Just a Tadpole in a Fishbowl

Photo by Alan Cabello on Pexels.com

“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” -Rumi

As we’ve passed the midpoint of summer vacation, I can see the new school year looming on the horizon. I’m furiously trying to hold on to the reins of our burgeoning schedule, desperately trying to be intentional while still juggling what is probably too much for one person.

I had hoped that life beyond quarantine would be slower and more purposeful, but I’m also constantly plagued with desires and an unsettling awareness that time is scarce and not promised to us. 

I’m back to racing around like a contestant in one of those supermarket challenges, trying to put whatever I can in my cart to win the big prize at the end of the game, but what exactly is that prize? It’s a never-ending balancing act of parenting and professional life and personal aspirations to do the things we never seem to have enough time for, choosing and prioritizing or not prioritizing and regretting, often making decisions that only ever feel like a shot in the dark. 

My youngest son received two tadpoles for his birthday. He named them Chip and Bluey.

Months went by, but Chip and Bluey never grew legs. Then, the first one died (Chip? Bluey?)  about a month ago, and I felt like I said yes to something I had no business taking on. 

Tadpoles live a boring life in a fishbowl with nothing to do. No rocks. No plants. These are all of the things you’re supposed to provide once they have legs and become frogs, but until then, it’s just a bowl of water and a waiting game for them to move on to the next life stage.

Recently, I was outside watching the Monarch caterpillars in our garden. Last year, we raised them in captivity and released them by the dozens. This was during the height of COVID, with too much time on our hands and nowhere to go, when something like raising caterpillars was the highlight of our week. (Spoiler alert: there’s no time for that now!)  

While I felt nostalgic for that time we had together– my kids and the butterflies and the simple things– I did happen to notice the way the caterpillars in the wild appear to be happy moving about the milkweed, fulfilling their life cycle duties before transforming into pupae. The caterpillar stage only lasts for about two weeks. The butterfly will live for only two to six weeks. When you think about it, it’s pretty sad to keep a caterpillar in a container and deny it the freedom of moving around by their own volition, experiencing their instincts and destiny as nature designed it to unfold.

I remember the very last meeting I had online before the school year was over, sitting outside on a warm spring morning, noticing a couple of monarchs fluttering in the breeze, seemingly enjoying their simple lives. While I looked forward to returning to a physical classroom and life returning to its old rhythm, I worried we would lose sight of what we unearthed in the time and space of solitude at home. 

When the second tadpole started floating upside down, I felt terrible. How could I have contributed to this trapped life, inadvertently killing these living beings? Bluey and Chip never knew the joy of darting between rocks and never felt the warmth of the sun. They never knew the highs and lows of an existence. Instead, they swam in a fishbowl that was so boring even the cats stopped trying to mess with them. 

As our last tadpole’s life drew to an end, I brought the fishbowl outside to the garden, where there were colorful flowers, birds chirping, and a cool morning breeze. I took the top off and imagined it being aware that it was finally in nature, hopefully giving it a bit of joy in a life that never gave it legs.

Both the tadpole and the caterpillar live a short existence, with danger and the odds stacked against them. Survival into the next stage of their life cycle is always uncertain. But maybe those two weeks of chomping on milkweed or the weeks spent in the perils of a creek, wild and free, are worth more than a life of captivity in a place where you do not belong.

All three of my kids did tennis camp this summer. The youngest easily fit in with his group of strangers, cracking jokes and never wiping the smile off his face. I didn’t have to fret over him.

My daughter looked like a deer in headlights in her group. I watched as she sat nervously to the side by herself while the others sat with friends.

“Are you okay?” I whispered.

“I’m fine,” she said. 

I lingered on the sidelines with the other helicopter parents, watching the way she went through the drills with laser sharp focus, even though I knew inside she was trying to figure out the social dynamic.

And she was fine. By the second day she knew everyone’s names and had friends. By the end of the week she gave her phone number to someone. 

My other son had a good first few days, but by the end of the week he felt frustrated. He wasn’t meshing with the other kids– a mishmash group of tweens and teens, most of whom were better players than him. 

Helicopter Mom sat in the shade nearby on the last day, waving him over when he made eye contact  during his lunch break– where he sat alone.

“You’re not here for them,” I said, trying to encourage him. “You’re here for you. To get better.”

He nodded. 

“But I know it sucks when you aren’t connecting with people.”

He nodded solemnly. 

It’s so painful watching your kids be alone, and yet I know I have to prepare them for the times when they will have no choice but to be alone. I have to give them tools to work through their own pain, as much as I would like to take the burden off their shoulders and do it for them.

I should know. Just the night before, I was at a retreat where I ate dinner alone in my hotel room, feeling like a total loser. A fish out of water. 

It’s not that I can’t handle being alone. I’m alone all of the time. I’m an only parent, for crying out loud. I know in my bones what it feels like to be home at night, the kids sound asleep, knowing intimately how alone I am. It’s just that walking into groups and feeling alone is not something I want to willingly sign-up for as an adult. 

It reminds me of junior high school, agreeing to friendships just so you don’t have to sit alone at lunch, even if you really could take or leave the people you’re with. I can’t do that as an adult. I can’t fake human connection. Either it’s there or it isn’t. 

At what point in your life does intentionality bleed into all aspects of your life– how you spend your time, your aspirations, the company you hold? 

I know I can’t be the Helicopter Mom who swoops in every time my children don’t feel like they belong, because I can’t even fix myself everytime I feel like I don’t belong. Yesterday, I was at a Zoom meeting where I listened to everyone talk about things I didn’t really find interesting, and I literally wrote in my notes, “Do I belong here?” 

I don’t have any answers, other than I think figuring out where we do and do not belong is a lifetime endeavor. Alternatively, you can choose to accept the fossilization of your being and not pay attention. But for me, I think this will be an ongoing process, because I don’t want to settle. I want to examine deeply what I believe in, what brings me joy, and how I want to grow. Maybe I won’t always have the answers, but I’ll have the gut feeling. The one that tells me “this is not for me” and gives me the strength to walk away. Living an authentic life is a core value for me.

Figuring out where you belong requires strong boundaries and honesty with yourself and others. A willingness to say no. It reminds me of the quote, “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.” Finding your people and your calling and your place is a constant process of realignment and looking inward. You have to really examine how you feel and know when you are valued. I want to go where I can contribute. 

The kids and I were driving on one of our thousand errands recently. Life is already getting too busy. I told them that I was always in a rush to grow up, but if I could go back in time, I’d tell myself that you only get to experience something once. 

“I was only in elementary school once,” I explained. “High school once. Got married for the first time once. Enjoy the moment– there are no redos.”

“Yeah, but you could get married again,” my daughter said.

“And you could go back to school,” my oldest son added.

“I could,” I said, “but it wouldn’t be the same experience as, say, becoming a mother for the first time. And some things I can’t do over, like high school or being young.”

They were unconvinced. Those milestones don’t mean anything to them yet. Maybe I need to adopt their mindset and stop investing energy in the things that are possibly meaningless.

After thinking about it though, I think they’re right and I’m right. It’s never over and there are always other opportunities, *and* I can’t relive those prior moments. Both are true. I suppose the only answer is to be as present as you can for each moment.

As I sat in the hotel room last week feeling like a total loser, I wrote in my journal, “Make better choices.” That’s it. Take the data you receive and act accordingly. Or don’t, and suffer. That’s a choice! 

I stayed up one night listening to my son release all of his angst over tennis camp. 

“Let’s go through the list,” I said.  “Do you want to get better at tennis?”

“Yes.”

Okay, so we aren’t going anywhere. I had him list everything bothering him, and we brainstormed solutions.

New shoes. Carving out time to practice. Private coaching. Another week at camp, with the possibility of a new group of students. Deep breaths. 

In the last hour of his practice on the last day, I watched him play a tennis game and do so much better than he had been hitting during the drills. I saw the smile on his face when he won a point. Those bits of joy are what we live for– our why.

I had a conversation with a parent about sports and not fitting in with different parent groups, and how it makes or breaks the experience. 

Sometimes it seems the answer is to stick with it, other times it feels like letting go is more appropriate. Human connection is vital. Referent groups are important. Feeling a sense of purpose is essential. But naavigating all of this is complicated and confusing, and I don’t have a single answer to share, other than to experience it and make decisions that feel right in that moment. Do better when you know better. 

Perhaps the trick is trying and trying and keep trying, and if it doesn’t work, try somewhere else. 

In the words of the great Tom Petty, “You belong somewhere you feel free.” 

And that is probably the life work we’re supposed to engage in as sentient beings: finding our freedom. Even when we feel like a tadpole who still hasn’t grown legs.

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