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The Betta Mom

I’m thrilled to share my friend Bronwyn Lea’s writing with you this morning. I’ve fangirled her for years and we finally got to meet at the Festival of Faith & Writing this spring. She is funny and wise, pretty much my favorite personality combo. Enjoy.

by Bronwyn Lea

My kids have wanted pets for the longest time. It is entirely possible that the first thought that went through my newborn son’s head after “Whoa, it’s bright out here!” was “When can I get a puppy?”

Despite having both had beloved pets growing up, both my husband and I have been the King and Queen of Reluctance about getting a pet. There were so many reasons not to: first, because we had no yard. Then, because we were renting. Then, because we traveled for weeks at a time. But as more kids and a piece of turf to call our own became realities, we finally took shelter behind one immovable excuse: too much poop. Mama has a poop-limit, and with three kids under the age of 5, she was maxed out. There was no margin for any extra clean-up, and thus no margin for furry friends, no matter how cute.

But then, friends, the day came when the skies parted and the Angelic Chorus sang Hallelujah. Our youngest child sat on his porcelain throne, finally depositing bodily fluids where they were supposed to go, and right in the middle of my victory dance, my older kids piped up: “Does this mean we can get a pet now?”

Seriously, can a woman not get a two-minute break?

The children petitioned All Summer Long, while we parents scrambled for new excuses. Finally, our eldest did the Bible-smackdown with us: “You’re supposed to let your yes be yes and your no be no, and you said YES to a pet once we were all potty-trained.” Um. Yes. Oh, that enduring parental horror of having your kids use your own words against you.

And so it was that to celebrate surviving the first day of school last year, we found ourselves in a pet shop. We had come to a compromise: we weren’t sure the kids were responsible enough to deal with the feeding and clean-up of a furry friend yet, so they could prove their responsibility with a starter pet. A brilliant blue, wild-tailed, shimmery pet, to be exact. A betta fish.

They named him Danny.

“Be careful of those betta fish,” my college roommate warned, “We had one of those. They are gateway pets.” 

“Don’t you have a Great Dane?” I asked.

“Exactly,” she replied.

I quickly learned what she meant, because having Danny in the house brought out behavior in me I never would have imagined possible. I had thought I would feel as cold-hearted as the fish was cold-blooded, but I was wrong. I had not expected that I would get such a flash of joy when Danny darted from one side of his watery enclave to the other, or that I would be so proud of his prettiness (really, they are the peacocks of the sea). I did not expect to enjoy watching him “hunt” for his flakes of food. I did not expect to find myself yelling “Hi, Danny!” every time we walked in the house. Ridiculous, really.

More than that, I did not expect to feel so devastated when our beautiful fish’s fins began to develop ragged edges: fin rot, the owlish assistant at the pet store told us. And so it was that this mom who didn’t care about fish landed up nursing an ailing fish: tending to his tank, measuring infinitesimally small amounts of fin-repair solution into his water, monitoring his energy levels. He seemed to be more sluggish than he had been, and once the kids were asleep, I pummeled Google for answers. Was he sick? Was this his fins? Could fish be depressed? I myself was getting schooled.

Perhaps he was cold? This was my father-in-law’s suggestion, after seeing our fish during a Skype chat. They are tropical creatures, after all, and the temperatures at night were dropping steeply. So I had my number-wizard husband do wattage calculations, and 48 hours later Amazon rush-shipped a tiny tank heater to our door.

The fish perked up. I was giddy with relief.

It was a sad day, six months later, when we came in one morning and found our fish suspended vertically in his tank. The advice to give Danny a “salt bath” to treat his fins was, as it turned out, rather fishy. The children and I scooped up his limp, blue body and our youngest dug a grave for him among the herbs. “You were the only fish I ever loved!” wailed my kindergartner, and we all cried.

Despite our children’s petitions, we did not buy a new fish that day: not because they weren’t ready, but because I was grieving for Danny. Me, who had been the most reluctant to acquire a pet at all, had become the most attached to our tiny, finned friend. My heart had grown in compassion; my kids and I walked through growth, illness, recovery, and finally grief together because of him.

I thought I’d be indifferent, but I wasn’t. Danny made me a betta mom.

Bronwyn Lea is a South African born writer and mama, living with 3 kids and a new betta fish (named Danny 2) in California. She writes about faith, family, culture and her obsession with home made ice cream at and other fun places online. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.


photo by Bryce Gandy