Swimming Upstream in Heels and Skinny Pants

If I were a salmon, I would die for my child. As a human being, I wish I could have.,

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I can’t stop thinking about salmon. Recently we had salmon spawning season here in Seattle, and I was able to see it for the first time. I am not a scientist, much less a marine biologist or fish expert or even a YouTube-educated hobbyist, but here’s what I have learned: It’s beautiful.

The salmon must know they’re near the end of their lives, so they swim upstream with the last of their energy. There, the female salmon find a safe place to build a nest, which they do with their tails, moving around mud and rocks to make a perfect home. The male salmon then come courting, and when the female finds a male she likes, she lays her eggs in her nest and her male of choice fertilizes them.

Left alone with her newly incubated eggs, the female then lies on top of or beside her nest and dies so that her body’s nutrients can feed her babies.

She literally dies for them. It’s incredible.

The first time I was pregnant, I watched — in anguish — as I miscarried in the bathroom of the advertising agency where I worked. The pregnancy was early, but I was already in love.

My denial was strong that morning. I felt like something was off but went into the office early anyway, hoping to will everything into working out. This had always been my way of getting what I wanted. And I wanted a baby so badly. Soon enough, I was in the bathroom, staring at what had come out of me. Bawling.

If I could have died and given my body to keep the pregnancy, I would have. Instead, my life went on. I cleaned up my makeup, went back to work, sat through an important meeting and then excused myself and went to see my doctor. The pregnancy was over while I remained, swimming through the darkest waters, wondering where I went wrong.

Six months later, I was pregnant again. I was about twice as pregnant as I was when I had my miscarriage, which means I was still very newly pregnant, which means few people knew. My boss, who was not among them, asked if he could chat with me. We had lost our biggest client. I was being let go.

At 11 a.m., I walked down a long hall, out of work and into the world. I was lost.

In salmon terms: I had been swimming upstream in heels and skinny pants, cocktail in one hand and a PowerPoint clicker in the other. And when it was time for a baby, and the river told me I had to let go of all of that and my old self had to die a hard death, I was one shocked fish.

I was knocked up and laid off and felt like I was dying. I left the office and found myself wandering downtown Seattle. I called my husband and told him the news and said, “Is there such thing as a virgin manhattan?”

My daughter was born at the beginning of the pandemic — March 17, 2020. Family soon meant something completely different to us. Survival felt more real to us than it ever had. We hunkered down and became a tight-knit family in our nest and stayed as safe as we could.

Never a nester, I was now moving around dirt and rocks to make our apartment a safe and cozy nest. This was where I truly fell in love with my daughter, Marcelline. I also found a new love for my husband, Evan, when, after a particularly rough night, I suggested we move Marcelline’s bassinet from his side of the bed to mine. Since he was just passing her to me to feed, it didn’t make sense for him to lose as much sleep as me.

Evan shook his head and said, “I just like her being close to me.”

When my mother came out to help us for four months, I saw her love in a new way too. She never once got frustrated with Marcelline, who cried and cried as my mother held her close and sang to her. When Marcelline fell asleep, my mother asked for a pillow so she could prop the arm holding up my sleeping baby’s head. Then they sat there and rocked for hours.

“You did this for me?” I asked.

She nodded and smiled. I don’t remember my reply, but I’m sure I was crying. I was crying a lot during this time. I was my mother’s first child, so she couldn’t help but giggle through my freakouts and hold me tighter through my legitimate worries. She had learned with me, and now I learned from her, just as salmon return years later to spawn in the same stream where they hatched. I guess there’s a natural pull to make it back to where you came from, when you’re ready to make life yourself.

I did feed my baby with my body. I get it, salmon. We will give anything to help this being we love to survive and thrive. And I know to some parents, that’s formula; to others, it’s someone else’s breast milk. For me and my daughter, it was my breasts. My chest got so big that I laughed thinking about some of my go-to presentation outfits, because they would not fit anymore, not even close.

I did get another job, in public radio. I had to pump my breast milk from the studio to keep Marcelline fed. To get her to take a bottle, I had to hide on the floor of my bedroom while my mother walked my daughter around the apartment, trying to get this new way of feeding to take without the original source of milk in sight.

While I was hiding, my mother would call out affirmations to comfort my daughter and me: “Marcie, you are doing so well. And anyone else who can hear me, you’re also doing so well!”

During a Zoom meeting for my new job, I convinced myself I could work a little longer without pumping, only to have breast milk leak down the front of my shirt. I felt something warm on my chest, and for a second it was a nice sensation — until I realized what had happened.

That day, I died of embarrassment. I may not have become a carcass of bones atop my baby, but I died of embarrassment to feed my child.

Just days after seeing the salmon spawn, it was clear that Marcelline was done breastfeeding. It had been a while since she had asked to nurse — “boooo?” — and I could feel my body drying up. In bed with her that morning, I decided to ask my toddler directly. I pulled up my shirt and said, “Do you want boobies?”

Marcelline looked at my bare breasts the same way I look at a tapas menu, thinking, “Is this what I want? Is this going to do it for me?”

“Byaaa booo!” she said, and I put my shirt down and that was that. Feeding my baby with my body was over.

That night I had a full-strength manhattan. (OK, I had two. All right, three.) Evan joined in the celebration of me getting my body back, raising his own manhattan to that. But there was a sadness, too, in no longer being able to show this kind of physical love, to feed my baby’s body from my own.

In picturing a salmon egg hatching, I find myself asking: Does this new baby fish know that the bones nearby belonged to her mother? That she gave her body so that her children could live? Or does the baby swim off, wondering what that smell is, only to realize later, at the end of her life, that the same is now asked of her: “Oh, I actually have to die for this new life I’m creating. Which must mean that my mother had to swim upstream — in this same stream — and die for me too.”

This beautiful tradition of spawning is something that will stick with me. Most days, I feel completely unrecognizable to the person I was just three years ago. But then Marcelline climbs next to me with a book, or I watch her down a bottle with one hand while dancing to a song that comes on the radio, and I think, “Oh, there I am.”

I have already died multiple times for my daughter, and I can only imagine how many times my own mother had to die for me. But I’m ready. The swim is hard, our nest is a mess, but this life I’m giving my daughter — at whatever cost to my body, sanity and pride — is the best way to die.

Rachel Stevens is a radio producer at KEXP in Seattle.

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