As I looked around, the overwhelm hit me. I had that airless, choking feeling – it started in my heart, but soon had me reaching for my asthma inhaler.
It was the middle of winter in 2018. Like most Melbourne winters it was spent predominantly inside, but that year it felt a little more suffocating than usual. Maybe it was because the kids were getting bigger. The stuff was getting bigger, or perhaps it was just more expensive. It also didn’t help that we had been living in our house for nearly two decades. We hadn’t experienced the cleansing of crap that comes with moving to a new house.
I say house because, it still shames me to admit, the wonderful abode we had built ourselves so many years earlier didn’t feel like the home we meant for it to be. We had dreams and plans (well, more ideas than plans) that fizzled out as the years passed. We brought our two beautiful babies home from the hospital, made memories, enjoyed milestones and celebrated birthdays and festive holidays.
There had been plenty of laughs, tears, frustration, gain and loss. I don’t speak for the rest of my family, as they still insist that their feelings on this are different to mine, but on a heart and soul level, I felt a disconnection from my environment. I was a caretaker, wandering and pottering within the walls; chasing a feeling that couldn’t be got with wandering and pottering.
Of course, there are many reasons that this can happen, including chemical and mental health reasons, and I have found myself far from immune from these hurdles over the years. On a whole different level, however, what I was experiencing seemed to be common with my peers: the two-thousand and teens mum demographic that was stuck, locked in a cycle of wanting to be a great parent, inspiring person, helpful partner, fulfilled human being, super house manager, entrepreneurial go-getter, short order cook slash nutritionist…
If thinking about the cycle was exhausting, living in it was often debilitating. I felt frozen a lot of the time, numb. It wasn’t for lack of love – to this day I have the most amazing, supportive husband by my side and two beautiful, and now very teenagery, children. We have had a tonne of laughs and our fair share of challenges, and they have added and incalculable depth of meaning to my life.
Despite this I still felt unfulfilled, and for that I also bottled up a stockpile of immense guilt.
After that blustery 2018 winter, we embarked on our first family holiday in, well, what might have been forever (unless you count weekends away or three-night stayovers within Victoria). This was a real two-week holiday in sunny Queensland with extended family, and it was long overdue.
Removed from our cluttered house, and travelling with carry-on luggage, the break from stuff was divine. Like many holiday-goers, I had daily thoughts about how we should try to “live like this when we get back home”. I had a notepad and a pen and, sitting by the pool, I realised and wrote a lot of the ideas we are going to get to shortly.
Fast forward to our return home, only weeks later our kitchen flooded. Not a little “these floor planks might settle after a few days” kind of flood, but a more epic “unrecoverable kitchen, walls and floors” deal.
In the weeks and months that followed – while we corresponded with our insurance company and negotiated with contractors – we also had the fun of being relocated while mould remediation works took place.
Again, we experienced a less encumbered lifestyle. This time, however, we had the parallel challenge of culling twenty years of stuff while packing up our lives into storage boxes. It became a personal case study, dealing with our collection while considering the thoughts I had brought back with me from our holiday.
The fact remains that, while humans have evolved considerably, we are still only a step away from many thousands of years where we lived the hunter-gatherer existence.
We learnt about it at school, as if it was distant history – the men went out to hunt wildlife, while gathering was the domain of women. This happened for a number of reasons, including physical strengths. Women bore children and were responsible for nurturing and protecting them. Gathering was a safer activity that was done closer to home.
In reality, gathering was a vital, daily ritual. The food and resources gathered far exceeded those that were hunted; this was at the heart of sustenance and survival.
Women had to gather wisely – it meant knowing what food was safe and nutritious, and what was poisonous or a waste of time. They had to ensure there was enough, especially if the men returned empty-handed from their hunting expeditions.
It meant being aware of several things in parallel at any given time. They were responsible for children while they gathered, at the same time imparting their skills and knowledge on the next generation.
Do you see a pattern? After hundreds of thousands of years, our gatherer nature is still strong. It is innate. It is even chemical. We are the same women, just with technology in our toolkits and more at our fingertips than our ancestors could ever have dreamed.
In the myriad of indigenous cultures that still live “on the land” in symbiosis with nature, gatherer traditions have remained quite true to their origins. In the “developed” world, however, the gatherer has simply evolved. And not necessarily to an advantageous end.
As we began to learn farming and manufacturing techniques in centuries past – producing what we needed and wanted – the gatherer role shifted.
Deny it all we like, but there is an inborn part of every woman that is a gatherer. With countless millennia of ritualistic gathering under our belts, we cannot ignore this aspect of ourselves. Such a long history (and the science of evolution) can’t be unravelled in a matter of decades, or even centuries.
Our gatherer is strongly and inherently tied into our brain chemistry. Whether we developed the female brain chemistry as a result of our gatherer traditions, or our behaviours resulted from our chemistry is a “chicken-egg” kind of question. As with many facets of evolution, it is likely a perplexing combination of the two.
So, how does the female brain work? What chemistry am I referring to? I’m going to keep it simple here.
One of the most prominent driving neurotransmitters that defines the female experience is serotonin. Serotonin is the feel-good neurotransmitter, responsible for our sense of connection and love. It also regulates appetite and desire. The female brain needs serotonin to function well. Dr John Gray of Mars-Venus fame has some great, easy-to-digest reading that helps to explain this chemistry in detail. ₁
Another defining feature of the female brain is the number of connections between the left and right hemispheres. The more brain connectivity you have between these hemispheres, the stronger the balance between emotions and intellect. In comparison, men have more neural connections within each of the hemispheres, and fewer between the hemispheres themselves.
Research suggests that this allows women to make associations with different experiences, connecting the creative and emotional with events and logical thought. With fewer connections between the hemispheres, men seem to have a more single focus when it comes to brain activity, but generally find it easier to organise this activity and maintain a simpler perception. ₂
Neither one is better than the other. Both are important, and when they work together can make an unstoppable team!
It’s Not Working
But what happens when the chemistry isn’t right?
For women, if we lack serotonin, we begin to feel overwhelmed and unappreciated – whether it is the reality or not. Our brains can get foggy and we can struggle to focus during the day. We often feel emotionally attached in all the wrong places and life can feel pretty lonely, even if we are surrounded by loved ones.
We are also likely to drop our guard and stop checking ourselves as much. Our appetite might not be regulated properly, leading us down the emotional eating road, or we could just spend time lost in our phone or running around in circles, trying to get through the next hour… and the next one.
What Does it Mean?
So, what does all of this mean for the gatherer in us? Well, we need to look a little at how the brain works to understand why we are still operating in this role but might be manifesting it a little less productively.
When we are depleted of serotonin, we replenish it in several ways. The main way is through connecting with others, especially with other women. The fundamental gatherer group behaviour is still the main way women improve moods and lift emotions. Nurturing others and giving also boost our serotonin production.
As a side note, diet and exercise are extremely important, but that is for a whole other article.
In our modern world, we might be connected via social media or through work, but the connection is different. On a grand scale, many women are feeling lonelier than ever.
Our lives are rushed, we are trying to do everything, and forgetting about how to be ourselves. We can often focus on the parts of our lives that relate to achieving, and the connecting becomes an afterthought if we have time.
To simplify the old gatherer picture, a woman’s day would involve looking after and nurturing children, foraging for local edible flora and small fauna, preparing food, and doing this in collaboration with the other women in the tribe.
This is a simplification – I am sure there were other tasks, dangers and challenges – but much of the female role involved repeating these tasks every day.
What does the modern Western world tell us? In many countries, the modern woman sees this as the secondary function in their role. Many women are now hunters in the workplace, and gatherers behind the scenes.
Here’s where our gatherer can go mad. We can’t squash her – she’ll never go away. She is part of us, and we need to honour her.
I am certainly not advocating quitting your day job or career. Likewise, this is not about hanging out in the kitchen or channelling your inner 1950s housewife. It is, in fact, the opposite. What we need to do is figure out where our gatherer is hiding, where she is misrepresented, and help her manifest in the most beautiful and personal ways possible.
What areas do we channel the gatherer into, and where might we be going wrong?
As with so many areas of life, we need to look to food and nutrition. But let’s look at it a little differently. It is not just about what we buy and eat, or how we prepare it, but as much about how we acquire it.
In an age where we have everything out our fingertips in supermarkets, and even more so with online grocery shopping, we are not really honouring our inner gatherer.
The process of gathering our food and supplies has lost its magic. Now we wander the supermarket aisles – whether physical or digital – and consume. We are told what to buy, how many to buy, and are made to feel like all these things are necessary for our survival. We pop items in our trolleys and feel a quick hit of satisfaction, but the feeling is short-lived. It is short-lived because the items (and the process) are not fulfilling at the most basic of levels.
What we are doing is consuming... we consume when we buy, and then we consume at home. Each time, the satisfaction is an inferior and fleeting feeling, and we look for the next thing to consume.
For some, this can lead to addictive behaviour. The gatherer can quickly become a collector and, at the extreme, a hoarder. It is getting easier all the time to fall into the trap, and harder to break free of it. One look at a Facebook or Instagram feed and you'll find it littered with ads, pouncing on people who are looking at ways to fill a shopping-sized hole in their souls.
With the introduction of ‘buy now, pay later’ financial products, and the trusty old credit card, so many people are now in an ocean of debt and are trying to consume - or buy - their way out of the imprisoning feeling that results.
Additional Challenges in 2020
Yes, 2020 has thrown us a curve ball with COVID-19 and the world is experiencing a pandemic unlike anything we have known before.
We’ve seen the ‘gatherer gone mad’ on the news and in our own local shops. Panic buying and hoarding items, fighting for control and security in what seems to be completely irrational ways. This isn’t gender specific; we have seen as many hunters stalking toilet paper prey aggressively over the last couple of months.
For those of us who don’t work in essential service roles, we’re getting a lot of time at home through social distancing. We will find there are pros and cons over the coming months, but above all else this can serve as an insightful and life-altering experience. We just need to allow it.
Perhaps you’ve already gone through the reassessment phase, appreciating what you really do need in life, as opposed to what you thought you needed. Maybe you are living face-to-face with the consequences of years of manic, fruitless gathering.
If this is true for you, it will be hard to escape. Wardrobes and drawers, pantries and filing cabinets – it will be hiding in the deepest of corners. Here is the opportunity to hit the reset button for your natural gatherer. With many of the non-essentials becoming difficult or even impossible to acquire, it is a wonderful time to figure out whether the things you want are adding value to your life or sapping you of time and energy.
The best thing to do is face the challenge on. Let this be your personal case study in modern gathering behaviour. Pay attention to all the things you have gathered in the quest for fulfillment, whether it is stuff, food, excuses, regrets or centimetres on the waistline. Collecting goes far beyond the things we can hold and stash. It can become a hunger that will never be satisfied until our gatherer begins to choose more wisely.
It Takes a Village...
Part of the gatherer spirit involves communication and togetherness, whether it involves traditions that need to be passed on, or the sharing of emotions and experiences. Without this connection, the gatherer is at risk of straying and looking for life in all the wrong places.
So many already have. How many women feel isolated, alone, unsupported? How many are facing daily struggles, whether mental, emotional or financial? How many have found themselves stuck trying to figure out how they can nourish their souls in a vampirical, consumer-driven world.
We are so lucky, thanks to technology, to have many more vehicles for connection than ever before. To use this technology wisely is a great challenge but can be an even greater blessing.
Feed the Gatherer
If you want to find fulfillment in the process, you need to engage and honour the gatherer inside yourself – not the consumer. Stuff, labels, excess food – none of these will lead to fulfillment or happiness.
Let the process of gathering be the thing that nourishes your spirit. Ditch as much of the soulless or online shopping as you can.
Of course, with the current Coronavirus pandemic playing, this is going to be a bit trickier than it might have been only months or weeks ago. What you can do is stocktake your life and let the stuff around you steer your behaviour. You can start by not consuming anything that is not necessary or truly valuable – you need to put your foot on the brake before you can change direction.
Once the chaos settles and it is time to reemerge into the world, you can find your spiritual food home, the place that will nourish your soul. That is, if you can’t find one that delivers right now! Try a farmers’ market or farmgate store where you can soak up the energy of fresh produce, surrounded by the growers who invested their time and energy to bring it to you.
Engage in the process. Find food that resonates with you; it could be organically grown produce or free range, grass fed meat, or the closest to these that you can get.
In an ideal world we would all have backyards filled with homegrown produce and a couple of egg-laying chickens pecking their way around. If you can't gather it yourself, however, do the next best thing. Purchase your food from the best suppliers you can find; do your best to connect with your gatherer, rather than disconnect and consume.
If might feel like a distant dream at the moment, but the time will come when the privilege of choice is reinstated. I can’t say for others, but when it does happen, I plan to make my choices with a renewed sense of gratitude and wisdom.
Never be ashamed to admit you have a gatherer crying to be set free. It is not anti-feminist, nor will it socially imprison women. If anything, honouring part of womanhood that is at the core of who we are, part of our genetic makeup, can only strengthen our place in the world and lead to greater happiness and contentment.