At the venerable age of 22, in my final year of university, my future lies before me. Unlike my female forebears, this horizon of mine is a glittering and precious thing — it glimmers with freedoms they could never have dreamed of. The choice between career and family is no longer dichotomous: I don’t have to choose, I am told, because these days we women “can have it all”.
Well, aren’t I just the luckiest little girl? The grand totality of “all” I could possibly aspire to — a family and a career — is attainable. I should get on my knees in gratitude to the paternalistic deity watching over me. And yet as a woman standing at the precipice of her life, I feel burdened, not liberated. For assuming, firstly, that a career and family constitutes the entirety of my ambitions (hint: it does not) and, secondly, that it is in fact true that women can have equally successful careers as men, alongside a family (hint: it is not) there remains a more pressing issue. The notion that women can do both is loaded with the social expectation that they should: if I don’t have to choose, why would I?
Society places countless such demands on women, most of which tear at us in impossibly conflicting directions — a puppet, pulled at each of its limbs by string. I should be assertive, confident, and ambitious; but that makes me hard-faced, unfeeling, and calculating. So I’m expected to demonstrate emotion, however then I’m weak and hysterical. I should be beautiful and feminine, but then I’m ‘tempting’ and command no respect; and if I demonstrate my sex too much, I’m promiscuous - yet my feminism demands me to be sexually liberated. Obviously, I must be thin — but not too thin, lest I seem anxious and highly-strung — and I should simultaneously be body-positive. Then again, I ought to be authentic; but if I express my opinion too much, I’m difficult, whereas a man is principled and resolute.
Now that the progress of feminism has made a successful career viable, it is no surprise that women are expected to achieve this along with traditional, domestic goals. In addition to battling casual workplace sexism, the gender pay gap, and working harder to achieve the same professional success as men; women must also somehow do a disproportionate share of housework, spend more time on unpaid childcare, and juggle pregnancy with the stresses of a career. Take time off to look after your kids? You’re not a ‘girlboss’. Pay for childcare instead? You’re a bad mother.
What if I don’t want to do both, then? Men have freedom of choice. But for me to opt for one over the other is also to fail in some capacity as a modern woman. Personally, I have as much maternal instinct as a lamppost; the prospect of settling down with a husband (or wife, for that matter), two kids, and plasma TV fills me with existential horror. Yet if I work solely my career instead, I fail to embrace the full scope of my femininity. Society no longer expects women to fulfil ‘their biological purpose’, but — whilst we would explicitly deny it — unmarried, childless, women are still deemed a tad suspect. Being a ‘bachelor’ carries a certain caché — all the more charming for its implications of being a bit of a cad. ‘Spinster’, however, is a pity-term, inevitably conjuring images of dour old maids in some gloomy Victorian parlour. The thought of being described as such is thus equally horrifying. Moreover, if I’m an unmarried, childless woman who — god forbid — enjoys sex, then I’m unrestrained, and overly-masculine; but if I have no romantic attachments, I’m frigid, austere, and probably have “some kind of difficulty” in that department.
Alternatively, those women who decide to focus on raising a family are equally berated for reneging on the feminist principles they ‘ought’ to uphold. Whilst ‘stay-at-home’ fathers are praised for their progressive outlook, to be ‘just’ a housewife is to disregard the hard-won achievements of brave female trail-blazers, and to conform to outdated, harmful stereotypes of female docility and domesticity. By personally choosing marriage and a family over professional ambition, I do an injustice to women everywhere — most especially to those who lack the same opportunities as me.
What am I to do, then? Probably I will plough my own path regardless, but I have concluded that it is impossible to be a woman — at least in the sense society expects me to be. The social conception of ‘womanhood’ is as incoherent as a square circle: the necessary conditions are utterly contradictory. The women who fulfil all of these impossible demands are nowhere to be found — they don’t exist. So please, stop telling me I can ‘have it all’. I can’t. And I don’t want to either.
Illustration by Liza Vasilyeva