A few years ago, The Guardian wrote a story about parents who regretted having children
—even when they claim to genuinely love them. Counterintuitive positions like that are cocaine for journalists, and for the commentariat who responds to every passing trend. The format is straightforward: find a handful of people who hold an extremely idiosyncratic position, and postulate that maybe there’s a trend emerging. Who would dare think their lives would have gone better without having kids? More people than you might believe,
if the story is true.
I doubt that there is anything like a meaningful trend toward regretting having children—but the phenomenon, even in isolated cases, does raise interesting questions about how we weigh the goods within our own lives, and the role other people around us play within those evaluations. Consider the ambivalence at the heart of such a statement, without any reference to a person: someone might think that it is good to be an accountant, but wishes that their life might have gone such that they would have been a concert pianist instead. They might have had a real choice between them, and regret their prior choice—while simultaneously believing that their life is good, and that they are happy with it.
Framing the matter that way might make parents who regret having children seem less callous than they appear at first glance. But there is something distinct or unique about such regrets when the goods of other peoples’ lives are involved. It is one thing to recognize there is a shadow over one’s life: it is another to cast a shadow over someone else’s. And that’s what regretting parenthood seems to do. The parent who regret being a parent wishes that, on balance, the person who is their child wouldn’t have existed. Note that this is not quite a moral claim: it is not that the child shouldn’t have existed. But, at a minimum, it does indicate that the parents’ preference is for a life without both that particular child and, indeed, any child at all. The idea that a parent’s life would have gone better but for the presence of a child is a challenging idea, at least, for the child to reconcile as part of their self-understanding. Perhaps it can be done—but this is love, it’s a rather reticent kind of love.
This ambivalence, though, toward things that are good is a relatively common human phenomenon—and it’s not entirely sure what we should do with it. Note that it seems to draw much of its force from the relationship between the good and the better. One thinks it is good to have a child, but that it would be better to go without. One therapeutic strategy would be to simply bracket consideration of ‘the better’ altogether, to simply deny oneself the opportunity to reflect upon modals like what ‘might have been’ or ‘could have been.’ In Perelandra, Lewis’ Ransom speaks of enjoying the wave we are on without looking forward to the next one. Something like that seems possible for all manner of goods in this world.
I suspect that this simplicity and purity of heart would be astonishingly attractive. There’s a faux maturity within such ambivalent judgments of the world. It has the appearance of wisdom, but a life which has the tarnish of what ‘might have been’ is to that extent a sadder life than one without—even if, from some vantage point, one’s life might have in fact actually have gone better than it did. I’m not sure we should think of our lives as the ‘best of all possible lives.’ That’s a hard thought considering some of the extreme suffering people experience. But I don’t think it’s bad or wrong to adopt such a stance. There is nothing intrinsically Pollyannish about it, not if there is any real satisfaction to the realities of evil at all. The unmixed alloy of joy is the Christian’s possession—and it is possible to begin the habit of enjoying it now.