Having children wasn’t worth it

having children wasn't worth it

I absolutely love today’s anonymous contribution to Untold Stories. It’s told with such honesty and candour. ‘It feels so miserable though,’ the contributor said to me, ‘do you want me to make it funnier?’ A few people have asked me this already, as though they’re letting me down, but that’s the point of Untold Stories. Sometimes life doesn’t feel very funny, but we go about our days doing all the things we know we’re meant to do and telling everyone that everything’s fine. And probably it is fine, mostly, and sometimes it’s just enough to know that other people are miserable too. You can read more Untold Stories here.

Written by anon

We’ve all heard it said to the new mother, exhausted from sleepless nights, a traumatised body and feeding, feeding, feeding: “Oh, but it’s all worth it!”

After twenty years of parenting, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the biggest lie of all. But worst of all, it is the lie that we cannot speak out loud because the very people who we have created: our beloved children who we worship and live and breathe for, might overhear. And the biggest terror of all is that they might know that if you had your choices again, you might choose differently. You might not choose them.

Every school report described me as ‘full of potential’. After two decades of parenting, I feel I have squandered it all. It is a source of both shame and regret.

My best friend was childless by choice, but often gives my life sidelong glances of envy. Look at the lovely children, gathered around the table, laughing gaily: a real-life Ladybird book of The Family! But she looks mainly by social media, because I am too exhausted to visit her in London, too scared of the tasks piling up in my absence, too lacking in confidence around her highly-paid and highly-made-up friends to join in the way I used to.

I remember the first time I visited my old university friends with my newborn, nearly twenty years ago; a disastrous visit into London from the west-country, where my new life of motherhood seemed as baffling and inconceivable to them as though I had opted to join a nunnery. I thought I could hide it all: the baby’s cries, my on-call breasts, my newly-wrecked body and career. It all felt such a thing of horror.

Very clearly I can remember a process of grieving, before coming to terms with my new life: “Never mind, in twenty years we can reconnect: I can get back here.”

Twenty years have passed. Their lives have been successful: big houses, big cities and big reputations. Professorships awarded, novels published, a world traveled and conquered: potential fulfilled.

Instead I have three children. Is this a great achievement? Should I have considered this as one of the options for fulfilling my potential? It wasn’t what I had in mind, but who can speak the truth? I have lots of wonderful friends who are also mothers: indeed, I am surrounded by brilliant, clever, funny women whose energy and lives have been sucked into the slow drain of parenthood.

Having spent twenty years parenting, I am physically, emotionally and financially exhausted. I am in no mood to hop on a train to London to visit my old friends: I barely have the energy to write their Christmas cards. (And older women assure me that I am about to enter the menopause years, so I probably need to wait another twenty years or so before I’m physically enthusiastic about life again. Apparently women’s happiness is lowest at 47 and peaks at 73.)

It feels as though I have squandered my best years and I am not sure what is ahead – but it feels that it might be solid sandals and aqua-aerobics, or complicated crafting techniques for home-made cards. Sometimes I yearn for something more, to feel there is still something I might achieve, but mainly I want to just sit down, read a book, and accept slippers and defeat.

Who dares confess that maybe the life of a mother is not really worth it? Who might tell young women (because let’s face it, they are still the ones taking on the wife-work and the parenting) that they have potential, but probably not potential to have a family and fulfilment elsewhere? That they really need to make the choice?

One day I might say it out loud, but very quietly: after all, what if the children heard?


If this post resonates with you, or you want to show your support for today’s contribution, please leave a comment below. (This can be done anonymously too if you want to use fake details, that’s totally fine.) If you’d like to contribute your own thoughts or story then please get in touch.

having children wasn't worth it



  1. 21 January, 2020 / 4:49 pm

    It resonates with me a lot-not so much having the kids, but starting as early as I did. Had our first 10 years of parenting not been so financially grueling, We would have done more travelling when younger, taken more risks career wise, just maybe taken the time to be who we could be and not just who I ended up being by default.

    On another note-did I miss something? I thought you had Bea and Belle-who is child three? “Instead I have three children.”

    • Jo Middleton
      21 January, 2020 / 5:03 pm

      I didn’t actually write this Sam, hence the number of children! This new feature is all about other people’s stories, shared anonymously, so this was written by someone else. (If you have anything you’d like to share then let me know!)

      I know what you mean about the starting young. On the one hand I think there are a lot of benefits – I didn’t feel that wrench for example of having to give up a well established career, or a very independent lifestyle, which I think must be hard for older parents. On the other hand though, like you, I didn’t feel able to take a lot of risk or to invest a lot of time and energy into building a career at what would normally be a really key time, and that has definitely held me back financially from being able to do things like buy a house when I would want to.

      • 21 January, 2020 / 5:52 pm

        Call me a little slow! Nice segment, and now I can follow better.

        • Jo Middleton
          21 January, 2020 / 6:07 pm

          I did wonder if people would think it! I tried to make it clear but it’s a personal blog so people expect personal stories – you’re not being slow!

  2. Lisa
    21 January, 2020 / 6:41 pm

    Interesting piece and I can definitely empathise with some of what is being said. But would I do things differently if I could? I’m not fussed for the material things; my sanity would be great though!

    • Jo Middleton
      22 January, 2020 / 8:48 am

      Sanity would be nice wouldn’t it?! I can really empathise with the idea of feeling emotionally exhausted. There’s this myth that kids get easier the older the get and I just don’t think that’s true. Physically they may be less demanding but they take up so much space in your head, it can be hard to have any energy left over for anything or anyone else.

  3. Rebecca Beesley
    21 January, 2020 / 10:29 pm

    I’m loving the untold stories! My kids are everything to me but i can understand where this person is coming from… my situation was when I was properly in the workplace before I was one of the youngest – then after a break to raise a family – when I re-entered the workplace I was one of the oldest and it made me wonder where those years in between had gone and how I could now be ‘old’!!! There is definitely compromise involve and I feel I compromised my career for my family and kids but then again I’d make the same choice again if i had my time again. Can’t wait to read the next untold story! x

    • Jo Middleton
      22 January, 2020 / 8:52 am

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying them Rebecca! I can definitely relate to that ‘how did I get old?’ feeling. It occurred to me in fact this week that by the end of this year I won’t have any ‘children’ any more – only adult children!! There is SO much compromise as a parent, there has to be plenty of reward to make it feel worth it – I guess that balance can be easily tipped. I have a question – do you feel that you’ve had to compromise more as a mother particularly? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this, and whether it’s easier for men than for women to pursue other aspects of their life at the same time as being parents.

  4. Daisy (not really)
    22 January, 2020 / 4:58 am

    Wow, it is refreshing to know that you are not the only one who wouldn’t go through it all again, under any circumstances. I know that I wouldn’t and neither would some others that I know. It’s a pretty taboo subject!
    None of us should be ashamed to admit that children aren’t all they are cracked up to be. The sentence which particularly resonated was ‘I am physically, emotionally and financially exhausted’.
    Having children isn’t a right and isn’t to be taken lightly, the pressures that come with it are enormous and let’s face it unless you have good family/friend support you aren’t going out for the next 20 years either.
    How many of us can say, ‘They turned out exactly as I expected?’ They usually don’t. External pressures (such as schools and school ‘friends’) take over and they become their own people and as they grow both upwards and away from you, you realise that you wish you hadn’t had them at all.

    • Jo Middleton
      22 January, 2020 / 8:55 am

      Thanks so much for your comment (not really) Daisy! It’s so interesting to hear from other parents who feel the same, and not just you but other people you know too. I don’t imagine many of us at all could say our kids have turned out exactly as we expected, and I wonder if that’s why sometimes, as they get older, it can feel like it’s getting harder rather than easier? When they’re little they feel more a part of us and it’s easier to support them and change their moods. When they’re older they become separate people and we lose the ability to cheer them up with a packet of chocolate buttons and a cuddle and that’s a difficult thing.

  5. 22 January, 2020 / 11:17 am

    It’s true isn’t it? You do the parenting thing then go through the menopause, it’s a constant battle, and the childrening thing doesn’t always end at 18/20, they have children and you’re babysitting, and then there’s the support when they’re going through hell coz the other half is a shit (ok, personal but happens a lot)

    I wouldn’t change a thing, but I get that others would. It must be quite nice to sail through life unchanged, lol

    • Jo Middleton
      29 January, 2020 / 7:41 pm

      Parenting then menopause, it IS a bit relentless isn’t it? I think that’s the word I’ve felt a lot over the last few years – relentless. I don’t know if that’s amplified because of being a single parent maybe? Sometimes I just want someone else to swoop in and make all the decisions for a change.

      • 30 January, 2020 / 10:19 am

        Yes but at least being a single Mum you get to make all the choices – no arguments!!!! lol x

        • Jo Middleton
          30 January, 2020 / 1:47 pm

          That’s very true!

  6. 22 January, 2020 / 12:53 pm

    Such a great series Jo! I will say that my kids have given me direction and purpose in life. Not because I feel I have to or because I feel guilty. It’s just the truth. That being said, they have aged me so much. And it never even crossed my mind how hard it would be to raise them without the so-called ‘village’. My husband and I have very little fun. We’re tired and broke. And I’m very resentful at times. But we are incredibly close as a family unit. And there is something wonderful in that. Would I do it again? Definitely. Do I understand the choice not to have kids? Absolutely! I’m obviously a sucker for punishment.

    • Jo Middleton
      29 January, 2020 / 7:42 pm

      I think you’re totally right about how they age you – it can feel like they sap your energy and leave you feeling so tired and exhausted. I love tha for you that feeling of closeness balances out the resentment!

  7. Jen
    22 January, 2020 / 3:08 pm

    A great read. We need to talk about this issue more. From a feminist perspective we need to fully embrace womens choices, its just that the perceived choices from a few years back werent really choices at all. It seemed to be 1. Have no kids, be carefree, spend money as you please, travel, choose any career have fab social life etc or 2. Have kids, forget career options, wear comfy clothes, put yourself last, spend days in smelly soft play centres etc. So women tried to do ‘2’ but keep up the stuff from ‘1’ mainly due to the pressure of society’s revised expectation of working mothers (dreadful phrase) and structural inequality faced disproportionately by women……crap maternity pay, expensive childcare, employee rights and so on. There have been improvements in these areas such as shared parental leave and hopefully now more than ever it is possible to strike a balance in maintaining career progression, personal development (sanity) while raising relatively well rounded little people. In saying all of that I’m hugely supportive of more women than ever being able to say they don’t want/won’t be having children because they want their independence, they dont want the responsibility or pressure or… frankly just BECAUSE. Thats exactly what men can do. I’ll be happily cheering those women on, and just because I’ve chosen a different path I feel no jealousy or anything else. I’m sure they don’t either!

    • Jo Middleton
      29 January, 2020 / 7:44 pm

      All really good points Jen – we’ve created this idea of women being able to ‘have it all’, to the point where perhaps you feel like you’re failing if you DON’T have it all? Despite all the progress we’ve made, parenting and domestic life feel, for me, like one area where there is still massive gender inequality in terms of expectations, burden of labour and the mental load.

  8. Katty
    22 January, 2020 / 7:11 pm

    As someone who is child free I definitely think people should be more honest about, but understand why it’s so hard. At the moment though parenthood still feels like an opt out kind of thing, and like opting out is a big deal, when actually actively deciding to have children should be the big decision.

    A personal point though too slightly off topic – it shouldn’t be about a choice between children and career. You can not want children and have a normal office job, work in a shop, flit about between jobs… Whatever. We’re not all professor and authors who look glamorous and have big reputations (she says while sitting in pyjamas at 6pm after a day in a very normal marketing job.) It’s not just about career success, it’s about just not wanting that.

    • Jo Middleton
      29 January, 2020 / 7:50 pm

      Two really good points Katty – it does feel bizarre sometimes that HAVING kids is considered the default, like you’re the odd one if you choose not to, when actually you’re right, choosing to have them is a MASSIVE decision and one that a lot of us take too lightly I’m sure. I love your second point too because I think there is this stereotype of the ‘career woman’ who is only choosing not to have children because she’s so busy and important whereas you’re completely right, whether or not you have children you might be perfectly happy in a ‘normal’ job, enjoying your evenings in pyjamas without the stress of work. I certainly don’t have ambitions of working all hours in some high profile job and I don’t imagine that would have been any different if I hadn’t had children!

    • 11 April, 2020 / 11:38 am

      Just reading this article now. The choice to have/not have children has caused me a lot of upset and grief as neither feel like a valid option for me (very long story). Couldn’t agree more with what you say Katty, and I do believe for women, it is much much harder as there is a societal expectation to have them.

  9. Jo
    22 January, 2020 / 10:57 pm

    I’m not sure that women can have it all. Guilt is there regardless. Guilt if you have kids and stay at home with them, guilt if you have kids and go to work, guilt if you chose not to even have kids? Is there a happy medium??!
    I had my daughter when I was 23 ( have no idea if that’s young or not these days?!) but life has taken me on a different path, meaning I’m incredibly thankful I had her when I did.
    I feel like women are under a particular kind of spotlight these days, the pressure is immense, I think maybe my potential drifted by me some years ago, but was she worth it? Yes absolutely.

    • Jo Middleton
      29 January, 2020 / 7:52 pm

      Ah, good old guilt, is it possible to parent without it? If anything I feel like I’ve experienced MORE guilt as my kids have got older – perhaps it comes with age? Or perhaps I’ve just made the past a rosier version of itself.

  10. Susan B
    23 January, 2020 / 10:01 am

    Thank you anon for your candid and heartfelt post and thank you Jo for the platform.

    I have always felt that, despite overwhelming love for our children, the price (for the want of a better word) of having them is too high for some – and that includes the physical process of giving birth. There were too few facts and too many euphemisms to make an informed choice and many were probably too young to do so, anyway.

    I, too, am envious of the comfortable lifestyle and freedoms of choice that those without children have. However, their lives are missing one key element that children bring: the fulfilment of being part of a family unit.

    Unfortunately, we can never know how life would have treated us had we taken another path so I try not to spend too much time wondering.

    • Jo Middleton
      29 January, 2020 / 7:54 pm

      I think that’s the key Susan, that you just don’t know what your life might have been like on another path. I’m with you in that I try not to have regrets or think about what might have been.

  11. Nova55
    24 January, 2020 / 8:07 pm

    Decades ago, Dear Ann Landers received a letter from a mother who expressed regret about having children. I don’t remember her exact reply, but as I recall the sentiment took her aback. Landers then put the question to her readers. As I recall, 70% of her readers claimed that if they had to do it over, they wouldn’t have had children.

    Raising children will be the most difficult and stressful job you will ever do in your life. I have two children – one with ADHD and learning disabilities, the other with depression/anxiety that became suicidal during his teenage years. They are 33 and 26 years old now. There is no doubt that I feel I gave up the life I could have had by getting married and having children; but now seeing the wonderful men that they’ve become, I really can’t say that I regret it. That being said, however, if I were a young woman today, I would have to think VERY long and VERY hard about having children.

    • Jo Middleton
      29 January, 2020 / 7:57 pm

      Wow, that’s an amazing anecdote about Dear Ann Landers – what a huge number to say they’d do it differently! I think regret is such a difficult emotion, and it doesn’t make a difference, you can’t change the past after all. It sounds like you’ve made massive sacrifices along the way so it’s good to hear that perhaps you’ve come out the other side a little bit. I find parenting teenagers and young adults really tough and it gives me hope to hear from people who can be a bit more reflective now that their children are grown up.

  12. Louise
    30 January, 2020 / 10:07 pm

    I understand where the author is coming from. I suffered with HG and had a horrendous pregnancy & birth. I still haven’t recovered from all of the HG effects ten years on. Plus my child is wild with neuro behavioural issues and life is a constant battle to keep him in school and keep him safe. I admit this was not the child rearing experience I was expecting. I look back on my previous life of travelling, social experiences and the ability to earn a decent living, all things I cannot do now. I love my child dearly but often think ‘was it worth it?’

  13. Katie
    5 February, 2020 / 3:04 pm

    I think the biggest things for parents / mums / stay at home parents is the amount of sacrifice that you weren’t aware of at the beginning.
    You loose your own life, dont see friends as often, no money for anything fun because you have to pay £100s for their school lunches, trips out, uniform etc and that’s just primary school. You can’t go out till they’re asleep, as the husband is useless at home. I feel as if I have literally given up my lifelong dreams of travel and a fantastic career to have children and as wonderful as they are and how I wouldn’t change them in any way, I sure do wish I had a load more money so I could afford childcare , and get myself some new trainers without feeling like …. actually the kids need new trainers, so I guess I’ll keep wearing mine until they are actually broken.
    My friends who are childless have the most amazing holidays exploring the jungles, visiting volcanoes and travelling around on those minimum of £2000 per person holidays and I’m stuck in a fuckin caravan with horrible hard british rain lol !!! They even have cleaners….. why I say, they’re houses are untouched.
    So yes, I love my kids but I sure wish there was more money involved.

    • Jo Middleton
      5 February, 2020 / 8:06 pm

      I totally agree, the financial side of it is HARD and as much as people say that money doesn’t buy you happiness it can definitely bring you freedom and choices. Not having a lot of money is restrictive at the best of times and children definitely drain your finances. It’s hard NOT to feel resentful of that, especially when most of the time they don’t even appreciate the sacrifices you’re continually making for them.

      • Katie
        5 February, 2020 / 8:14 pm

        Lol …. Yes !!!! All those broken toys, or toys they play with once and never touch. All those school items that disappear into thin air. All those lost ‘gifts’ that just Have to be bought again, so the grandparents dont get mad at them. I’ve had to ‘repeat buy’ so much lately.
        Thank goodness for love, cuddles and kisses !!!

  14. Sasha
    7 February, 2020 / 1:59 pm

    My little darlings are 17 and 19
    QUESTION Where was the fun part?
    ANSWER One week’s family holiday in Jersey when they were 10 and 12.
    The years of toddler tantrums had finished (I classify toddlers as children aged 2-9) and the teenage trauma years had not yet started. This holiday was swiftly followed by teen anxiety and school refusing which resulted in six years of home education (for the one which would co-operate). The oldest one is now on a gap year and the youngest one “goes” to college three days a week. I am working part time so that I can spend time with them and they (sadly not exaggerating) SLEEP ALL DAY.

    • Jo Middleton
      7 February, 2020 / 5:06 pm

      Oh Sasha, I feel your pain, I totally do. It’s such a myth that they grow up and it gets easier.

  15. Sharon
    9 April, 2020 / 5:45 pm

    I read in a scientific journal article that counties with more generous family policies reported that parents actually experienced an increase in happiness when they had children, unlike the oft-reported decrease that parents experience in the US and UK. Obviously this means that when you have help, children can be a gift.

    But the same article also noted those counties with better childcare packages also had LOWER birth rates than the US and UK. Sounds like a paradox, right? Well, the article supposed that the reason behind this was that the people in supportive countries basically self-selected. As in – people who really wanted children, had them, felt supported in raising them, and those who did not, didn’t – and we’re also supported in that choice. People were given choice and felt happy with their decisions.

    Where I live in the UK it feels like there is such pressure to have the ‘perfect life’. I myself am an academic, and have a high pressure university job but I still feel a sort of pressure to have IT ALL. So to have an amazing wedding and kids and it ALL. Even though I don’t want them, the pressure exists. It feels like EVERYONE has to do EVERYTHING and be perfect. Anything else, and you have basically failed.

    I myself am choosing to remain childfree but understand that in that choice, there is the loss of that other dream of family. When you have a family, you lose what I have chosen for my own life – freedom and self-actualisation. There is no escaping loss – i think the most harmful lie of all is that you don’t have to choose. You can’t have everything you want a la Sheryl Sandburg.

    No thanks. I’d rather give myself a break.

  16. James Lee
    28 May, 2020 / 8:55 am

    This was a fascinating read, thanks for sharing. I am a 38 yo male living in California. Been happily married 5 yrs and have a 2 yo daughter whom I love dearly. I actually went from not wanting kids at all to having one so far – purely because my wife absolutely wanted kids and I would’ve lost her if I chose not to have any. However, once I embraced it as a lifelong project / experience I could share with my wife, I began to see it as a very rewarding thing and have no regrets. Now comes the inevitable question…should we have another?

    I am extremely hesitant, while my wife has grown to really want another. She has several reasons – wanting to properly enjoy the newborn phase (the first few months with the first one were pretty rough for us), wanting to share love with more children, and the biggest one, wanting our kid to have a sibling relationship which she believes is incredibly powerful and valuable. I, on the other hand, am perfectly content and happy with our one child and can genuinely see myself being that way for the rest of my life. It seems that sibling relationships can fall on a wide range of spectrum from amazing to dysfunctional, based on at factors that may fall outside of your control, so that value carries less weight for me. And while we both have stable, well paying jobs, it’s not well enough for us to have no financial considerations and trade offs. This makes me think that there will be MANY guaranteed costs, with little guaranteed benefits, of having another child.

    All this to say, I’m wondering what folks feel about the added benefits of having two children – am I missing something here? Is the incremental value more than double what you might get from one child? All articles I’ve read on life with two kids focus on the first couple of yrs, which is actually less of a concern for me (I’d fully expect it to be a shitshow 24/7) – but what do I not know about the life with two kids (or one kid) over the parent’s lifetime? If it doesn’t get easier as children age, what are all the good things that help counter things? Welcome any (brutally honest) thoughts!!

    • 3 June, 2020 / 4:40 pm

      Hi James, I always knew I wanted children. In fact, if we could have afforded for me not to work I would have liked 5. In the end I had 2 because we both wanted more than one. But I did worry that I might not have enough love left for the second one – which was complete BS because your love actually grows. And strangely enough I love them differently. Not more than or less than, but just differently because of their personalities. And I’m so glad I had both of them as my boys are very close (they’re adults now). I come from a large family (I’m number 7) and we were all close so if you get that it’s heaven, and you’ve always got someone fighting your corner. If you come from a fractious family you might not feel that way. Good luck, whichever option you choose.

    • Gege
      1 August, 2020 / 12:05 am

      I have two boys, 5yrs and 3yrs and I think having two children is a lot harder than having one. I think you need a lot of energy and patience!
      I wouldn’t chance having two for the world it is lovely seeing my two boys playing together, holding hands and helping each other, it is truly wonderful to see. But it isn’t always like that!!! They have an awful lot of arguments and fights too!
      My wish is for them to grow together and have a lifelong friend in each other, that’s why we chose to have more than one.

  17. Sarah
    31 July, 2020 / 7:40 pm

    I regret becoming a mother, I am permanently exhausted and I’m often told my kids are great and they are but…. my husband nagged and badgered me into having them and I was too weak and insecure to stick to my guns. I foolishly believed that he would be an equal partner but that did not happen. 8 years after the divorce he now sees the kids for one meal a month. I’m now counting down till the youngest goes to college and I’m free. I do love them but I grieve for me.

    • Jo Middleton
      3 August, 2020 / 12:58 pm

      That last sentence is so powerful Sarah – ‘I grieve for me’ – I totally relate to this and I’m sure a lot of people would, however much they love their children and may or may not regret the decision to have them. The lost sense of self, the thought of those years gone by and what might have been and who you could have been, it’s really sad.

  18. Vikki
    13 August, 2020 / 12:36 pm

    Mmm a bit mixed reaction…i can absolutely relate to this lady’s feeling of ‘underachievement’. I too feel I squandered my early years. Don’t get me wrong, I followed a career in the public sector, however was it what I really wanted to do? No! I kind of fell into it. Could I have been something else? Absolutely! Did I have the opportunity? Yes! I can’t help but think that if this lady didn’t achieve her potential when she had the opportunity, then that’s her Failing. She chose to have children and 3 at that, nobody forced her. She has clearly reached a stage of exhaustion and at a low and I can definitely sympathise with that, but to blame her unfulfilled potential on parenthood???? That’s a cop out and if she is letting her children know that, she should be ashamed as that would tear them apart inside, thinking they weren’t ‘Worth it’!

    I feel the lesson to be learned is not that parenthood isn’t worth it, but maybe to push yourself harder to fulfil that potential When you have the opportunity. Children will inevitably change you’re outlook and lifestyle and if you’re not aware of that beforehand then I’m afraid you’re a little naive. That said, if you ‘REALLY’ want something you’ll achieve it kids or no kids!!

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