By Sarah Degner Riveros
We had company today, our neighbors and their three kids. They showed up unannounced. We were doing what we usually do on a Saturday, making messes and not cleaning them up. We had a fort built out of two armchairs and two crib mattresses gracing the living room, with a happy kid perched on top like a pirate.
Our uninvited guests dragged garbage bags full of clothing that they wanted to get rid of. We welcomed them in. We can use hand-me-downs in all sizes and shapes and everyone knows it.
As I offered to make some tea, my neighbors’ younger daughter checked out our trashed playroom. And then called, “Mom, come see the fish!”
The mom raced down the hallway to see the fish. She is that kind of mother. The fish-viewing lasted about three seconds. She bolted back out to the living room, where I was nursing the baby and trying to convince my older child to serve the gingerbread, which was made with barley malt instead of honey because that’s what we had on hand.
“When was the last time you cleaned the fish tank?” the neighbor whispered. “My daughter cleans the tank,” I said. “Maybe about a month ago. Is he dead?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I have two fish and I love interacting with them,” she said. Even though I was nursing and the oxytocin love and peace hormone was flowing, I became defensive.
“I’ve researched fish. I understand them,” she said.
Great, I thought, I was dealing with a fish whisperer.
“Fish thrive on constant interaction,” she said. She barely needed to point out to me that her fish swim right up to the side of the tank whenever they see her.
I did not doubt the validity of her playtime with her Betta fish. If I had heeded the advice of my therapist of the past three years for one moment, I would have asked a sympathetic question. Something along the lines of, “Do your fish have names?” But instead, I sat there stunned, and said, “This is our third Betta fish, and each of our first two Bettas has lived at least four years.” She was unmoved. She told me that according to her research, Betta fish need five full gallons and their water must be changed weekly. She pointed out that the little fuzzy balls on the bottom of our tank were probably feces. I neglected to share that our toddler sometimes over-feeds the fish, and the little food balls disintegrate and can be mistaken easily for other things. She swung her hair back and forth, her face red, appalled that the five-gallon tank only had three inches of water in the bottom.
There is a reason that we have one Betta fish and not, say, three cats or a dog. I throw all my energy, money, time, and love at my kids. And, I had, in fact, consulted my own fish expert—my best friend from high school—when we purchased the little fellows. She is a very clean person. Too clean, in fact. “I cleaned the fish tank so often our fish died within weeks,” she had said.
I’d also done research on the Internet, and now knew that Betta fish are a breed of Japanese puddle fish. They live in muddy puddles, which was a major influencing factor in our decision to purchase our first Betta back in 2003, because we were as good at creating and maintaining muddy puddles then as we are now.
I went on defending my fish-care practices. “My Betta fish always live for four years,” I said, then suddenly waved my hand at my living room. “In our modern society, many people believe that a healthy home must be immaculate. Like a magazine.” I could not stop myself. “Obviously, I do not believe in cleaning. Exhibit A: My living room.” She stared politely at the living room, where my toddler was stooping to pick up a half-eaten rice cake off the floor and stuffing it into his snotty face.
When she left I was certain she’d go home and change her two fishes’ tanks that night, after she was done sterilizing her three cats’ paws with some hand sanitizer, just for good measure. But I will sleep well tonight, knowing that the care and feeding of Betta fish is one area where I feel quite secure. I know my fish shit.
Sarah Degner Riveros mothers a biracial blended family of four in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.