A review: Regretting Motherhood

February 2, 2018

From the January-February issue of News & Letters

Regretting Motherhood: A Study, by Orna Donath (North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Calif.), 2017.

In this book, Orna Donath discusses her study of 27 Israeli women who regretted becoming mothers. Some had never wanted children and others had, only to find the reality was not what they expected.


Orna Donath. Photo: Tami Aven

Many feminists had assumed that by now women would have the freedom to determine the course of our lives and being a mother would be an option to be decided based on personal interest. However, Donath states an internet article about her study was met with rage. Commentators spouted outdated stereotypes of the child-free author and of mothers who regret motherhood, calling them cold, cruel, and unnatural.

The mothers she interviewed, however, were relieved they were not alone, and Donath states regret should not be judged as an unusual personal failure. Their stories show how society pushes women into motherhood and why this is harmful. She states that “regret is an alarm bell that not only should alert societies that we need to make it easier for mothers to be mothers, but that invites us to rethink the politics of reproduction and the very obligation to become mothers at all.” 

Donath shows that propaganda in pro-natal countries expresses itself in two ways. One is the notion that biology is destiny—the appeal to “nature” in which all women are destined to want to be mothers. The other is the “neoliberal, capitalist, postfeminist” notion that mothers today must have all “chosen” motherhood because women now supposedly have so much freedom. We are told that if women don’t become mothers, we won’t be happy, however, if we are unhappy being mothers, we should stop complaining about a choice we made of our own free wills.

Donath describes the social pressures and false promises that lead some women to choose what society wants them to choose. Some politicians still claim society’s future depends on most women having children. Some women believe by becoming mothers they will be considered adults and fit in with society instead of being outcasts, especially if all the women they know are mothers. Some believe it will resolve traumas from their own abusive childhoods, and some are pressured by their partners.

Women are more likely to perceive not having children as an option and to have this accepted by their families if they have more class and racial privilege. Donath compares consenting to having children against one’s will to consenting to having unwanted sex in order to avoid violence or obtain something necessary.

She mentions social problems that have been a focus of feminism because they make motherhood difficult. However, Donath points out that women who enjoy motherhood do so in spite of these difficulties. Many of the women in this study state they would still regret motherhood even if these issues did not exist since they are simply not interested in it. They describe “a feeling of detachment and a lack of self” and being “completely obliterated.”


Donath states society’s silencing of these women traps us all in a system in which mothers and thus women in general are not seen as people but as objects. Social forces ranging from religion to Freudian theory and even some types of feminism glamorize motherhood as a sacred role rather than one of many types of relationships. Mothers are seen as objects that serve others, but regret can be one way of reclaiming human subjectivity.

Donath wants this book to be the start of conversations about the many philosophical topics she found herself exploring. Hopefully it will, and these conversations will include her focus on the social forces that shape our lives as well as the subjectivity and humanity of women.


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