Why It’s OK To Have Regrets

Regrets are like negatives, the other half of the story, inky patches of darkness that round out the whole person that I am.

Yesterday, after a much needed rainstorm in our drought-stricken state, my son and I went outside to admire an enormous rainbow circumnavigating the sky. There’s something about the sight of a rainbow that makes you feel as though you’ve stepped into a commercial for life insurance or diapers. I felt as though I should fling my arms wide and turn in circles like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. What I thought, to my surprise was: “So this is my life as a suburban mom.” You could almost hear the “wa-wa” downer music.

It’s a pretty good life, don’t get me wrong. Even a great one in many ways, but ever since turning 40 last August, a note of unrest has crept into my thoughts. In that moment I wanted to scale that rainbow and find myself at its end in the parallel life that always runs alongside this one, the one where I took that “other” path.

In that other life I went to graduate school in journalism at Columbia or NYU. I left my home state of California and lived in New York in my 20s, rubbed elbows with those in my thriving literary community, wrote for national magazines and published many novels. In this life, I established my career first, then went on to marry and have my child. (In this other life I also had incredibly luxurious hair volume and fabulous taste in clothes).

Why does the order matter? I’m working hard at a writing career now, the paving stones laid down over the past 20 years. Perhaps this feeling of wishing I’d done it differently stems from the daily grind of raising a child without family help, particularly where society looks at childrearing as “woman’s work” despite 30-plus years in which I identified primarily as a writer.

In all honesty, my husband would make the better work-at-home parent, with his wellsprings of patience and ability to let small annoyances roll off his back. I, self-employed for over a decade, driven to create, ought to be the one heading off to make bread each day.

Often when I’ve mentioned this “regret” of mine to friends or on Facebook, I receive the same set of responses: “Don’t live with regrets” or “Embrace what you have now” and other platitudes that are well-meaning but skirt the very real fact that nobody’s life ever works out exactly as we planned.

Can anyone really say they regret nothing? Can you pick through the strands of your life and be absolutely happy with every one? I can’t. Sure, it’s possible to make a lesson and meaning out of anything. Yes, I learned how to stand up for myself by dating an emotionally controlling boyfriend in college. Do I regret having spent over three years with him? You’re damn right, I do; I would much rather have spent three years with a guy who treated me fantastically. Sure, going into credit card debt by the age of 23 taught me how to manage money; do I regret it? Do I wish someone had simply taught me how to manage it from the get-go? Yes, I do. I can think of a lot of wonderful things I could have done for my family with that money if I hadn’t wasted it.

The fact is, not all regrets are teachers. Some are tar pits in the otherwise smooth landscape of my life.

And yet, I’m not ashamed to have regrets. Like sorrow, regret is not mutually exclusive from joy or gratitude. I’d say regret is a shadow that lives in the gray area between happiness and heartache—its existence makes all that much clearer when we’ve made the right choice. The heart and psyche can hold such nuance.

I am a happy person who lives with a few regrets. Sometimes those regrets get a grip on me that I can’t shake. When the work of being a responsible adult—tending to the constant needs of a child, a job, a household—overwhelms me, I slip along through the cracks of my regrets into the parallel universe of other choices I might have made and I yearn for choices I did not make.

Yearning is not such a terrible thing, either.

Already I can hear the rebuttals. “But you wouldn’t be who you are;” “But you learned so much;” “But regrets are just investments in the past.”

These statements might be right. These statements might be wrong.

My regrets are mine, personal and particular to me, as yours are to you. They tell a story as vividly as the perfect choices I have made. They are like negatives, the other half of the story, inky patches of darkness that round out the whole person that I am.

They don’t take away my joy for the life I do live; they don’t steal any of the many tiny moments of awe I feel in a given day—when my son reads me a book, when my husband plays the guitar, when I’m able to string words into satisfying alignment. Regrets are the counterpoints, the dark matter, as necessary in their imperfection to the life I’ve lived as all the choices I got right along the way.

Jordan Rosenfeld is author of: A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, Make a Scene, Write Free, and the novels Forged in Grace, and Night Oracle. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in: Brain, Child, Dame, Modern Loss, The New York Times, Paste, Purple Clover, The Rumpus, Stir Journal, the Washington Post, Role Reboot and more.

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