Getting Real About Regret

As the childfree know, we can often get flack from parents who are convinced we will eventually regret our decision not to have kids.  In talking with thousands of childfree in the last 10+ years, I can say that… not one person has spoken of regret. Some ponder what it might have been like to be a mother/father, but not to where they wish they’d made another choice. Instead, most childfree talk about the regret they would have if they had had kids!

The truth is parents can be the ones with the regret. Problem is — that is real taboo to talk about. That’s why it’s refreshing to see the candor from those who are brave enough to break the taboo. Here is a father who did just that.

He recently shared his regret New York Times journalist Lisa Belkin’s blog, Motherlode: Adventures in Parenting:

“My wife and I didn’t get married until we were in our 30s, and didn’t have our first child until five years after that. We were both well-educated, with great jobs, and we lived a jet-set lifestyle: apartment downtown, busy jobs, etc. We now have two kids, ages 4 and 1.

No matter how well prepared I thought I was, I was not prepared for the sheer magnitude of changes to my life.

Being the go-to guy at work, who can jump on a plane at a moment’s notice to go meet a client: gone.

Working on my master’s degree with evening classes: gone.

Playing on a local basketball league: gone.

Playing golf on Saturdays and lazy Sunday mornings: gone.

Living in a bohemian loft apartment: nope, now it’s a house in the suburbs with a 45-minute commute.

No more personal projects, like the book I wanted to write, or starting a consulting business on the side, or training to run a marathon: all gone.

So if I knew then what I know now, I might have only had one child, or zero….I have committed myself to being the best darn father I can be, and I have slowly accepted the fact that all those personal dreams are basically pushed to the side because of that.”

This father is not alone. While there are lots of parents with no regrets, when surveyed many others say otherwise. Dr Phil’s recent survey of over 20,000 parents, 40% basically said if they knew then what they knew now they would not make the same choice. And anonymous surveys of parents have shown even higher percentages. Like the Ted Talk that takes on parent taboos, being out there about one’s regret is just not what one is “supposed” to feel or say.

What if people were more open about this? Might it help others make better decisions about whether to become parents themselves? One thing for sure, if this mindset became less taboo, parents might do a lot less incorrect predicting that childfree will be the ones with the regrets.

Childfree, who’s told you you’d regret not having kids? What do you tell them?


20 thoughts on “Getting Real About Regret

  1. Oh God! I’m nearly twenty and I hear this crap ALL THE TIME! I’ve known since I was six that I don’t want kids. Will I adopt or foster? Maybe when I’m in my forties or fifties. Why waste the prime of my life? I’m more than a housewife!

  2. Laura, I am glad I never got any flack from parents or anyone else about my choice to be childfree.

    It was this sentence in your post here which rings the most true with me:

    “Instead, most childfree talk about the regret they would have if they had had kids!”

    I have never hesitated to say this any time I see the related bingo whether it is directed at me in some blog or message board or just posted by some mindless parent trying to belittle us childfree in general.

    I would start with my early retirement at age 45 back in 2008 and all the things it has enabled me to do (including expanding my volunteer work with kids). That ER enabled me to rid myself of the few remaining lousy aspects of my life such as the commute to my old job (which I despised more than the work itself).

    Having kids would have wrecked my finances and wrecked my life. Absolutely NO REGRET about being childfree!

  3. I consciously decided to be childfree about two years ago. I’ve never really felt a desire to be a parent. I have had feelings of regret once in a while when I see cute, well-behaved children being lovely to their parents, and I recognize that I have made a trade-off. (Whining tantrums destroy that regret on the spot.) My point of view is that I will miss out on some positive things, but I’m okay with that on the whole, because I will keep more good stuff than I have lost. If that makes my childfree-ness less than pure, so be it.

    The way I overthink decisions, no matter what I decide I will probably feel some regret no matter what I choose. For me it was a choice among regrets — I saw that I would lose so much MORE as a parent than I would give up by being childfree.

    I think regret is just a part of life. I’m not obsessed with dodging regret at all costs. I’m suspicious of anyone who claims to have lived life with no regrets at all.

    So what if someone does have some regret about being childfree? The question is how much regret, how much regret compared to being a parent, what you do with the regret, etc. Don’t let the avoidance of regret force you into a bad decision.

    1. Scott, I like your idea of weighing regret and definitely not letting the possibility of regreat drive a bad or wrong decision…Some believe in living with no regrets no matter what…thinking it’s just a waste of energy on something that can’t be changed. Not a bad mindset…..

  4. I don’t think it’s just parents who ask, but even the childfree talk about “regret” with each other from time to time, at least within my circle of childfree friends. It’s natural to ponder the “what ifs” in my opinion, but like you eloquently said, most “what ifs” and regrets that cross our minds in the end are regretting having kids we if chose to have them.

    To answer your question at the end of the article, I would reply that if my simple reason of not having kids (ie: no desire) isn’t enough, I’d reply: “I don’t live or plan to live a lifestyle in which raising children would take priority. I have goals, hobbies, career aspirations that wouldn’t be possible with kids around, and seeing that there is not guarantee no matter how well you raise them that they will be there for you or even like you…it’s just not worth it for me.”

    And I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t regret things in life that just weren’t worth it to me. Another great post as always Laura! 🙂

    1. Manos! Thanks for writing and your kind words! What you say re it just not being worth it makes me think that this is also a way to go at the question cf get — Why don’t you want kids — that when you look at all it takes and entails, it is just not worth it~And yes I so agree, how could knowing it would not have been worth it ever lead to regret?

  5. I think too many parents are afraid of hurting their child if they speak out about regrets. I think they need to realize that there is a difference between regretting having children and not actually loving the children you have. I think that a parent can love their child yet still wish that in the long run they hadn’t had kids. When the kids are old enough to understand this, maybe parents would be more willing to speak out. Though I have not had parents tell me they regret having kids, I have been told that they envy me or think I made the right decision in not having them.

    1. Debi–You make a great point about the difference between regretting having children and not loving the kids you do have. Parents can love thier kids to pieces but still think if they had it to do over again they might not have said yes to the whole thing called parenthood~L

  6. I am one of the taboo. i have children and many regrets. My life is ALL about my children. I have dedicated my life to being the best mother possible, because my children deserve to have the best mother possible. It was not THIER choice to be born. But, I would have done it differently if i had have thought about it consciously. It wasn’t a conscious decision to have or not have children. I wish I had put more thought into the decision.
    My 11 year old daughter has stated many many times that she does not want to have children. I have never once discouraged her from that choice. My mother has, but i talked to her about it and she hasn’t said anything since. My mother has never stated it, but i believe she has regrets about having children. I’m glad i was born, but I believe every child should be a wanted child. Kids turn out better when their parents are happy. Even if the parents really truly love their children, as I love mine, and i know my mom loves me. But i cannot say either one of us is truly happy.

    1. Fallyn, How I appreciate your candor. More people like you need to speak out to those who are trying to decide whether to have children and figure out their consicous and unconscious motives (to get them to be more conscious!). I am curious– do you think your daughter picks up your unstated feelings and this has something to do with her current feelings about it? Parents with regrets have told me this before….thanks so much for writing~L

  7. Did you see the writer’s reply to “A Father in Florida?” She very carefully acknowledged that while some form of his regret “might” not go away, she assures him “it will get better.” The kids will grow up, and he’ll look back on his life differently. Will he? Most people assume their kids will become, at the very least, autonomous individuals who are productive members of society. I’ve seen some parents who are convinced their kids will be geniuses and revolutionize the world! Well, what happens when they don’t? What happens when their kid barely passes high school, flunks out of college, and lives with them indefinitely while working a minimum wage job (the current plight of one of my mom’s friends). Will he think it’s worth giving up writing that novel then? The fact of the matter is, parents are banking on a return on investment. Sadly, the future for the next generations isn’t looking so good, so I think long term regret will be in many parent’s futures. I wish them luck, but don’t assure them “it will get better.” You may as well promise them that if they are good until Christmas they will get their very own pony.

  8. I’ve never understood the concept of regret, but then I am a proactive person. I wanted to go to St Kilda (a very remote archipelago in Scotland), it’s a place that many thousands of people say “I want to go there someday” but don’t, well the only way to go there is to arrange it yourself so I did!

    If I wanted children I’d have them, I don’t so I won’t. It’s not possible to regret that decision because were I to suddenly wish I had children I would look back to how I felt now and realise that I didn’t want them and if I lived my life again I still wouldn’t want them. It’s fine to get to your 60s and wish you had adult children, but that’s totally infeasible and you have to realise you would have had decades of hell first, so you wouldn’t have enjoyed it at all!

    Regret is a very silly concept, it is based on people who are totally reactive and lazy.

  9. @ Kate:
    I, too, made note of the blogger’s response to F in FL and I thought it was probably one of the most unsupportive things someone could say to another person who’s in that type of situation. I hated how she chalked his feelings up to the childrens’ age/that stage of parenting instead of facing the very real possibility that it WON’T get better with time and that he could very well carry that regret with him to his grave. Dismissive much? Just because she claims things got better for her that doesn’t mean his life will take a similar path and I found it extremely disingenuous to imply as much considering that the point of that particular blog entry was to highlight the p.o.v. of a parent who DOES regret it, per the request made in a previous blog post.

    It seems to me that the blogger’s comments to F in FL was more about doing damage control than wanting to offer genuine support. Heaven forbid that the person who asked for views from regretful parents would walk away thinking that (GASP!) there actually ARE parents who wouldn’t choose parenthood again… then she might weigh her options more carefully and decided not to spawn. We can’t have that, now can we? 😉

  10. I see a difference between regret as a feeling and regret as an action. Feeling regret is something that is pretty common, often out of a person’s control. It’s not the end of the world, and it’s not crippling. Whether or not you marinate in your regret IS under your control. Letting regret take over so that you take no responsibility for your life is a waste of time.

  11. Last week I was at a ladies only work lunch, and someone asked me if I was “looking forward to” have children, since I’m engaged over 2 years..

    my response was simply “no I’m not looking forward to it”…
    At my work where everyone is either have kids, pregnant, or want to have kids, I don’t really express my true feelings out loud, but that day after my response, one lady said “I have a friend who just had her first at 40, she didn’t want kids either but after her Father died, she realized how lonely and sad she would be if she didn’t, people are meant to have children…”
    Now back to regrets, her comments made me wonder, would I “regret” not having children when my other half passed away and there’s no one to take care of me or talk to me because they’re biologically required to?
    I often picture myself sitting in some old people home being all senile while other senior residents frequently having their family over for visits, would I feel “sad and lonely” and “regrets”?
    Perhaps, but then I thought, if that’s the only reason for me to have children then it would be even more sad,
    or better yet, what if had children but they never visit anyways! what’s the point?!
    I just smile and didn’t really say much back to that co-worker’s comment, after wighing all the pros and cons I stand firm on being childfree.

    1. Janet, people can be so bold and assumptive! Recent research suggests that there is not a lot of difference in the social lives of those who have kids and htose who don’t… in other words, those without kids are no more likely to be sitting around lonely than those with kids. Some research even indicates that those with kids have the smaller social sphere…probably because it revolves around their kids and their families, but who knows if they are there for them or not. ith kids, one can expect it but sure can’t guarantee it! Being lonely and sad in one’s old age does not boil down to whether you have kids or not!

  12. I am almost 69. I think I can speak about regret as an older woman. In my soon to be published memoir, “Confessions of a Childless Woman” I do confess to times I thought about regret. Those times usually occurred at special occasions of joy parents experience: the love and adoration given to parents during the birth of that child, all those exciting firsts, communions or Bar-Bat Mitzvahs, school achievements, weddings, grandchildren and other warm fuzzy moments parents may experience.
    During menopause, I felt annoyed that my choice was now taken away by my body saying “NO MORE!” Add to that all the hype of how women in their 60’s could still have a child! I confess, regret has loomed in my mind and heart.
    However, now, looking back I can step outside that box of regrets and examine what happened before and after those warm, fuzzy times. It’s looking at the realities not usually shared of frustrations, disappointments, and financial burdens those events cost.
    Just like parents, it’s OK to say we may feel questions of regrets. Don’t parents often regret having children?

    1. Hi Marcia! Thanks for writing. Sure, parents have regrets but it is taboo to talk about it! The child”less” are the ones who are supposed to have the regret….and more often than not, they’re the ones without the regrets! ~L

  13. If you wonder why more parents don’t speak out, just read the comments for this article, and you’ll have your answer:

    This poor mother gets skewered, being called horrible names because she decided to speak up. It’s taboo because some parents want to perpetuate this myth that Motherhood is all sunshine and rainbows and nothing else can possibly fulfill you – and they defend it to the death. It’s funny how people look at CF people like there’s something wrong with our character – when some Moms can be the most judgmental, cruel people I’ve seen.

  14. I’m 38 years old and i thought i always wanted to have children thats what you were suppose to do right? i had my first and i believe he will be my only child at the age of 37, it was an adjustment to say the least, the one thing i kept saying to myself after i had him was why didnt anybody tell me this? how life altering having a child is to say the least, but maybe someone tried but who really listens? you think you’ll do it better or different, i can truly say i LOVE my son, but i would do things a lot differently if i could. The idea of something and the reality of it are two different things.

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