatives regarding the right to happiness, where the realization of this
right is considered to be accomplished through children ðGooldin 2008Þ.
The obligation is expressed in psychological injunctions as well, according
to which children lie on the proper developmental pathway to a normal
adult personality, and in gendered directives, according to which children
are the raison d’e
ˆtre and the culmination of women’s existence, proving
the proper development of a feminine identity ðHazleton 1977Þ.
Within this ubiquitous discursive environment, Israeli women who do
not want to be mothers tend to be reproached in various social circles.
Their humaneness, femininity, and sanity are questioned, and they are
inundated with messages suggesting they will naturally adjust to the ma-
ternal experience ðDonath 2011Þ. As Tamar Hager ð2011Þrecounts: “You
don’t have to learn it because it is part of you, imprinted on you, caring for
a child, worrying about it, feeling close to it. If you don’t feel it now, they
said, it will come with pregnancy and birth and along with it, the feeling of
responsibility which is natural, and the love, and then, your priorities will
suddenly change. Although your life will be completely different, it won’t
matter to you” ð35Þ.
These messages and assurances of a natural adjustment to the maternal
experience, while disregarding the possibility of regretting it, might be
further clariﬁed in the following concrete example. For the past thirty years,
Efrat, a religious and ideological antiabortion organization, has been active
in Israel. Efrat sees itself as an organization dedicated to “saving lives in
Israel” by increasing childbirth rates and decreasing abortion rates among
Jews in the country. The organization states that its objective is to provide
relevant, though noncoercive, information to women considering termina-
tion of pregnancy. In practice, Efrat runs massive and wide-ranging cam-
paigns in the press, on the radio, on billboards, and through pamphlets
distributed to people’s homes and in hospitals—all of which are aimed at
encouraging Jewish women to refrain from abortion.
A cornerstone of Efrat’s doctrine is a truism, alleging that though nu-
merous women regret having had an abortion, no women has ever felt regret
tonight’” ðquoted in Read, Crockett, and Mason 2012, 12Þ. Women’s reproduction has long
played a central role in British nationalist projects as well, as we can learn from the guiding
edict “Close your eyes and think of England,” which advised women of the Victorian era to
endure sex for the sake of the national good ðBrown and Ferree 2005Þ. While this saying
today appears as an outmoded joke, Jessica Autumn Brown and Myra Marx Ferree ð2005Þ
examine how British newspapers still frame the falling national birthrate as a social problem.
See also Yuval-Davis ð1980Þ, Portugese ð1998Þ, Berkovitch ð1999Þ, and Kahn ð2000Þ.
S I G N S Winter 2015 y349
for a child born. Dr. Eli J. Schussheim, the chairman of the organization, is
quoted in one of the pamphlets as saying, “The only medical procedure
I can guarantee anything about is to promise a pregnant woman that if
she will not have an abortion, she will never regret it.”
Although there is public resentment toward the organization’s tactics,
Efrat’s position vocalizes a generally accepted mind-set of public attitudes
toward childbirth and motherhood in Israel. It encapsulates both the re-
ligious and Zionist vision of encouraging childbirth among Jews, and it
promotes the notion that women naturally possess a set of qualities that
ensure enjoyment and happiness from the maternal experience. Thus, al-
though motherhood is fraught with uncertainty, and it is irreversible, the
cultural imperative to have children in Israel is tenacious to the extent that
it is supposedly already known that for any woman who is socially per-
ceived as normal and healthy, the status of motherhood is preferable to any
The data and analysis presented in this article are based on in-depth inter-
views I conducted between 2008 and 2011 with twenty-three Israeli bio-
logical mothers. In sum total I interviewed twenty-eight mothers, all of
whom were willing to participate in the study and articulated from the
outset “regretting motherhood.” Five of them related their ambivalent
maternal experiences and deep difﬁculties yet said that they did not regret
becoming mothers. Therefore, I did not include their empirical data in the
The twenty-three mothers ranged in age from their midtwenties to their
midseventies; ﬁve of them were also grandmothers. All of them were Jewish.
Five of them deﬁned themselves as atheists, twelve as secular, three as be-
longing to various religious sectors, and three refused to label what they
saw as a hybrid religious identity.
Seven of the mothers deﬁned themselves as working class, fourteen as
middle class, and two as upper-middle class. Eleven of the interviewees held
a college or university degree, eight had graduated high school, three had
a professional qualiﬁcation, and one was studying for her BA at the time
of the interview. Sixteen of the interviewees deﬁned themselves as Ashke-
nazi, four as Mizrahi, and three as of mixed ethnicity. Twenty of the inter-
viewees had been employed at some point, and some were still employed at
During 2011 this pamphlet, titled “Butterﬂies in the Stomach: Knowing, Understanding,
Deciding,” was distributed to residential mailboxes.
the time of the interview; three were not, for various reasons such as neuro-
Five of the women had one child, eleven had two children ðone of them
had twinsÞ, ﬁve had three children ðone of whom had twins, and one of
whom had tripletsÞ, and two had four children. Their children’s ages ranged
from one year old to forty-eight. Out of the interviewees’ ﬁfty children,
nineteen were younger than ten years old, and thirty-one were older than
ten. None of the ﬁfty children had any physical disabilities, and ﬁve were
deﬁned as having special needs ðon the autism and ADHD spectrumsÞ. Five
of the women had used assisted reproductive technologies in order to get
One interviewee deﬁned herself as a lesbian and had had relationships
with men, through which she had her children; the other interviewees did
not specify their sexual identity but mentioned their heterosexual re-
lationships. Eight of the women were married or had a long-term partner,
fourteen were divorced or separated, and one was a widow. None of them
became a mother as a teenager or was a single mother from the outset. Of
the fourteen interviewees who lived apart from the father of their children,
three did not live with their children ðthe children lived with their fathersÞ.
Contact with the interviewees was made in four ways. First, I placed a
notice in Israeli online forums related to parenthood and family. Second, I
spoke and wrote about the research project in various media outlets and
lectures, following my own standpoint as a woman who does not want to
be a mother; some pioneering research I had conducted was published as a
book ðDonath 2011Þregarding intentional nonparents in Israel. Third, I
used an informal word-of-mouth method. And ﬁnally, I used the snowball
method, by which interviewees connected me with other mothers whom
they knew and who shared similar feelings regarding motherhood.
Although I did try to reach out to non-Jewish mothers in Israel, I failed
in doing so, and they are not represented. The power relations between
Palestinian, Druze, Bedouin, and Jewish citizens of Israel; racism and dis-
crimination; as well as the difference in languages and in cultural values may
result in justiﬁed suspicion and mistrust facing me as a Jewish researcher and
may explain why all the participants in the study are Jewish, even though
there may well be women in these social groups who also regret their
Of the twenty-three interviews, twenty-one were carried out at the in-
terviewees’ homes or at meeting places they had chosen. The two remaining
interviews were conducted by correspondence, in keeping with the inter-
viewees’ request. The interviews lasted between 1.5 and 2.5 hours and were
recorded and transcribed with the participants’ consent. Before writing up
S I G N S Winter 2015 y351
my research ﬁndings, I approached each of the interviewees, some of
whom I had interviewed more than two years earlier, and invited them to
choose a pseudonym under which their quotes would appear.
At the primary stage of the qualitative coding, I sorted and categorized
segments of the data that were repeated and that portrayed common
themes as part of a knowledge production process ðCharmaz 2006Þ. In the
second stage of the analysis, the interpretive theorization of these key
themes grounded the participants’ understandings and their situated ac-
counts in sociocultural systems, those that shape these women’s everyday
The data presented above indicate that each participant carries out her
motherwork under different conditions: Some are mothers to infants,
others to teenagers, and several to adults, and they are already grand-
mothers. Some are mothers under poverty, others under economic pros-
perity. Several are carrying out their motherwork on a daily basis, since
they are the main caregivers; others are less involved, since the father is
the main nurturer; and several see their children only a few days a week or
occasionally, as the children live with their fathers, or as the children are
independent and live apart—in Israel or abroad.
Nevertheless, in spite of these different contexts, regretting motherhood
crosses the boundaries of their different locations and circumstances. This
is not to say that there are no features that differentiate between these moth-
ers or that motherhood constitutes a single analytic category. Rather, I sug-
gest that regretful mothers from different social locations established com-
mon narratives about regret as they share a common placement as women
who have children.
Ambivalence within motherhood and accounts of regretting
the transition into motherhood
Writings portraying the bodily, emotional, and cognitive upheavals of moth-
ering—mostly to neonates, infants, and young children—address a wide
range of consequential emotions and maternal ambivalence arising from
the emotional demands and cultural restrictions of child rearing ðRich 1976;
Shelton and Johnson 2006; Quiney 2007Þ. By turning to a fuller elabora-
tion of maternal ambivalence from mothers’ subjective points of view, dif-
ferent writers reframed mothers’ paradoxical experiences and were able to
give painful maternal emotions other meanings than natural female mas-
ochism, as Helene Deutsch, for example, labeled it ðin Raphael-Leff 2010Þ.
Rozsika Parker ð1994Þ, from a psychoanalytical prism, relates the ma-
ternal ambivalence—the coexistence of love and hatred—as a part of nat-
ural mothering and as constituting “the unacceptable face of mother-
hood” ð14Þ. According to Parker, ambivalence is not a static state of mixed
feelings but “a dynamic experience of conﬂict with ﬂuctuations felt by a
mother sometimes almost moment by moment at different times in a
child’s development and varying between different children” ð4Þ. This dy-
namic state is well illustrated in Nikki Shelton and Sally Johnson’s ð2006Þ
study, as mothers who participated in their research used terms such as
“positive”/“negative,” “upside”/“downside,” “nice things”/“problems,”
and “loss”/“gain” in order to articulate the double-edged-sword quality of
their maternal ambivalence.
In these thorough explorations and writings on mothers’ ambiguous
experiences, if the very transition to motherhood is questioned, the ﬁnd-
ings show that despite the conﬂicts, the difﬁculties, and the ambivalences
within motherhood, as well as momentary fantasies of departure from it,
women say they would still prefer to be mothers than nonmothers ðe.g.,
Whereas these accounts are clearly of importance when inquiring into
mothers’ experiences, there are women who assessed their transition into
motherhood otherwise. Numerous mothers in the current study accounted
for both the grim and the satisfying aspects within their motherhood, but
the participants’ feelings boiled down to a different emotive and cognitive
stance, according to which they regret becoming mothers.
The ﬁrst stage of identifying regret was made by the participants as
they decided to take part in this study. In other words, regret was primarily
self-identiﬁed, self-acknowledged, and self-reﬂected. The second stage in-
cluded reﬂecting on the imaginary undoing of the maternal experience and
evaluating it from the mothers’ points of view, as I will elaborate below.
Writings on regret indicate that it is often associated with imaginative
cancellation or nulliﬁcation of experiences regarded as mistakes and thus
imagining undoing them. Hence, counterfactual thoughts of “what if ”
and “if only” are common responses to the experience of regret ðLandman
1993Þ. Because undoing and regret are concomitant, because they may
emerge together in the context of reﬂecting on a particular scenario
ðLandman 1993Þ, I asked each of the participants in the study the fol-
lowing question: “If you could go back in time, with the knowledge and
experience you have today, would you be a mother?”
Several women said that in accordance with the public image of non-
motherhood in Israel, they would have felt a sense of emptiness and loss if
they did not have children, but only if they had not known what they
currently know. Following their existing understanding and feelings, all of
the participants answered in the negative, albeit in different ways.
S I G N S Winter 2015 y353
Atalya, age forty-ﬁve, is divorced, and her three teenage children live
with their father. Though she is not involved in the intensive and daily
labor of childcare, her motherhood is enunciated as being consciously
present in her head, as “it hangs over all the time, lies down my soul.”
described the transition into motherhood as “automatic,” meaning that
she became a mother without weighing the consequences of whether to
have children or not.
“If today I could go back,” she said, “obviously I
wouldn’t have children. It’s totally obvious to me.”
Tirtza, age ﬁfty-seven, divorced, a mother of two and a grandmother,
said—as Atalya did—that she does not recall thinking at the time whether
she wanted to become a mother or not and that the transition into moth-
erhood was a sort of a “natural” step following marriage. Her reply to the
question was: “Every time I talk to my friends I tell them that if I had the
insights and the experience I have today, I wouldn’t have created even a
quarter of a child. The thing that is the most painful for me is that I can’t
go back in time. Impossible. Impossible to repair.”
Doreen, age thirty-eight, divorced, and a mother of three, described
having felt no need or will to become a mother before she got pregnant.
Yet she became a mother despite her initial disinclination, as her spouse
made the continuation of their relationship conditional on having chil-
dren. She vehemently answered before I had ﬁnished asking the question:
Doreen: I’d totally forgo having children.
Me: All three of them?
Doreen: Yes. It hurts me very much to say that, and they’ll never hear
that from me. They couldn’t possibly understand it, even when they’re
ﬁfty, maybe then, but I’m not sure. I’d forgo them, totally. Really.
Without batting an eyelid. And it’s difﬁcult for me to say that, be-
cause I love them. Very much. But I’d do without. ...There was
a long period of time when I was seeing a psychologist. And it’s
funny. If there’s something I feel utterly at one with, it’s that. The
feelings. The process of becoming a mother isn’t round ½whole,
completefor me—but I feel entirely at one with what I’m saying.
And with the dichotomy of, wow, I’ve got children and I love them,
but I’d forgo them. So in answer to your question—if I could choose
otherwise, I would.
The words in italics signify that the interviewee raised her voice or stressed certain words.
Analysis of the data shows that of the twenty-three interviewees, eight mothers de-
scribed the transition into motherhood as “automatic,” eight women knew they did not want
to become mothers before they got pregnant, and seven mothers said that they had wanted to
have children. These three routes to motherhood are thoroughly portrayed in other studies.
See, e.g., McMahon ð1995Þand Meyers ð2001Þ.
Doreen’s account is a representative example of a signiﬁcant aspect in the
participants’ articulations of regret: its target. The interviews gave rise to a
categorical distinction that the majority of the participants explicitly in-
sisted on and emphasized, sometimes over and again, namely the dis-
tinction between object ðthe childrenÞand experience ðmaternityÞ. Most
of the mothers stressed that they love their children but hate the maternal
experience and that they regret becoming mothers but that this regret has
nothing to do with the children themselves. Charlotte, age forty-four,
divorced, and the mother of two, who became a mother without consid-
ering it, as it was the “natural course in the religious community I used to
live within,” tried to explain the complexity of this distinction:
Look, it’s complicated because I regret becoming a mother, but I
don’t regret them, who they are, their personality. I love these people.
Even though I married that imbecile, I don’t regret it because if I’d
married someone else I’d have different children and I love them, so
it’s really paradoxical. I regret having had children and becoming a
mother, but I love the children that I’ve got. So yes, it’s not some-
thing you can really explain. Because if I regretted it then I’d not
want them to be here. But I wouldn’t want them not to be here, I
just don’t want to be a mother.
This categorical distinction between an object and experience is narrated in
Jessie Bernard’s ð1974Þaccounts from poor and afﬂuent mothers at the
beginning of the twentieth century, who “dar½edto say that although they
love children, they hate motherhood” ð14Þ. The distinction is further elab-
orated in the current study, as the interviewees articulated a wish to undo
the maternal experience.
According to their accounts, this wish was evoked at different stages in
motherhood, sometimes even before the child was born, prior to their
acquaintance with their children and independently of their children’s
characteristics. Odelya, for example, age twenty-six, divorced, and a mother
of one, said that since she was a child she knew she did not want children but
that “the option of not having children didn’t even cross my mind.” This is
how she articulated her feelings and understanding, which stress regret as
being disconnected from the speciﬁc child:
Odelya: Already during pregnancy I have sensed regret. I understood
that what is about to happen—the birth of this creature—is not ...is
not ...I’m not going to connect; I’m not going to be there. ...I
understood it was a mistake, yes. ...It is redundant. Just redundant
for me. I would have relinquished it.
S I G N S Winter 2015 y355
Me: Can you recall what made you feel this way before the birth?
Odelya: I understood that it doesn’t matter whether he will cry and I
will get angry or not, or tolerate it or not—rather, it is simply to give
up my life. It is giving up too much, as far as I’m concerned.
Odelya’s account of giving up her life reverberates with one of the central
themes in contemporary mothers’ accounts on motherhood, especially
during the ﬁrst years of infancy: loss. That is, loss of self and the sense of
freedom and control, as well as loss of time.
Yet even though the expe-
rience of motherhood, as well as the sense of loss that may accompany it,
may change at different stages of the family life cycle ðMcMahon 1995Þ,
there were mothers in the study who described experiencing regret as a
persistent feeling, lingering all through the years, since the moment the
child was born into grandmotherhood:
Me: Can you recall when you felt and/or understood that you regret
becoming a mother?
Tirtza: I think since the ﬁrst weeks after the baby was born. I said it was
a catastrophe. A catastrophe. I immediately saw that it is not for me.
And not only that it is not for me, it is the nightmare of my life. ...I
had no interest in being a mother. It was anomalous for me. Even
this concept when a child calls me “Mommy.” Till this day. I look
around to see who is calling me, to what mother it concerns. I did
not relate to the concept, nor to the role, the meanings, the con-
sequences of the ...this responsibility and commitment.
Other participants said that they felt regret only several years after they
became mothers. They, as well, did not refer to the children’s characteris-
tics but rather to the maternal experience and its ramiﬁcations. This is what
Danit, age thirty-ﬁve, married, and a mother of two—who, like Tirtza and
Atalya, recounted that “I became a mother without giving it any consid-
After the ﬁrst birth I understood that the coupledom relationship will
never be the same, that from this day on I need to look after another
human being beside me, I understood that my life has been changed
After the second birth I ﬁnally understood that this is not for me.
Let me explain: After the ﬁrst birth I thought that something was
See, e.g., Rich ð1976Þ, Shelton and Johnson ð2006Þ, Quiney ð2007Þ, and Hager ð2011Þ.
wrong with me, that I am not ready enough, that I need therapy.
And so I did go to therapy and I dealt with painful places inside, but I
missed the real source of the problem, the fact that it’s parenthood I
am struggling with. I wrote you that I thought that the second birth
would be a corrective experience, that now that I have grown up and
went to therapy and the people around me ðmostly my husbandÞare
sensitive and supportive—I’ll be able to do it differently. I didn’t
understand that the problem wasn’t in me, but in the decision to
become a parent.
Danit’s account, as a representative example, implies that there may be
numerous explanations as to why each one of the participants ﬁnds being a
mother an ordeal that she regrets. Thus, it would not be accurate, or pos-
sible, or even required, to pin down a single explication that led to regret
for all mothers in the study.
´lange of paths that lead to regret over motherhood might be
further clariﬁed by Achinoam’s account. She is in her thirties, married, a
mother of two, and she eagerly wanted to become a mother before she did.
During the interview she integrated several difﬁculties within her maternal
experience that led her to realize, “It was a mistake, it is not me, it doesn’t
suit me. ...It turns out that what’s right for one person isn’t right for
another.” Two of the difﬁculties Achinoam stressed were an overwhelm-
ing sense of loss of self and an overwhelming sense of loss of freedom.
Another encumbrance was her experience as a mother in a racist society,
which shaped the context in which her motherwork is carried out, a con-
text that requires preparing her children to survive within a system of ra-
cial oppression ðCollins 1994; hooks 2007Þ:
I see my daughter, and her appearance resembles mine: her skin is
dark, she has curly hair—an unusual appearance. And I say to myself,
Good Heavens! I am going through this once more. I am experiencing
it all again. I remember myself as a child, I always dreamed of be-
coming thirty: “I want to be an adult already. I want to be through
with childhood and adolescence and all this rubbish and to become a
stable person.” And here I am, at thirty and going through it again.
She ½her daughteris going to school, and it makes me anxious: Will
she be accepted? Will she ﬁt in? Will she be miserable like I was? So
this is another thing that is killing me, totally. ...Do you know what
a heartbreak it is when you sit with your child in the bathtub, when
she’s three years old, and she says to me: “Mommy, it doesn’t come
off. Here you’ve done well ½Achinoam points to the inner side of
S I G N S Winter 2015 y357
her palm, the white part. Here it is too brown ½Achinoam points to
the external side of her palm and rubs it.” The following two weeks
I was on the ﬂoor, I didn’t know what to do with myself, I didn’t
know what to do with it ½Achinoam’s voice trembled, and her eyes ﬁlled
with tears . Suddenly all my anxieties from childhood came back to
life. ...Experiencing my disgusting childhood all over again is an-
other thing that doesn’t make me feel good.
The participants’ longing to erase the maternal experience from their bi-
ographies may lead to an assumption that their maternal experience
was somehow extremely painful and oppressive. But the data show that
these accounts are closely related to those laid bare by second-wave fem-
inists and others since then, about the difﬁculties embedded in mother-
hood in different social contexts.
Their accounts are closely related to
those that appear in contemporary examples in literature and media por-
trayals of mothering ðe.g., Quiney 2007Þ.
In this manner, the mothers in the current study, like many other moth-
ers, shared the complexity and the conﬂictual aspects of maternal experi-
ence, including an intensiﬁcation of the emotions bound up in family and
coupledom, mothering under structures of racial domination and economic
exploitation, an encumbrance of responsibility and concern, conﬂicts be-
tween family life and paid employment, and conﬂicts between personal
needs and family obligations. However, unlike mothers who think and feel
that the difﬁculties and disadvantages are unequal to the beneﬁts of moth-
erhood, unlike mothers who think and feel that the difﬁculties and disad-
vantages are closely equal to the beneﬁts of motherhood but nevertheless
do not regret becoming mothers—the women in this study assessed their
situation otherwise. Their accounts of the maternal experience were not
necessarily exceptional or anomalous; rather, they foregrounded a differ-
ent emotive and cognitive stance toward their transition into motherhood.
As regret entails a subjective retrospective evaluation of the advantages
and disadvantages of decisions within social circumstances ðAlexander et al.
1992; Landman 1993Þ, mothers in the study evaluated their maternal ex-
periences. Several of them noted that although there are positive aspects to
motherhood—such as “personal growth,” “a challenging experience,” “en-
joyable moments,” and “being accepted in the Israeli society”—their overall
assessment was negative. Brenda, age ﬁfty-seven, divorced, and a mother of
three, for example, who recounted becoming a mother due to “massive
See Rich ð1976Þ, Collins ð1994Þ, Hays ð1996Þ, Forna ð1999Þ, Hager ð2011Þ, and Park
pressures,” wrote that she can see certain beneﬁts to motherhood, yet she
pointed with cynicism to its social roots: “In my opinion, there are some
beneﬁts of being a mother. After giving birth you feel a kind of overwhelm-
ing happiness. The closeness and intimacy with the children, the sense of
belonging, the pride in yourself, you’ve realized a dream. It is other peo-
ple’s dream, but you’ve still realized it.”
Thus, all of the women in my study concluded that as far as they are
concerned, the disadvantages outweigh the beneﬁts. Moreover, several of
them said that for them there is nothing benign about the maternal expe-
rience but rather they see it as “adding virtually nothing to life, apart from
perpetual difﬁculty and worry,” as Tirtza expressed. Charlotte, for example,
said that for her motherhood had no beneﬁts and added that “it’s dealing
with the inevitable.” Atalya related to the negative as well, referring to the
symbolic meanings attributed to children ðDonath 2011Þ: “The truth is that
I can’t see any beneﬁt. Honestly, nothing. I can’t ﬁnd ...from my personal
point of view ...all these things that people are talking about are not ap-
pealing to me at all. I don’t understand what are they talking about when
they talk about the next generation, and when we’ll grow old. ...From
my personal perspective? No. For me it is only an unbearable burden.”
Jane Aronson ð1992Þpoints out that several of the interviewees in her
study observed that the idiosyncratic context of the interview enabled
them to reﬂect on their resistance to normative expectations in a way that
cannot be publicly expressed and therefore may postpone social change.
Drawing on this tension between silenced emotions and social change,
in the next section I discuss some sociopolitical meanings of regretting
motherhood. As Arlie Russell Hochschild ð1979Þpoints out, working with
emotions is not simply the evocation of them. Rather, the analysis of the
laws governing the evocation “can become, in varying degrees, the arena
of political struggle” ð568Þ.
The “power of backward thinking” and systems of power: A discussion
In her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion Sara Ahmed ð2004Þsuggests
that instead of asking “What are emotions?” she will ask “What do emo-
tions do?”: “What role do emotions play in acts of speaking out and in the
‘spectacle’ of demonstrating against ...forms of power?” ð168Þ.
Following Ahmed’s remark, I suggest that integrating regret into moth-
ers’ repertoire of experiences, as participants in my study identiﬁed and ar-
ticulated, may shed a light on the “power of backward thinking” ðKahne-
man and Miller 1986, 137Þand on the role regret plays in speaking out
against the very existence of systems of power. As regret is a stance that
S I G N S Winter 2015 y359
reﬂects on roads not taken, it embodies contemplation on systems of
power, on systems that institutionalize which roads are forbidden from
being taken. Thus, although regret may be regarded as socially dysfunc-
tional ðLandman 1993Þ, it may have a function in that it compels us to
reﬂect on the forbidden road to nonmotherhood and on the systems of
power governing maternal feelings, which exclude motherhood from the
realm of human regret.
The aim of the next subsection is to contemplate the ways in which
participants in this study maneuver within the boundries of these rigid
systems, both responding to and opposing the cultural ideas concerning
motherhood and maternal feeling rules. This maneuvering may indicate
the intensity of the social and cultural mechanisms, which are hard to
undermine due to their institutionaliztion.
Utilizing the cultural structure of mother love
In the current social climate, agonizing maternal emotions and experiences,
such as self-blame and guilt, may notify women of the “right” ways in which
to mother. As Aminatta Forna ð1999Þnotes, the emotion of guilt, for in-
stance, has become associated with maternity to such an extent that it is
sometimes publicly considered to be natural, or even proof of good moth-
ering, as in, “the guiltier the better” ð76Þ.
Based on the data presented above, it seems that maternal self-expressions
of regretting motherhood and loving the children are not devoid of these
subjectively and socially anticipated maternal feelings. It should be explic-
itly stated that the following proposed analysis does not intend to challenge
the veracity of the mothers’ feelings toward their children. As Martha Mc-
Mahon ð1995Þpoints out, to argue that social rules govern emotions does
not mean that the feelings of love expressed are not genuinely experi-
enced, or that they are “mere acts of conformity to social expectations. ...
It does mean that to understand fully people’s expressions of emotion, we
must analyze them in their social context” ð136Þ.
In the contemporary Israeli social context, as in other Western societies,
love toward children in general and toward ones’ children in particular is
considered sacred and regarded as a feminine moral test. The strong asso-
ciation between love and motherhood is institutionalized, and expressing
one’s love is structured as representing an achievement in terms of one’s
feminine moral identity and social position as a good mother ðMcMahon
1995Þ. Failing to emphasize the emotion of love toward one’s children
might be regarded as immoral and unfeminine, as an evidence of being
what Vanessa May ð2008Þ, following ErvingGoffman, calls a woman with a
“spoiled identity” ð478Þor an unﬁt mother.
Within this social context, the stance of regret is likely to be regarded as
a testimony to the lack of maternal love. As Doreen noted, “People im-
mediately presume that if you don’t want ½children, or if you didn’t want
but have them—you don’t love them.” Furthermore, it might also be
regarded as a testimony to neglectful and harmful behavior toward the
children, as can be seen in the following excerpt, which was written in
response to a newspaper article I wrote on the subject ðDonath 2009Þ:
“It’s horrible. ½Regretas a legitimization not to take responsibility for the
children’s lives ...a legitimization to drown them in the tub or in the sea”
ðcomment no. 4Þ.
This supposedly obligatory linkage between one’s feeling ðregretÞand
the socially attributed meanings of this feeling ðindifference, hostility,
hatred, neglect, or violenceÞmight lead to an alteration in rhetoric and to a
reregularization of the experience of regret in order to align oneself with
cultural expectations and to avoid a violation of maternal feeling rules.
In other words, it is suggested that letting the children off the hook by
stressing the centrality of love toward them may reduce, in the individual
and in the public eye, the severity of the transgression. If “love becomes
a sign of respectable femininity, and of maternal qualities narrated as the
capacity to touch and be touched by others” ðAhmed 2004, 124Þ,then
emphasizing the target of regret ði.e., motherhood, not the childÞ,using
the structured notion of mother love, may allow the participants in this
study to reclaim not only their right to be regarded as moral women but
also their right to be regarded as humans.
Furthermore, as opposed to the social binary according to which a
woman either loves her children or regrets having children, I suggest that
the split that the mothers in the current study have created is an alleged
split. Underneath there is a wish to merge, to integrate, to create a con-
tinuum in their subjective experience, one within which they do not need
to be binarily sorted in a way that leaves behind pieces of their emotions
due to regret.
Opposing the cultural narration of adapting to motherhood
While the participants may well be responding to the social expectations
around mother love, they are opposing the progressive story, another main
aspect of the social systems of power and the maternal feeling rules. The
literature teaches us that women who have ambiguous feelings toward the
maternal experience may develop progressive stories of “a movement to-
wards a positive end point of an integrated maternal identity” ðShelton and
Johnson 2006, 327Þ. This progressive story is articulated in Parker’s psy-
choanalytic analysis of “manageable maternal ambivalence” ð1997, 21Þ,
S I G N S Winter 2015 y361
according to which ambivalence has a purpose, a positive contribution to
the mother and to her child, and a creative role, since in its very anguish it
“continually pushes a mother into the creative seeking out of reparatory
With accounts that differed from this kind of linear movement, mothers
in the current study articulated regret by rejecting the progressive story of
a female ﬁgure who is unavoidably bound to motherhood or who grad-
ually adapts to the maternal experience. Utterances such as, “It’s not me”
or “I immediately saw this is not for me,” as well as feeling “entirely at
peace” with the idea of regretting motherhood, articulate one option out
of many to a movement away from a positive end point of integration,
away from assigning a purpose to their anguish that would maintain the
status quo. Through subjective evaluation of the motherhood experience
as superﬂuous ðeven when the mothers in the study acknowledge the pleas-
ant emotions and the social rewards of motherhoodÞ,regretembodieda
different female identity, one that departed from culturally expected eval-
uations of mothering as adaptable and therefore untouchable and moved
toward a wish to undo it.
As such, the fruitfulness of maternal ambivalence ðParker 1994Þstands
against what regret implies: a “pain rooted in fruitless longing” ðMorell
1994, 96Þfor what has been irretrievably lost. Furthermore, their weeping
over their losses, to which the etymology of the word “regret” alludes, was
not directed only at the irretrievable losses that accounts of motherhood
tend to entail but rather at the lack of subjective meaning afforded to
those losses. Thus, regret, as articulated by the participants in this study,
questions the pronatal dogma according to which claiming a maternal
identity will infuse women with a will to remain mothers without be-
wailing this claim.
I would like to conclude by noting that even though the mythography
of motherhood is increasingly being vexed, and although there is now
some legitimacy to rocking the cradle, opprobrium is still poured upon
mothers who dare to complain about mothering ðQuiney 2007Þ. Public
airing of abhorrent maternal experiences may still be regarded as obscene
and “may even indicate pathology on the part of the woman concerned”
ðQuiney 2007, 26Þ. Similarly, regret may be seen as the result of a personal
failure to adapt to motherhood in general and to the good mother para-
digm, with its implication that the mother should try harder, in particular.
But staying oblivious to the emotional and cognitive stance of regret
over motherhood—by leaving it at the personal level, excluding mother-
hood from the realms of human regret, and culturally encouraging and
even ensuring regret on the part of nonmothers while ignoring the pos-
sibility of it on the part of mothers—may prevent us from reﬂecting on
the sociopolitical meanings of regretting motherhood, as motherhood and
mothers are not outside of culture, nor are their regrets. Treating the in-
stitutionalization of motherhood as an untouchable experience with re-
gard to regret reveals a structure of emotion and thought and allows us
to note that the participants’ accounts of motherhood as an unworthy
experience are worthy of meaning-making.
Lady Macbeth argued that “things without all remedy should be
without regard; what’s done is done.” In contrast, this article suggests that
including mothers’ testimonies about regretting “what’s done” may in
itself lead to a social remedy by providing another prism within the on-
going inquiry into the politics of reproduction and motherhood. If emo-
tions and their regulations are “the ‘bottom side’ of ideology” ðHochs-
child 1979, 566Þ, and if consensus can be constructed in a locus of silence
as well as in a locus of speech ðGooldin 2008Þ, then regretting mother-
hood tells a signiﬁcant sociopolitical story that needs to be carefully lis-
tened to and further addressed.
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Tel Aviv University
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