At Christmastime, my sons, ages two and one, were gifted a fish. I gave a half-smile when they opened their present, imagining what the new pet would add to my weekly tasks. They named the fish Amy, after me, which helped my salty attitude just a little. We took her home, put her on a high shelf, and waved to her from the couch. Occasionally, I would pull the bowl down to the coffee table and let my sons pinch their fat fingers in the fish food container. “Hewe you go, fishy,” they’d call, as the pellets landed on the top of the water like confetti.
I would fretfully check the fish’s bowl the following mornings, worried we overfed her, surprised by my own concern. I didn’t want the damn fish in the first place, but the idea of a living creature dying under my purview was unsettling. “Am I pregnant—are these mothering hormones?” I wondered. “Or am I projecting my potential failure—just to keep up—onto Amy?” The irony of the fish being my namesake was not lost on me.
My husband got in a major car accident in February. Our car was totaled, and his femur bone was fractured, leaving him dependent on crutches. We celebrated our oldest son’s birthday the next evening at Chick-fil-A, a cloud hanging over us, over our chicken strips and limp fries. Tears streamed down my face as I watched my newly three-year-old child attempt to interact with older kids on the playground. He followed their every move, earnest, hungry for their attention.
“He’s slipping from me,” I said, and I knew I was crying about more than this.
On a gray Sunday afternoon a couple weeks later, I was sitting across from my husband while he held an ice pack to his knee. He narrowed his eyes in my direction.
“Did you get a bug bite?” he asked, carefully reaching out to touch the area between my eyebrows.
“What?!” I jumped back flustered, feeling something swollen with my hands—something hard, trying to emerge, to find life. “Probably,” I answered.
I covered my face the rest of the night.
The next day, my dermatologist confirmed my fear, the one I didn’t mention out loud: It was acne, the cystic kind. “Spironolactone should help prevent this,” she said flatly.
I defensively sputtered that I was trying hard to avoid taking medication. I was hoping my condition wasn’t that severe—that by using the right products, cutting dairy, and washing my pillowcases more frequently the acne would resolve itself and I would somehow be effortlessly beautiful, with magical, unmedicated skin, ready to conceive a third baby at a moment’s notice.
She barely looked up in response. “It’s just hormones. Stop taking the medication a month before you want to get pregnant.”
Then she diagnosed me with an infection under my pinky nail. I paid the $134 office bill right before I called my husband, embarrassed, wishing I was the victim of a spider bite.
Later that week, I wore my glasses to the dentist’s office; they sat directly on top of a spackling of concealer. I had also cut new bangs and fidgeted nervously with them as I waited.
“Amy, I think it’s time for veneers,” the dentist said, examining my gray-beige front teeth that I was presenting chipped for the third or fourth time. “You see, your front teeth sit behind your eye teeth anyway.”
I had never noticed this.
“Give me a TV smile,” I good-naturedly replied, “so that when I’m interviewed on The Today Show, the segment with the famous writers, my face will really pop.”
He took pictures of my teeth and showed me where my gums were too prominent, my teeth too small. Zoomed in, I could see acne scars above my lips.
I smiled as I walked out of the office, lifting a victory cheer to the receptionists. “I’m going to get new teeth!”
“Good for you!” they grinned back.
I called my husband again from the car, crying. “I’m probably going to get my period soon,” I explained. “I mean, I know it’s silly to get emotional over this.”
Winter bled into spring, and I lost my tolerance for damp, cold weather. It was fifty-five degrees and raining in Portland, day in, day out—static on the radio, a station I couldn’t change. My laundry kept piling up that month; I couldn’t keep the same load of towels from mildewing, over and over again.
“You know, my period never came, and I’m pretty late,” I mentioned to my husband, as we were folding clothes.
He was still on crutches. Every night I sighed while filling up a machine with ice and water. It was connected to a wrap-around contraption that was supposed to keep his injuries cold as he slept. I’d struggle hauling it into the kitchen, feeling terrible that I felt any sort of way about this. My husband, an oldest child, is independent—reflexively selfless, more comfortable serving than being served. He would hate to know I was burdened by him.
“You’re right, you are late,” he said, as he did the math in his head.
I took a break to make us tea, our children a storm around us.
“But you know what?” he continued, as he accepted a cup of Earl Grey, “I bet it’s stress; your body’s probably carrying that since you have an increased workload after I got in the accident.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I murmured.
That night I couldn’t sleep, feeling phantom kicks inside my womb, worried I was causing injury to a fetus with acne products, dreading the workload that would come with another baby. How would we ever shower? And I would have to lose all hope with regard to the towels.
But then, a couple days later, the sun came through, a sign. I received good news. My book, a collection of poetry about coming home, would be displayed on the shelves of Powell’s, a major bookstore in Portland. Creators of a podcast I admired reached out; they liked my work and wanted to interview me. I started my period and restarted my acne regimen. My friend Janice, a faculty member at Portland State University, texted me, “Hey, you wanna read here on April 8?”
The event was scheduled on my husband’s birthday, and I knew I was probably a scramble-choice to replace someone more important who couldn’t make it, but I didn’t care. This was a university! Who invited me to be an expert in my field! It felt big.
It was raining again two weeks before the reading, and I was getting ready for my friend Rachel to come visit. AWP, the national writers’ and writing programs’ conference, was to be held in Portland and was days away. Rachel and I were arranging our schedules; I was trying to put the puzzle pieces together of hosting a guest and attending events while arranging childcare and figuring out transportation with one car and a husband who often worked overtime. In the midst of this, I received a group text from my family: My brother was in the hospital for blood clots and a bad case of pneumonia.
“It could have been lethal,” he told me over the phone, his words slurred from morphine, “but I’m okay, sis.”
I hung up my cell and scrambled to change sheets, to wipe down the toilet, to remove sticky spots from fridge shelves.
“We’ll tackle this together, babe, after the kids go to bed,” my husband told me, “and Rachel doesn’t really care.”
“I know, I know,” I said. Rachel and I were grimy grad students together; she had seen my mess before. “But I can’t help but feel embarrassed that anyone would know we live like this.”
I frantically returned the books that the boys had torn through in their late-night manic energy to their shelves. As I did this, I looked up to see that Amy, the fish, was dead.
Probably worse than the fact that we killed the fish was the fact that we left her there, lifeless, at the bottom of the bowl. I always thought that a fish would float when deceased, but Amy sank to the rocks, facing up, anchored by her side to her mortuary of neglect.
“I need to deal with that fish bowl,” I announced a week later. “And I need to get in touch with your mom about childcare for your birthday weekend. And I need to check on my brother. And I need to fill out a questionnaire for that podcast, and I have about twelve loads of laundry to fold, and I really, really need to fit in a hair appointment before this reading.” I didn’t want to look disheveled for my first real grown-up-writer appearance.
My husband nodded, then took a phone call in the next room. He came back, shaken. A childhood friend of his, a thirty-four-year-old father of two, had suffered a brain aneurysm. He was vacationing with his family in Palm Springs and stepped out of the pool, dead almost on the spot.
The next week, I paid $200 and left the salon with hair that looked like the right side of a flag: stripes in all colors, heralding my arrival.
“You just need to take some time to get used to it,” the hairstylist said when I pushed back on the final look.
In the parking lot, I ran my hand over my hair in the rear-view mirror and winced.
I put a scarf on my head before I rushed to pick up my sons. When I arrived, my youngest son pulled the scarf off; my oldest yelled, “No, Mommy, no!”
He wasn’t alarmed by my hair—he just didn’t want me, didn’t want to leave his grandparents’ house. I struggled to respond to his protest in front of my in-laws. My heart was crumbling. Nothing was turning out as I hoped. Everything was fragile and overwhelming and vulnerable.
I smiled. “It’s okay, babe. I know you’re having fun here.”
I took extra care to cover my acne spots and scars the day of the reading. I added multiple layers of mascara and blush as my kids littered my bathroom with everything they could find in the cabinets. “No, no, don’t touch that,” I chided, barely glancing at them as I mentally rehearsed what I was going to share at the reading.
Later, when I picked up my husband, he asked if I was nervous.
“I am, a little bit,” I responded, though deep down I felt like I was going to nail it. As an adjunct faculty member after grad school, I received consistently high evaluations, which I suspected was not so much for my teaching skills but was instead for my winsome personality and ease with a crowd. I had developed a sort of schtick that worked in class: Listen, I’m not that far ahead of you—I am on a journey to write and craft with you, and I am SUPER FUN while I’m traveling.
In the movie Mean Girls, Amy Poehler plays a mom who’s trying a little too hard to get along with her teenage daughter and her daughter’s friends. “I’m not a regular mom, I’m a cool mom,” she retorts, with a wink. That was me as a teacher and that was the energy I brought to the PSU reading.
Unfortunately, the audience that night was not jiving with my Poehler-mom vibes. To put it succinctly: I bombed. I tried to tell jokes to open up the crowd before I read from my book, and the students looked at me with a collective scowl. I plowed ahead, then rushed through my poems, eager to leave the podium, hoping my face didn’t reveal a flush. I excitedly greeted students and faculty members afterward, who told me it was a great reading. I suspected they were lying—we had been in the same room after all—but I warmly shook their hands and thanked them. I knew that it would be even more embarrassing if I slinked out of the room, sheepish; it would mean admitting that I noticed, admitting defeat.
On the way home, I groaned to my husband, who reassured me. “You know, maybe tweaking a joke or two could be good, but you were amazing, and your poems are powerful—they stand on their own.”
Something hit me as I fought off the urge to cry. In general, I had the habit of presenting a sort of congenial authenticity—a warmth and familiarity—in order to connect, to build trust. But I didn’t really trust myself. I didn’t trust my work.
On the couch later, after laying howling kids in bed, I sat shoulder to shoulder with my husband, looking at his knee brace.
“You’re feeling tender, huh?” he remarked.
I nestled my head in the crook of his neck as I gave permission to my tears to pour down my cheeks, to leak without reprieve. I felt grief hot on my face. I felt the burden of performance and, underneath that, insecurity. I felt the struggle of navigating life as a mother and a writer and a caretaker. I felt all of it, but I also felt relieved—to have a release, to be seen, to be able to safely place life’s missteps and hazards right below my husband’s jawline.
When I woke the next morning, I immediately felt a halo of shame around me as I remembered the reading. My children demanded toast and milk, and while preparing their breakfast I mentally replayed my attempts to perform for PSU. I felt the heaviness of the year rest on me again.
“Be a fwoggy, Mommy.”
I was jolted out of my head by my three-year-old. I looked deeply in his eyes and saw recognition, saw light.
“Ribbbbbit. Ribbit,” I gave my best impression.
Both of my sons erupted in giggles. Morning sun poured into the windows, illuminating wide-open happy mouths, dimples, olive-colored toddler skin, toast crumbs, and then, to the left, Amy the fish. She lay on her shelf, lifeless, her water stale and unchanging. The fragility of life was still in the room, but I was present and I was needed—even better, I was wanted—by these wonderful tiny humans, for a little while longer.
I remembered a comment from the reading, during the Q&A, from a young man in a black hoodie. He raised his hand. “Yeah, I just wanted to say that I’m going through a break-up right now, and it’s kind of a dark time, but I see that you are married and have toddlers, and I think that’s pretty cool. And yeah, your work just reminds me to look up.”
At the time I barely heard what he said, above the din of crickets, the shame echoing in my head. But as the boys and I continued to pretend to be animals, it clicked. I looked up. Outside, cherry blossoms were busy—bursting through soggy branches, signaling a new season, an actual spring. Inside, I was wrapped in peals of laughter, the warmth of my sons melting into my chest. My chaos was my hope, bringing depth to my work—it was my home, my perspective, my softest landing spot.
Rumpus original art by Issey Medd.