Adam and I have built a big life. I call it “big” because that’s the only way I can describe the messy, hectic schedules and carloads of kids and dogs and cats and fish and house projects and trips and schooling and chaos we create for ourselves.
It’s an endless list of change and growth. Some of it good, some of it not so much.
When we started dating in 1996, we found common ground in our ambitions. We entered into the initial negotiation phase of our relationship, the same conversations most couples have when establishing what will hopefully be a life-long partnership. We set goals that would mean sacrifice and hard work. During our “once upon a time” phase, we purposely decided to spend free time on activities that would help our little partnership grow into a large busy life.
The hope was that we’d hustle while we were young and reap the benefits of living “happily ever after” when we were senior citizens.
In retrospect, this was a lot of pressure to put on two kids in their 20s. But since we’ve been together, we’ve managed to build that big life we both wanted. We love each other, but our hectic life puts pressure on the relationship, and sometimes the challenges and anger and frustration of a big life makes one of us threaten divorce. So far the threats give way to more negotiations and in the end we come back to our shared mission: we want to get as much out of our lifetimes as we can, and we want to do it together.
We’ve never been comfortable with lots of free weekends and open time because we thrive on deadlines and goal setting. It’s a stressful way to live, but it suits us. When the pace of life starts to slow, one of us cooks up another crazy plan — ‘Let’s both get graduate degrees’, ‘Let’s tear apart the entire kitchen’, or even ‘We can manage another baby’ — and we’re back in the thick of it.
Because of our desire to stay active, there have always been side jobs and babies and classes and day trips and people to visit and home improvement projects to tackle. Instead of keeping our circle tight, the two of us are always looking for connections and growth. Even among the introverts in our little family, there are needs outside the home, away from the family nest.
Like us, our children try to live big lives, with all the things you can imagine children, tweens and teens like to do. Like most kids, they look to us for a model of how to live.
Building a big life came to a screeching halt in March. For the first time since we’ve known each other, Adam and I found ourselves with lots of time to watch Netflix. At first, it was novel, but now, it’s starting to feel like we’re stuck in a rut. What’s the next big challenge? The best we can come up with is searching Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for a secondhand couch. Our instincts to grow and advance have been stifled by the pandemic.
Stopping the normal flow of life has left us feeling directionless. It’s not a matter of lacking things to do, it’s that the things we’re doing are not moving us ahead.
In the past, even when times were very tough, or one of us was feeling depressed and overwhelmed, our desire to have a big life kept us actively creating a future that was enticing. And it wasn’t always the big things that kept us motivated. Sometimes it was as simple as a day trip to a new park or a Friday night movie. Or it was a new work challenge or some performance featuring one (and sometimes all four) of our kids.
For the most part, COVID-19 has caused even the little events to dry up, and there’s no clear evidence we’ll be back to doing those things with regularity any time soon.
This leaves us with a much smaller life.
As I face our new reality, I do so while recognizing that I’m one of the lucky ones. I still have steady work and most of my family.
Many people have not just been slowed by the virus, they’ve been set back — financially, professionally, personally, socially. Friends and family have been laid off from jobs they’ve had for many years; jobs they expected to retire from. The government has responded with increased unemployment benefits, but when those are gone, there will be a lot of people starting from scratch. The world we’ll face when the social isolation and lockdowns are over will not be the same for many of us.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to go back to having a big life after the opportunities have shrunk or worse, disappeared, and this scares me.
Whether I end up back in the grind, pursuing that big life again, or if I find a way to be happy with something less complicated, it’s important to recognize that we’re all struggling under the weight of uncertainty together. The future isn’t as exciting as it was before, because life has damaged us.
The only thought that brings me comfort is that maybe when the dust settles, there will be new opportunities. Disruption is hard to live through, but when it dissipates, the results are never completely negative.
I didn’t want my big life to be interrupted, but I’m open to the idea that this disruption might make me a better person — a better wife, mom, teacher, citizen, friend, sister and daughter who now remembers what it’s like to spend her free time appreciating the little things instead of trying to have it all.
— Mary Beth Earnheardt is director of the Anderson Program in Journalism at Youngstown State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @mbexoxo.