According to WomenOne, a nonprofit that conducts needs assessments and gathers data to highlight marginalized and overlooked populations of women and girls who have little or no access to education, if all female-born children around the world had access to (and engaged in) secondary education, 60% fewer girls under 17 would become pregnant. This stat is mostly focused on educating female-identifying children in developing countries, but even in the United States, women with lower levels of education tend to start bearing children earlier in life.
How often do female-identifying people born and raised in Western societies, where education is publicly accessible, think about how our education informed our personal and professional trajectories, especially in terms of having kids? How often do we reflect on the fact that it's only been 100 years since any women, anywhere, were granted the opportunity to vote, and to NOT be viewed exclusively as procreational property? How often do we consider how education for women, especially at the collegiate level, is an even more recent phenomenon than our right to vote?
According to a report published in 2019, statistics indicate that the likelihood of women having no children varies substantially with their level of educational attainment. Now: women in the US have earned the majority of master’s degrees granted in the U.S. since 1981. As of 2017, there were 167 women with master’s degrees for every 100 men. And, to whit: at age 35, two-thirds of college-educated women have had a single birth; for women without college degrees, two-thirds have had a first child by age 24. Which makes me wonder… how many of the approx 4.68M women between 35-45 years old that are childfree would consciously connect their educational level to their childfreeness—by choice or not?
Education affords us autonomy within our romantic and familial relationships as much as within professional trajectories. Education gives one the ability to think critically before acting, including when we have sex and with whom, and how. Education can also enable one to challenge societal or cultural norms, or even provide the room to march to the beat of their own drum. Simply put, as I hope we all know, education is power.
This month I sat down with Jonnyka Bormann of Austin, Texas, a deeply thoughtful, wildly educated, childfree by choice woman I admire, to discuss exactly these stats and sentiments.
Don’t have children, and/but…Select all that apply.
- Always knew I didn’t want them.
- Didn’t know if I wanted them or not, then landed on not.
- Didn’t know if I wanted them or not, then ran out of time.
- Just didn't get around to it.
- Tried, couldn't and didn’t choose or believe in intervening.
- Became pregnant, chose to terminate.
- Did have a child/children and gave them up for adoption.
Break down how you came to be… child free/less.
I can only remember one period of my life when I had the thought of motherhood. When I was 18 I was with my first “serious” boyfriend and thought we could get married and then probably have kids – but even then it was “probably” in my mind, and the thought only lasted what now seems to be a month or so. After that period, I was very certain children were not in my future, and it was more of a neutral feeling. I wasn’t particularly emotional about it either way, which of course was very telling as well. If I was extremely emotional about it either way, I would have paused and questioned my thinking because that would have signaled some unresolved feelings.
When I met my husband we talked about children while dating as we knew we were forever partners. We both shared the perspective that raising a child must be something we should want 200%, or we should not do it at all. Neither of us felt that way so it was a very conscious effort not to have children, and we have not had a period in our 19-year marriage where we regretted our decision.
Childfree by choice and child free by circumstance are NOT the same thing. Why do you think we get lumped together?
I think it is still an unusual idea to wrap the head around. Your stats above support that thought, as I read the high percentage in 25-29 is women who haven’t yet but most likely will eventually have children. I’ve studied psychology and physiology, and the maternal drive is rooted in biology, so I think the absence of it is not easily explained, making it easy to lump the two together. Also from an outside perspective, it probably doesn’t seem necessary to differentiate the two so they are just put together.
The sentiment of ‘educating girls can change the world’ seems to directly impact procreation/fertility and women's rights. I know from our own connection that education has played a deep role in your life, how have the choices you’ve made–including choosing not to procreate–related to your intellectual pursuits (or nature)?
That is a very interesting reference - even having been involved in a “girls education” project with The Onikas, oddly I did not ever tie that initiative to my own personal choice. I thought about it more from the perspective of supporting education and economic stability. I’ll have to think more about that, there are many layers to that idea.
My husband and I have lived in several states and pursued several opportunities of education and continuing education, so we have thoroughly discussed these choices in relation to not having children. If we had children, it would have been very difficult to pursue what we have throughout our lives in the same way - which was “all in” involving cross country moves, etc., and that “moving with life” state is something I think we always thought would be part of our personal horizons. It’s almost like we prepared to be able to have that flexibility, time, space, that was all extremely important to us for our individual growth and for our relationship with each other.
You and I are from different generations (Gen X & Millennial). I wonder if you see any differences (for the better and/or worse) between your generational experience and mine in terms of being a woman choosing not to procreate?
This question is so relevant and something that I could see being studied on a generational spectrum. To generalize, I feel my generation as a whole had the mentality of questioning the systems in place, in many categories across the board. Although that mentality was strong as a characterization, almost all of my Gen X friends have children so I am not sure that having children was necessarily included in that questioning. From my experience with the Millennial generation it appears that every category is up for revision and to forge an individual pathway is important, and I imagine that would include questioning motherhood. But I cannot say that for certain, that is just the way it seems to me, as I am particularly struck by how Millennial energy has shifted different things in the world. And how much the world has shifted in the Millennial generation – things in general are so different, to the point that it must in some cases drastically affect worldviews and thoughts about the future.
Regarding the acceptance of the choice not to have children, my guess is that it is a more challenging path for Gen X women. I have received responses to the answer, “no, I don’t have kids,” that vary from positive to negative and much in between. I actually think it’s extremely positive when someone respectfully asks why as the conversation can be so interesting. I’d say responses have been more supportive in recent years, which is probably why I think Millennials would have more support in this choice.
As you’ve moved beyond the chapter of ‘trying’ not to have kids, and into the state of simply not having children… what have you learned and what would you have wished you would have heard/been open to hearing when you were younger?
I don’t think there is anything that I wish around this as my decision always overrode any negative or odd reaction I received, so I always felt very sure and strong about it. The fact that my husband was right there with me 100% contributed to this feeling. If there was discord between us about it, I would have definitely felt more insecure about the choice, but we really embraced and fully accepted our feelings so our perspective was and is very strong.
What do you feel you’ve gained through choosing not the have children that may not be known to women who are mothers or are childfree by circumstance?
My life is not free from responsibilities and stressors for sure, but I do feel I have time and space when and if I need it. In our relationship, we are very respectful of what I call “individual studio time,” which means I can work on The Onikas, personal interests, or just being, and my husband can devote time to his artwork, research, or some work in progress. That personal time is there and very necessary for us in how we are both wired. We need that alone space to just be, I think we would be very unhappy with ourselves and with each other without it.
At the same time I am aware that in having this personal space with each other we will not have that shared life experience with a child that we brought into our lives, which some people would always see as a void. I can see that and understand it intellectually, but even considering that I do not feel regret or sadness.
‘Family Legacy’ came up in our last interview, how do you relate to the historically important role of passing down lineage/namesake? And possibly (though I may be projecting) what might you be handing down that doesn’t connect to genealogy, that is vital for us to shine light on?
Continuing the sentiments above, this idea is wrapped up in that shared life experience – nurturing and teaching a little person who then grows up to embody/reflect your “teachings” and carries on the family lineage/namesake. That will not happen with us. But I do believe one passes along ideas, energy, love, intelligence and much more, to everyone who is in one’s personal sphere and along the various platforms - whether it be work or just being a person in the world. That does not replace these things living within an actual little person, but that is the avenue available to us. I’d venture to say this could make one more generous and conscious of what they pass along in their everyday life as a practice, which is very yogic and a lovely idea.
Any ‘by choice’ questions/issues I missed that you’d like to address and think are vital for this column ?
I love the focus on female perspective and think it is so important to bring your ideas to light.
These thoughts may be best for a different column or a sidebar to your column, but I do think male experience may be interesting too, and as I was answering the questions I also thought about LGBTQI couples’ perspectives.
“Women without children will never know what ‘love’ really is.” Discuss
If that statement is true we are putting limits on love, which I don’t believe exist. I don’t have much more to add to that statement. I would say as someone who does not have children, I will not know what “me as the parent” love feels like towards a child, that is true, but that does not limit my ability to feel immense love.
“Having it all must include children.” Pro or con this ideology?
Con. If my self-concept does not include having children, if I did have children it would redefine my “having it all” which would really not be “having it all” by my own definition.
“All women without children are selfish.” True or false?
True and false. True in that I feel I am fully “self-oriented” in honoring my and my husband’s feelings about having children. False in that the decision is not “selfish” by definition. We believe it would have been more selfish to have children and a disservice to that child’s life had we not honored our true feelings.
“All women without children live stress free lives.” Pro or con this ideology?
Very con, oh my goodness. This is a complete misconception. Complete in every way. I’m very glad you included this idea. Regardless of the child situation, life pressures and responsibilities always exist whether brought on by external forces or ones that bubble up from within us. As time goes on I think more and more that we as humans are wired to create movement in our lives which can look like growth, drama, acceptance one moment, denial the next, contentment, discontent, etc. etc. All of that movement means stress on the status quo of ourselves, whether it be breakthroughs or growing pains. Carving out space to just be can be stressful sometimes. This is a tangent! So for all that – CON. Everyone has their fair share of stressors or there wouldn’t be entire industries designed to alleviate them.
“All women are mothers.” Pro or con this ideology?
Oddly I’m pro this idea, but not necessarily only in the traditional role we know as motherhood. I don’t mean to be controversial to mothers in saying that, I just think there are so many ways in which maternal qualities play themselves out. We can use our love and sense of nurturing to create and develop so much and care for so many in this world.
“All women without children want to be an ‘Auntie.’" Discuss.
I laughed when I read this and I’m not sure why. I wouldn’t say “want” as it may not be a “want” but I am definitely touched and it makes me smile when one of my friends tells their kids to “hug their Auntie”. And that just may be because I absolutely adore my aunties!
Any perceptions/presumptions/judgements missing you think should be included?
No, I think you covered all of the ones I think about or encounter on this subject!