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Parental regret should be taboo — because the children might be listening

We live in a time thick with taboos, which stand about our cultural landscape like totems on ancient burial grounds. There are all kinds of things one cannot say about religion, race, sex, sexuality, health, appearance et cetera without severe social sanctioning. 

These codes of speech and behaviour are rarely called “taboos”, at least by the people who enforce them, because the term itself has acquired connotations of oppressive irrationality. “Taboos” are the stuff of snooty schoolmarms and joyless patriarchs. 

Journalists have been prodding this taboo with great enthusiasm

Yet I do not think taboos are bad per se. The health of our public square demands that some language and deeds be excluded. Cursing in front of the elderly or infants? Dropping n-bombs? Discussing one’s sexual attraction to livestock? Scold that I am, I think such things should incur reputational damage. 

Yet there are trickier cases. On Twitter in recent days, people have been discussing whether women should feel inhibited in expressing their regrets about becoming mothers. “So many women regret it but they cannot say a word,” said one academic. “It really is one of the biggest taboos in the world.”

Is it? Let us conduct an experiment. One woman expresses her regrets about having children and another voices her belief in some spicy flavour of biological determinism. Who will come out worse? Still, we can agree that there is something of a taboo surrounding maternal, and paternal, regret. It is not something we can discuss around other people without at least the possibility of losing friends. 

In recent years, though, journalists have been poking and prodding this taboo with great enthusiasm. Article after article has explored “the explosive taboo”, “the breaking of a taboo” and so on. While these articles are not entirely acclamatory, giving a platform to regretful parents suggests that these writers do not think it should have this taboo status.

It is bizarre how infrequently children’s interests are mentioned

Now, some parents will inevitably regret having kids, and who am I to judge them. Sure, I can imagine bad reasons for doing so. Pining for one’s youthful hedonism, say, is childish as such behaviour inevitably grows pathetic whether or not someone has kids. I am sure that in some trying circumstances the stress and struggle become difficult to bear, however. This is something one could certainly explore with a psychiatrist, a priest or an especially trustworthy friend.

Still, I think that it should be taboo for parents men as well as women to express these feelings in public. Why? Because the children might be listening. It is bizarre how infrequently their interests come up in these kinds of discussions. One article in Psych magazine that endorses greater openness towards expressions of parental regret entirely subordinates the child’s feelings to those of the parent and does not even mention how the average kid might feel on hearing that their existence is a source of sadness. (I know people who have heard this, and I do not think it was a valuable experience.) 

Does this mean some people should be less than wholly honest about their emotions? Yep. Sorry. When we enter into relationships of any level of commitment, we sacrifice aspects of ourselves for the sake of others. This is not the only such example. Imagine that a married man or woman has an accident or contracts an illness and requires care. I am sure their wife or husband might have moments where they wish but they had never married such an unfortunate person. Should they express that? No. How is the disabled person meant to feel? Again, someone with the intelligence to even ask themselves such moral questions should have enough intelligence to realise that sometimes the interests of others come before their own.

There are more productive expressions of regret

There are more productive expressions of regret that people should feel free to voice. If a mother, or a father, or a carer regrets having no time for themselves, for example if they really do have no time for themselves it is the duty of their relatives and friends to rally round and take some of the strain. If a parent or a carer regrets their miserable economic circumstances, there might be cause for state or charitable institutions to step in. While most parents are happier for becoming so, as illustrated by recent research from the Institute for Family Studies, that is not always the case and it is in all of our interests not to make parenthood, or caregiving, more of a burden than it has to be.

Yet this sort of problem-solving is quite different from the unfiltered public divulgence of mere regret which, quite apart from the harm it does to others, is of no proven benefit to oneself. The idea that raw public confession is inherently good is suspiciously popular among people in journalism and entertainment to whom it is of professional use.

“Civilised life cannot be lived without taboos,” wrote Theodore Dalrymple in Our Culture, What’s Left Of It. I am not as civilised as the good Dr Dalrymple but I agree with him. We might disagree on what taboos we should maintain but we cannot live without them. They are how we can uphold a system of common morality by integrating our individual interests into a whole. Sometimes this means that our individual interests do not take precedence. This is part of growing up, whether or not we have kids.

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