December 9, 2021 |

Achievement Fatigue

A strange thing happened to me after I ran my first marathon: I fell to pieces. I don't mean physically, though I was VERY sore for a few days. For a few weeks, I lost my focus at work, was irritable at home and felt a little depressed and out-of it. I could not seem to muster enthusiasm for anything, even running. In retrospect - after the huge investment of time and energy I put into the marathon -- I was a little burned out. I had trained for 4+ months, put in hundreds of miles, bought special running gear, counted down the days and obsessively checked the marathon website. When all of that preparation and anticipation finally passed out of my life, I felt like I had fallen off the cliff of an amazing experience. It took me time to climb back up. I was experiencing what I call "achievement fatigue."

This happens to all of us, I think, in different ways. You spend months planning a great vacation but when you get back, instead of feeling refreshed and renewed, you feel totally blah. You gear up for a major trial or conference or bar-mitzva and, once all the fireworks are over, you need a little time to recover. It's not that you need to physically recover (get a good night's sleep, finished), it's that you need to emotionally recover from the loss of what was driving you. When we achieve something significant, we sometimes have an "achievement fatigue" backlash.

A profound example of this is having a baby. Though I have never (and will never merit to) perform this miraculous feat, I have gone through the father's side of the experience and I trust what my wife has told me about her side. There is a known tendency among women to have the "baby blues" after giving birth[1]. There are probably hormonal and physical contributing factors to this, but it seems reasonable to suggest that there are emotional reasons as well. A pregnant woman has to change her whole life around her impending baby. Her body changes in unbelievable, wonderful and sometimes scary ways. Carrying a baby to term takes nine months and then the act of birth itself is painful, traumatic and cathartic all at once. Plus, she now has a helpless infant who is entirely dependent upon her for its survival and well-being. Once the baby is born, it is only natural that a woman would experience "achievement fatigue[2]."

I think this may explain some of the interesting Biblical rituals associated with childbirth in the beginning of this week's Torah portion. First the Torah says "when a woman becomes pregnant" (Lev 12:2) and the word used - "tazri'a" means to flower or bloom. This is a complimentary (and unusual) language, suggesting that there is something amazing about pregnancy.

The next statement is that "she becomes t'mei'a for seven days." This has irritated and confused many, who cannot understand why a woman should become "impure" (the usual, but inaccurate translation of "tamei" or "t'mei'a"). Rather than assigning new mothers a negative status, we should celebrate them, for they have partnered with God to create the miracle of new life. In fact, we DO value and celebrate new mothers, which has nothing to do with whether they are "t'mei'a" or not. The state of "ritual impurity" only means that they must wait those seven days to enter the Temple or to touch holy objects, not that anything, God forbid, is wrong with them as people. Being "t'mei'a", in my opinion, simply means that there is an obstacle between one and God that needs to be removed. The obstacle, in this case, is "achievement fatigue." The Torah specifies, in fact, that these days are "like the days of menstrual sickness[3]." In other words, the whole point is that she is both physically and emotionally fatigued (or weak, ill) after giving birth to a baby.

After this period of waiting, the woman enjoys thirty-three days of "purity", or closer connection to God. She is specially protected from becoming "t'mei'a." This is a unique status conferred on a new mother and is much longer (by almost five times) than her period of distance. Finally, she offers up two sacrifices that mark her transition from "birth mother" to "nursing mother": an olah("elevation") and a chatat ("sin".) Many have also been offended that a new mother should have to bring a "sin" offering. After all, what could she possibly have done wrong? Of course, the act of giving birth is a complete credit and praise for her, but some authorities have suggested that - during the intense pain of delivery -- she may have cursed God, cursed her husband and/or sworn never to have children/have sex again. Her "sin" offering repents of those statements now.

However, another interpretation is that she needs to emerge from her achievement fatigue. The elevation offering (which is completely consumed on the altar and rises up to Hashem) represents her acknowledgment that she put everything she had into having this baby. Additionally, it is a way of acknowledging that she was only able to give birth due to God's gifts to her. The sin offering does not come to atone for sin at all, but rather to mark her transition from postpartum to normalcy once again. "Sin" offerings can also be used to mark a process from exile to redemption[4] just as they can mark the process from guilt to forgiveness. It is also a way of limiting how long she can allow herself to languish in achievement fatigue-ville. Once she brings the sacrifice, it is time for her to get back into gear with her life. We find a similar example in mourning. The seven day period of shiva[5] delimits the time for mourning. When the seven days are up, mourners "get up" from their mourning and walk around the block, signifying that they are ready at least to begin to rejoin normal society.

Our lives tend to go in cycles and most of us will experience "achievement fatigue" one time or another, whether in our personal, professional or religious lives. Perhaps the approach of the Torah to this is to acknowledge it and accept it, but only for a short and specific period of time. We cannot wallow and drown in our fatigue when each day brings a new opportunity to embark on new adventures and goals. Shabbat shalom!

[1] Many people distinguish between this mild depressive state and the more serious, potentially harmful, "postpartum depression." It is normal for a woman to have mood swings, irritability and sadness after having a baby. It is not normal (but does happen to around 10% of new mothers) to become more seriously depressed.
[2] My wife added a powerful insight into this process: during pregnancy, expectant mothers become very self-centered, in a way. They take care of their bodies as they change and their husbands, friends and strangers are solicitous of their moods and needs. People often stop to comment and compliment pregnant women on their shape or their glow. Even when they become uncomfortable and unwieldy, there is something very special about a pregnant woman. Once the baby is born, the whole emphasis switches to the baby and away from the mother. She now has to suppress her own needs and moods for the sake of the baby and it is the baby that garners all the attention. One of the contributing factors to the "baby blues" has been suggested to be guilt by mothers when they resent their babies for taking all that attention and/or guilt over taking time for themselves when they feel they should focus on their baby.
[3] Since women often feel slightly ill during menstruation.
[4] This is the opinion of Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, who brings additional proofs and reasons.
[5] This also applies to a lesser degree to the thirty-day period and 12- month period of mourning as well.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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