Women in 2016 are lucky. We are reaping the rewards of the work of the fearless generations before us. We can vote, we can have stellar educations, we can compete with men for roles of the highest power. Yes, females in 2016 are lucky, or at least we are compared to our predecessors, or if you consider 'lucky' as only just beginning to receive that to which we have always been entitled. After all, women are still being paid on average only three quarters of what our male counterparts earn and casual sexism is still rife in our society.
But yes, we have come far; we can climb to the top of the career ladder and return home each evening to our cosy family life. We can have it all. So why do modern women appear to be feeling more pressure than ever?
Many people find their focuses in life sharpen as they move through their thirties. The fun and exploration of your twenties is over, and you begin to realise what is important to you and, most crucially, what kind of a person you want to be. You start to map out the rest of your life in your head, whether in rough bullet-points or a more detailed vision. Both men and women start to focus on their main concerns in life and prioritise, whether it's travelling the world, changing paths, getting that promotion, or starting a family.
My female friends are some of the most exciting, motivational people I could choose to spend time with. There are those who are in pursuit of challenging careers: fearless, driven women who tackle the ongoing trials of their work with verve, grace and indomitable spirit. But it's not just professional women I find inspiring. As my friends begin to have babies and create their own families, I find it thrilling to watch them at work. From the most primal role of protecting and carrying a baby for nine months, to the often traumatising labour of, well, labour, to feeding that baby from their own body and then supporting and educating their children, each day providing the blueprint for love and security that child will carry throughout their life.
Ambitions come in all shapes and sizes, whether it's ascending to corporate power, achieving an artistic dream, or creating a safe, loving environment for the human beings that we make from scratch. Any of these goals requires a great deal of focus, commitment and energy. Some women may choose to pursue more than one. Some may prefer to commit all their drive to excelling in one field at the highest level.
And this is where the phrase 'having it all' can be so damaging. There are dynamic professional women being made to feel incomplete in some way because they have not chosen to start a family. Are we really still to acknowledge all the ways in which a woman can contribute to society besides reproduction? The pressure is not just coming from men. I have witnessed women bouncing their babies on their knees, wondering why another woman is childless and coming to the conclusion that either no-one wanted to make a baby with her or she's infertile. Do we still not believe that a woman can choose not to procreate? Underneath all our Beyonce-styled feminism, do we still ultimately consider women to be the sum of their biological parts?
Then of course there are the high-flying professionals who look down on family-focused women as less ambitious or less driven. Surely those of us who do not feel motivated to have a child of our own can still recognise that there are few achievements in life more impressive than carrying, birthing and raising a human being?
Are we so blinded by our own dreams that we can't appreciate other women may be chasing different visions of happiness? Everyone is different, everyone's goals are distinct, and what is right for one person is rarely going to be the correct prescription for another. We must stop raising an eyebrow, however subtly, at each other's choices. If we women do not champion the freedom to pursue our individual passions, what chance do we have?
And why can we not acknowledge and support a woman's right to specialise in one area of her life? Somewhere along the line 'having it all' stopped being a celebration of possibility and became an instruction. There are a great deal of women who work in demanding jobs and raise children, but many people will prioritise one area of their life above the other or simply make a decision to dedicate themselves to the path they find most fulfilling. Many women are viewing this as defeat. I hear the vow "I won't let motherhood change me," only to wonder, why wouldn't you? One of the most incredible, life-changing journeys you will ever make, and you don't want it to cultivate who you are as a person along the way?
Whether it's pride for our family life or passion for our job, at some point celebrating what we love has become shameful because we feel we should be doing more; we should be having it all.
Some women actively pursue having a top-flight career and a family, and thanks to the pioneering women before us, they are free to do that. Often though I see women torn between work and family, reluctant to place less emphasis on one for fear of being negatively defined by their choice. Women should be supporting each other to pursue our passions, not to take on everything simply because we now can. Phrases such as 'having it all' are breeding unnecessary competitive pursuit of achievements we often don't even care about, rather than allowing us to simply follow our dreams and enjoy happy, fulfilling lives.
Is that really what the feminist trailblazers intended for us? To replace being imprisoned in the confined roles in which we were placed by men with being trapped in positions we've assumed through guilt or pressure from our (often female) peers? Our predecessors would be horrified to see us use their ground-breaking graft as just another way to pit women against each other.
I don't care what the women around me spend their days doing so long as they are happy and free to do it. It is wonderful that women can increasingly have it all. Even more magnificent is the idea that we can have whatever we want.