TO FEED OR NOT TO FEED
When my 26-year-old sister, Lauren, moved into my basement, she brought an orange-and-white U-Haul truck full of eclectic hand-me-down furniture—an assortment of pink bohemian decor—and 2,500 articles of clothing. Two of her “things” had their own personalities: two goldfish, Fluffy and Grass. Shy little things, they hid behind their green-and-purple artificial plants, or chased each other around the bowl, their golden tails shimmering.
Asher was five days old. It was Thanksgiving week, 2019, and the pediatrician’s waiting room was buzzing with children of all ages—toddlers bouncing on laps, school-aged children rambling and munching on graham crackers, teens absorbed in their phones—and parents attempting to referee. I held my newborn close to my chest, bouncing him lightly, avoiding eye contact with anyone, until a nurse with a clipboard finally called “Asher.” I barely heard her above the pre-pubescent roar.
“I only feed the fish once a week, or sometimes twice,” Lauren said, pushing a curly strand of hair behind her ear.
“What? Why?” I furrowed my brow.
“That way they eat their own poo, and I don’t have to clean their bowl very often. They’ve been alive for three years, so I guess they’re doing just fine.”
“Seriously? That’s so gross.” I stared at the hungry little fish.
“He’s not gaining enough weight, and we need to figure out why.” Kristin, the nurse practitioner, gestured to the newborn in my arms as we sat in a tiny exam room. She was in her late 40s with bright blue eyes and short light brown hair that swept across her forehead.
I sighed and lowered my eyes. “Well, he’s breastfeeding every two hours, but it really hurts. I’m not sure I’m doing it right. I have no idea if he’s getting anything at all.” It took immense effort for my exhausted brain to put together a sentence.
After Lauren’s confession, I googled “how often are you supposed to feed goldfish.” Two-to-three times a day, but only an amount as big as their eyeball. They have tiny eyeballs, like small black beads.
“Go ahead and breastfeed him now, and I’ll try to figure out what’s going on,” Kristin said.
Asher cried and thrashed in my arms while I awkwardly unbuttoned my shirt. I winced and sucked in air as he latched.
“Everything looks good. Hear that swallowing sound? That means he’s getting milk,” Kristin explained. “But we have to get him to eat more.”
Every once in a while, when Lauren wasn’t home, I snuck down to feed Fluffy and Grass. I unscrewed the lid on the goldfish food and dropped in a few flakes or more than a few. “Eat up, little ones!” I whispered. They thanked me by racing to the top and doing a wiggly little dance.
Kristin explained something called “triple feeding” which meant I was to breastfeed Asher, then use a breast pump to extract any remaining milk, then use a syringe to feed the breastmilk to my screaming, wailing son. Finally, if he still had any room left in his tiny tummy, feed him formula with a syringe. I was not allowed to use a bottle for fear of “nipple confusion.” I was to repeat this process every two hours.
“Does that sound doable? Do you feel like that’s a good plan? Or does that sound totally overwhelming?” Kristin asked, adjusting the stethoscope around her neck.
“Honestly, it’s super overwhelming,” I choked out.
In the “After Visit Summary,” Kristin wrote: “Good latch with audible swallowing, but mom crying due to discomfort (nipples intact).”
It’s really easy to overfeed goldfish because they are grazers and always on the lookout for their next meal. An overfed goldfish creates excess waste, and any uneaten food breaks down in the water. The result is algae growth and a dirty, toxic environment. In the end, the fish dies.
For the next few days, I did what Kristin asked. I fed him, fed him, fed him again, every two hours. Cried from burning nipples. Didn’t sleep, except in forty-minute increments. Barely remembered to drink water or eat. But I was determined. This boy would be fed. This boy would be full. This boy would gain weight.
At his follow-up appointment, only two days later, Asher had gained four ounces, and I had lost four pounds.
“I’ll only be in New York for six weeks. Can you take care of the fish for me while I’m gone? You only have to feed them once a week.” Lauren relaxed on her retro, flower-print couch and hugged one of her fluffy pink pillows.
“Isn’t there anyone else who can watch them for you?” I looked down at my socks.
I imagined feeding the fish, feeding them again, unable to stop giving them more food. I saw Fluffy and Grass gorging themselves on a seafood feast. They would die fat and happy, belly-up and lifeless, surrounded by toxic waste, but with smiles on their adorable little faces.
Then I saw Asher in the future, at about 12 years old, except he’s perfectly round like Violet after she chewed the forbidden gum in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I imagined rolling him from room to room. “I fed him. I fed him. I fed him,” I tell imaginary Kristin at the doctor’s office. “You told me he was starving, so I fed him.”
I shook the image from my head. Lauren was staring at me, waiting for my final answer.
“You should take the fish with you to New York,” I said. “I can’t be trusted.”
Bethany Jarmul is a writer, essayist, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review, Literary Mama, and Sky Island Journal among others. She earned first place in Women On Writing's Q2 2022 essay contest. She lives near Pittsburgh with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.