A few years ago my writers’ group, which happened to consist of six non-mothers (we dubbed it the Child-free Ladies’ Mind Workers Union Local #1), got into a discussion of our reasons for not having children. Anne-Marie, a poet, said that she had been influenced back in her college days by a speech she heard about, some graduate of a ritzy college vowing not to have children. “That was me,” I told her. It was a little unnerving to discover that my action 40 years ago had personal consequences in her life.
It was in 1969 that I gave that speech she remembered, at my commencement from Mills College (although we have a name in common, I’m no relation to the college’s founders). I titled my speech "The Future Is a Cruel Hoax." The subject was overpopulation and the ecological crisis. I said that in light of all the damage human beings were doing to the planet, “the most humane thing for me to do would be to have no children at all.”
My saying that made big news. The morning after my graduation I woke up to find that I’d become a celebrity. My photo and remarks were on the front page of the Oakland Tribune and going out over wire services all over the country and the world. There were items about it in the New York Times and all the major newsmagazines. For weeks afterwards I was caught up in a maelstrom of media attention. Suddenly I had to deal with reporters and interviewers and invitations to give more speeches and appear on panels throughout the US. I rose to the occasion pretty well, considering that I was a mere 20 years old and an introvert at heart.
Although I had spent my college years—the late 1960s—in a cushy situation on the quiet campus of a women’s college, I was part of a generation that felt revolutionary. It helped that Mills was situated just down the freeway from the University of California. As graduation approached we’d watched the US National Guard helicopters pass over, carrying troops to occupy Berkeley during the People’s Park riots. Some mighty changes seemed to be coming down, and it was the job of the young to make them good.
Being at a women’s college in the heyday of women’s liberation, and having a mother who was a feminist and a good mother if no great fan of motherhood, encouraged me to make my own decisions about whether my personal future would include being a mother. In declaring that I would forgo motherhood, I wasn’t so much making a statement about my personal life as I was saying that I would make a sacrifice and depart from the pattern, because I did and do believe that to avert ecological catastrophe individuals must change their lives—that the whole civilization has to change, in fact.
The non-mother label stuck to me, but I didn’t let it define me or limit my topics. I spoke about overpopulation, ecology and the social change necessary to deal with the problems our species had created. Occasionally I was pitted in debate against women or men whose cause was maximum human reproduction. Once in a great while the conversation got nasty, but that was the exception. Mostly I was greeted with appreciation and admiration. A lot of people felt that I was saying something that needed to be said.
There were well-intentioned folks who told me that I was just the kind of person who should be having children. I would respond that given the presence of the then three billion people on Earth, there were already plenty of promising babies in the world, a multitude of whom could be well served by some economic and racial justice so that the privileges I had enjoyed wouldn’t be such an extraordinary qualification for motherhood.
Even though my decision not to have children was made on what might be called political grounds it proved to be a good personal choice. I am cussedly independent and I love my solitude and freedom. Nevertheless, over the years I have revisited my decision. I never felt an overpowering enough desire to have a child to grow my own or to adopt. But the chagrin of going back on my vow wouldn’t have deterred me if I had changed my mind about motherhood. Other women, I know, have been able to combine demanding vocations with motherhood. Given my particular nature, the responsibility and distraction of childrearing most likely would have prevented me from pursuing my work as a writer, which has been immensely rewarding, if difficult and uncertain much of the time. Now that I’m old enough to be a grandmother, I sometimes wish that I had a granddaughter to commune with, but I am friends with some spectacular young people and can learn from them as well as pass along whatever wisdom I’ve developed. That will have to do.
P.S. In 1969, world population was 3,636,562,333. As of August 1, 2009, it was 6,774,705,647, with about 148 new souls being added every minute.
Stephanie Mills is a writer and teacher who lives near Maple City, Michigan. She is featured in the new documentary Earth Days, about the pioneers of the modern environmental movement (in theaters late August). For information about her work, visit www.smillswriter.com.