I have a childless friend who writes bestselling chick-lit novels and runs a media empire. I follow her compulsively on Instagram; while my jealousy grows with every unfiltered photo, I can’t stop scrolling. She’s still as skinny as she was when we were at university, and hot damn she looks good in leather pants. I’m just happy if the sweats I bought at the grocery store are clean enough to get me through another day. While she’s sipping sparkling wine as she jets from London to New York, I’m downing tepid coffee as I drive my kids to ballet and swimming lessons. Early-morning yoga class and getting an immaculate half-moon manicure? For me, being able to go to the washroom all by myself is a treat.
There are times, like when I look at her life and then at my own, that I find myself regretting motherhood. And that makes me feel like a very shitty person indeed.
But before someone ties me to a stake and sets me aflame, I need to make that necessary qualifying statement we must all use when complaining about our lot: I love my children. The deep, burning love I feel for them eclipses everything I have ever felt for anyone, and the love they give back makes me incredibly happy. Every day I look at these beautiful little people I’ve created and know they are the best things I have ever done. They are my life, for good and bad, and I do everything I can to give them opportunities I never had. And in return, I get ridiculous amounts of pleasure, watching my nine-year-old daughter shining at her ballet recital, seeing my four-year-old son splashing around at swimming lessons, hearing my 15-month-old saying “balalalala” instead of “banana” as he plants a big, sloppy kiss on my cheek.
In other words, I am not a monster. In fact, I think I’m a kick-ass mom. But what I’m struggling with is that it feels like their amazing life comes at the expense of my own. It’s a 45-minute drive to town for all the lessons they take, and managing the minutiae of their lives is all-consuming. By the time I get them into bed, I’m exhausted, but then there’s laundry to do and lunches to pack. I’ll maybe watch half an hour of TV before stumbling into bed, only to be woken at 4 a.m. by the baby—and the slog starts all over again.
Far too often there is nothing left for me. Nothing. And that feeling of utter depletion is so frustrating, so overwhelming, I find myself sobbing late at night in the bathtub or when I’m out walking the dogs—pretty much the only times I have for myself in this life I wanted so badly and now find myself trapped in.
I know I’m not alone. But admitting that parenting is hard, or that there are parts of it we don’t like, is still something of a taboo. There is a ridiculous amount of pressure on us to give everything to our kids, to not let any small achievement or milestone go unnoticed and to make everything amazing all the time. And yet we can’t really talk honestly about what it’s like to live with that pressure and those sacrifices. When we do complain, we do it in the most socially acceptable way, through memes declaring “the struggle is real” or by talking about how much wine we need to get through this. We joke, but it doesn’t feel very funny. It feels like bits of me, the fun bits, mostly, are dying from a lack of attention.
When I ask my parent friends if they dream of running away, every single one of them says yes. They might laugh when they reply, but dig deeper, and they’ll talk longingly about the things they miss—newspapers in bed on a Sunday morning; patio drinks that spill into raucous nights out; long, leisurely lovemaking sessions with their husbands—and all the opportunities they’ve passed up by having kids.
My friend James admits he misses the freedom he and his husband had before they adopted their children. “We had 10 years together before we had kids, and I miss that time. I miss being able to do things like decide to move to India for a few years or other crazy, spontaneous life decisions,” he says. Another friend, Laura, says she fantasizes about not having kids—all the time. “When a friend talks about watching Netflix all day and taking a big nap in the afternoon, or tells me she and her boyfriend are jetting off to New York for a weekend,” she says, “I think, This is awful—what have I done to my life?”
The right to complain
When faced with a toddler who flatly refuses to wear mittens or a nine-year-old who only remembers she’s forgotten her lunch once I’ve driven her to school, that bitter question inevitably pops up: Why did parenthood seem like such a good idea again? For me, one of the most frustrating aspects is the level of ingratitude I live with every day. It’s the death stare I get as I’m told, “I didn’t ask for toast.” And the tantrum that results from giving my son a blue cup instead of his favourite orange one. And the total lack of awareness of what it takes to keep everyone clothed and fed. No one is meeting my needs, and if they were, I’d sure as hell say thanks, unprompted, from time to time.
I was already using Facebook when I became a parent in 2007, so I don’t know if it used to be easier to complain about what you were going through without being made to feel like an ungrateful wench. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been told, “You’ll miss this when they’re gone,” or been scolded with, “Well, you wanted three.” Both of these statements are true, of course, but the truth isn’t that helpful.
As a culture, we don’t know how to deal with these feelings of frustration. In a 2015 study, sociologist Orna Donath of Tel Aviv University found the public airing of maternal grievances may still be considered unnatural and may even be viewed as some kind of mental illness. Women who express regret are assumed to be unable to love their child or are considered in some way less feminine, she found. Basically, society thinks there must be something horribly wrong with the mother who expresses dissatisfaction with parenthood.
Luckily, I have people I can be truly honest with, like my frank and funny friend, Laura. I’ve known her for a decade and watched her life change drastically since she had her first child six years ago, and then another. Like me, Laura has fielded plenty of judgy comments and is way better than I am at shrugging them off. She laughs as she tells me that if you used IVF to have your children, like she did, then you are forbidden from complaining, even to your immediate family. “I’ve had people reprimand me, saying things like, ‘You’re so lucky to have them,’” she says. “Well, I wanted to go to university and that was hard, too. My desire to have something doesn’t negate the impact it has on my life.”
The right to contemplate what if?
How happy do we have a right to be? There are times when I feel as though motherhood has sucked all the life from me, destroying every shred of potential, leaving me a dried husk of what I could have been. I have no time for anything, and on the rare occasion I do get a few hours to myself, I don’t feel particularly creative. I can’t help but wonder: If I hadn’t had children, or if I had stopped at one, would I have become a bestselling author by now? Would I have created something important and beautiful?
Whenever I’ve complained about being too tired or busy to write a novel, there’s someone ready to remind me that J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book when she was a single mom waiting tables. That never fails to make me feel like an even bigger loser. I’m so exhausted, I can’t even come up with a brilliant comeback, let alone a complex narrative with compelling characters!
Talking to creative friends, I hear similar complaints. Sue is a visual artist with two adorable children. Maybe I should say she was a visual artist. Will she be again once her kids grow up? She tells me that while she loves her kids (because we all feel the need to qualify this before admitting anything, right?), being a mom has completely vacuumed the creativity right out of her. “It’s like there’s a gut instinct in kids: ‘Mom is about to focus her attention, energy and heart somewhere else—time for me to throw a fit, throw up, pee my bed or discover a wrinkle in my sheet that is making it impossible to sleep,’” she says. “Never mind the fact that even if you ever manage to carve out time to write, paint or sew when they are sleeping, you are downright exhausted or then have to fill in school field trip forms, make lunches and fold laundry.”
When Sue sees her childless friends off on painting retreats or writing while travelling across the country in a van, she can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy. “It’s not regret. It is something deeper, like a realization that there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to care for them and myself, without some things falling off the to-do list—and that, all too often, the thing that falls off the list is me.”
Of course, I may have done even less if I hadn’t had kids. As James says, I could have become a heroin addict. Who knows, I might have squandered the past decade and ended up lonesome and regretful for not becoming a mother. “Having kids forces you to be disciplined in many ways,” he says. “They could be the reason for other successes in your life.” He might be right. I’m still making a decent living freelancing in a creative field; and I was even asked to speak at two conferences last year. But it’s easy to forget this stuff when I’m one wet wipe short of dealing with a poopy bum.
A way to cope
The idea of emerging from the parenting trenches and being able to carve out space to write fiction, or even just a simple daily journal entry, sounds divine. And so out of reach right now.
I look to my friend Alice, an artist mom of three kids, as a beacon of hope that things might get easier. She has never let art leave her life completely, but while her kids were young, she wasn’t able to do anything but dabble creatively.
“Now that they are all at school, I’m coming out of it, but it has been 10 years of me putting everyone’s needs first,” she says. “Now it’s my turn, and it feels good. When you’re in it, though, it’s hard. I definitely went through resentful phases and felt like I was getting ripped off. I self-medicated with wine—a lot.”
I know I need to take the occasional break from my family and stop feeling guilty about taking some time for myself. I probably also need to delegate more of the running around to my husband and stop stepping in and doing everything for everyone.
I’m lucky my job requires the odd trip away, and now that my youngest is 15 months old, and I’ve stopped nursing, I can travel solo again. Being away is incredible, and I savour each small pleasure (uninterrupted sleep in crisp sheets, a long bath, finishing a novel, dinner after 5 p.m., someone serving me—I could go on and on).
After my last trip, my daughter asked, “But you missed us, right Mom?” And I did. After just two days away, I cried when looking at photos of them on my phone. I missed them so much that I physically ached. It’s good to remember that we all need timeouts: a chance to recharge and remember who we are and who we want to be.