Motherhood, Regrets and “what ifs”

It’s that time of year. Graduations. Weddings. The ones you love the most move toward new opportunities, new cities, new beginnings. And you are left with memories, moments of a former time, happy celebrations….and, likely…regrets. 

A family reunion forced me to experience what distance can keep at bay: the pull of time. Children are now in high school, the teenagers are married and mortgaged, and the parents now live in the twilight. 

Just the time to start ruminating on my own encroaching mortality. The life I’m living and the regrets of the road not taken, the opportunity not seized. These regrets espeically nag around motherhood. Should I have worked less? Why didn’t I host more parties for the kids? Did I read to them enough? And speaking of reading, why was it so important for me to always carry a book for myself when we were at the playgounds together? Should I have been the parent playing tag and Marco Polo instead of the one trying to grab a few minutes of precious “me” time?

This leads me to think about just where do regrets come from anyway? They aren’t logical. There is no indication that any other chosen option would be ‘regret free’ or lead to any better life or satisfaction than what we currently have. Putting aside the calamitous decisions we may make occassionally (thereby creating serious misgivings), it seems to me that most of our garden variety regrets result from some sort of idealized fantasy.

We want to believe that there is a way of living with such certainty that we will never rue the possibility of “what if”. We long to have no doubt that our choices were the single best choices and all other possibilities paled beside them. My “regret” is that weird place of tension between this mental world I’ve conjured and the life I’ve actually lived.

That mental world is not life. It’s fantasy. And escaping into fantasy is removing myself from the life I’m called to live today. With all the doubt, the uncertainty, the what ifs and the choices that await me today.

I rather live my real life than the fantasy one any day. So, bring on the regrets I suppose. But may I not lose too much time in the present wondering about the other road. Likely I’d have the same regrets there as I do here.

4 thoughts on “Motherhood, Regrets and “what ifs”

  1. Wow, Laura! This is really helpful. It gives me a brand new perspective on my own regrets about mothering. (My refrain: Ash wouldn’t be hurting as much as she is if I had done something differently.) I tell myself that “I did the best I could, given the person I was, and the situation I was in at the time.” However, it never occurred to me that even a “perfect” choice on my part could have led to another kind of pain for Ash. With your help, I see the fallacy of my thinking. I think that I can control results by my actions. That is hubris. That is what separates me from God. That is not what I want to do. So, thanks for your pastoral “word.”

  2. Laura, thanks for this poignant post. It actually resonates with me, at least in an indirect way, as a parent of two young kids. Everyone says “cherish every moment” and after a while the pressure mounts: am I cherishing enough? Am I *in the moment*? What do I do differently if I’m not? It’s even worse at moments of parenting exhaustion when you’re too depleted to cherish anything. And although the “cherish imperative” can usefully pull me off my smartphone or other distractions, at other times it can put pressure on parents to neglect themselves (my speculation is that mothers are more prone to this, but perhaps not necessarily), their own needs and friends and thoughts, when in fact the best parents (I assume) are whole people with healthy levels of independence. And in fact, the healthiest kids are the ones who turn out to be independent — a perverse paradox, it seems to me at this stage, since the best outcome of all my nurturing and worrying and investing myself so fully in them as a parent will be an appropriate distance they eventually form between me and them. This reality, and your conclusion about the lack of logic in regrets, should be liberating, softening the threat of accidentally “doing it wrong.” But as you know, in parenting, cold logic can be less powerful than hopes and anxieties.

  3. What a lovely reflection! Parenting regrets are among the most toxic regrets out there anywhere. And everybody has them. Everybody. But maybe doing the best we could in the circumstances we faced–without pretending that we were perfect–is the best example of non-grandiosity that we could set for our kids long term. We are not in control of how our kids turn out, and somehow that’s a very scary thought. It’s almost as scary, perhaps, as having that control…

  4. Love this. I do cringe when people tell interviewers, “I would not have done anything different.” This seems to much like the unexamined life to me. And we do make mistakes, so why wouldn’t there be do overs if we had a chance. But on the other hand as you so eloquently state, we can almost get addicted to regrets….as if I am so important, the world or my kids or my co workers would be so much better if only I, I, I had done something different. And it is endless to imagine all the ways things might have been better.
    I thought Sheryl Sandberg discussed this well in Lean In.

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