‘I’m Too Obsessed With My Work, Love, and Life to Be a Good Parent’

Parents are constantly shamed for their choices. From how we feed our children to how we educate them, everyone has an opinion on how to raise kids. The result? Moms and dads feel endlessly judged for the choices they make — even if they have no other options. This week, families around the country are sharing their inspiring, funny, honest, and heartbreaking stories with Yahoo Parenting in an effort to spark conversations, a little compassion, and change in the way we think about parenting forever. Share your story with us — #NoShameParenting.

I always had the illusion that infertility kept me from being a mother. As an artsy misfit from a conservative Midwestern family who was nicknamed “Morticia” for wearing all-black clothing, I was excited when my teenage nieces started visiting me in Manhattan. This is fantastic, I thought. I can make up for lost time — with no sleep deprivation, dental bills, or college tuition.

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When my brother Eric’s adorable, dark-haired daughter Andrea recently made plans to come from Michigan for a week to celebrate her 16th birthday, I decided to take her to a Broadway show. She asked about Fun Home, but my husband was set on the musical On the Town, which seemed less edgy for someone her age. So, in advance, I ordered good seats to the revival.

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But later I started worrying, regretting that I hadn’t listened to Andrea more carefully and let her pick the show. She was a talented performer aiming for musical theater — she’d already rocked the role of Flounder in The Little Mermaid in her school play — and it was her first visit to New York City. I realized that parents give up their personal desires all the time, yet I couldn’t subjugate my needs — to please my husband, to stay in a familiar cocoon — for my beloved niece for one night. She hadn’t arrived yet, and I’d already flunked parenting 101.

Then, my other brother’s daughter, a blond, 17-year-old trumpet player named Dara, enrolled in a two-week music camp in Manhattan. While making plans to see her on Friday night, I said, “Call me if you need anything.” On Monday morning at 9 a.m., my phone rang. Her dormitory room didn’t have a blanket. I looked at my calendar: meeting with my editor, phone conference with my publisher, session with my personal trainer, teaching class from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., all near my home in Greenwich Village. Should I cancel? Reschedule to rush 110 blocks uptown with a blanket? I had an idea — I emailed Dara and her mother the phone number of a personal shopper at Bed Bath & Beyond and arranged for a blanket to be delivered in two hours for $15, which her parents had no problem paying for.

Later that night, I saw that I’d screwed up again. A workaholic, I couldn’t change my schedule for one day to help Dara. Of course, if it were an emergency, I would have rushed there in a second. But maybe there was a reason I’ve made my books my babies and my students my surrogate children. I’m too obsessed with my work, love, and life to be a good parent.

In my defense, Dara was able to get the blanket quickly, and we had a fun dinner soon after. And it was a huge step to invite Andrea to stay with us for a week. My husband is a TV and film writer by day who teaches by night, as do I, to pay our rent. We married late, so it took us a while to adjust to each other, and we didn’t become financially solvent until our 40s. We rarely had guests stay in the second bedroom we’d turned into an office, christened “the Murder Room” since it housed all his Law & Order scripts and was where he sometimes worked round the clock to meet deadlines.

When my male shrink insisted it was a “biological tragedy” that I didn’t have children, I called him sexist. Still, I analyzed why my brothers had kids but I didn’t. As the oldest and only female of a quartet born within seven years, I didn’t like feeding babies or cleaning up the mayhem as “Mommy’s little helper.” My first brother was 17 months younger than me. I wondered if I resented him and wanted to be the baby longer.

In my late 30s, when I married and finally felt whole and happy, I went off birth control. I had the fantasy I’d get pregnant fast and have a baby, keeping my career to pay for childcare. But after two years of expensive, complicated, and invasive treatments, I gave up, blaming biology. I had friends who’d devoted decades to medical procedures, adopting infants, or becoming foster mothers. In retrospect, I saw I was unwilling to sacrifice my body, career, bank account, and everything else it would take.

Not all women were meant for mothering. Gloria Steinem gave birth to a movement that transformed the world instead. Maybe my maternal energy was better spent as a great mentor to my students. And, luckily, it wasn’t too late to become a good aunt. Dara was applying to Manhattan colleges — I could help her with everything from restaurant recommendations to housing and selecting roommates.

Although Andrea wound up enjoying On the Town, I promised that next time she’d choose the show. In what I like to think was an homage to me, she wore an all-black ensemble on her birthday. After she left NYC, I missed her each time I walked by the Murder Room — now “Andrea’s room.”  When I posted a Facebook photo of her on her 16th birthday, I felt a ray of undeserved parental pride. Especially when everyone joked that she’d clearly picked a fashion-challenged role model. My favorite comment was, “Oh, no — it’s you all over again!”

Susan Shapiro

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