Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

Regret Can Be a Valuable Teacher and Informant

Regret is a valuable tool for predicting our future feelings.

As the debate rages about the merits of the childfree life is the fear of future regret a valid motivator for popping out babies.

Regret made a cameo in a Time magazine cover storyabout the rise in childfree couples. Many women and men struggling over the decision—have kids or don’t have kids?—wonder about the possibility of later regretting the choice, specifically the choice to remain childfree. They are asked, or ask themselves, “Aren’t you afraid you’ll regret not having a baby later?” As Gina, a 37-year-old married woman somewhat confusedly contemplating parenthood told me, “I’m just waiting for the signal, the thing that lets me know that I really want a child, and not that I’m considering having one because I’m afraid that I’ll regret it when I don’t. Doesn’t potential regret seem like a terrible reason to have a child?”

Maybe. Or maybe not. What if regret is, in fact, something to consider? If you think you might regret not having a child, does that mean you should?

We typically think of regret as a waste of energy and emotion, a negative state that involves blaming ourselves for an unwanted outcome. This is why pop music tells audiences, “don’t look back,” and yoga teachers tell students to “live in the moment.” But regret is also a valuable tool for predicting how we may feel about something later on; as such, it can be an important consideration and not a waste at all. Regret, after all—and especially regret without the possibility for correction—can create mind and body-damaging chronic stress. A 2011 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that regrets cause biological disregulation that can lead to emotional and physical unease. Meanwhile, the positive aspects of experiencing regret—and those have also been studied—remain so primarily in instances where such regret helps a person gain insight and avoid future negative behaviors. A 2008 study out of the University of Victoria and published in the journal Motivation and Emotion found that participants saw a great deal of benefit from the emotion of regret, but almost exclusively when that regret could lead to positive change—a sort of altering of course that, while applicable in many life situations, is far less so when dealing with the biological limitations of bearing children.

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Not every woman, or man, will experience the absolute certainty that can come along with “baby lust.” The biological desire to have children varies in strength from woman to woman and is dependent on many factors, including family history, genetics, and environment. Studies, including a recent report from the National Institutes of Health, show that women are more hardwired to respond to babies than men, but it’s also true that some women are more hardwired to respond than other women.

For those women who don’t feel that physical or emotional reaction to the thought of a baby (or an actual baby), it can be difficult to know if having a child is the right decision. They wonder, like Gina, if regret, an unknown quantity, can possibly be a reason. Certainly, having a child can feel like the hard decision. Children are inconvenient, expensive, and generally very demanding, especially when they’re babies. They require constant attention and care.

But often, some of the most important, and hardest, decisions humans make are driven by the fear of regret. And that’s perfectly okay. Regret is our brain’s way of instructing people to consider their choices, sometimes encouraging them to take the path that feels, at least at the moment, less desirable. Regret can be motivating—I will regret not going to spin class. And so you go. Regret can be corrective—I will regret picking this same fight with my husband. And so you don’t. Thinking about your choices and actions from the perspective of your future self can be useful, especially if it helps you make the better decision. Weighing the possibility of future regret can help you learn to understand yourself, what drives you, what satisfies you—and what does not. Giving some thought to what you might regret later can be a way to explore what’s really important.

This isn’t a call to have children. But it is a call to explore, and embrace, the idea that regret can be a valuable teacher and informant. That regret may, in fact, be something to consider when considering children—or any important life decision. Though regret isn’t something to fear, it is something to try to avoid, especially in situations where a decision may be irreversible. You won’t know what you can’t know until you become a parent (or don’t become a parent), and you can’t know what you will or won’t regret later on. But you can take the time to really consider the future, and how you’ll feel about the past, before you make a decision to discount what can be a very revealing emotion.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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