When Shannon was little and I was a single parent, I often wished that I had more time to cuddle and coddle her. She was an adorable and agreeable little girl and eager to please; she often took on adult tasks at an early age. She could read maps and acted as my navigator in the car almost as soon as she could read. She bought her own clothes within a very limited budget by the time she was in middle school. When Rosemary and I started living together and I wanted her daughter, Talmadge, to take on more household tasks, I would tell them how Shannon had assumed those responsibilities at a much earlier age. Rosemary and her daughter still tease me, “We know, we know, Shannon did her laundry when she was in the womb.” I may, in my own mind, exaggerate how independent Shannon was, but I know my parenting style was at least partly the result of trying to have a career and a reasonable home life without any family or close friends around to support me. When I erred as a parent, I erred on the side of supporting my daughter’s self-reliance.
I will never know how much Shannon’s independence was a function of her nature and how much of my nurture, for it is also true that at a very young age, an age when I wasn’t prepared for less cuddling, she started saying, “No hugs,” if I overdid the cuddling. Whatever the truth, I promised myself that later, when she was grown and I looked back on those times, I wouldn’t second guess myself and feel guilty for not doing it better. I promised myself that I would remember how difficult life was, how rushed I was, how I struggled, and how I did the best I could.
Now, when I look back and wish that I had had more time and more wisdom to be a better parent, I remember that promise and don’t berate myself. I feel sad that I didn’t let her be a baby longer, but I know there were demands and choices, and that, given the circumstances, I am not sure I could do better today.
I’m not sure that counts as a regret.
I have a friend who told me she has no regrets. I pondered over that. I found a web site with a multitude of quotes from famous people. The preponderance of them said they had no regrets either. I thought some more. It would be something one might do at my age under any circumstances, to look back over one’s life and evaluate. Since I am writing a memoir, I spend considerable time living in the past, reading old journals and letters, dredging up memories of how things were. Do I have regrets?
When I ask myself this question, most of the things that come to mind are ones that have explanations, rationales, as with the parenting example. If everything were the same, the same decisions and actions would probably follow. I might wish I could retry being a parent, but it would be only hindsight that would bring about a different result. I might wish I could have been kinder to my parents as an adolescent and in my twenties, but I was young and in the throes of trying to be my own person and find my footing in the world and I had a very close, religious family. Is that what people mean when they say they have no regrets – they understand why they made the choices they did, however unhappy they might be about them?
Some situations that I feel badly about, I do think I could do better if I had another chance. Perhaps I am fooling myself, but I believe I could be a better daughter or a better manager at work if I had just paid more attention to what was important. I think that, whatever the surrounding circumstances, I could have risen above them, been a better person. For example, I regret that I didn’t have a serious talk with my Dad before he died, that I didn’t tell him how I loved him and why. While it might be true that in my whole life, we never had a serious talk (we had a wonderful relationship in many other ways), I would feel better now if I thought that I at least had tried to talk to him. I believe, if I could be dropped back into those days, even without the wisdom of my present age, I could make a better effort. Maybe the toughest regrets are those when, given the opportunity and the same circumstances, you believe you could do better in a do-over. Hopefully, I learned something from these.
Then, there are the regrets about things that one didn’t do. When my Mom was in hospice, Rosemary asked her if she had her life to live over, would she do anything different. Vera thought for a very brief moment and replied, “Play more tennis.” We were so surprised. We had never heard her say a word about tennis – ever. She may have played a little when she was a teenager. I know both her brothers did, because the old wooden racquet they used became mine. But, no one ever mentioned that Vera had used it. Somehow, tennis was her big regret – the thing she would do differently if given the chance to do her life over.
This kind of regrets can be of a more serious nature, too: I wish I had had the resources to have another child; I really would have liked to be able to be a writer earlier in my life; I’m sorry every day that we had to sell our house in Maine. I wish my life had been such that I could have done these things, but it was not. I know a developer who wanted to be an architect. He didn’t because his father had other plans for him. He is retirement age now, but he still wishes things had been different, that he had been different. These are things that might be worth spending a little time regretting.
However, as the Count in A Gentleman in Moscow says when adjusting to being under house arrest in the servant’s quarters of a grand hotel, “Imagining what might happen if one’s life circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness,” and he made the best of life as it was. Maybe when people say there is nothing in their lives that they regret, they mean that they just don’t think about things that might have been different; they don’t beat themselves up about them.
I imagine every one must have some things they think they could have done better, some statements they wish they could have rephrased, some deed they would like to have done. No one is perfect. No one gets it all right the first time round. Maybe some people don’t consider the things that they do wrong as regretful. Perhaps it is just a matter of semantics.
As I was writing this, Rosemary woke up from her nap. We had agreed to go to the beach and the day was warm and summery, even though it is late October. About choices like this, I do not hesitate. In the car, on the way to the beach, I asked her. “Do you have any regrets?” Hers were similar to mine: some about her parenting, for example, that she didn’t take better care of her daughter’s hair. Or, not traveling when she was younger, which is somewhat like my wishing I had played more tennis when I could have (maybe I learned this regret from my mother). Her other wishes were, like her, selfless ones about taking care of others better. These fall into the category of things that we wish we could have done, but didn’t have the money, or perhaps the time, or other priorities forced themselves upon us.
We arrived at the beach, where people were still swimming, though the leaves on the trees along the sand were turning red. I waded in and the ocean was, after my first few steps, warm and life-giving. “I’m glad we came,” I thought. We walked the length of the beach to the sandbar. It was a short beach, but I could see the open ocean past the tip of Long Island, where the New London Ferry was pulling in, and it felt freeing, like an opening of lightness in a sometimes too heavy universe. “If I have any regrets,” I thought, “They are not worth spending much time on. There are things I wish I had done differently, but, whether they were intentional choices or I was the victim of circumstances, that is something I will never know. I think it is all right to wish things could have been different, learn from my mistakes, long to have made different choices, but I shouldn’t beat myself up with these thoughts, nor spend too much time thinking about them.”
As Kathryn Schultz, writer for the New Yorker, explains in her wonderful TED talk, Don’t Regret Regrets, “Regret teaches us this: If we have goals and dreams and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we don’t want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong…The point isn’t to live without [regrets]. The point is not to hate ourselves for having them.”
The sand molded itself to the bottoms of my happily undressed feet and the surprisingly soft, warm ocean water slithered over the tops. This I know: When I look back on this day, I won’t second guess myself about the words that didn’t get written today.
I promise myself that.