The Fear of Failure

Women’s life projects between wunsch.wish.zyczenie
and wirklichkeit.reality.rzeczywistosc

Our destiny has certainly changed, I know. There is no reason to fail, no need for fear anymore. We are the generation of self-aware young women in a multiplex world, who know what they want and — even better — are sought after. They miss us. What I read in the newspaper as I drink my morning coffee confirms this.

Not a day passes without a research study being published in which the harmonizing qualities of ("unfortunately still very few") female decision-makers are proclaimed. They bemoan the under-representation of women in the academic field and tout the ability of Karrierefrauen — successful women — to combine their job with Familienglueck — domestic happiness.

"Kindergarten? Of course", is this morning’s headline; the article goes on to explain to me, statistically, that French women have an average of 1.75 children — 0.41 children more than German women. I am impressed: the small difference is, to be precise, that in France more women are working, more mothers are in top positions and state-funded childcare provision is available around the clock. Enviable? "Children are a scarce good", it whispers in between the lines, "We need you".

Eva wants children. And back then, when she excelled as studentische Hilfskraft — research assistant -, she also was sure that she wanted to write a PhD on the Italian baroque. Now, as she is finishing her studies on art history and Eastern Europe, she is still in love with the baroque but she can’t stand the university any longer: its "over-sophisticated habits, hierarchic structures". In short: "It is not an environment where I can express my own opinion." Career? Her private world is an "important island" in this atomized and chaotic life. Therefore, she now would prefer "just to have a somehow interesting job" that will allow her to have time for her family and "gives me enough money to look after our future children. My fear is that I won’t manage financially." Eva obviously also reads the news and so she refers to the recent discussion in Germany on child allowance, where the political parties compete to have the best policy for supporting parents with children. They need us.

"Working mothers are healthier", I read the next morning in the Spiegel and nearly choke on my coffee. The photo under this headline invites you into the world of female happiness: she is sitting at a computer with a baby on her knees. But, as the concluding lines inform me, this fantastic psycho-somatic effect of healthy happiness is related to the job-quality and career advancement that the women achieved before motherhood.

Happiness? I am nearly 27 and there is still no obvious job in sight. My father recently explained to me that I am already set to be one of those women who give birth late in life. Failed? Anne’s life-project, however, has not included children up to now and even less can she imagine an adequate father for them. After having finished her Masters in Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago she had the possibility to stay on for five more years to start her academic career. But she preferred to move back to Berlin, the only place she really regards as home.

"I also need time for fun and friendship", she says, "something that is missing on an American campus." Anne has always been successful because her plans match her abilities. Her idea is to become a professor of cultural studies, so she is now attending a postgraduate college. But there are "external factors you can’t plan". She remembers attending an interview session for prospective candidates for a chair in military history at Potsdam University.

There was one highly qualified woman amongst the "unfortunately overwhelmingly mediocre" male candidates and therefore "no objective reason to refuse her". In the end, the fact that her husband was then a professor in Paris tipped the decision against her: how would this woman manage her family-life? Anne was shocked. "I dread those decision making processes in which your qualification is irrelevant because all too often, mediocre men are still in the position to make the final decision." Destiny?

"A crisis of masculinity" is diagnosed by a male author in Germany’s most ambitious weekly Die Zeit another morning and I almost forget to drink my coffee. "Given the risks that human survival faces from the culture of male dominance, a consistent policy of worldwide female emancipation is necessary." He actually blasts this "macho culture" for the unsustainable growth of the world population, the devastating environmental pollution and the horrors of terror and war.

By way of solution he does not, however, suggest that women should rule and govern completely. No, that would be a feministic argument. His rather overdue proposal is that men should learn to be aware of their emotions and listen, and have the coolness to be a Hausmann for a Babyjahr — to be a househusband and look after the infant for one year. Fear?

For her, Rery, there is no doubt that he will rear the children and he, Blas, is already looking forward to doing it. But first, they both have to finish their studies. Rery and Blas are from Bolivia. She followed him to Germany to study because she could no longer stand the political situation at home. Rery’s dream since her childhood was, if not to become a writer, then to be a professor of Spanish literature. "It’s a dream that isn’t realistic.

The problem for me is not the male dominance at university, but the fact that I will always be a foreigner here with less rights and chances." Neither in Germany nor in Bolivia does anyone expect her to succeed and even less within the German academia, she says. Her mother is a leader in Bolivia’s financial world and has raised two children on her own. "My only fear is of being mediocre and not fulfilling my mother’s demands. I would even be pleased if I got a lectureship after completing my PhD." But then she sometimes fears that in Germany the odds might well be that she ends up working as a barmaid.

It seems our destiny has changed. We are supposed to be emancipated mothers of at least 1.7 children, climbing up the career ladder — not too fast, not too high, but high enough to save the world a little bit. Fear of failure?

I put down the newspaper with its latest statistics on the cooperative ability of female bosses and remember what my mother has been telling me since my childhood: I will become a leading figure. And I believed her, expecting that one day I will know who to lead and where to. Above all, she gratefully now wishes me getting twins, 2.0 children at once, to manage my projects successfully in time. But I unfortunately still don’t know what I’m going to do and I can’t even say that after five years studying political science, I feel especially qualified.

Certainly, I feel responsible for improving the world and the low numbers of women in the public sphere and I want to fulfil myself through highly qualified work and I want to have children and I need fun and friendship; in short, the squaring of the circle. But I dread time. Time is not only money anymore; time is the firm footing for the ladder you need to climb. Time is what makes you older than you are and what you need in order to deal with the expanding flood of information, the basic resource for a career. They expect you to be flexible, bound neither to place nor to partnership. And they miss us.

We are having coffee in the 20m_ flat that Kasia and Agnieszka rent together since they moved from Wroclaw to Warsaw. Through the window you look at a neon light bull on the top of the skyscraper across the street, symbol of the second largest polish bank company. Kasia wants to know whether women in Germany also earn less than men.

And I suddenly feel stupid answering that in Germany there aren’t enough female professors, that women get financial support for having babies and that you don’t talk much about unequal payment. With my job and without financial problems, I feel stupid about my fear to fail, my fear not to be in time and not to know enough. After having finished their ceramics and graphics studies, Kasia and Agnieszka’s dream was to open a gallery with atelier in Wroclaw.

They painted their pictures, had to sell them under price and had to understand that in these times you can’t survive in this way — and even less realize dreams. Now in Warsaw they got a job at a small advertising agency, where they work eight to ten hours a day, tired, thankful and underpaid. "Give us six years", Kasia says, "then for sure we will have a gallery."

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