My secret regret at being a mother
Tales from the frontline of motherhood...
Almost a year ago now I put up a short note on this Substack to ask if anyone would be prepared to talk about the secret regrets they have about being a mother. What I received was an influx of emails- relationships that had severed because of children, careers that had had to be sacrificed, exhaustion, loss of identity, the stories went on and on. But one thing remained constant, and that was the guilt, shame and even fear of acknowledging any of this.
Many women agreed to talk with me, only to change their minds at the last moment. Others chose not to talk on record, but simply wanted to share their stories with me privately. For all of you reading this who took the time to write in- thank you.
Though I am not a mother myself what this outpouring of stories did was underline the complicated, and incredibly taboo feelings around being a mother that many women must shoulder in silence. Which is why I am publishing the below story.
It comes from a woman calledwho agreed to talk to me, on the record and without anonymity.
‘Hello, I’m Gill,’ she wrote. ‘I have a severely autistic son called James. I adore him and tell anyone who will listen that I wouldn’t change a thing about him. On some levels that’s true. On others it’s a big fat lie….’
Gill’s story is unique to her, but it is also a wider story about the dichotomy of feelings, good and bad, that can exist around motherhood for many women. Please read it with an openness of mind and heart.
I was one of those people who didn’t set out to have kids. I wanted a career, not a family. But then, aged 27 everything changed. As friends and family started to have children, suddenly motherhood seemed like the next logical step in moving forward with my life. And so, a few months after my 28th birthday, I gave birth to my son James.
Looking back I can see there was nothing intentional about being a mother for me. It was just a sequence of events that I followed. Much of the excitement I felt around it was, what pram am I going to get or how am I going to decorate the nursery? It was not motherhood that excited me. It was the status around motherhood that did- the beautiful nappy bags, the prams, the clothes. I spent more time thinking about that stuff than I did about becoming a mother.
I have older siblings who both started families before me, so I had glimpses of what motherhood might be like. But what I never encountered was an image of motherhood being hard. My sister loved being a mother and had enough money to ensure things were never difficult, so I had no concept of it ever being a struggle.
James was a very normal baby for the first 18 months, but then, bit by bit, I noticed that he was out of step with the other children. He was not behind exactly, but he was different. Whereas the other mums could predict their children’s routines, I found it impossible. James’s speech was very slow too and he rarely made eye contact or responded to his name. And he would stay awake for hours. About a year later we finally got a diagnosis: James was autistic.
I don’t remember feeling upset when I was told. I think I was simply relieved because it opened up the door for the support he was going to need. What I didn’t think about was the support I was going to need.
It’s a funny thing to admit now, but there was a time when I quite enjoyed the attention of having a child with special needs. I suppose I enjoyed people thinking I was coping well. But as time progressed it became much harder. For a start you couldn’t reason with James because he didn’t understand - there was no bribing him as there was with other children. If he wanted to go and lie on top of the frozen vegetables in the supermarket- which was one of his favourite things to do, there was nothing you could do about it.
The hardest thing was having to navigate an unimaginable future for myself. All the things my friends with children had on their horizons was taken away from me overnight- being mother of the groom, James going to university, James’ first day at work, James being a father, me being a grandmother. These were things I hoped motherhood would offer me, and so to have all of that taken away was devastating.
But what was worse was that I didn’t know what James’s life would look like. I couldn’t get my head round what would happen when he finished school. Is he going to sit in some sort of day centre rocking back and forth all day? Or perhaps worse, what will happen when I die? That angst never go away . And so there is an enormous amount of grief to process, particularly the loss of what I thought life with my son would be like. I resented that I didn’t have it and I was jealous of people who did. Over time it became impossible to be around close friends with their ‘normal’ kids and gradually I abandoned many of the close friendships I had made when James was much younger.
I split up with James’s dad when he was 3. He started a new life and said James was too disruptive to be part of his new life. But I did remarry a wonderful man called Phil who treated James like his own son. Sadly Phil passed away a few years ago, but James can’t understand that and still asks to see him. So that’s doubly difficult to have to deal with. It also gives me the most painful incite into what will happen to James when I am no longer here.
As James become a young boy, his anger and violent rages grew with him. For many years, and it pains me to admit this, I hated every minute he was awake. I was relieved when he went to school and lived for the moment he would fall asleep. The struggle started as soon as he woke and I would literally have to wrestle with him get him ready for school. When I collected him I would then have to bundle him into the car whereupon he’d hit me and try to grab me around the neck. James was still in nappies until 12, and would, on occasion, smear excrement all over the walls. When he 8, every night for about 3 months I had to strip the bed, wash his hair and mouth, then disinfect the entire room.
It was around that time that I had one of the darkest thoughts of my life. I remember James was outside but I wasn’t sure where exactly. Suddenly I feared that perhaps he had been run over, followed by the flash thought: ‘Well, that would take all of this away.’
But I suppose the lowest point of motherhood for me was when I had to have James put into residential care. At that point I had had to stop working to care for him. He was also terrorising my step children and could fly into violent rages at any moment. James was almost nine years old at that point but with a very strong rugby player-like build. I knew I could no longer care for him and myself. We found a residential home for him in the next village. I packed his bags knowing this would be the last time I would live side by side with my son. That afternoon I stood in front of him and told him that after school he would not be coming back home that day, nor the next day, or the day after that. James didn’t comprehend, but I understood what this meant and it broke my heart. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my entire life.
Without question my son has ruined my life, but, and this is the important bit, he has also enriched it beyond compare. The two sentiments can live side by side. I resent the fact that his autism denied me so much affection from him when he was younger. I was distraught that birth until his early teens he wouldn’t let me touch him and so I had to wait until he was asleep before I could tip toe into his room and kiss him.
The truth is, if I had known about his condition and could have made a choice I don’t know what I would have done. Even when I got nothing positive from James - no affection, no smiles, no joy, no gratitude, that desire to go in at night and kiss him overrode it all.
If I didn’t know James would I choose to have a child on this agenda? I don’t think I would. But I do know James and so one of the best things in my life has been my relationship with him, despite everything we have been through. James laughing uncontrollably, which he does a lot, is for me like someone else winning the lottery. I’m a business coach. I’m a logical person, and yet so there’s no logic to any of that.
Asking to be a mother is asking and accepting any and all of the consequences of it. That’s why I think it’s okay to live with the dichotomy of feelings. The love and the hate. The resentment and the joy. Motherhood has taught me that light and dark can live alongside one other. However dark the dark got, my love for James never diminished. It just stood strong alongside the resentment, the disappointment and all the fear.
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