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Maternal Ambivalence: Notes on Motherhood, Abortion and Regret

by in Identity on 24th June, 2022

Within conversations on motherhood, both private and public, the theme of regret has a preponderate, if quietly stifling, presence. Although research has long demonstrated that regret in the context of motherhood is pervasive, our pronatalist world makes any questioning of motherhood, or even simple expressions of ambivalence towards motherhood as both a personal status and a societal institution, very difficult. Admissions of maternal regret are quickly silenced and driven underground.

That silence was temporarily broken last month following reports that the US Supreme Court had overturned Roe v Wade, effectively banning abortion in America. What is interesting is that the conversations that took place in the wake of the decision to overturn Roe v Wade have not been limited to the usual topics such as reproductive justice, bodily autonomy and a woman’s fundamental right to choose. Perhaps due to the seriousness of the Supreme Court’s decision, the discourse this time seems to have expanded to encompass motherhood – and women’s complicated relationship to motherhood – as a whole. 

Recognising the disproportionately gendered impact that parenthood and parenting have on health, careers and well-being, different American women spoke about how crucial the availability of legal, safe and affordable abortions has been for their decision to delay, or even forgo, motherhood.

For Black, Indigenous and/or working class women, access to abortion has allowed them to exert control over, or at least try to mitigate, structural forms of oppression, whether that is avoiding the vicious cycle of generational poverty or refusing to experience the medical racism that leads to disproportionate levels of maternaal mortality.

For other women, the accessibility of abortion has more of a personal significance. Knowing that they have the right to control whether and when to have children has given women the space to learn, create and advance careers, and simply enjoy the pleasures of life.

Whilst this richer conversation on maternal ambivalence is certainly welcome, the voice of Muslim women has been rather absent. Of course, critiques of the Islamophobic tropes that have saturated the pro-choice camp and clarifications of the different Islamic jurisprudential positions on abortion are necessary. But what do Muslim women think and feel about abortion? And how do they relate these thoughts and feelings to the realities, difficulties or perhaps even joys of motherhood? These are important questions that need to be raised because of the exaggerated tendency within Muslim communities to romanticise motherhood. Although all communities all over the globe idealise motherhood, the Qur’an and hadith are selectively deployed in ways that suggest to Muslim women that motherhood is a defining feature of their Islamic womanhood, that a Muslim woman must ‘experience and perform’ a selfless, effacing motherhood as ‘the measure of her womanhood and of her spirituality.’ 

To complicate these simplistic narratives, and to bring to the fore the perspectives of Muslim women within the wider international conversation on abortion and motherhood, I decided to speak to some of the Muslim mothers that I know and love. The mothers that I spoke to are relatively young (as in, below the age of 45), professional and based in the UK. They generously, and courageously, shared with me their experiences, disappointments and complicated feelings about their roles, and identities, as mothers. With their permission, I share with you notes on motherhood, abortion and regret based on their stories of maternal ambivalence. 

The Fear of Regret: Dania’s Story 

When we talk of regret in our discussions of motherhood, we rarely think of the role that it plays in propelling women into motherhood. Women who do not have children, or who are uncertain about whether motherhood is for them, are warned that they will grow to be lonely old women full of regrets. In Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood, as the narrator grapples with the question of whether or not she should have a child, she fears that ‘the loss of never having had’ children will overwhelm her in her old age. When she earnestly asks herself ‘but what is there to lose?’ the answer she arrives at is instructive: ‘the love, the child, and all of those motherly feelings that mothers speak about in such an enticing way.’ 

This fear of missing out on what the world has consistently told women is the most rewarding of human experiences – indeed the key to a complete and fulfilled womanhood – is what led Dania to finally decide to have her child.

A highly successful doctor and part-time swimming instructor, Dania had never really been enthusiastic about the idea of having children. When, as a young woman, she had fantasised about her perfect future, children were never really part of the many pictures her mind was fond of painting. Always ambitious, she had prioritised her career and her passion for swimming, spending the very little time she had left caring for her elderly parents. If she was being really honest with herself, she did not want to do even more caring, feeding and changing. 

But once she hit 40, a sense of panic took hold. It seemed to her that all her friends were having and raising children, and she began to feel like she was somehow not living life properly, that she was behind. Everyone in her life (her mother, doctor, colleagues, friends and even her swimming students) cautioned her that if she did not have a child right now, she would forever regret this missed opportunity. So, feeling that time was quickly running out and attempting to protect herself from a future of lonely regret, Dania became pregnant. 

Yet regret did not quite leave her alone. Since having her son, over four years ago, a different and more devastating kind of regret has taken over her life – the kind of maternal regret that is experienced by 8-14% of mothers worldwide. Dania is open about the fact that she regrets having her child.

Raising her son alone as a single mother, Dania’s career has taken a serious hit. The pregnancy and birth took an irreversible toll on her previously very healthy body: she laughs, rather acerbically, that in the last four years she has not managed to get more than three hours of sleep per night. And she is crippled with childcare costs. Why didn’t anyone tell her about all of this? How comes the doctors didn’t warn her that she might develop repetitive strain injury from breastfeeding her son? Why didn’t her friends tell her that she would need to be called to take her son home almost every other week because he has picked up one illness or another from his nursery? And where are all those people who warned her that being child-free would condemn her to an imagined future life of regret and misery now? Where are they now, in her very current and very real life of regret and misery? 

Listening to Dania share her story of maternal regret, I wondered about what often feels like a conspiratorial silence around the ugly realities of every-day mothering. That pregnancy, labour, birth and motherhood can be, and often are, extremely taxing –  indeed traumatic  – experiences is a secret that is rarely shared even privately between friends and families, let alone in public.

A mother who does not hashtag that she is oh-so-very #blessed in every tweet, post or Instagram story is regarded with suspicion, and sometimes even disdain. She doesn’t love her children, they say; she is ungrateful to Allah for the hiba (gift) that is her child; she is scaremongering. As such, the realities of motherhood remain shrouded behind a sanctified veil of ignorance. 

I asked Dania whether she would have still had her child had she heard from other mothers how difficult it could really get. Her answer was an unequivocal, resounding no. Dania does not sugar-coat her feelings about motherhood: ‘just to clarify,’ she repeated more than once, ‘I hate being a mother.’ And she is not afraid to say this to any and every young woman she comes across: ‘I see it as my public duty to inform women about the hellish side of being a mother, because no one told me and I should have known… I would have wanted to know.’ 

Had she known, maybe fear of regret would not have panicked her into motherhood. She would have weighed the pros and cons of motherhood and assessed the risks and benefits.

In removing motherhood from its terrifyingly high pedestal, she would have realised and accepted, as the writer Sarah Blau puts it, that ‘people regret all sorts of things. So maybe one day I’ll regret not having kids. So what?’

The Stigma of Maternal Regret: Batool’s Story 

Batool struggled with depression during her pregnancy and in the first couple of years of motherhood. Batool’s pregnancy had been an unplanned, rather unwelcome, surprise. When she discovered she was pregnant she was in between jobs and simply did not feel financially, mentally or emotionally ready to have a baby. It’s not that Batool did not want to be a mother, she just did not want it at that specific moment in her life

Whilst that might sound like a very understandable feeling to have, to her surprise Batool found it hard to convey her ambivalence about the pregnancy, even to her nearest and dearest. Her family and friends simply could not understand why she was so unhappy.

They rebutted all and any of her worries about having a baby by reference to religion. Her financial concerns were swiftly dismissed with reproachful reminders that rizk (sustenance) comes from Allah: from an Islamic perspective, she was told, she did not have a valid reason to feel worried at all.  In fact, some went as far as accusing her of being ungrateful.

Acquaintances struggling with infertility told her that rather than complaining about being unexpectedly pregnant, she should praise Allah for being so lucky – they had been trying, and praying, for a baby for years to no avail. 

Being judged in this harsh manner and having all of her concerns invalidated and weaponised against her wreaked havoc on Batool’s mental health. She felt so depressed she began to pray for a miscarriage. When I asked her why she did not consider an abortion, she hesitated for a moment. With a sigh, she confided that she had indeed considered the option of terminating her pregnancy. Alone at night, and in secret, she had googled: abortion. Although she came across a lot of research and sources that indicated the Islamic permissibility of abortion, especially for a woman suffering from mental health issues, she could not shake off the feeling that she was somehow doing something wrong and shameful. The horror stories she heard whispered in family and community gatherings as a child about the abysmal fate of women who had abortions suddenly flashed in her mind. What if, like that distant relative of hers she was told about as a teenager, she has an abortion and Allah punishes her by making her infertile for the rest of her life? And wasn’t abortion something only committed by those disreputable women in Arab musalsalat (television series)? 

After wrestling alone with these questions, Batool decided against abortion, and continued – despite her ambivalence – with her pregnancy. She is glad she did. She tells me that looking back, she was probably always going to have her baby. But she feels that she shouldn’t have had to reach that decision out of fear and shame. Perhaps her depression would not have been so acute had she been supported and validated, rather than shamed and dismissed, for expressing doubts about pregnancy and motherhood.

Had she felt safe enough to explore the option of abortion with her friends and family, maybe she would not have been so completely overwhelmed with feelings of guilt during the first couple of motherhood, wondering whether her traumatic experience with labour and her severe postnatal depression were punishments from Allah because she contemplated abortion.

Had she been reassured that maternal regret is not aberrational, that it is actually a pretty common experience, she would not have been inhibited from reaching out to her GP during the first few months after giving birth, fearing that her ambivalence would somehow be interpreted as emotional abuse of her daughter. 

Today, Batool is in a much better place mentally, having completed a year of intensive therapy where she felt safe enough to openly explore her complicated feelings about motherhood. Therapy validated her feelings. It gave her the space she needed to process the trauma of her pregnancy and to realise that she was definitely not alone in feeling ambivalent about motherhood. For her, therapy has been transformative. She is much kinder to both her former and current maternal self.  She is also repairing her relationship to religion that had been so damaged during her pregnancy and early days of motherhood, when everyone around her threatened her with Allah’s wrath and punishment rather than reassuring her of His love and infinite mercy. Because of all this, she has recently even begun to enjoy being a mother.

Yet despite these improvements, Batool is still angry. She could have been kinder to herself and she could have enjoyed being a mother at a much earlier stage had it not been for the community’s harsh, unforgiving approach to any woman who expresses doubts about motherhood.

But unlike Dania, who is determined to be very open about the reality of her experiences with motherhood, Batool is hesitant about sharing too openly with others. Whenever she has been open, she found that many of the women she speaks to need to be reassured that she loves her daughter and is, after all, grateful for the opportunity to be a mother. She refuses to perform this type of reductive motherhood. 

The Joylessness of Motherhood: Zahra’s Story 

Whereas therapy has helped Batool reconcile herself to her role and identity as a mother, the same cannot be said of Zahra. Even after years of therapy, medication and other forms of mental health support, for Zahra there is no joy in motherhood. Perhaps one of the reasons behind this disparity in their experiences is that unlike Batool, Zahra had never wanted to be a mother. Her lack of interest in mothering was confounded by the fact that when she became pregnant almost a decade ago, Zahra was married to her abusive ex-husband.  

When Zahra simply hinted to her friends that she might consider terminating her pregnancy, their responses were scathing. They told her that abortion was haram (forbidden), that she would burn in hell if she ‘killed her baby.’ In fact, some of her friends made it clear to her that they would no longer talk to or befriend her if she dared to get an abortion.

That she was living with an emotionally and physically abusive man was not really considered relevant by her friends, nor did it earn her their sympathy. The extent of her friends’ criticism and her fears that she would have to endure her abusive marriage alone and friendless led her to quickly shelve away the idea of considering an abortion. She reminded herself that even if her friends had shown her support and solidarity, rather than judgement and censure, a safe and legal abortion was not available to her. At the time of her pregnancy, Zahra was living in a country where abortion was mostly illegal. Unlike the women in the American shows and movies she watched, for her, there was no ‘clinic’ that she could go to. 

To avoid punishment in this life and the next, Zahra carried her pregnancy to term. With a discernible note of pain in her voice, Zahra tells me that having her daughter had been a mistake. She wishes she had braved the circumstances and had that abortion. Although ending her abusive marriage was, objectively speaking, a good thing, for her the experience of being a single mother has been nothing short of harrowing.

Shouldering the burden of caring and financially providing for her daughter alone has physically, mentally and emotionally drained her. It has also depleted her career opportunities.

As a writer, she yearns for the freedom to pursue intellectually stimulating projects anywhere and everywhere in the world. But the pressure from oppressive ideals of ‘good’ motherhood prevents her from being ambitious and adventurous with her career. Feeling that she has to financially secure her daughter’s future and to prioritise her emotional stability, Zahra consigns herself to low-risk, low-reward job opportunities. 

Motherhood has not just damaged Zahra’s career. ‘It has taken over and overshadowed every aspect of my life,’ she laments, ‘bleeding it dry.’

Although she is dating a man she loves and wants to marry, she has not been able to enjoy the sweetness of a new and budding romance. Her daughter is struggling with the idea of her potential marriage. Her daughter expresses her confusion and possessiveness over her mother by lashing out at her. Zahra wants to be able to enjoy some quality alone time with her partner. She wants to be able to go on relaxing holidays, hike, or even just have quiet nights in, watching movies, dancing to music and making pasta. Life owes her this much, she feels. But Zahra knows that as long as her daughter lives with her, as long as she is her only carer, life’s simple pleasures will be denied to her.   

To say that she does not enjoy motherhood is an under-statement, for like Dania, Zahra hates being a mother. Enduring the joylessness of motherhood for almost a decade, and grieving the opportunities that she has had to give up in its wake, have made her a bitter, angry person. In this way, motherhood has changed, or ‘robbed,’ her of her personality.

She misses her former fun, free-spirited and generous self: a self that was irretrievably lost with the birth of her daughter. This, she feels, has been the biggest loss that she has had to suffer. To paraphrase  the sentiments expressed by Deborah Levy in The Cost of Living, Zahra feels that she is a ‘shadow of her former self, chased by the woman she used to be before she had children.’ 

Zahra used to feel guilt for having these feelings – feelings that might be interpreted as selfish. Now, though, she mostly just feels sorry for herself. She performs the role of the ‘good’ mother to perfection. She ensures that her daughter eats home-cooked meals for lunch, and is proud of the fact that the teachers at school have called to tell her that hers is the healthiest lunchbox. Even though money is tight, she makes sure that her daughter has an active social and sports calendar, paying for her after-school Qur’an and tennis classes. She wants her daughter to be a healthy, well-adjusted child. But she goes through these motions without feeling anything except a profound sense of sadness at the life and living she has missed out on since becoming a mother.  

As I listened to the painfully honest stories of these mothers, I was reminded of the truth and pertinence of Maya Angelous’ observation in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ The community’s insistence on idealising mothering, its ruthless suppression of any questioning of what can only be called an ideology of motherhood, had condemned Dania, Batool and Zahra into this very agony. It had forced them to struggle, unnecessarily alone, with maternal ambivalence in silence. But it did not, and does not, need to be this way. Dania should have been told the truth about motherhood: that the work of a mother can be excruciatingly difficult, that it can irretrievably damaged her health, career and social life. Batool and Zahra should not have been cruelly shamed when they talked to their friends and families about the possibility of an abortion. They should have been given the space to express their doubts about whether motherhood is for them. And they should have been allowed to mourn the things that they lost as a result of becoming mothers. If anything, these stories confirm just how very common it is for women, including Muslim women, to struggle with, and even regret, motherhood and to consider and opt for abortion. The hope is that in sharing with you these stories of, and notes on, motherhood, abortion and regret, a more open and forgiving space will be created – a space where Muslim women can express, without fear of judgement, their maternal ambivalence. 

*The names of the mothers have been changed to protect their identities 

Fatima Ahdash

Fatima Ahdash

Fatima is a British-Libyan Lecturer in Law at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she researchers and teaches family law, counter-terrorism and human rights.