My friends’ kids make their online debut in an ultrasound at three or four months. Once the child is born, parents usually go on to be wholly replaced by their offspring, with a profile picture featuring the child and status updates entirely composed of their child’s absurd, cheeky statements.
I never understood it.
But then I woke up on Thursday morning and learned how radically everything can change.
I fed my goldfish breakfast. Fondly I watched their usual frenzy over the pellets. But then I noticed something strange against the glass. There was something else in the aquarium. About five millimeters long, they looked like miniscule eyeballs attached to a thread-thin spine.
I had to Google Image “newborn goldfish” before I believed it.
Pieces of the puzzle began to fit. If you look at the header of my blog, you’ll see how companionable my fish usually are. But a few days ago, Werner and Bling had chased Princess in and out of the large plant for hours. I just thought it was just a little school bullying, but “courtship among goldfish often consists of the male shoving the female against plants while he shimmies from side to side,” says The Essential Goldfish.
Costing $0.13, Princess had joined the tank a few years ago, and preferred to hide inside the miniature Parthenon before rapidly becoming the biggest, fastest fish in the tank. “Goldfish do not form pair-bonds,” Goldfish: A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual says. “They are promiscuous breeders. Any male will breed with any female.” Princess doesn’t need to know.
“Babe, look!” I said, pulling my husband to the fish tank.
“You have to see what happened.”
“I have never seen anything like this,” he said. “Whoa.”
There is a peculiar, humbling wonder in going to bed with three fish and waking up with at least a hundred. It was no less than a true miracle. The world needed to know. I announced the births on Facebook and texted my mother.
Then my husband and I began to sense the challenges of parenting. The morning became fraught with anxiety. Thank God my meeting had already been canceled.
“We have to get them out of there,” my husband urged. “What are they going to eat? Are they starving in there?”
“Well I know the big fish will eat them if we don’t get them out. But how do we scoop them? Where do we put them? What do we feed them?”
I unplugged the filter and removed the three big fish to a bucket. Then I did what all new parents should probably do. I got on the phone for some help. Not that new parents call pet stores. But I’m sure the fundamental principles are the same.
At PetSmart, I had hoped to find someone who could relate to our excitement – and predicament.
“No, you’re the first customer I’ve ever seen who’s had goldfish hatch at home,” the woman said.
We purchased what we would need to ensure the babies’ survival over the next few days, including the apparent Gerber of the aquarium world, a tiny bag of food called “First Bites”.
At home, we opened the “net breeder” we had purchased and realized it was just the world’s smallest playpen – although, contrary to human playpens, this one would go underwater.
We took pictures of the new arrivals and posted them on Facebook. The fry don’t resemble their large, shiny, golden-white parents any more than first ultrasounds resemble a human, so I knew how interested everyone would be.
More alert fish owners – i.e., the ones trying for fry – make sure their fish hatch inside a special enclosure. Clearly things had already gotten out of hand at our house, and now we had to round up the results. My early stints in babysitting taught me a little about the challenges of putting children into bed. My husband and I may have assembled a slightly smaller and cheaper crib than yours. But I beg you to imagine that your children measure less than a centimeter, are lightning fast and loose in 40 gallons of fishy water. Plus there are at least a hundred of them, and if you don’t catch them, they will be eaten alive.
“A large female can lay as many as 10,000 eggs,” A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual says. Then the fish “greedily eat as many eggs as they can find.” Numerous as the fishies were, it seemed the population had been already been whittled down.
We got to work. While I had purchased a tiny fish net, my husband perfected a technique whereby he ambushed the fry with a glass measuring cup. By plunging it gently into the water, the fry were sucked into it and he sometimes nabbed as many as two or three at a time, while I was lucky to get one in the net.
The capturing went on sporadically throughout the weekend. In the meantime, I learned that unlike human parenting, bringing up goldfish in the recommended fashion may not be a pursuit the average person can handle properly. I will cope with the looming questions of who will adopt the babies and what one website calls the “challenge of feeding hundreds of fish” when I get there (one website urges feedings every four hours). But guidelines on healthy water conditions, safe filtration and frequent feeding of diverse, high-quality foods rapidly give way to more troubling instructions.
They’re not going to a fishbowl in the White House – surely somebody with a lopsided tail could live happily in a pond where no-one will be looking too closely? Apparently not. I am supposed to “cull” the fish over the next six months: as soon as I can tell which ones are the prettiest, I dispose of the rest (though no-one gives any advice as to how). One book says that only “one percent” of the babies should ultimately survive. In short, those who become successful goldfish breeders, unlike worthwhile human parents, must have a touch of the mass-murdering eugenicist. The irony of nurturing the fish for months with proper protein and pH only to massacre 99% of them seems lost on goldfish experts.
For now, the three big fish seem to have completely forgotten any role they may have played in the addition of the underwater crib. Perhaps they can see the fry in there. Perhaps the First Bites are filtering delectably out. Whatever the reason, the parents are intrigued by the crib in their tank. Or maybe they’re enjoying some shark cage fantasies.
The fry are nearing a week old and their progress, I’m sure you’ll agree, is nothing short of stunning. From clinging to the sides of the pen, they dart freely in search of food and sport mouths along with the tiny, transparent beginnings of fins and tails. So far they’re enjoying First Bites, brine shrimp, algae and crumbled hardboiled egg yolk.
As a parent, I’m contemplating my next move. Perhaps I could pitch a reality show – my brood puts the Duggars’ in the shade, or maybe America would like to vote on which fish survive. Perhaps I should launch a political platform on the value of ichthyological abstinence and the risks of underwater cohabitation. And I definitely need to befriend someone with a roomy goldfish pond. In the meantime, I’ll be sure to keep you updated – I bet you can’t bear to miss a moment of my baby fish.