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‘I had no desire to be a mother’: Three women on parenthood regret

One in 12 European parents openly regrets having children, according to new research – a figure that doubles in the US. Very few mums share these feelings out of fear of being judged. But, according to psychologists, when we acknowledge an emotion, no matter how difficult it is, we allow room for more positive feelings to come through.

Becoming a mother can be “exhausting, frustrating and guilt-ridden”, and feelings of regret are common says Sydney psychotherapist Dr Karen Phillip. She advises speaking with a family counsellor if these misgivings persist. “Once you scratch underneath the surface of your emotions, you’ll learn to understand what you’re thinking, and how you can change it.”

Dr Phillip suggests taking time to sleep, relax and have fun. “Recognising you need a break doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. In fact, quite the opposite. It means you’re perfectly in tune with your needs, which is conducive to becoming a better mother.”

Here three women bravely recognise their motherhood regret and talk about the changes they had to go through to finally enjoy being a mum.

‘I nearly gave up my baby for adoption’

Caroline Bellenger, 52, personal trainer and life coach, nearly gave her son up for adoption. But once she gave birth, that all changed.

Caroline Bellenger with her son Amadeus.

“I found out I was pregnant through a home pregnancy test. At first, I thought it was the result of a casual affair, so I was surprised to find out that despite my barely noticeable stomach, I was 22 weeks pregnant. I realised it was from my previous relationship, and too late for a termination.

Aged 32, I had no desire to become a mother. I was struggling with my mental health, and drug and alcohol addiction, so I decided it was best to give the baby up for adoption.

But, five days after giving birth to Amadeus, I changed my mind. While bottle-feeding him, I realised that despite everything we were stuck together, and to me he was perfect. I decided to raise him as a single mother.

“While bottle-feeding him, I realised that despite everything we were stuck together, and to me he was perfect.”

I moved back in with my parents, who’d offered to help me look after him for a year, after which I’d continue with my career. But my dad was diagnosed with cancer and died 12 months later, and I never returned to my old job.

Instead, I moved down the road from my mum’s home, increased my drinking, struggled with postnatal depression, worked as a waitress, and resented everything about being a mum. I loved my son, but I didn’t feel at all maternal.

I was emotionally, mentally and physically sick from addiction and self-hatred. There were days when he was fed and bathed and others when I just couldn’t remember if I’d fed him at night due to blackouts. I was getting drunk all weekend and despising myself for not being a better mother.

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The guilt around that pushed me to get sober. I went to rehab in 2009 and, six months later, I succeeded in giving up my addictions. By then my son had turned seven, I was 39, and for the first time I was able to enjoy motherhood and be present when he needed me.

My relationship with my son began to get stronger. We did a lot of sport together – I got involved in surf lifesaving when he was doing nippers, and we still run triathlons together, representing Australia.

“In all honesty, if it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be alive now.”

Now he’s 20 and my best friend. We never miss each other’s birthdays and even though our personalities are different – Amadeus is very calm and I’m a bit manic – we still make it work through our love for each other.

He does know that I wasn’t maternal and didn’t enjoy motherhood, but he also knows that he’s the best thing that ever happened to me. In all honesty, if it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be alive now.”

‘Only my husband knew I was struggling’

Life coach Bree Stedman, 39, realised early on that she disliked being a mum. Years later, she shares a close bond with her two teenage kids.

Bree Stedman, with daughter Alivia and son Cooper.

Bree Stedman, with daughter Alivia and son Cooper.

“I was only 24 when I had my son, Blair, and 27 when I had my daughter, Alivia. I had always pictured myself having a calm, joyful relationship with my kids, full of art-and-craft afternoons – essentially the picture-perfect motherhood journey.

The reality was the opposite. I was angry, I lashed out at them daily. I was out of control.

No mum really wants to admit when she’s struggling with dark thoughts and feelings, so I blamed my son’s ADHD diagnosis, my daughter’s irregular sleeping, my husband’s long work hours, even our living environment, because it was easier than owning my involvement in the situation.

I also had a genuine fear that if I admitted I was struggling, my children would be taken away from me. I might not have been enjoying motherhood, but I loved my kids.

Only my husband knew I was struggling, as I dreaded other people’s judgments and unwanted advice. In many respects, it was easier to pretend and soldier on. Until I couldn’t.

The turning point came in 2012, when I walked into our living room and both my children flinched from me. It was clear that I had to work on the one denominator that showed up in every bad parenting moment – me.

A GP suggested that I had postnatal depression and offered antidepressants. But I refused, as I felt entirely overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. I tried talk therapy, and while the in-the-moment strategies like mindful breathing were great, it was a struggle to think rationally and remember to breathe when driven by very strong emotions.

Finally, I found a program run through the Institute of Women International. It allowed me to identify the root cause and break the cycle of how I was feeling, which made me more emotionally resilient. That in turn reprogrammed how I saw motherhood – as part of life that could be enjoyed when I did it my way. I also realised how unique my children’s personalities are and I started seeing them as individuals.

“That in turn reprogrammed how I saw motherhood – as part of life that could be enjoyed when I did it my way.”

Ten years later, I share a very open, real, close and loving relationship with my children, now aged 14 and 12. They’re no longer scared of me. By becoming more confident, I’ve been able to create an empowered relationship with them, and they really do deserve that from their mum.”

‘Life prior to motherhood was a lot of fun’

Anna McDermid, 36, a personal trainer, found motherhood left her lonely and isolated. Now she thrives on spending time with her two children.

Anna McDermind with her son Cooper, and daughter, Isla.

Anna McDermind with her son Cooper, and daughter, Isla.

“Life prior to motherhood was a lot of fun. I enjoyed independence and freedom, my husband Scotty and I travelled a lot, we ate out with friends, and I trained every day for triathlons.

Getting pregnant with my son Cooper, who was born in 2017, changed all that. My pregnancy was not something I really enjoyed. Being a personal trainer, I thrive on being active. Suddenly I was having morning sickness and had to slow down.

Cooper was born eight weeks premature and when we came home, five weeks later, he always vomited after I breastfed him because of his premature belly. He was often screaming and cranky around other kids and didn’t sleep well at all, so I avoided going out with him in public.

I felt lonely and isolated as my husband worked long hours and I was really starting to get depressed. Even though I loved Cooper, I just wished my child was normal. I remember constantly saying to my husband, ‘Why is he not happy?’ There were a lot of tears, sadness, and frustration that first year, and our marriage also struggled.

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My biggest regret is comparing him to other babies in my social circle who seemed happier and more settled.

I also followed Insta-mum accounts, and dreamed of taking Cooper to a cafe and have him there next to me with a rattle and just being content.

I mourned for my former life, where I was able to just get up and meet a friend for brunch or go for a run. Everything now had to be scheduled.

I also knew I wanted another baby, but this experience nearly put me off. The turning point came when I created Adapt Fitness on Instagram to acknowledge that motherhood isn’t all unicorns and rainbows, it’s really hard work. I got to show the realness of my motherhood journey and a lot of people related to that.

“I realised I was unrealistic in wanting what others had and things began to change for the better, simply because my mindset changed.”

I stopped comparing my son to other babies. I realised I was unrealistic in wanting what others had and things began to change for the better, simply because my mindset changed.

The pressure came off when I had my daughter, Isla, 22 months later, in 2019. Isla is a bundle of sunshine with lots of attitude. She was easy to settle, sleep and feed and made me a much more relaxed and chilled mother.

I now think that motherhood is the best. There’s nothing better than going on adventures and listening to their banter. It’s wonderful.”

Support is available from Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

To read more from Sunday Life magazine, click here.

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