Would you rather be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond?
As long as I can remember, I’ve had this question in the back of my head, as if every decision—where to live, where to work, when to have kids—could somehow be made with this in mind.
Maybe it’s because of the American way we grow up thinking we could be President, if only we wanted to. So, if you don’t want to be President, it must be because you have some other fabulous plan. In part, it’s generational. Our parents were more likely to think about jobs as stable things that provide pensions, not identities.
But those of us coming up on midlife these days expected something different—a job that would say something about who we are as a person. We focused on meaning, not benefits (which is really another way of saying the parts of the job that allow for a life outside of work, like getting sick or taking a vacation or having a family).
It’s as much idealism as it is egoism—we want to do something that matters because we want to matter.
I don’t remember ever thinking I could “have it all.” For as long as I can remember, it seemed like a choice—being a mother or being something else. What is your legacy? How will you leave your mark on this world? Will you leave behind children or will you leave behind some kind of accomplishment?
I was either walking in the direction of something—being a writer, traveling the world, having an impressive job—or walking way from that, retreating to some idea of family life. Publish a book or have a kid. Both do something to extend your presence in the world, the impact of your existence. Something that will be here when you’re gone.
This bilateral thinking solidified when I got pregnant in the middle of college. I would either have kids or graduate college. If I wanted to be a writer, the right choice was an abortion. Once I had kids, it would all be done, choice made, only the living of the life remaining.
So I went about my way, trying to be a writer. Not being a mother. And then, somewhere along the way, between working long hours and going out for drinks, I got older and I had kids.
I think a lot of women have a bit of a post-kid identity crisis. (I don’t know if it’s the same for men.) Who are we now that we’re mothers? What happened to our old self? How can we hold onto that old self? Or how can we break that identity apart to make enough room for this mom thing to fit in, too? It takes a long time to let go of who you were before you had kids and it’s not an easy, fluid thing. It’s lumpy, bumpy, fits and starts and maybe never ends.
Lately—something about turning 40, I think—I’ve been in some kind of mid-life crisis thinking mode, which can best be described like this: Big fish? Small fish? Too bad: you’re not a fish! You’re a drop of water in the ocean. A drop of water in a vast ocean on a tiny planet. Stardust in infinite space.
It’s not easy to feel that small and temporary. If you sit with the idea of your death for long enough, it’s hard to get going again. But holding that fact in one hand and the life you’re living in the other, the acknowledgement that we are going to be gone one day can actually make you feel more alive.
How you live your days is how you live your life, right?
Somewhere I can’t remember, I picked up this little bit of writing attributed to Kurt Vonnegut—“Notice when you're happy.” And another little bit of unattributed wisdom that has also been caught in my fish net brain—Find a happy place and continue walking in that direction.
I just keep thinking, “It's so small. I am so small.” My writing, my days, my kids, my family. I spent so much time thinking about being a big fish or a small fish, trying to be some kind of fish, but mostly just flopping around in some pond not being able to feel how big or little it was, how big or little I was.
Maybe it’s what happens after forty years of flopping around, but lately I’ve been wondering something…What if I am happy? Fish or drop of water or stardust… What if it is enough? Not big or little, just enough. My kids, my family, my writing, my community. It’s a life. It’s not always happy or easy, but it’s mine. It’s right where I belong.
When I was younger, I think I thought I would get to a place like this and feel like life was over. Turns out, it’s actually a pretty amazing place to be—only the living of the life remaining. Not drudgery—although there is plenty of that. It’s not like the laundry is going anywhere. It’s more like belonging, or settling in, or arriving somewhere I didn’t even know I was going.
If this is it, I’m good with that. This is my life and I am living it. I’m sure there are plenty of days ahead of feeling like I’m not enough. The feeling that you do enough, have enough, are enough is a slippery little tricky thing. Hard to hold onto.
But still somehow, it’s like an existential crisis has ended. Or at least come to a resting place. And my kids are four and seven, so I could really use some rest about now.