While popular belief is that parenting is a constant time of joy, some parents may feel negative emotions while still loving their child. We speak to parents about the low points and how they got out of it
In 2015, Victoria Elder came across a particularly interesting question on the question-and-answer website Quora. Sitting in her home in Louisiana, the United States, Elder chose to the answer the question as honestly as she could: “What is it like to regret having children?”
As mother of a 17-year-old, Elder wrote that she had desperately wanted a baby and married the first man who was interested in the same. “In the back of my mind, I knew that I was making a bad decision but thinking I was strong enough to do this,” she began. “The sanctity of motherhood is certainly a subject that could use a dose of reality. I felt terrible about what I was feeling and thought there was something wrong with me.”
Sparking hundreds of comments, Elder’s answer inspired some vicious vitriol from Quora’s other users and went viral. Despite the nasty comments (including threats), Elder’s confession also inspired other mothers (and a few fathers) to step up with their own confessions about feeling conflicted as parents.
Speaking to The Guardian last February, Elder was quick to point out a key issue she had brought up in her original post: having regret does not mean that one does not love their child. Backing her mother, Elder’s daughter Morgane told The Guardian: “There were a bunch of people calling her a liar and a horrible mum, which really made me upset, because I know what she’s really like. Now I would probably just look at them and laugh, because my mum is great. She’s always been there … Children can get on your nerves and they really just think about themselves. I never felt unwanted by my mum. At all.”
What was interesting about Elder’s Quora post was that she broke a taboo: parents, particularly mothers, should automatically enjoy and love every single part of parenthood. As numerous other posts below her answer concurred, this is not always a given and emotions are not always black-and-white.
“I wish I could roll my eyes at people who tell me to ‘enjoy every moment’,” says Jennifer Chew, a mother of an eight-year-old girl. “There are plenty of parenting moments that are just not enjoyable – illnesses, tantrums, being so tired that you absent-mindedly put salt instead of sugar into your coffee. Some days are pure hell, and it’s okay to say: this sucks. There are also plenty of enjoyable moments: baby giggles, watching the child experience things for the first time, and even just watching her sleep. These are the real enjoyable moments.”
Not always love at first sight
In public, many parents may talk about feeling an instant bond with their newborn – this does happen and may be true for them. However, for many others, there is a ‘breaking in’ period.
“You know you are supposed to love them, because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do as a parent,” says Fauziah Mahmood. “But deep down, at that very moment initially anyway, I didn’t feel that at all. I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about this, not even my husband, because I was so scared of being called a terrible mother.”
Luckily for Fauziah, she did manage to talk about it with some of her friends who were parents as well – and was relieved to learn that her experience was not at all uncommon. “They assured me that sometimes it does take time and experience, struggling and fumbling your way through things for a lot of parents to start enjoying it all – and that’s okay!”
Alex Lee, a father of two teenage daughters, adds that even as your children grow up, they may be times where you actually dislike them. “Teenagers can be really mean,” he says jokingly. “But sometimes their words can cut deep, and you’re human, you will feel hurt and dislike. Then you feel guilt. After talking to my own parents, I realised that I was not alone, and it was okay to go through these cycles of emotion,” he says.
Changes can be major
Lifestyle changes are all part and parcel of having a child; from your sleep habits to your finances, having a mini-you will shape the big-you in a drastic way.
“You know this intellectually, but it still doesn’t prepare you for the shock of it when you actually bring the baby back home,” says Bryan Tan. “My wife and I used to be big party-goers, and every weekend meant nights out at a new restaurant or bar. Obviously once the baby arrived, weekends meant either spending time with my son or more realistically, catching up on sleep.”
Tan admits that these changes were hard to deal with at first. “I love my baby, there is no questioning that. But in the early days, I did feel some resentment. Like, I used to be this happening guy about town, and suddenly I’m just another boring dad changing napkins on a Saturday night. And I felt so much guilt for even thinking that. I remember confiding this to a friend, and she was completely appalled – so I learnt to keep my mouth shut,” he says.
Eventually however, Tan chose to look at the changes as a natural evolution of the kind of parent he wants to be. “Yes, I’m now a lot more sensible and soft – and boring. But I love it. It’s like having a whole new perspective on life. I do feel some regret sometimes, especially when I hear of my childless friends going off on holidays or touring the world. But the feeling passes, and I still love my son no matter what,” he adds.
Aside from you changing, your relationship with your partner will undergo a similar process of change as well. There is a loss of freedom and loss of time together as a couple are challenges for all parents and can be overwhelming at times.
“You’re both much more tired, worried, and overwhelmed than you’ve ever been before,” says Sukvinder Kaur. “Before the baby, you would be able to prioritise each other first. Then suddenly, you realise how much better sleep is than sex, and you’re no longer each other’s top priority. Children can put a strain on any relationship, no matter how strong it is.”
In Sukvinder’s case, she found herself being ‘jealous’ that her partner was still working while she felt stuck at home. “I didn’t even recognise it as jealousy at first; so I would be picking on him the minute he came home, because I felt like he could escape to the real world, while I was stuck with the baby 24 hours a day. We never ever fought before this, so there were days when I felt like I made the wrong choice with having a child.”
In the end, Sukvinder and her partner opted to go to couples’ therapy, and work on their marital issues together. “I’m not saying everyone needs to opt for therapy,” she says. “But the main idea is to talk to each other openly about your concerns and to do so without feeling judged. At the end of the day, it’s all about teamwork.”
Mistakes do not mean failure
So you have read all the parenting articles out there, solicited advice from your family and friends, and now you are gearing yourself to be the most perfect parent in the world. The reality is however, that you will make mistakes, and that is okay.
“You’re going to mess up, you’re going to take a while to get things right, and that’s okay,” says Tan. “I’ve yet to meet a parent who’s got it all together, all the time. The best advice my dad gave me, and I see him as an ‘expert’, is that a lot of the time, parents are just making it up as we go along.”
Gurpreet Singh agrees, saying that in his first year as a father, he felt like an “utter failure”. “I still sometimes feel that way,” he says with a laugh. “Every time I forgot to give him his milk on time, left something out of the diaper bag, or spent too much time at the office, I felt like I was letting my whole family down. My biggest relief was when my wife told me that I don’t have to be perfect all the time, and that it’s okay to be human.”
Gurpreet adds that new parents should avoid ‘competitive parenting’. “You are your own person, and so is your child. What may be hard for your family might not be the same for others, but that doesn’t make you a bad person. I think parents these days have a lot of anxiety because of all the information out there – sometimes it feels like every small thing you do will affect your child negatively for life. But you love your child, and all you can do is the best you can,” he says.
By extension, it is also okay for parents to ask for help if they need it. “It’s tough, and hard as hell to be a parent,” says Jeannie Lim. “So if someone offers you help, even if it’s just for an hour or two, take it! Use that time to recharge, sort out your thoughts, or even just do something enjoyable for yourself. Then when you come back to your baby, you’ll be fresh and energised to deal with the challenges all over again. Sometimes, parents need a time-out too,” she says.