What does childfree regret really feel like?
How many childfree people ever regret their decision? We hear all the time that we’ll change our mind, and maybe by then it will too late to have kids, and we’re doomed to live a lonely, unfulfilling life. These ideas are so pervasive, that there must be some truth in them… right?
We decided to settle the issue of childfree regret once and for all, and asked our Instagram followers, “How many of you have ever regretted your choice?” Of the thousand who replied, 4% said they’d experienced some kind of regret.
So, a massive 96% of childfree people have never had second thoughts – but what about the 40 folks out there who said “yes”? Are they lying awake at night in pain, wishing that they could go back and have children? Well, no. Because when we asked them, it turns out they’ve experienced something called “cold regret”.
Hot and cold regret
“Sometimes, it seems to have a wistful character: it’s associated with nostalgic reminiscences, bitter-sweet fantasies and melancholy yearnings. But in other cases, regret seems to have a biting or searing quality: one mentally kicks oneself or tears one’s hair.”
That biting or searing quality is usually paired with a desire to change the situation, to go back and undo what’s been done. That’s hot regret, the kind expressed by parents who wish they’d never have children, as shared with the Facebook group or Regretting Motherhood author Orna Donath:
What we hear from the few childfree people who experience regret is that they feel a kind of cold regret. They might sometimes fantasise about how their life would have turned out if they’d had children, and the special moments they’re missing out on – while still knowing they made the right choice for themselves and their life.
It’s not what we usually think about when we think about regret – and not what we’re told we’re risking unless we do as we’re supposed to (have children). Cold regret is something closer to wistfulness, a slightly sad feeling when you think about something that’s impossible.
So what does childfree regret feel like?
When our community members described their regret, they shared “fleeting moments”, usually sparked by witnessing a parent’s purest moments of joy with their child, or experiencing something similar as an aunt or family friend.
But the same childfree people also expressed no remorse about the choices they made. Their reflections made room for the things they’ll miss out on, while holding fast to the self-knowledge that they’ve made the right decision for themselves. “It’s OK to feel sad about it now and then” about what might have been, they told us – “it’s an important part of fully embracing my choice”.
We’ve heard similar things in our long-form podcast interviews, especially from life coach/opera singer Fiona Finsbury and clarity coach Keltie Maguire. Childfree people who’ve done a lot of inner work to arrive at their choice recognise that every time you choose to step down one path, you’re choosing not to go down an infinite number of other paths.
It’s fine to wonder what could have been waiting for you down those other life paths, as long as you’re comfortable with the path that you’re currently on.
Feeling comfortable in your decision
Other childfree communities insist that everyone should be 100% sure about their decision, 100% of the time. When you set that impossibly high bar of certainty, admitting to the possibility of regret can be seen as a betrayal of yourself and your childfree kin. In a world that tells us we’ll regret our choices, it’s tempting to replying defyingly “No, never!”
When we spoke to our community about this, they had a much healthier perspective. You don’t have to be certain about your choice, because you can’t ever know what’s lying ahead of you in your future, or what could have been in the alternate futures you’ll now never live. You don’t even have to feel confident in your choice, it’s enough to feel comfortable. If, right now, you’re comfortable with where you’re at and how you feel, that’s enough.
Hot or not?
So next time someone challenges you with the possibility of regret, or you wonder to yourself, “will I regret being childfree?”, try to reflect a little deeper.
If there’s part of you that worries about missing out on the pleasures of parenthood and the pure moments of joy that come with it, is that where those feelings end? Because if you’re only wistful about what you might miss out on, that’s the kind of cold regret that’s perfectly normal to feel.
Take your emotional temperature. Ask yourself, how hot is this regret I’m facing? If it feels painful, like you couldn’t live in a future in which you don’t have children, you need to listen to that and really explore the possibility of parenthood.
But if your emotional thermometer reads any colder, give yourself permission to fantasise about what could have been. Because when you can leave yourself open to sometimes feeling sad about the decisions you didn’t make, you can feel truly comfortable in what you did choose for yourself.