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7 Reasons People Shouldn't Fear They'll Regret Not Having Kids

1. To fear future regret is to mistrust yourself.

But will you regret it? If you are considering the possibility of not having kids, it is the question you will probably ask yourself. Lots of other people, looking at the life you are pondering, will wonder the same thing.

The people who take the parenting question seriously include both men and women, but the pressures on women to choose to have children are more intense. Motherhood, we have been led to believe, is essential to womanhood. In contrast, a man can stake a claim to being a “real man” without being a father.

I am interested in the experiences of both men and women who do not have kids, and I don’t particularly like the word “childless.” Rachel Chrastil focuses primarily on women in her book titled How to Be Childless. Nonetheless, her chapter on regret is one of the most insightful explorations of the topic I have ever read. (I discussed the wisdom from her other chapters previously.)

Here are seven of the most important lessons about regret from How to Be Childless.

1. To fear future regret about a decision that feels right now is to mistrust yourself. When I was 37, I had a disturbing medical problem that had persisted for more than a year and defied every available treatment. I was sick of it and wanted to have the surgery I had been resisting up to that point. If I did have the surgery, though, I would never be able to bear children.

I had never wanted kids. Not once. Not even for a moment. And yet, before I had the surgery, I talked to a therapist about it. I wanted to know if I was just fooling myself about not wanting kids and whether I might change my mind in the future.

I wish I could have read Chrastil’s book instead. (It wasn’t published until this year.) “When we fear future regret,” Chrastil said, “we mistrust ourselves.” She described what “lurks behind many women’s fears of future regret” as “the notion that they do not know themselves, that their current lives and preferences do not provide grounds for knowing what they will want in the future.”

My decision was nearly three decades ago. I have never regretted it.

2. Regret isn’t just about our individual personalities and choices; it is a result of cultural pressures to feel a certain way. Among women who never have children, Chrastil notes, “wallowing in regret is seen as natural, expected, and indeed normal. That holds true whether the woman is childless by choice or due to circumstances or infertility.”

But wallowing in regret is none of those things. There is nothing inevitable about feeling regret about not having children. Instead, it is something we are conditioned to expect.

“Regret is not, in the end, a boogeyman that might jump out at unexpected moments. It is…a negative emotion that is encouraged and fostered in childless women taught to fear a future of lamentation, guilt, and loneliness

“The assumption that childless women should go through a period of anguish over the decision is a “feeling rule” that enforces the notion that childlessness is universally undesirable and that motherhood is so natural as to lie beyond the realm of critical thought.”

3. In later life, regret about not having children is something some women mention, but only when they are specifically asked about it. Psychologists interested in the experience of regret among women who never had children can ask those women if they regret not having kids. Or they can just ask them about their regrets and see what they say.

In her review of the research, Chrastil found that the women who describe themselves as involuntarily childless were more likely to express regret than those who said that they had chosen not to have kids. But that only happened when they were asked specifically about their regrets about not having kids.

“…when women are asked more generally about their regrets, without specific mention of children, there are no differences in the total number of regrets between mothers, voluntarily childless, and involuntarily childless women. Even among the involuntarily childless, women asked about their general regrets in life are not likely to spontaneously mention their regret for not having children.”

4. The decision not to have kids is the only one we question, but some people regret having kids. Imagine a woman who is 37 years old and believes she really wants to have children. She has always wanted children. She never doubted it, not even for a moment.

Would she see a therapist to be sure she wasn’t just fooling herself or to explore whether she might change her mind in the future?

Well, no. The decision not to have kids is the only one we question. We don’t worry so much about the possibility of regretting having kids.

And yet, some women do regret having kids. Even mothers who love their kids. That’s what Orna Donath found in the interviews that were the basis for her book, Regretting Motherhood. It is a project she initiated when she got sick of being told that she was going to regret not having children.

5. To fear future regret about not having children is to misunderstand happiness. Women who fear a life full of regret if they don’t have children may be taking too seriously the scare stories that are peddled to them – particularly the one about how “there is just one way to achieve personal happiness – children – and that if we do not meet that condition, then we are doomed to feel unfulfilled.”

Happiness doesn’t work that way. Even when we are faced with true and deep disappointments (and not just cultural mandates to be disappointed), we are better at dealing with them than we anticipate. In our everyday lives, it is typically our current joys (and sorrows) that matter most. They include ordinary experiences, such as basking in the presence of good friends, savoring our solitude, or looking forward to our plans for the weekend.

6. To fear future regret about not having children is to underestimate the wisdom of our older selves. “Older and wiser” is not just a cliché. Sometimes it is true.

“Fear of future regret suggests that we will not figure out how to cope with life’s disappointments, that our older selves will not be wiser than we are now, or that the wisdom of age entails a rejection of the person we are today rather than a compassion for our present selves.”

7. To fear future regret about not having children is to embrace a narrow view of what it means to be human. People who do not have children do not just live with a void in their lives. They can fashion big, meaningful lives. Opportunities may be open to them that would have been closed off by the choice to parent.

We can have close, intimate relationships in our lives without having children of our own. We can pursue passions and life paths that have nothing to do with parenting.

Rachel Chrastil ended her chapter on regret with this word of advice: "Instead of worrying about making the right choice, we ought to make the most of our choices.”

Facebook image: Alliance Images/Shutterstock

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