It is rarely said that anyone regrets having a child. I’ve often heard this perspective, usually after being asked if I have children, and if I plan to if I say I don’t. I tend to avoid answering, as I feel that the truth – that I have no plans to be a parent – is likely to invite swift disagreement. I’ll be told I’ll change my mind, that I’m wrong, and that while I may regret not having a child, people don’t regret the opposite. Close friends, acquaintances, and total strangers have said this for years; I let it slide, knowing that, at the very least, the last part is fictional.

It is unsurprisingly difficult to obtain solid data on the number of parents who regret having children. In 1975, popular advice columnist Ann Landers asked her readers if, given the chance to do it again, they would have children. Seventy percent said they wouldn’t; however, this result came from a self-selecting group of respondents. “The hurt, angry and discontented” are more likely to write back than satisfied people, as was noted. But in 2013, a survey asked Americans aged 45 and older how many kids they would have if they could return to the past. Seven percent of respondents with children said zero. And in 2023, one estimate placed the percentage of parents in so-called developed countries, including the United States, who regret their decision to have children at between 5% to 14%.

These studies align with what I’ve found in my personal life: While most parents don’t regret having kids, some do. Perhaps partly because I’ve remained childless, I’ve had people, especially mothers, share confidentially with me about parental regret, and frequently enough that I’ve lost count.

Most of the time – whether I hear it briefly in passing from a stranger at a literary event, or late at night from a dear friend – this kind of revelation arises from a place of anguish. Some of these parents talk about feeling utterly alone, like villains beyond all imagination. Several have noted that, afraid of being judged, they decline to be candid with their own therapists. If asked what I think, I reply that from what I’m hearing, they’re not alone. Not at all. I hope it helps; I’m told at times that it does. It’s a discipline to which I’ve devoted my life: asked why I write, I often respond that books, words have provided vital fellowship during spells of harsh isolation, when I thought solitude and its attendant, life-warping evils – shame, guilt, the pain of exile – might kill me.

Meanwhile, I’m so often advised that I’ll be a parent that, though I’m sure I won’t, I still examine this ghostly version of myself, trying on its shape, asking what I would do if I felt obliged to adopt this spectral, alternate life as my own. For here’s the next question people tend to raise if I indicate I don’t plan on having kids: what does my husband think? I find this odd, a little intrusive – do people think I didn’t discuss this topic with him at length before we pledged to share our lives? – but the question also rings the alarm bell of one of my own great fears. If I respond with the truth, that he feels exactly as I do, here’s the usual follow up: but what if he changes his mind?

I have friends who long for children, and I know the need to be potent is as primal as my desire to go without. I’ve seen parent friends’ faces open with love as they watch their small children sing living-room karaoke, the adults radiating joy as laughing tots carol and bop. Should my husband’s mind change, I can picture the rift that would open wide, dividing us. Either I would deprive him of what he needs, or I would give in, birthing a child I don’t want. Or, and this prospect is painful enough that it hurts to type the words, our lives would have to diverge. No bridge of compromise can quite span the rift: as King Solomon knew, there are no half children.

This fear is so salient that I turned it into a pivotal tension in my upcoming novel, Exhibit: a celebrated photographer and her husband agreed they both don’t want children, but he wakes up one day realizing he does, and powerfully so. She’s certain she should not be a parent; he’s pining for a child; they love each other very much. Short on joint paths forward, they have no idea what to do next.

Parental regret springs from a range of origins, not all having to do with deprivation of choice or means. In and before a post-Roe U.S., people have given birth against their will. The cost of raising a child runs high; for parents lacking funds and support, dire hardship can result. It’s a lack far too typical in the U.S., where there’s no federally mandated paid parental leave, and childcare is expensive. But this regret isn’t a phenomenon limited to people in dire financial straits, nor to those forced into parenting. Other parents, all over the world, also wish they had elected otherwise.

In recent months, as I waited for the publication of the novel I worked on for nine years, I kept returning to the plight I had explored: I hadn’t yet finished wondering what I might do, how I would live, if. And though I’d heard a range of stories of parental regret, as have other friends without kids, the stories were related one-on-one, in private. It’s a taboo subject, one made all the more difficult and punitive by the ubiquitous belief that people who feel as they do either can’t or shouldn’t exist.

I’ve also thought about the isolating effect of silence, and what it can cost to live in hiding. I wanted to talk with parents who, if they could return to the past, might make different choices – and who would also agree to be quoted. It was again, unsurprisingly, difficult to find people willing to speak with me on record about parental regret. I promised to change the names of each parent I interviewed for this piece. Even so, people were wary.

“I don’t think that everyone is made for children,” says Helen, a high school teacher in her 40s. And telling people their purpose is to reproduce is destructive, she adds. It’s what she heard growing up: though Helen wanted to study Latin in high school, her mother forced her to enroll in home economics instead. “I don’t think I ever decided to have kids. I was pretty much just told that that’s what you do. That’s what girls are for,” Helen says.

As a result, Helen makes sure to tell her students that having children is an option, one that might not be right for them. She says the same thing to her kids, both girls. “I think that people need to know that just being themselves is enough,” she says.

At this point, half an hour into a phone call, Helen has cried briefly a couple times. Now I’m the one tearing up. I tell Helen I grew up in a predominantly Christian Korean American community. The primacy of having kids is built into the Korean language: I knew most Korean adults only as “the mother of x” or “the father of y.” I might have felt less strange if I’d had a Helen at my high school. While I didn’t quite, at any point, decide against being a parent – I didn’t have to, since I had no inkling of the urge in the first place – I also never heard it said that there might be an alternative.

“And if you thought there was any other way to live, there’s something wrong with you,” Helen says.

I ask what she would do if she had more time to herself. “I would write. I would take walks,” she replies. “I enjoyed writing academic papers. I enjoyed writing them for my master’s.” It used to upset her when classes were too easy. Given the chance, she would think for hours without interruption. She would pursue further studies.

And if she could inhabit the person she was before she became a parent? “I would have stopped that pregnancy before it happened.” But that’s the part Helen’s never said to her daughters, who, after all, didn’t ask to be born. She’s hell-bent on raising them well, not taking out any regrets on the girls. “I love them. I just don’t love the choice I made.”

Each parent I talk to points out this dividing line: it’s possible to have strong, lasting regrets about a life choice while ferociously loving – and caring for – the fruit of that decision. Paul, a Canadian father of young boys, notes that though he could write a book on everything he resents having lost as a result of becoming a parent, he also would do anything for his kids. Paul’s boys are the loves of his life. Still, overall, he wishes he had taken a different path.