Ask most parents how they reacted when their children were born, and they’ll tell variations of the same story: They felt “an incredible sense of joy.” They “didn’t know they could love someone this much.” They found a “new sense of purpose.”
However, many parents have a different experience, and it’s one they can’t really tell their friends and family: They regret having kids. They miss their freedom. They feel frightened, stressed out, and overwhelmed.
This isn’t to say that parenthood is a bad experience, but it’s complicated, and it doesn’t necessarily improve quality of life. A recent study from the University of Heidelberg in Germany found that parents are happier than non-parents, but only in old age. Another study from Princeton University found no significant difference in happiness between parents and non-parents after adjusting for income and other factors.
We found some stories from Reddit where parents honestly discussed their reservations; regardless of how you feel about parenthood, seeing the complicated emotions that accompany it can be liberating.
Many people mentioned the loss of freedom that comes with parenthood.
“I wasn’t ready to stop being selfish,” Reddit user camelican wrote. “I’m only two years in so it’s still the intense stage, but parenting so far has just been relentlessly exhausting. I feel like having a kid closed off a lot of possibilities for me, definitely killed any semblance of spontaneity in my life.”
“I just wasn’t ready,” Reddit user cerrebro wrote. “I was only 20 when she was born. I was in the middle of uni and I just wasn’t ready to be responsible for something so important.”
“I wanted to go travelling before starting my career, but that won’t happen. I’m just about to finish my master’s degree, and I’m going to have to go straight into a high-stress job to be able to have some form of financial stability to provide for her and be able to move into a decent area so she can go to a decent school.”
That restriction of freedom can also negatively affect marital satisfaction, per a 2003 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. A Reddit user writing from a temporary account called LoveMyKidsMissMyWife echoed those sentiments.
“I feel like it has destroyed my marriage,” they wrote. “Both of us have changed since our child was born, and I’m afraid the people we’ve become are not as compatible as the people we used to be.”
“Any communication that happens between us is about logistics regarding our child. I understand there is a brief period after birth where everyone needs to adjust, but it has been over four years now.”
“I love my child more than anyone else on Earth, save for my wife. But I miss having a companion in life. If I had known it would be like this, I don’t think I would have made the same decisions.”
Other parents agreed: When you have a child, you sacrifice your own comfort for them. That’s often a difficult pill to swallow.
“I just want one day where I can stay in bed and chill like I used to,” cerrebro wrote. “I don’t hate being a parent, I just wish I could’ve waited like 10 years.”
Having a child also means less time.
Granted, that’s not exactly groundbreaking information, but many new parents were surprised at how little time they had for basic tasks.
“I love my child dearly, but I hate that I continuously have to sacrifice everything that I used to love about life now that I have a kid,” Reddit user L_H_O_O_Q_ wrote. “I love working (I’m freelance, so flexible hours) but with a kid I simply have 20-40 fewer hours in a week, and that is with a wife and expensive daycare. It’s like I have to fight to get a day’s worth of work done.”
According to research, a lot of that lost time comes from missed sleep. A study from the University of Warwick found that new parents experience profound sleep disturbances that last for up to six years after the births of their children. Women tend to experience more sleep disruption than men.
“I like getting up early, but sometimes after a long week or night I would sleep in an hour or two,” L_H_O_O_Q_ wrote. “… With a kid, fuggedaboutit. You’re getting up at 6 a.m. seven days a week, no matter how you feel. It’s every day. It does not end for years. And our kid is a good sleeper. Plenty of parents are up twice a night for years.”
Kids can also have a negative effect on a marriage.
Numerous studies show that marital satisfaction rates decline during child-rearing years. Parents’ roles change substantially—you’ll undoubtedly interact with your partner differently when your primary responsibility is to act as a mother. That might mean fewer dates, less flirting, and more conversations about groceries and utility bills.
“I used to love spending time with my wife, doing something fun just the two of us,” L_H_O_O_Q_ wrote. “With a kid, that happens almost never, and when it does you have to plan it and get a babysitter and accept that it now costs $10 an hour just to see my wife alone. And even then half the time, you’re probably too frayed and tired to enjoy it.”
“I also used to love just talking to my wife or being able to hear my own thoughts. With a kid in the house those moments get increasingly rare. It’s like we’re not allowed to talk to each other. You have no idea how stressful it is when every thought you have and everything you say gets interrupted.”
The good news: Marital satisfaction rates tend to improve significantly after children move out of their parents’ home. For parents with infants, however, that’s not much of a consolation.
Most parents still say that they have a strong connection with their kids.
For some, however, that connection doesn’t make raising children much easier (even if it’s ultimately worthwhile).
“I love my boys more than I ever thought I could,” Reddit user Pregnancyinsomnia wrote. “However…it’s Saturday night and I’m covered in baby vomit with the baby refusing to sleep anywhere else but on me. He will wake about three times between now and when the toddler wakes at 6 a.m. I’m carrying 20 kilograms more than I’m comfortable with and have no clothes that fit. I feel guilt for so many choices I make.
“There are times I regret having my second baby because it’s so hard to juggle the needs of two and still find time for my needs. People tell me it will get easier, but for now, I’m hating it.”
And while infants have a more significant effect on the quality of a parent’s mental well-being, parenting doesn’t always get easier as a child ages.
“[I’ve] got two kids, both teenagers now,” Reddit user greevous00 wrote. “The eldest has anxiety and depression. Sometimes I wonder how my wife and I have managed to stay married through it all. We love both our kids more than anything, but having one with mental health issues is just exhausting.”
Parents who regret having children often say they don’t have the “instinct” for the job.
“I have three kids and quite frequently wish I had zero,” Reddit user Evrythngstkn wrote. “I never wanted kids and knew I wanted more from my life than dirty diapers and minivans. I was okay with the first two, but the third really made me question everything again. This is not what I want to be doing with my life. I had my kids at such a young age (15, 19, 24) that I don’t stand a chance at doing anything significant with my life other than saying, ‘Hey, I raised three more humans.’ You’re welcome. What an accomplishment.”
A 2015 study found that the experience of transitioning to parenthood is an important factor in determining family size; in other words, parents are less likely to have multiple children if they experience a negative effect on their mental well-being after having one child. Parents experiencing these hardships have trouble adjusting to their new lives. They assume that a maternal or paternal instinct will kick in, but that doesn’t always happen.
“I didn’t realize that a maternal instinct is not universal,” Reddit user Alien_Nicole wrote. “You know how you see parents in the delivery room and they are crying tears of joy? I felt nothing. Honestly, I could have left them at the hospital and it wouldn’t have bothered me.”
“I usually have no desire to spend time with them at all. I love them and have a strong sense of duty, I just don’t enjoy them or want to do any of the things they do. However, I spent their whole lives going out of my way to care for them in every way a good mother should.”
“My boys are well cared for and I am always here for them, but it feels very unnatural and fake and unenjoyable. It is a bit like a retail job you don’t like where you put on a fake persona and slog through it the best you can. I don’t get to leave this job, though.”
“The worst is how I’m demonized for it. I’ve done everything I can for them for 16 years including all the extracurriculars (kids’ baseball is agonizing to fake-enjoy, I swear) and it has never been easy. Shouldn’t I get more credit than those moms who love nothing more than spending time with their kids? That doesn’t sound hard to me. Nope…I fail because I want my own life.”
Most parents also expressed positive feelings about their kids, while noting their own insecurities.
“I love my children more than anything else in this world,” Reddit user vixiecat wrote. “Words can not describe the type of love I feel for them. But at the same time, I do regret having them. I regret being the person that I have become as a parent. I was always carefree and spur of the moment…now I’m careful, and if plans aren’t set in stone, they likely won’t happen.”
Having a child means foregoing your own needs. That responsibility comes with the job, but it’s not easy.
“I always said I would never have children,” vixiecat continued. “I hate kids…I do. I am just not that type of nurturing person. …I do not have that natural motherly instinct that all women seem to have, you know…that one that kicks in the moment they know they’re pregnant. I have to work really hard at it, and it’s exhausting. I miss my solitude and being able to ‘check out’ of reality from time to time.”
“With all that being said, there is not a thing I wouldn’t do for my children. They will always be my babies. They are amazing little creatures. My boys play travel baseball and I wouldn’t trade long nights at the ball fields for anything. Watching them play is one of the greatest joys in my life. Still, I often find myself wondering what life would be like without them.”
In the United States, more couples are deciding not to have children.
In 2017, the number of babies born in the United States hit a record low, per a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as that included a record low number of teenage births, but the report also identified another trend: Millennials are having fewer babies than the past several generations.
“Kids aren’t the life completer we believe they are,” Reddit user Uniqueusername121 wrote. “Actually, they take away from your quality of life daily. My kids are 13 and 11 and they still mess up my daily life. Worst of all is, I love them so much I couldn’t do without them, even though they disturb my peace all the time. I do not recommend having children. Maybe one, but [it’s] not necessary. We perpetuate the species needlessly.”
“I can pretty much echo everyone else’s responses,” wrote a Reddit user whose profile has since been deleted. “It’s even harder when you’re a strong introvert. It’s driven me into on again/off again depression. I’ve been on medication since our first one was born. The second one was a stupid mistake.”
Reading these comments, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that parenthood is terrible, but that’s certainly not the case.
Even when parents express regrets, they often characterize them as temporary or unimportant in the grand scheme of things. There are also millions of parents who are perfectly happy with parenthood and who have seen an improvement in their mental well-being since having kids.
Still, there are significant downsides to parenthood that merit discussion. Couples need to decide for themselves whether the benefits of child-rearing are worth the disadvantages—and those types of decisions can only happen when parents are honest about their (occasionally mixed) feelings.