As a mother I often feel like a vessel for all the crap, sadness and frustration built up over a day. It’s as if my kids hold in all the hurt until they see my face and then explode it all over me. Even the dog somehow waits till everyone else is out before he rolls in possum poo and covers me with crap. He just did it this morning.
These are the moments in my rather sun-filled life, that I regret having too much time with my kids (dog included).
Yes, that’s right, too much.
This puts me diametrically at odds with Child Psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin who was asked by the Guardian last week to list the top five regrets cited by parents.
Dr Rudkin states that the number one regret for most parents was ‘spending too little time with your children’. The fact that I’m on the opposite side of the argument just shows how very contraire is the entire concept of regret. When you think about regret you realise it’s the manifestation of a worry that becomes a wondering of the other way life could have gone. We feel for what we did or failed to do, a path we didn’t take. A path that may not have worked out for us anyway. It’s the ‘grass is greener’ argument writ large.
I’m not one of these tough types who can just dismiss regret as a ‘useless emotion’. We all feel it at times. Parents, perhaps, are experts. Many mothers have daily regrets; using harsh words, letting a kid quit an instrument, missing their assembly, hovering too close, not being there enough and everything in between.
Regrets for parenting mistakes are different to regrets we have for our own lives; those are our wounds, to be nursed, healed, learnt from and then perhaps even celebrated as our strengths. Yet our regrets for our kids are about pain, shame and, most of all, blame. If that sounds harsh then please note that the Guardian psychologist lists guilt as the fifth most common regret. Yet, guilt, is in some ways, is regret in another form. We regret being guilty. We regret regret! Is that the Catch 22 of parenting? You have to laugh. Dr Rudkin’s advice - to lower expectations and be kind to yourself - are wise words indeed. But perhaps the entire exercise was just contributing to the industry that surrounds, supports and profits from parental guilt that I’ve discussed before on Daily Life.
Yet the Guardian pressed on, asking parents to send in their greatest parenting regrets. The results are insightful and heart breaking. There are no ‘letting them drop the trumpet’, or ‘not learning another language’ or trite middle class moans. They are deep and devastating. A father regrets not reading the final Harry Potter book to his son who died, a Mother talks of shattering her child’s faith, a woman regrets not waking her seven year old to see his father’s body when he’d died in the home 20 years ago.
These are real regrets. Let them humble us into reducing our own.
I know set backs with our children can be all-consuming. When they wake up crying about going to school, when they are fraught over friendship fights, when they are having difficulty coping with life. Such issues can temporarily take over our entire lives; I trial strategies while with them, discuss the problem with others when I’m not and strategise instead of sleeping. If they can’t be solved then there’s justifiable grief. Yet while a child’s issue may seem huge, insurmountable and unmanageable, most are solved or simply waft away like smoke. We shouldn’t hold onto those times but we need to let that smoke sting our eyes and inhale the smell of success. We should remember not regretting those times we advocated for our child, or worked towards resolution.
The most heart breaking regret in the post is the anonymous woman who regrets choosing a brain damaged or possibly autistic child from an orphanage; a child that’s obviously required so much care it’s deeply damaged her fragile family unit.
That puts all other regrets into perspective.
I’ll never regret having kids but I do often regret acquiring our poo-rolling pooch. This morning I told him so, yelling at him as I grabbed him and washed him roughly throwing a bucket of water over for a rinse. He ended up shivering and whimpering; I had to hold him in my arms to calm him. That’s when I felt the regret for the roughness, meanness and impatience expressed with my dog, my kids my partner, my parents.
It seems we behave the worst with those we love the most. That’s why my kids download on me so badly.
There’s privilege within that pain and it’s why I can’t regret too much time with them.
At the end of the day we are stuck with each other and can only do our best in this scramble through life. Our regrets may burn like a scar that may never completely heal and while there’s no use pretending they aren’t there, they shouldn’t define our parenting.
In one of his last stage plays ‘The Ride Down Mt Morgan’, Arthur Miller said “Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.” He wrote that line twenty-five years after sending his baby with Down Syndrome to an institution and excluding him from his life.
Eleven years later, his son-in-law, the actor Daniel Day-Lewis persuaded him to reunite with his grown son. I bet he didn’t regret that.