Regrets? I’ve had more than a few

I’ve been thinking about the idea of regret a lot lately. Because of my age, my peers who do not have children are in the “now or never” phase of their lives, so I am privy lately to a lot of the intense debate between child-free women and those who have already elected, or still hope, to become mothers. It’s not just my friends who talk about it – it’s in all the tailored social media and curated news that feeds into my eyes at the moment. (This Guardian US series, for example, is extremely topical and interesting).

It is a sensitive topic for many, very obvious reasons. But even on the basic level of academic debate around it (does every woman, deep down, want to be a mother or is that social conditioning? Do children, really, provide the answer to any of the yearning questions we feel inside?) it is one of the most polarising topics I have ever engaged in. I’d say it’s second only to the epidural vs grin and bear it labour wars, or breast vs bottle. Emotions run high, always.

What remains almost taboo as a topic, and is notable to me for its absence in all of the debates I have seen, is the issue of motherhood based regret. No mother in any of the discussions I have seen has said “I regret becoming a mother.” Nor have the child-free participants (those who are child free by choice, and vocal about this) mentioned any corresponding regret for the fact that they do not have offspring. They’re adamant their camp is the best to be in.

I’ve come to believe that there is a fear behind admitting such regret over something so binary and non-negotiable as motherhood or choice-based childlessness. It is as though because it is so final every woman’s choice, once made, has to be promoted as the right one – forever, and with no nuance. No one can admit to having days where they wished their choice had been the opposite. It’s as though if regretted, it might not have been the correct choice in the first place. As though to have regret about that particular issue is to have irrevocably damaged one’s life.

As though regret is not an unavoidable part of all of our lives.

Are we afraid of admitting it because we are told that it’s the mark of a successful life is the absence of big regrets? There are songs all about it. “I’ve had a few,” crooned Sinatra in his famour song My Way, “but then again, too few to mention.” And Edith Piaf famously regretted absolutely rien de rien. Nothing. No regrets at all for her.

Every single choice that Ol’ Blue Eyes and Piaf made, we’re supposed to believe, they felt glad to have made. They did not turn around, several miles from the crossroads of a life-changing and unalterable decision, and look back wistfully at the fork in the road. And they were confident and proud of this fact. They sang loudly about it, to let us know how inspirational their regret-free status was. We should all be more Sinatra, a bit more Piaf. Abandon regret, and champion all of our choices forever. Right?

I don’t think that I agree.

After the affair ended, X once said to me in an email “I will never regret you. Never. Even knowing how things would turn out, that one day I’d sit here with my life in pieces and heartbroken, if could go back to the beginning and have this time over again I’d still choose you.”

It was supposed to be a romantic notion, a sentence that would pull at my heartstrings and make me doubt the decision that I had made. He thought he knew me and that his email would floor me.

But it did not do those things. I just thought that it was a chilling thing to say. How could he not regret a decision that led to so much pain? Even if he was indifferent to his own pain, people who were utterly blameless had been hurt by his actions and by my actions. Our spouses and our children, people who should have been our dearest people. People who loved us and who didn’t deserve the way we treated them.

Infidelity is underpinned by selfishness on an epic scale, of course. I knew that then and I know it now. But even accounting for the level of selfishness required to cheat, and even accounting for the fact he might have been (probably was) lying, X’s claim of no regret was horrifyingly fascinating to me. It made no sense in the context of his apparent plans to repair his marriage. My own marriage was in tatters at the time but I hoped to rebuild it, and the foundation on which I wished to begin the reconstruction was a bedrock of my heartfelt regret.

Because I was saturated by regret.

Regret is an unavoidable part of life. It should be accepted as such, I think. We become older, we make choices, and choices open doors; but by definition, they also close doors. When I decided at 17 that I would not have an abortion, I closed the door on all the travel and university plans I’d made. I opened the door to a love deeper than I could have imagined, but I still regretted the ghost-path that I could see beyond the crossroads in the Family Planning Clinic office on that day when I turned down the abortion leaflet. Of course, I regretted it. Mourning that life, though, is what enabled me to live fully in the life that I did have.

Similarly, when I realised aged 20 that my daughter’s father was never going to stop locking me in bathrooms if I did not mop the floor well enough, or going for four days without uttering a single word to me for no reason at all, or holding me so tightly by the neck and shoulders whilst shouting into my face that he left red welts on my skin — welts that I had to cover with scarves at work — I regretted with all of my heart that I had ever met him or allowed myself become involved with him.

I did not regret the all-encompassing, obsessive first love and attraction that I had felt for him when we met. I was glad to have experienced those feelings. I did not regret the love we had shared or regret the fact of our beautiful daughter. But I regretted ignoring all the red flags that I had trodden on with abandon throughout our early days of dating, thereby allowing myself to become vulnerable and trapped. I regretted sharing a bank account with him and thus not being able to save any money secretly to leave him.

I regretted a lot of things for a long time about that relationship. But when I did finally manage to leave and to get my daughter out of our volatile house, I was able to look myself in the eye in the mirror and accept the regrets that I felt. I know that accepting my deep regret is how I was able so calmly to move into the next phase of my life as a single parent. That it was useful, productive regret to have. It still is.

That is one of the reasons I truly believe that regret does not have to be a bad thing. That there is, or there should be, no shame in regret. Regret is a thing that we can sit with, allow to percolate through us, to educate us about ourselves. When we look back and accept that a decision was wrong, or mourn the now-closed path we did not take: I think this regret-based reflection can be constructive, not destructive.

So in your face, Piaf and Sinatra. I’m all right with the regrets, I reckon.

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