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THE ACHIEVEMENT TRAP

By Jami Ingledue

February is the longest month.

It has the least amount of days, true, but it feels neverending. All winter we have been fighting against nature, against the desire to rest and hibernate and be still, and now we are exhausted, waiting for the sun to come again. What should be a time of huddling close, of warm drinks and stories around the fire, of rest and nurturing and bonding through the dark and cold—all of that has been swept away in service to the god Productivity.

This constant striving, the way of exhaustion and anxiety, is demanded by our current society and our need to survive in it, but it also feels like a way to escape from the darkest parts of ourselves, to wallpaper over our broken parts.

We think escaping the dark is the way to happiness and wisdom. We think we need to achieve, to get higher and farther. But what we really need is to go down, deeper, closer—into our own pain and darkness, right here where we are planted.

It is a great irony of life that failure is the best teacher. That the path to wisdom lies in having our asses handed to us, over and over, and then breaking open instead of breaking.

Our modern obsession with achievement and production does not allow for this, though. Wisdom requires silence, reflection. Something we don’t allow our goal-oriented selves much. And it requires failure.

We don’t fault the plants for dying back and resting in the earth all winter. But we do not allow ourselves the same grace. And sadly, we increasingly do not allow it to our children either. We focus on achievements and goals at the expense of wholeness and wellness and connection. We’re getting it backwards: we think our achievements are the most important thing, and we have connection with others as “support” to help us reach our goals. But in the end it turns out the connections are actually what it’s all about, that’s the real point of life. 

We sense even more when we become mothers that this is lacking, that there is something not quite right about our isolated, achievement-driven lives; there is something unmoored, a feeling of being at sea without firm supports or a north star, without meaning. We know in our bones as mothers that cuddling with our kids is the most important thing we can do for them and for the world; but this is not quantifiable or profitable, therefore it doesn’t really count. Caregiving is not valued in our society, it is just left out of the equation.

So as mothers we feel as if we are never accomplishing anything. This can be one of the most difficult things about being a stay-at-home mom especially.

And we all have a natural and healthy need for achievement, and to feel seen and heard. These are all good things (though often very difficult to fulfill through motherhood alone). But we have a hard time allowing ourselves to just BE, and be ok with that. To be ok with not constantly striving and achieving and doing. To be enough as we are. And when we pass that on to our kids, we pass on the idea that they are not enough as they are.

So I am redefining my achievements and goals. Instead of constantly straining to change and improve my life, I’m trying to allow in some acceptance of the beauty of my life as it is, in all its chaotic glory. I’m trying to just allow myself to BE, and know that the quality of my doing comes from the quality of my being.

Because don’t we all want that for our kids? Don’t we all want them to know that they are precious, that they are enough just as they are? If we focus constantly on their achievements, big and small, then they will absorb the idea that their own worth is based on their achievements. And if we feel this way about ourselves, that we are only as worthy as the last goal we met, then they will see that and take on that burden for themselves too.

And so I’m working on redefining achievement for myself, on creating new goals:

I want to be at peace, and bring peace to others.

I want a heart that is broad and open.

I want to tell the truth, have courage, work toward being my most effective and kind self. To be both full of joy and unsparing.

I want to raise kids in a way that honors who they are, that pays attention to what lights them up and then helps them live into that.

And I want to redefine achievement for my kids too. I don’t want to teach them just how to get what they want and then hold onto it. I want to teach them emotional intelligence, self-awareness, the importance of connecting deeply; how to grieve, how to let go, how to accept what we can’t control; how to honor their emotions without being consumed by them; how to value what is most important in life. In modeling this and safeguarding our own mental health, we also become guardians of our children’s mental health.

So, spending time cuddling on the couch really IS more important than the math homework we’re not doing. We are intentionally choosing to NOT focus too much on achievements, on skill acquisition, on test scores. Of course we give praise when they’ve done something they worked hard for and are proud of. But we aren’t constantly pointing out external goals and achievements. Instead, I’m trying to pay attention to what lights THEM up, and then guiding and supporting as much as possible. And always, always trying to be present for them with an open heart. Turning away from a life centered around external achievement is actually turning back towards our natural selves. 

Jami worked as a librarian for over a decade before choosing to stay home when her son, now 4, was born. She also has a 17-year-old daughter. She makes all-natural soap and body products and sells them through her company, Dancing Bee Farms (dancingbeefarms.net). She lives with her husband, daughter, and son on an acre of land in rural Ohio, where they keep bees, garden, and brew beer.

3 Comments

  1. Kate Helt

    Another great article, Jami, Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    Thank you, Jami

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    Wonderful, Jami. You said it so well. Thank you.

    Reply

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