Junk Achievement: A Hypothesis of Modern Female Misery

When I was in third grade we did one of those ubiquitous writing exercises about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I told the teacher I wanted to be a mom, but I wasn’t sure how to write about that. She told me, “Well, that’s not enough.”

Well-meaning though she was, I can remember just how much it upset me. I sat there swinging my legs back and forth in my little chair trying to attach some level of enthusiasm to the idea of being anything in a professional capacity.

Ballerina? Ridiculous.

Astronaut? I get motion sick.

Accountant? I’m not detail oriented enough.

Nothing felt right or even reasonable in that moment beyond the idea of finding a really good guy to build a life with and raise a family. But I was growing up in the era where women could be anything. So you had to pick something, even if you didn’t want to.

Fast forward thirty years or so and a large swath of women my age, even in the time before COVID, are looking around and finding that the “anything” they chose isn’t filling all the niches they were assured it would. And now that their reproductive potential is slipping away they are wondering what happened. How could being a super successful female in the modern world not fill all the gaps? How come there isn’t a line of men out the door and down the stairs looking to be this super woman’s oh-so-fortunate partner? How do you build a relationship now with the depth and commitment to bring children into the world in the viable time that’s left?

I don’t really have answers to those questions, but I’d like to put forth what I suspect is a partial answer to a different question, “How did we get here?”

First, a series of assertions. I have cumulated these with much reading and listening and a touch of thoughtful speculation. I will provide a reading list at the end of the post for anyone looking to delve deeper into the ideas that stacked up together in my head to create this post.

  • Women who lived past their child bearing years in the ancient world were rare. The microbial gauntlet that was childhood, adolescence, and then maternity took the lives of half the women in some civilizations.
  • Human beings are primed to recognize that which is rare as either supremely undesirable and therefore best avoided at all costs, or as supremely valuable and therefore to be pursued with single minded focus.
  • Our modern world is sitting in the upswing of an exponential curve of technological growth. We cannot say if this is going to be in perpetuity or if we will (like with the shrinking size of micro processors) near some kind of asymptote. Either way the rapid stacking of innovation on innovation and data set upon data set impact our social, medical, environmental, nutritional, and even spiritual lives. And our ancient biology cannot keep up.
  • There is a biological reality. Period. We cannot mentally will our way around it. We cannot think ourselves past it. We can discuss what role that reality plays in our lives, but we cannot dismiss it or ignore it. To do so creates a societal pathology that leads to self harm, in both communities and individuals.
  • Gaming our biology has become one of the most profitable models in the modern business world. The first to pick up on this sort of low hanging fruit were the porn industry and gaming industry. Hit the dopamine centers quick and leave them wanting more. Next came the hyper-palatable foodstuff that delivered a delicious experience without satisfying the body’s need for nourishment. Now every digital space beckons to the unwary with promises of “friends,” “likes,” “influence,” and fame.
  • Modernity has been hard on the family. So many young adults grew up in dysfunctional or divorced households. Getting married looked, to many, like a kind of emotional death sentence: either bound to someone you would eventually despise and be miserable with, or a nasty split with ugly custody battles waiting to happen. This disillusionment with marriage has led many young people to assume that early marriage or marriage itself was the problem, when a society that had turned love into a Hollywood fantasy and had stopped fostering honest communication was more likely at fault.

The story these things paint is that once upon a time women didn’t want to be “Insta-famous.” They wanted to be old, wise, experienced, and surrounded by their family. This was considered a true achievement. To live through the process of building the tribe, one new person at a time, and then to pass on the wisdom of how to do that to others was considered of highest value. These women often had other knowledge, became skilled craftswomen, and were valued and revered by the tribe. This was seen as desirable. Even the biblical book of Proverbs dedicates a chapter to the fact that the best women, while virtuous– yes, were industrious and wise.

But in the last century as technology reduced the burden on women’s health and their time (thank you inventor of the washing machine!!), the messaging changed too. The idea of the “have-it-all,” “be-it-all” woman drove advertising narratives. The ongoing feminist revolution has pushed open doors into nearly every industry.

Which let me be clear is AWESOME! Women are good at a truckload of things and shouldn’t be denied the chance to do any of them.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t tradeoffs.

And despite the fact that if you are a woman in the United States of America you have a less than .0002% chance of dying in child birth, a substantial number of those women are older. Yes, we defeated the glass ceiling, but science still hasn’t found a way to extend the age at which women can safely bring a healthy baby to term. 40 years old is not the max, but it’s still more of an upper limit than most people want to admit. And with the modern world spilling novel toxins into our food, environment, homes, etc. the number of (even healthy) couples having fertility issues is increasing.

And then there’s the junk. So much of what makes human life worth living has been junkified in the modern world. Food is the easiest example, right? No one stops at one Oreo, but the Oreos never satisfy. They make you hungrier. They don’t deliver nutrition. Yet we can’t stop eating them. Again, ancient rarity of the combo of fat and sugar makes us sit up, pay attention, and eat until we can’t move. Friendship, community, sex, nurture have all been junked. And for women, junk achievement may be one of the biggest culprits of our psychological malnourishment.

“You can be anything!” Anything? Really? Well, you have to hustle. You have to work hard and get a bunch of degrees first (nothing wrong with education, {For goodness sake read all the books people!} I myself am college educated, but we all know people who despite having no idea what they want to be engaged in vocationally are getting yet another post graduate degree). And then start a blog (Yes, I see the irony. You’re very clever. Now shut up). And maybe a Youtube channel. And once you’ve got a following write a book about how you did all those things and encourage everyone else to “show up,” “speak up,” and “become empowered.” Or just go straight for the sexual empowerment the feminists were championing and start an OnlyFans page, and become an Instamodel who only takes pictures of her breasts. And for many young women engaging with the industries that pay the highest for the youngest contributors, they find themselves victimized and damaged by those experiences, making normal social bonding in the future difficult.

And in the midst of the extremes is a marshy mediocre middle, full of women in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, working empty jobs or an amalgamation of side hustles to fuel a lifestyle of junk socializing while they guzzle empty calories, all while telling themselves that they are freer and happier than their parents were.

Do you see the issue? The message became do everything that was once rare (travel, education, career, skills acquisition, an absurd number of sexual partners that will never call you back, etc.) first, because we can. Skip the part that will just weigh you down with responsibility and make it too hard to do the really rewarding stuff. But it turns out that while the other stuff is fun and interesting, it doesn’t nourish. The nutrients are in building your tribe, turning your attention to what kind of community you actually want for your actual (not hypothetical) children to grow up in.

Being a wife, not just a girlfriend, not even a live-in-girlfriend, changes you. You have to negotiate with this other human, figure out how you want to live and who is doing the dishes. Being a mother changes you even more, in no small part due to the hormonal and neurotransmitter bath your brain and body go through (remember that biological reality we can’t escape?). Your attention is tuned to this tiny, helpless person that you love so profoundly you would do anything for them. And you see the world through this new lens of having a tiny person to protect and nurture.

And it’s so hard to do that. To teach and raise a decent human being with the potential to do good in the world AND the capacity to execute on that potential is no small feat. THIS IS WHY WE NEED THOSE WISE OLDER WOMEN. Not to show us how to run a fortune 500 company, not to write the great American novel, and not to govern nations (that stuff is cool, but it doesn’t matter if society is coming apart at the level of healthy, happy human beings) These sage women have been there. They know. They’ve made mistakes and learned from them. They can help navigate this super rocky terrain. And the rockier the climb, the more rewarding the result. Family is hard, but it is what satisfies the part of our biology/psychology/spirituality that longs to see our genes and our traditions carry into the future successfully. And that cannot be accomplished from a board room or a cockpit or a stage.

And here’s the kicker. The upper limits that were previously placed on us humans by the stuff we couldn’t quite outlive are shrinking. One thing (of many) that modern medical practices in the west have gotten really good at is extending the years and quality of life. Life expectancy has gone up consistently, with the COVID pandemic only shaving a year off the average (This still blows my mind!) This means that those taking their child bearing years seriously, having 2.7 children or whatever by the time they are in their early thirties, can look forward to almost a double lifetime in which to reach for all their other goals.

I know a woman in her sixties attending law school.

The oldest woman to complete a marathon is 86. 86!!

If you live a reasonably healthy lifestyle, eat good food that is really food, and keep your mind sharp you can expect to live with excellent cognition and physical capacity into your seventies and beyond. The chances of you randomly snuffing it at 45 are way lower now than they have ever been.

I’m not saying shelve your dreams, or get married at 17.

What I’m saying is the way to keep yourself from falling into the particular pit of prizing “achievement” over real fulfillment is to take your fertility and your family life seriously. Get a good education, whatever that means to you. Hone the skills that you will need to build a life, not just a career. And consider that you have a limited window in which to have children and a much larger window in which to build a career.

The number of women I know who didn’t even know what they wanted to do vocationally until after they had their kids astonishes me. They were taking a few classes, maybe working an ok job, but they knew they weren’t where they wanted to be. They found the right partner, that they worked on being a good partner with, and had their kids. And after about ten years or so (which goes by so fast, you have no idea) their kids were in school, mostly independent, and these women suddenly knew what they wanted to do. And then they went and did it.

Me and my mom hiking through the Arboretum.

At 60 my mother works as a stage dresser for a local theater. She’s amazing. She’s worked with big name shows like The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables. This career she’s built didn’t start until I was in high school.

I didn’t start writing seriously until after my first child was born. And my first novel was released the same year my last kid came into the world. And I can tell you, that I get giddy when I see a new cover design or get the last proofs of a completed book. I love having pieces of myself that are all mine.

But there is nothing that soothes my soul like cuddling with my kids (or my husband). Nothing makes me prouder than their accomplishments, great and small. And I can see that nothing makes my mother more content than being surrounded by her family. She has earned, as the matriarch of our tribe, the right to give unsolicited advice and spoil her grandkids. And she is the richer for having us.

Are there some women out there who should genuinely avoid motherhood. Probably. But chances are if you are young, fairly healthy, and reasonably mentally equipped you aren’t one of them. Most women want children. It’s a biological reality that we have to stop shaming women for. The vast majority of women who are on their death beds are reflecting on their relationships, and hopefully, holding their grandchildren’s hands, not pining after accolades and a bigger office (and news flash! Men aren’t either).

My hope is that one day my daughters will be asked by a teacher or a friend, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And if her answer is, “I want to be a mom,” the response will be, “Cool. You’ll probably be great at it.”

The reading list below will seem a little all over the place, but that’s how creative thought and eventual understanding work. Disparate ideas come together in novel and unexpected ways. Enjoy.

  • Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer by Steven Johnson
  • Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier
  • Anti-Fragile by Nassim Taleb
  • A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe
  • A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the Twenty-First Century by Heather Heying and Bret Weinstien *THis is book is on preorder, and I am way excited about it. Thus, I haven’t read it yet, but I am a listener of their podcast “The Dark Horse Podcast” which can be streamed in most of the podcast streaming places and viewed on Odysee.
  • The Future is Faster Than You Think by Steven Kotler
  • 12 Rules for Life and Beyond Order both by Jordan Peterson
  • The Parasitic Mind by Gad Saad
  • The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

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