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Love your children, just not your life after having them? That's not 'motherhood regret'.

Motherhood regret. It’s a feeling that many women experience but often keep to themselves – until someone else talks about it openly.

Motherhood regret has been a hot topic following an article in Fairfax Media over the weekend, where three mums spoke out honestly about their feelings. Gretel Killeen added to the debate on The Project on Monday night by urging children not to think they weren’t loved by their parents.

Maternal coach Dr Joan Garvan has been following the topic of motherhood regret since the 1990s. She did her PhD on it, and says international research on the subject “just keeps coming”.

“There’s a lot of unhappiness with the way things are,” she tells Mamamia. “That’s why it keeps coming up all the time.”

Dr Garvan refers to it differently: “motherhood ambivalence”. Because in almost all cases, women love their children, just not their lives after having them. For her PhD, she did extensive interviews with women, and found that even those who always wanted to have kids often struggle with motherhood.

“It’s just the reality of what life is like afterwards,” she explains.

A lot of women are in relationships where they think they have gender equality. But after the baby comes along, things change.

“There’s an easy falling back by partners: ‘Well, you’re at home, you look after the kids, so you do the housework.’ That’s through the weekend, too. The easy falling back onto that is distressing for some of them. They didn’t think it was going to be like that.”

When it comes to their jobs, women often find that they take second priority to their children, even if they had good careers.

“Often in Australia, a lot of women work part-time for a long time. They lose the connection with the workforce. It’s hard to get back in. It becomes like a one-and-a-half-career household.”

Dr Garvan believes there’s not enough social support for new mothers, and this can contribute to post-natal depression. She says post-natal depression is reported to affect 15 per cent of women, “and a lot of women don’t even tell their doctor, so it’s much higher than that”.

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“There’s a trend towards sending women home within one or two days of having the baby, then there’s very little support,” she explains. “The response to depression is highly medicalised. It’s easier to send the woman to the doctor, and the doctor gives medication, or they send them to a psychologist. I’m sure it helps, but right across the research into depression, it’s like a throwaway line at the end: ‘Oh yeah, we know there’s a need for social support.’ But they don’t do it because it’s too hard.”

There are things that can make the experience of motherhood easier for women, but they’re not available to everyone.

“Having enough money to pay for a nanny and a house-cleaner, or having family support – those things can make it more workable.”

Dr Garvan said when she had her first baby, it was a shock for her.

“I didn’t know how strong the connection would be with the child,” she remembers. “Looking after their interests – there is a lot of guilt. They’re so vulnerable, so obviously you want the best for them, and you’re trying to fill all those gaps.”

She says that even though her partner was supportive, they went through difficult times. Seeing a counsellor helped.

“I don’t think men really get what it’s like for women. It’s just such a different experience for them.

“We ended up having to go to a counsellor. We went separately. I just talked for an hour, I said everything I wanted to say, and then he went after me. Somehow or other, the counsellor said something that made a difference and made it okay.”

The Mamamia Outloud team discuss the idea that some women weren't born to be mothers.

Dr Garvan thinks the way to stop so many women feeling motherhood regret is to completely change track. She thinks one of the problems lies in how we see motherhood, compared with the way we see fatherhood.

“It’s much easier for men to have children and not make that the centre of their life,” she says. “Motherhood is so deeply embedded in our social system and our cultural practices. I think we need to stand back from that and take the pressure off women. All right, yeah, they have children, like men have children too. Maybe they don’t want to make them the centre of their life. But that can be okay. That can work, as long as the child is adequately cared for.”

She believes there’s too much pressure on women when it comes to things like breastfeeding.

“I know there are a lot of women who feel pressured along those lines. People need to be able to make their own choices on those things.

“There’s so much intense focus and judgement on whether women are doing it the right way. I think that is another contributing factor to the anxiety and regret.”

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