Setting the Context
You will find out why I locked onto this title for this post, just days from Mother’s Day 2020.
Perhaps it sounds unpleasant compared to the joy and delight numerous families demonstrated as they celebrated love for mothers. After all, people took time to see through the lenses of gratitude for the things that used to annoy them “Thank you mum for yelling at me to do my Chinese homework because now, I understand the virtues of perseverance”, or for the countless small acts they never noticed “Thank you mum for always cooking for us”, or simply for acknowledging the hardship of being a parent, after having a taste of it “Being a parent is so tough! How did my mother do it?!”
So how in the world did I come to this topic of mothers and regret?
Narratives of Sacrifice: Decision-making and living with the chosen path
I see it along the narratives of sacrifice.
Myraids of accounts can be found in research studies, in newspaper articles about the challenges of being parents and juggling work and chores and all. (Alex Blackie and Oliver Burkeman were able to shed some light on The Guardian), social media platforms (Anne Kenny and Natalie Tulsiani manage a business because they know the struggles that working mothers face).
The journeys that mothers undertake are bumpy (pun intended), physically and emotionally challenging. They know that men will never fully get it (even if they get to experience an empathy belly or a labour pain simulator). Also, they tend to take on a disproportionate amount of work at home. Like their partners or even more, they face countless situations where they have to choose between family and career – quitting their job to stay-at-home, or working part-time tor full-time. Mothers make numerous, untold and sometimes invisible sacrifices. Sacrifices are the by-product of the seeking common ground, deciding one option over others.
When we exercise choice, we weigh the options. Sometimes, very quickly and automatically: coffee or tea? Sometimes, it is easy to choose: take the bus or a taxi.
Sometimes, it is difficult: take time to explain, for the fifth time, to your toddler why they should sit at the dinner table to have their meal or discipline them and throw away the dinner, like you had already said.
Sometimes it seems impossible, and numerous external factors have a bearing on our choice: spend time to go through the emotionally draining process of looking for a new (and hopefully better job) while juggling parenthood or stay in a taxing yet unfulfilling job which pays the bills.
Most of the time, we try to make an informed decision. We consider as many factors as we can think of – weighing our resources and what we can afford in terms of time, money, energy – that we have some control over in the given circumstances (opportunities, climate, economy, etc). We also evaluate the impact of our decision on those closed to us.
Usually some sacrifices have to be made: quitting a job to relocate with your partner so the family can stay together, forgoing your own professional development to concentrate on your children’s growing needs, staying in a city you dread for easier access to better schools for your children, having children even when you were ambivalent about it. We may encourage and comfort ourselves: “I can do it. Many people have done it. Some have it worse than me. I can do it.”
Perhaps now we can appreciate why many studies have linked regret with decision-making processes.
Time would lapse and some of us realise that we do not like the choice we had made – afterall, we are not very good at predicting the future. Some of us find ourselves living with regret.
Perhaps, we had anticipated the challenges and now living the tough reality had been beyond your imagination. “Why did I choose this path?”, we would ask ourselves.
And this emotion consumes us, especially on bad days.
Regretting having children is almost a taboo notion to conjure in the mind, much less speak about. Like Jean Mackenzie who wrote about the mothers who regret having children, Anne Kingston wrote a compelling article on Maclean’s Canada about maternal regret. Vinita Mehta, on Psychology Today, discussed a study done on Reddit which revealed another category of parental regret: regretting circumstances associated with having children.
A quick search done online revealed many articles or blog posts that discuss regret that mothers face along the lines of careers: mothers giving up their career to stay-at home or mothers choosing their career over their children. How about those who re-join the workforce after taking time to stay-at-home and are often confronted with the reality of a stunted career growth? How about mothers who regret not involving their partners more, letting them get used to taking the easy way out?
Regret is often associated with thoughts that are too rigid and inflexible. Melanie Greenberg wrote a couple of posts about it on Psychology Today. Regret can affect our mental health but it can be used as an avenue for transformation and lead us on a path of healing. I found Moya Sarner’s article on The Guardian ” Regret can seriously damage your mental health – here’s how to leave it behind” a pretty good read.
How can mothers take care of their own mental health, especially if it is affected by feelings of regret that do not seem to dissipate but overwhelms in phases?
How Can Mothers Move from Regret
I shared an article on my Facebook page the week before, written by Juliana Breines on Psychology Today (follow her blog here) where she listed three questions to help shift our perspective to ease the regret we experience. There are also other posts that you can branch out to read from the suggested further reading list below.
Some takeaways here:
1) Exercise self-compassion.
Nobody is perfect. Mothers may be exceptionally critical of themselves and overlook the factors that influenced their decisions in the past. We make mistakes. Be kind to yourself. It is easier to judge ourselves with a 20/ 20 hindsight, without the stressors and limitations experienced at the point of making that decision.
2) Accept that the past cannot be undone. Be aware of the emotions that are being stirred by regret as well.
Whatever your references could be, maybe there could be anger at yourself or others, grief over the loss of opportunities to advance your career or the loss of witnessing some milestones in your children’s lives, disappointment, remorse, and so on. Find ways to express these emotions in a helpful way, through art, writing or through drawing support from people you trust.
3) Appreciate the path you took.
Celebrate the good things that happened and identify the bad things that were potentially avoided. Recognise that there is a timing for everything. Maybe the alternative path you thought you had could have led you to where you are now. What are the grasses that are considered greener on your side? Whether you had your child when you were 19 or when you were 40, maybe someone out there desires your situation.
4) Change the narrative. Identify the lessons learnt.
How have you become a better mother because of regret? What have you learnt about yourself that you can apply in a helpful way in the future?
Allow Regret to be Helpful for You
We are humans, with our own unique characteristics, influences, background, preferences. Learning how to move forward and learn from regret can be powerful and transformational. Such a change would have a positive impact on the people whom we love.
If you feel stuck and overwhelmed, perhaps you can use a little bit of help to work on your regrets. Find out, with a free 30-minute discovery call, if I could be a good fit to journey with you.
Blackie, A. (2013, April 20). ‘I couldn’t have it all’ – choosing between my child and my career. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/apr/20/choosing-between-child-and-career
Breines, J. (2020, Jan 07). If you’re haunted by regret, ask yourself these 3 questions: shift your perspective to ease the pain. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-love-and-war/202001/if-youre-haunted-regret-ask-yourself-these-3-questions/
Burkeman, O. (2018, Feb 17). Dirty secret: why is there still a housework gender gap? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2018/feb/17/dirty-secret-why-housework-gender-gap
Greenberg, M. (2012, Jun 01). The neuroscience of regret: how our brains learn to let go of regret as we age – and why some people don’t. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201206/the-neuroscience-regret
Greenberg, M. (2012, May 16). The psychology of regret: Should we really aim to live our lives with no regrets? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201205/the-psychology-regret
Gulati, D. (2012, Dec 14). The top 5 career regrets. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/12/the-top-five-career-regrets
Kenny, A. & Tulsiani, N. (2018, Sep 26). How invisible work and sacrifices affect working moms. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/s/story/how-invisible-work-sacrifices-affect-working-moms-5be46fe6f2ab
Kingston, A. (2019). ‘I regret having children’: In pushing the boundaries of acceptable maternal response, women are challenging an explosive taboo – and reframing motherhood in the process. Maclean’s. Retrieved from https://www.macleans.ca/regretful-mothers/
Mackenzie, J. (2018, April 03). The mothers who regret having children. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/education-43555736
Mehta, V. (2019, Sep 16). What parents regret about having children. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/head-games/201909/what-parents-regret-about-having-children
Parischa, Neil. (2019, Dec 03). Why are we so bad at predicting what will happen to us in the future? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://ideas.ted.com/why-are-we-so-bad-at-predicting-what-will-happen-to-us-in-the-future/
MacLellan, L. (2018, Jun 10). A new study on the psychology of persistent regrets that can teach you how to live now. Quartz at Work. Retrieved from https://qz.com/work/1298110/a-new-study-on-the-psychology-of-persistent-regrets-can-teach-you-how-to-live-now/
Sarner, Moya. (2019, Jun 27). Regret can seriously damage your mental health – here’s how to leave it behind. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jun/27/regret-can-seriously-damage-your-mental-health-heres-how-to-leave-it-behind