The summer after ninth grade, I worked as a nanny in The Hamptons. I was actually called a “mother’s helper,” but I can’t say I was much help. The mother had to prompt me, “Any chance you could get out of bed and watch the kids, or at least fold some of these sheets?”
I’d applied for the position so I could spend August at the beach and meet boys. But I met zero boys, and also failed to win over the two little ones in my charge. The younger son, age four, tantrumed for hours whenever his parents left the house. As soon as they drove off, he’d break his wailing for one chilling moment to tell me, “I’ll chop your head off.”
Even though I had no friends (or boys) to hang out with, I lived for my day off, when I could ride away on my bike and escape the kids. I was just 14, and already like the mother in the 2021 film The Lost Daughter, feeling smothered and dreaming of abandoning the family to experience life and pleasure again. In short, I wasn’t motherly.
“I never loved babies or children, either,” my mom encouraged me in my adult years. “Until I had you.” Someday, she promised, I’d feel the same way about my own little ones. I’m sure I would have if I’d ever had any, but, in the end, I decided not to, because I didn’t want them. I kept waiting to want them—to feel that mythical “maternal longing” kick in—and it never did. That’s not to say I always felt clear in my choice. I spent a good decade on the fence, at a loss for evidence that, as a woman, you could forgo raising a family and still lead a fulfilling, happy life. Almost no one talked about this path, or made it look fun and normal, especially not in the media.
“You’ll change your mind,” people almost uniformly predicted when I told them I probably wasn’t having kids. Or, as if I had just said I was planning on it but waiting for the right moment, they’d insist, “Well, you still have time.”
These exchanges happened when I was visibly in my childbearing years. Now that I’m 53, my face might make you think I have time, but the neck—as Nora Ephron and plastic surgeons have all warned—tells a different story. So people have largely stopped trying to convince me to push out babies (in daylight hours, anyway). Instead, they wrongly assume that I feel bad about not having kids. That I’m secretly lacking, yearning, bereft, or empty inside. Many try to offer what they think is comfort, attempting to persuade me that I’m still some form of mother, especially when Mother’s Day rolls around.
“Mother’s Day is for you, too,” one email subscriber told me a few years ago when I sent out an article I’d written about not having kids. The woman explained, “Because you are a mom. You’re a mother…to words!”
Replies like hers piled up in my inbox, echoing unsolicited reassurances I receive all the time: “You nurture your copywriting clients!” “You’re a doula—of great copy!” “I’m sure you have fur babies.” “What about plants, bet you’re a great plant mommy.” And, of course, there’s always: “Hey, you get to be the cool auntie.”
Now that I’ve written my first book, Tough Titties, people like to say “You birthed a book!” “Congrats on your book baby!” “Thank you,” I say, inwardly making a “yuck” face. Yes, writing a book involves labor, pushing, and regular screaming fits (my own). And, like with childbirth, the whole painful process can feel worth-it and joyful when the book finally arrives (cue unboxing reel on Instagram), and the sharp agony of bringing it into the world fades in your memory.
But let’s be real, can you imagine someone telling Hemingway, “Mazel Tov on birthing a book baby”? My book didn’t come from my vag. Rather than sperm and egg, it was born of many, many tears. And, also, love, but none of that makes it a baby. Creation and procreation are two different words. Can’t they be two different things?
Behind these labels everyone wants to place on me lies the assumption that, as a woman, you are incomplete without a maternal relationship to someone or something. Even if you’re not a mother, our culture seems to say, you must at least be a mother figure. It’s as though a woman who doesn’t fulfill her maternal capabilities is like a car with no wheels, or a frog that can’t hop.
Recently, the conversation about women without kids has started to shift, with more celebrity women publicly saying they’re happily child-free. Still, it almost always comes with an apology, a “but” that insists the woman is at least mom-adjacent: Tracee Ellis Ross is okay with not having children…but she loves being an aunt! Oprah doesn’t have kids…but the girls she built a school for call her their mom!
Not this woman. For the record, I don’t have pets. Or plants. Not even a succulent. I won’t offer to watch your kids. I don’t even feed people, because I don’t bake or cook, though I can make a decent mustard-shallot salad dressing. And I’m all good!
This need to award honorary “mommy points” is, if you ask me, something we’re still getting wrong. If you say, “I’m not a writer and have no desire to be one,” I won’t tell you, “Ah, but you are a writer…of…delicious dinners! Because when you cook a flank steak, you’re actually writing that cut of beef from the grill onto the plate and into my mouth. You’re the author of flavors.” If you say, “I’m not a ferryboat captain,” I promise not to say, “But look at all the emotional waters you’ve ushered people across with your wonderful life advice. You, my friend, are one HELL of a ferryboat captain.”
Why would I convince you that you’re a writer, ferryboat captain, gemologist, wrestler, or anything else you tell me you’re not and don’t aim to be?
While the party line is that “you don’t know true love until you have a child,” I’m deeply content with all the love I have in my life, which feels true enough for me. I love my family, my friends, my husband, our life together. And oh, how I love my free time, fiercely and unconditionally. You might even say, like a mother would. But please don’t.
Laura Belgray is the founder of talkingshrimp.com and co-creator of The Copy Cure with Marie Forleo. She has been featured in Fast Company, Money Magazine, Forbes, Vox, and Insider, and has written for Bravo, Fandango, FX, NBC, HBO, USA, Nick at Nite, Nickelodeon, TV Land, VH1, and more. Belgray lives in New York and, except for college, has never lived anywhere else. Her first book, Tough Titties: On Living Your Best Life When You’re the F’ing Worst comes out from Hachette June 13th.