It is generally accepted that motherhood is not only the purpose 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. This was admitted by completely ordinary, not marginal women: they are from 26 to 73 years old, they have one child or several (some already 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 became mothers. Why is this happening and is it possible to change society so that women stop suffering from the hardships of parenting? At the request of Lenta.ru, journalist Daria Shipacheva spoke about this with Orna Donat.
When did you become aware of yourself as a childfree? And have you faced any problems in this regard - public condemnation, pressure, criticism?
Orna Donat: At the age of 16, I realized that I would not be a mother, and not that I would not have children. I specifically focus on motherhood, and not on children, as if something was wrong with them. So I do not identify myself as a 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 to be addressed: it seemed logical to me that some women wanted to be mothers and others did not. However, I soon discovered that society treats me as if I have a problem to solve, and it was this attitude that became my problem. Not my unwillingness to be a mother per se.
Here in Israel, women who do not want to be mothers are still condemned - they are called fake women, unfeminine, insane, childish and self-centered.
How long have you been studying the issues of motherhood, fatherhood and parenting in general? And what are the main conclusions you came to?
I have been doing gender studies in maternity and paternity since 2003. In 2007 she defended her master's thesis on Israeli women and men who do not want to be parents - it was published as a book in 2011 (though only in Hebrew).
This research broadened and deepened my understanding of the social axiom that motherhood is "by nature": it is natural that women want to be mothers because they are women; it is presumably natural that any woman who is considered physically and emotionally healthy knows what to do after giving birth, because she is a woman; and it is supposedly natural that any woman will appreciate motherhood as a worthy change in her life and will provide society with a “happy ending” of history, since this is the essence of her existence - after all, she is a woman.
Allowing women and mothers to formulate their own stories, which tend to be very diverse, may mean that society must rethink this axiom. And it is very useful for the state, economy, capitalist system, religious regimes and patriarchal heteronormative interests.
Recognizing that there are women who do not feel comfortable in motherhood and regret it means allowing women to be the masters of their bodies, thoughts, memories, emotions, desires and needs. And this is probably dangerous for society - after all, its prosperity is based on the fact that women silently "do their job", not thinking that it is possible to live somehow differently.
In the introduction to the study “Regrets about motherhood,” you said that at first you wanted to conduct a survey about regrets about parenting for both women and men, but then decided to focus on motherhood, because it is very different from the experience of fatherhood. What are the main differences?
There are clear gender characteristics in relation to parenting. First, many men may feel less pressure to become fathers, especially since they can become fathers at an older age. Also, you don't have to be a father to be considered courageous. But motherhood seems to be proof of femininity.
Second, there is a gender division in childcare - women are expected to 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 the obligation to raise their children.
I interviewed ten men who regret becoming fathers. One of the important differences between them and the women with whom I spoke is that most of them did not want to be fathers, but their partner dreamed of becoming a mother, and they did not want to part with her. This is different from the situation where a woman gives birth under threat of divorce - and several of the participants in my study had just such a case.
But I cannot draw any global conclusions about “sorry fathers” - more research needs to be done on this topic.
You mentioned in your study that it took you a long time to collect 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 - and 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 interviews shortly before we were going to meet - they refused to participate because they could not afford to say out loud that they regretted motherhood. This does not mean that they do not regret him - they were confident in their feelings, it was simply unbearable for them to have a witness to their "shameful" experiences.
In your research, you say that Freudian theories only made the situation of mothers worse. Now any mistake of a woman 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 borne by mothers. What can be done to alleviate this burden?
I think the first step is to recognize women as subjects, not objects. I seem to say the obvious thing, but in the patriarchal order, this 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 can a general understanding of the fact that a woman is a subject be achieved?
It's hard to do this without a 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 the other, to listen to him. When you do wrong, take responsibility and apologize, and then, if necessary, try to do otherwise. If all of this applies to parenting, then it is likely that the mother's behavior will not be a traumatic experience for the child.
To what extent do external reasons and objective living conditions influence regrets about motherhood, and how much does an internal unwillingness to be someone's mother?
I do not have exact data on which of these influences more strongly and to what extent. But I can point out that my research included 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 becoming mothers. In addition, five women who have already become grandmothers participated in my study, which means that they no longer need to take care of their children on a regular basis, but they still regret being mother.
Of course, the overriding obligation of society towards mothers is to provide conditions in which women from different social groups have the opportunity to raise their children normally. The time has come to realize this, especially against the background of the fact that many countries are already panicking about low fertility. However, it is not a fact that these conditions will help all women, without exception, get rid of regrets about motherhood.
In general, even full involvement of a partner is not always able to eliminate a woman's regrets about becoming a mother. But still - how can a partner ease the hardships of motherhood even a little?
We, women, are taught from childhood that we should take care of everyone: about children, about husbands, about elderly relatives … But where is our right to take 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 caring for loved ones, I just want to point out that society benefits from this separation of "services" on the basis of 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 are kind of incompetent in this - they are men! But nature has nothing to do with it: our history, social norms and personal stories suggest that it is political interests that underlie such myths.
Can you imagine some kind of ideal - perhaps even utopian - society in which motherhood will cease to be an unbearable burden? Maybe something like the Jewish kibbutz (communes in Israel, characterized by common property and equality in labor and consumption - approx. "Lenta.ru") - a society where the child is raised "by the whole village"?
You know, I just read an article about a similar experiment the other day. I think the first thing we should do to reduce the oppression of motherhood is to reduce the pressure on women as mothers. Eliminate this agonizing and aggressive imperative, which forces an unknown number of women to be mothers, seemingly by consent, but against their wishes. Allow women to make a decision about motherhood, since only they own this decision, although they are constantly trying to take away the right to dispose of their uterus in various ways.
After that, we must rethink the current Western parenting model, as it seems to pose problems for many women. We need major changes that could ease some of the difficulties. In particular, this is the development of networks of kindergartens and nurseries, changes in how men socialize in fatherhood so that parenting is not determined only by the mother-child relationship, tax breaks, affordable housing and subsidies for kindergarten fees.
We also need to be mindful of the connection between gender and social class - or, as sociologist Diane Pearce calls it, the feminization of poverty. To combat it, one must take into account the difficulties faced by low-income mothers, single mothers, non-whites, migrants, LGBTQ people, and mothers with physical and mental disabilities.
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 the strongest condemnation of society. Can you somehow change this situation?
You can't put a child back in, and it is impossible to stop being a mother. But the burden of motherhood can become less heavy and destructive if society less condemns and ostracizes mothers disappointed with parenting.
And, as I mentioned, the situation can be improved if we do not initially persuade women to become mothers against their will, by convincing that motherhood is undoubtedly the best thing that can happen to them. Such a statement is a fabulous myth. He doesn't take into account that women are different. And just because we have the same reproductive organs does not mean that we all would like to be mothers or that all women see motherhood as a worthwhile experience in retrospect.
What can society do? Listen very carefully to what women and mothers have to say, without stigmatizing them as irresponsible, indifferent and insane.
How many women in a society free of gender stereotypes do you think would prefer not to become mothers? And how many women today regret their motherhood?
I do not 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 become mothers.
Let's take Norway as an example - the country that I think comes closest to what we can call gender equality. I learned from my correspondence with a Norwegian researcher that despite Norway's international reputation as a country where women's rights are protected, in reality the pressure over motherhood there is comparable to that in Israel.
She wrote to me that if in Italy, when a woman does not have a partner, a home, a job and she does not have a child, she is usually considered responsible, in Norway no one will escape pressure: since there is a good social security system, then in principle it is possible raise a child and alone. And such women are still expected to give birth to a child. There are practically no excuses in Norway!
Regarding the second part of the question - I don't know how many women regret becoming mothers, and I don't think we will ever find out. No matter what research is done, in reality, some unknown number of women will always keep it secret.
In your research, you say that many women struggled with the decision - to tell or not to tell their children that they regretted motherhood. Your opinion on this matter is interesting. Is it worth talking about it, and if so, how to do it so as not to injure the child?
I cannot say which option is better here. I just wanted to understand and convey the thoughts of mothers who think to talk to their children about this someday when they get older.
They, among other reasons, distinguish between love for children and regret about motherhood and want to explain to children this difficult emotional state: yes, they really love children, but they regret becoming mothers. In their understanding, this can remove the feeling of guilt from children's shoulders. Thus, talking with children about their regrets is a way to protect them.
In addition, some mothers think it is worth letting their children know that there is a chance parenting may not be as enjoyable as society promises. 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 came up to me and said that only now she realizes that her mother regrets becoming a mother. She realized for the first time: her mother was a woman who did not want to be a mother from the very beginning and was drawn into this society. She said that for the first time she saw the mother as a subject, as a person, and not just a parent - and this allowed her to experience compassion towards her mother, and not just anger, guilt and disappointment. Therefore, I believe that a woman has the right to talk to her child not as a parent, but as a person with her feelings - and to be heard.
You say that regrets about motherhood and love for a child are two different things. Have you met such mothers who could not love their child? How do you live with it?
Yes, I have met women who said they didn’t love any of their children. It 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 have no idea what he or she will be like.
Perhaps they will be very similar to you and will embody those features of yours that you would not want to see on a daily basis. Or vice versa - they will be very different from you, and this will be annoying. In general, there are many logical explanations for why a woman might not love a child. And yet, even if it is logical, this does not mean that it is not painful - for both 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 it 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.
In Russia, as in Israel, judging by your research, there is a very "good" policy. It comes to the point of absurdity: we are discussing the possibility of removing abortions from the compulsory medical insurance system (or even banning them altogether) and introducing a tax on childlessness. Do you think this is effective? And what measures to increase the birth rate might work?
I am horrified that women are being coerced into being mothers in this way. 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 fertility, they must take care of their citizens: first, by treating them as individuals who have the power to make decisions, and second, by providing them with normal conditions for raising children if they want to become mothers.
Any other means, such as prohibiting abortion, would mean raping a woman. Not less. This can lead to the desired result for society - children will be born. But what can be positive about reproductive violence? How then can politicians look these women and their children in the eye?
Do you generally consider it advisable to raise the birth rate in 2019? Is it necessary for the development of society?
No, I don't think it is necessary to increase the birth rate. The earth will breathe easier if the population begins to decline. What governments need to do is find creative ways to tackle national and economic problems without encroaching on our bodies.
I want more and more women to be free to decide whether to be mothers or not. And if they want it, I will only be happy for them, but I am against the forced "increase in demographics."
Do you think now 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 centuries, men have spoken and written on behalf of women, so we do not have enough honest voices from women from the past, where they would talk about their feelings and attitudes towards motherhood.
Nevertheless, books and poetry suggest that decades and centuries ago there were women who were not satisfied with motherhood, but we will not be able to know whether they themselves would have called 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 have exchanged their lives for the life of a child or devoted their lives to children.
And this is quite understandable if you look at our evolutionary past. Evolution was not interested in personal happiness - only in the preservation of the species and the transfer of genes. Therefore, the woman did not choose whether to be her mother or to concentrate on self-development. But today there is such a choice - and how can such a difficult decision be made?
I think for many women, raising a child may well correlate with their pursuit of 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 just to convey the idea that not all of us need it.
Nevertheless, women should take into account that motherhood is a road to the unknown. Many people promise that "children are happiness", but in fact it is a lottery. You cannot know in advance whether motherhood will change your life for the better or for the worse.
I am not saying this to intimidate women and dissuade them from motherhood - all roads must be open for each of us. What I'm trying to say is that if you want to be a mother, you should approach it with love, willingness, and good intentions - that's all.
What can we do to help the next generation make fewer parenting mistakes?
I teach a subject on the consequences of motherhood and motherhood abandonment for society at several universities and colleges in Israel. For the past four years I have been running groups for women who are not sure if they want to be mothers. We meet for ten weeks and discuss their feelings and thoughts about this together. In addition, I started a new study in which I will study the lives of elderly Israeli women between the ages of 70 and 86 who never became mothers.
Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote in his book Liberty: “What does [freedom] tell us if we listen carefully? First, it tells us that in a state of freedom we can do what 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 under our own responsibility. You are free to pursue (and, if lucky, achieve) your goals, but you are also free to make mistakes. The first comes with the second. By being free, you can be sure that no one will stop you from doing what you want. But no one will give you any assurance that what you want to do and will do will bring you the expected benefit - or any benefit at all."
So I think we can help the next generation by giving them the freedom to become parents if they want to, and by letting them also understand more complex things about parenting that are far from the black and white perception of the world. This includes the understanding that parenting can be a mistake for some people.
This does not mean that someone who considers it a mistake is giving up responsibility to their children - quite the opposite is true. And this also does not mean that we, as a society, should turn our backs on the one who made such a mistake, especially if it was this society that pushed a person towards parenthood with all its might.
Summarize, please: why shouldn't you tell all women “give birth sooner, otherwise you will regret it, children are happiness”?
This is a bad idea because these statements may not be true for all women. We are different, and our subjective experiences in relation to motherhood are very different.
It is almost criminal negligence to make such a universal promise: those who promise you happiness, bunnies and lawns today will not come to you tomorrow to help raise the children they have taken on their advice.