Regret is not a pleasant emotion. In fact, it’s a pretty detrimental emotion that has been linked to all sorts of negative well-being outcomes: lower life satisfaction and self-esteem, higher depression and emotional distress, and worse physical health, to name a few.
Yet, it’s impossible to do everything we want to do and not do anything we don’t want to do in life. Most of us will have some regrets about something in life. Family- and career- related regrets are among the most common ones people report. For women, in particular, finding the right balance between the two can be difficult, and women often end up sacrificing one or the other.
So when women sacrifice family for career or career for family, what do they regret more?
And given important changes in women’s role in society, do these regrets differ by cohort?
A study published in Sex Roles in 2012 provides answers to these questions. Researchers surveyed a random sample of 313 predominantly white, college-educated women (all graduated from the University of Michigan) who belonged to three different cohorts.
– Oldest cohort (age 66 at data collection) graduated college 20 years before the second wave of the Women’s Movement;
– Middle cohort (age 46 at data collection) graduated college at the height of the Women’s Movement; and
– Youngest cohort (age 26 at data collection) graduated college 20 years after the Women’s Movement.
They asked these women about, if given the chance, what, if anything, they would do differently regarding their home versus career decisions.
Two-thirds of the oldest and middle cohort women, and one-third of the youngest cohort had regrets that were either about:
1. Prioritizing family over career, including things like:- social constraints (e.g., I feel that opportunities for women were not as wide as opportunities today);
– limited career (e.g., I could have joined N.Y. publishing world & pursued full-time career);
– start family later (e.g., I think I would wait longer to get married & to have children).
2. Prioritizing career over family, including things like:- pursued career too aggressively (e.g., I would have stopped being so career driven at an earlier age.)
– start family sooner (e.g., I would have tried to have children sooner.);
Of these women who had at least one prioritizing family or prioritizing career regret, the vast majority among all three cohorts had regrets only regarding prioritizing family. This included:
– 98% of women in the oldest cohort;
– 68% of women in the middle cohort; and
– 83% of women in the youngest cohort.
Very very few women had regrets about prioritizing career.
Many women (one third to one half) also had career-related regrets of a different kind: Regrets about the specific career they had chosen, as opposed to choosing a different one (e.g., I discovered I did not have the talent to be really good).
For more detailed info, see the table below.
This finding is not entirely surprising in light of consistent evidence that the two top things Americans (men and women) regret are:
1. Education, and
Check out this graph from a meta-analysis of 11 studies published between 1989 and 2003 of people’s greatest regrets in life published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2005.
Take home message: Ladies (and gents), don’t give up on getting a good education and having a career, you’re more likely to regret those later in life.
Newton, N., Torges, C., & Stewart, A. (2012). Women’s regrets about their lives: Cohort differences in correlates and contents. Sex Roles, 66, 530-543. doi: 10.1007/s11199-012-0126-6