On Regret

by Nicola Sayers

I regret not having children younger. Like, much younger. I was thirty-six when my first child, now four, was born; thirty-eight when my second was born. I wish I had done it when I was in my early twenties. This is an unpopular perspective. I know this because when I’ve raised this feeling with friends, many of whom had children similarly late in life, I’ve been met with a strong resistance. It’s not just that they don’t share my feelings, that their experience of having children later in life is different to mine, it’s that they somehow mind me feeling the way that I do. They think that I am wrong – mistaken – to feel this way. It upsets them. 

But just think of all the life experiences you’ve been able to have, they say. But you weren’t with Jarad yet, they say. But you wouldn’t have been ready, they say. 

There are, I think, several different beliefs, values, lending force to their pushback. The first is the notion that your own enjoyment, but also personal development, is paramount. Related is the presumption that you need to have many years to pursue that development with a singular focus, and, indeed, that having multiple long term relationships is an important part of that development – without which you might not be the relationship expert that those of us with that backlog of experience presumably are. 

To all of that I say: not really. As deeply as I love my husband, I can’t honestly say that we’re any more expert at being together than those I know who married their first serious partners. If anything, we might be a little more set in our ways. And it’s true that we weren’t together in my early twenties, but perhaps if we’d been looking with different eyes we might have been (it’s hard to deny the glaring fact that when you meet and marry is, to a not insignificant degree, determined by the cultural norms among those in your geography and class). And as for personal development, I’ve developed more in the last few years than I did in the previous decades, which – sharing flats with friends in New York or Hackney – had started to feel a bit like bouncing around in Never-Never Land. As Joan Didion points out in her famous essay, ‘On leaving New York’, ‘it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the fair’.

I think of the Amish with their one year of ‘Rumspringa’: a year to taste freedom before they find a spouse and settle down. I’m not advocating the Amish lifestyle (and recognise that starting a family is not a goal for many people), but given that I’ve always known that I wanted a family, did I really need eighteen ‘rumspringa’ years? A whole second childhood, in which I was pretty much responsible to no one except for myself? Might two or three, or even five or six, years not have sufficed? 

The truth is that I didn’t really understand, until I had children, how short life is. I do, now. And greedily, I want more time with them. 

It pains me that my parents are getting older, that my children will not know them as middle-aged people. It pains me that I myself will be nearly eighty when my children are my age (if indeed I am here at all). My driving instructor is only three years older than me. Her children are seventeen, twenty and twenty-four. Her eldest will soon marry and – God willing – have children. When she talks about them, I am envious. Her grandmother (who may soon become a great-great grandmother) is only a few years older than my mother. How much time they will all have with one another, I think. 

But back to my peers, and their resistance. The crux of resistance to my expression of regret is not only an idea about what personal development can or should look like; it goes even deeper than this. It lies in the statement ‘but you wouldn’t have been ready’. Because today, we like to think that everything happens for a reason. If a relationship ends, your friends will reassure you that ‘it wasn’t meant to be’. If you suffer anxiety – a painful experience – psychology blogs will tell you that this is a call to growth, that it will force you to leave behind old mindsets and ultimately grow into the person you ‘are meant to be’.  And if you express regret for something – anything – that cannot be changed, it makes people uncomfortable; they want to re-cast your experience in a narrative in which everything happened at the time that it was ‘meant to.’ To re-cast you as the heroine of a perfectly unfolding series of events in which even the negative or seemingly mistimed events are only part of a broader journey that is ultimately for the better. 

(Only the death of a loved one, or the inability to have children if you want them, are largely exempt from this reasoning: there are certain things so obviously painful that most people – thankfully – avoid wrapping them up in the peppy fate that whatever happens is ultimately part of your own growth story.) 

But what if you would have been better off in the relationship that ended, or in the job you didn’t get? If you should have had kids younger? If your anxiety won’t ultimately strengthen you but only make your life harder? 

Everybody doesn’t get everything. I came across this deceptively straightforward statement in a memoir by Ariel Levy about motherhood and loss, and it struck me to the core. When I mentioned it to friends in a book club later that week, they looked perplexed. Sure, you can’t have it all, they said, nonplussed. This irked me. There’s a subtle but important difference between the two statements. ‘You can’t have it all’ brings to mind the trade-offs that we, especially women, are called on to make. Motherhood, work, love, creativity. Is there room for it all? I don’t know the answer to that (does anyone?) but I do think that the statement hints at choosing what matters to you. At prioritizing. At defining your own story. It asks you to ask yourself what, in your case, is ‘meant to be’. 

Everybody doesn’t get everything is different. It implies that life will go certain ways over which you have very little or no control. That not every choice you make will be the right one, and that there are many things that you won’t get to choose. Moreover, these turns in your fate can’t always be repackaged as necessarily leading to something better. It implies finality, loss, regret. 

So, yes. I regret not having children younger. (I know how very, very lucky I am to have them at all; that there are many who aren’t so lucky, for whom this statement might, understandably, feel like looking a gift horse in the mouth.) But still, in truth, if I could have a do over, I would do it differently. And I can’t help but wonder if we’ve collectively gotten it wrong: if the new urban middle-class norm of eking out your childfree years until the very end of your childbearing possibilities isn’t missing the mark. I wonder about the alternative in which parents are younger, grandparents too. In which we grow up – we develop – alongside our children, rather than assuming some peak ‘readiness’ that is only bestowed upon us deep into adulthood (a fallacy, of course: no one is ever really ready for having children, you become ready when you have to).

On the upside, I know that this feeling of regret is a function of a profound love. Perhaps regret often is? I am acutely aware that this wasn’t inevitably mine to have; that life could well have gone a different way. Tied up, then, in regret for what wasn’t is a deep gratitude for what is. 

Perhaps only by allowing room for regret – for acknowledgement that some decisions are bad ones, that many things are out of our control, that everybody doesn’t get everything – can we fully realize regret’s inverse: appreciation of the things that we did get, whatever they are.