On day eighty-one of quarantine, I heard a story about an octopus mother who sat on her eggs for fifty-three months. This deep-sea mollusk lived off the coast of California, more than forty-five-hundred feet below the surface, in an underwater gorge the size of the Grand Canyon. An ecologist named Bruce Robison of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute accidentally discovered her in April 2007, while piloting a robot submarine in search of answers to non-octopus related oceanic mysteries. He saw her sitting on a ledge. The darkness is absolute at nearly one mile below sea level, but this little cephalopod popped out in bas-relief because her mantle, head and tentacles were white and bright. Dr. Robison noticed the clutch of eggs that she was guarding. Since so little was then known about how long deep-sea squids and cuttlefish take to brood their offspring, he noted her location. The longest any octopus had previously been seen protecting her growing young was fourteen months, a record held by a Bathypolypus arcticus in captivity. Dr. Robison and his team visited this octopus—a female Graneledone boreopacifica—the following month, while on another routine survey of the area. They noticed a crescent-shaped scar on one of her arms and a circular scar on another tentacle, perhaps sustained during an eel or shark fight. The next month they came again and there she sat, unmoving, long appendages curled protectively around all one-hundred-sixty jelly-bean-sized babies. Month after month they returned to observe her, placing bets each time on whether she’d be there. She never left. They named her Octomom.
I didn’t plan on being pregnant during a pandemic. When I was thirty-seven, after decades of living as a sometimes-single, often unhappily coupled person in New York City who fervently professed she never wanted children, I met my husband, Pete. We fell for each other in a way I’d long publicly derided but secretly imagined love might strike: fast, hard, without guile or reservation, easily as slipping into a sun-warmed pool. Three months after our first date we got engaged and six months later we were married, but still I maintained that kids weren’t in our future. I thought my body was too old. I wanted nothing to distract from my writing career. We were avid travelers who packed light—no room for babies. Late in life, we’d found each other; why jeopardize our happiness by introducing a volatile new variable? And, finally, the words I never said out loud: How could I risk loving something so much? In what ways would life use that vulnerability to find me, break me? Of course, another way of phrasing that last fear was that I fiercely wanted a child.
When I realized all that love, magnified since I’d met Pete, was just waiting for a place to go, I started trying to get pregnant. For the next two years, I struggled to conceive. A hysteron contrast sonography test eventually revealed that both of my fallopian tubes were compromised. We found a fertility doctor who performed a hysterosalpingography procedure to flush the tubes free of blockages, while informing us the chances of conceiving naturally were ten percent. I tried not to see this as a failing, but it felt like my fault. One beaming urologist described Pete’s fast-moving sperm as “perfectly shaped,” while I thought of my own corroded pipework and struggled not to cry. We decided to try intrauterine insemination, or what I called the “turkey-baster method” of straight-shot injecting Pete’s sperm into my uterus, thereby avoiding my problem tubes entirely. Two weeks before our scheduled IUI, I got out of the shower and peed on a stick. No part of me felt hopeful. I had an old pregnancy test under the bathroom sink, and a waste aversion simply prompted me to use it before tossing. I left it sitting on the tile floor and forgot about it for several hours, until the next time I entered the bathroom and saw a pair of bright pink lines.
Being pregnant is hard. I didn’t believe that before I got pregnant, perhaps because I spent my twenties and thirties avoiding the tribe of fertile women and their ensuing progeny. As a result, fertile at age forty-one, I knew nothing about what to expect. I thought my life would be largely unaffected until the day, six months in, when I popped with a cute belly that would tuck into my regular-sized dresses and peek coquettishly at strangers on the subway who’d jump to offer me their seat. The worst that might happen was I’d get a little hot come summer. Instead, one week after reading the positive test result, my breasts ballooned to twice their size and overnight none of my bras fit. They ached so much it hurt to wear a shirt or take a shower, so I switched to sponge baths—face, feet, pits, naughty bits—like a Victorian harlot. My olfactory sense sharpened, and suddenly I could smell everything. One day, while on a walk with Pete, the wind shifted and I caught a scent.
“Not too far away, a dog is shitting,” I prophesied.
We walked two more blocks, turned a corner, and saw a man tying up a bag of poop next to a proudly wagging Dalmatian.
That felt kind of cool, like a superpower—except every smell made me nauseous. Every. Single. One. When I wasn’t vomiting, I was searching for a place to sleep. Any desk chair, kitchen stool, car or elevator was fair game. Once I shut my eyes and napped while sitting on the toilet. I’ve never been as tired as I was during the months of November, December and January, which comprised my first trimester. The fatigue was warranted—my body was working to assemble another body, grow a brain—but it left me feeling emotionally depleted. I was used to moving fast. Me: a book-writer, marathon-runner, all-night party girl. I hadn’t been prepared to alter my pace. The forced slowdown meant an identity reinvention.
All that occurred in the old world, before 2020 kicked off with a series of calamities. Even pre-pandemic, I was a nervous pregnant person. It seemed like a miracle that I’d conceived. Compared to friends who’d frozen eggs, endured the financial difficulty and physical misery of IVF or labored for a decade to get pregnant, Pete and I were awfully lucky. I thought that fortune could reverse itself at any moment, and spent the first twelve weeks dreading a miscarriage—which, in therapy, I only called “the M word,” afraid of giving the gods language to enact their plan. Every stomach twitch or cramp alarmed me. I counted the days between doctor visits and ultrasound appointments, when I’d receive confirmation that the little flicker in my body hadn’t been extinguished. Better yet was seeing it onscreen: the lentil-sized embryo attached to an egg sac that sprouted tiny nub-like arms that developed a face on which I could distinguish a pert nose and pursed lips, like she was blowing me a kiss.
The day we learned that “it” is a she. I cried so hard I scared the nurse who delivered the news. She will be called Mickie, short for Michaela, which was my mother’s name. My mother: my best friend, who died in 2016 following a five-year cancer battle. My mother was the reason I blew up my life in New York, moved back to Boston and met Pete. The circularity of those events resonates with power and meaning, in the heart of this woman who believes in magic.
Meanwhile, Italy shut down schools and universities on March 4. No one in the States was yet discussing quarantine, but when Pete, a biology professor, returned home from work that night, he showed me a chart entitled “Exponential Growth.” He foresaw what was coming, and life outside my apartment effectively stopped for me the next day. My experience isn’t singular. By now, we all know what it’s like to shelter in place for months, lose jobs, endure cabin fever, come through the other side of fear, fight with family, miss friends, get used to the dystopian sight of a masked world. The only difference is I started one week earlier than most, and as I write this, in mid-June, the world is opening back up again, but not for me. I’m eight months pregnant.
After the first year of sitting on her babies, Octomom was looking haggard. She’d stopped eating. Her world had narrowed to a ledge, from where she kept constant vigil. Months passed. Whenever Dr. Robison and his team had extra dive time, they’d drop down to see if she was still alive. One day during year two, they found her and the babies encircled by an encroaching crab army. For a while they watched and waited, dreading the inevitable attack, until time came to motor back to the surface. They left her alone in the dark, fighting for the life of every being she most loved. Months later the scientists returned, approaching slowly, afraid of what they’d find. Then they saw her, surrounded by crab limbs and shells. In her weakened state, she’d gone to battle—and emerged victorious.
Year three. She looked like an old lady octopus: white skin, cataracts in both eyes, floppy arms devoid of muscle. One question that baffled researchers was why the deep-sea brooding process took so long. Because Octomom was the only cephalopod of her species to ever be observed incubating eggs, no one had an answer. Some attributed it to water temperature. As any cryogenecist will tell you, body functions and developmental processes slow down in extreme cold. But I think Octomom was waiting. The way my mother waited for me to leave New York and return home, so I could be beside her when she died. The way I now wait for her namesake, my own daughter, to grow inside my body. Like Octomom, the scope of my existence has contracted.
A pandemic pregnancy is defined by solitude. I miss out on the experience of getting to share my joys and trials with the ones I love. As March drags into April I meet on Zoom with friends and family, but it’s not the same. I want their hands on my belly. I want to hug my sister. I want to see my dad, who’s been stuck in Europe since February.
Pregnancy comes with deprivation. That’s universal for all women, regardless of time or place. Lists enumerate the foods we shouldn’t eat, drinks we can’t enjoy, activities to stop performing, positions not to sleep in. Yet loss is tempered by a growing love, which fills me up when I begin to feel her move. It starts with a tickle in my belly that I call “the squirrel scratch.” That greeting evolves to a flutter, followed by jabs and kicks. I lie awake at four a.m., one hand on my stomach, a dopey grin on my face. I want to share this. I want to walk with Pete along the Charles River or on the green trails of The Fells reservation, but paths are populated by cyclists, joggers, hikers and I can’t take the risk. I want to get a pedicure. I want to go out for ice cream. In April, we cancel our babymoon. In May, our baby shower. Pandemic prohibitions make pregnancy restrictions hard to stomach, because there’s no flip side to this coin.
Day after day, I’m stuck inside a nine-hundred-square-foot apartment—and I’m among the lucky ones. My job doesn’t require me to brave the frontlines. But it’s a challenging existence. In her book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, psychotherapist Esther Perel posits the idea that premodern societies were reliant on a complex infrastructure of institutions and intergenerational familial support systems that made it easier for individuals to cope with life’s unpredictability and thereby better handle stress. Today, we typically depend on a single person—our partner—to be our everything: our rock, lover, confidant, caregiver, best friend. People need more people. Yet pregnancy during a time of social isolation makes that impossible.
Being alone means lots of time to read, and I consume baby books. I get to nap when I feel tired because I’m working from my couch. But I also have a lot of space and quiet to indulge novel fears. For many months, doctors didn’t know if Covid-19 could cross the placenta to cause fetal abnormalities or even stillbirth. Four a.m., night after night, I now lie awake with one hand on my belly, waiting to feel her move, the other hand clutching my phone. I scroll ever deeper into dark internet rabbit holes. Women diagnosed with Covid-19 are in some cases separated from their infants for the first two weeks, to prevent the virus’ transmission via breast milk or physical contact. I read that and can’t breathe. I’m fighting my own crab army, but the assailants are tiny virus particles I can neither see nor fully understand.
In mid-March, two major New York City hospital systems—NewYork-Presbyterian and Mount Sinai—banned support people from delivery rooms, thus requiring women to labor alone, and I start waking up from nightmares about dying in childbirth without Pete at my side. For weeks, I wonder if the ruling will extend to Massachusetts. I spend my free time researching home-birth midwives. I can’t stop crying. That order is eventually overturned, but a new one springs up in its place: no visitors allowed at doctor’s appointments. Pete’s with me for our first two ultrasounds during the pre-coronavirus days, but that’s the last time he sees his daughter onscreen. He doesn’t hear her heartbeat. He misses watching her grow.
At my thirty-six-week ultrasound I learn that Mickie is breech. Instead of moving to the head-down vertex position required for a normal vaginal birth, her head is up under my ribs with one leg flexed against her face and the other dangling down toward my pelvis. She’s doing the splits. On the sonogram, she looks like she’s having the time of her life. But unless she flips, I’ll have to deliver via Cesarean section. I’d normally attend a Spinning Babies class, where a midwife or doula would position my body in a series of contorted postures meant to make her shift. Instead, I muddle through an online version of what should be a hands-on course, the same way I complete virtual birthing classes. The lack of female interaction is the greatest deficit. Pete and I don’t get to meet fellow expectant couples, which means I won’t have new mom friends to call for play dates and commiseration. My sister and father won’t be allowed at the hospital, and Pete’s eighty-five-year-old mum in England will likely have to wait a year or more to see her granddaughter. Does it still take a village? For a while, the three of us will be alone.
Octomom sat on her eggs for four-and-a-half years. Compared to forty weeks, my endurance feels trivial. And even though the pandemic is still raging—at present, over half a million people have died worldwide from the coronavirus—healthy babies are still being born, and I have every expectation of getting out of this alive. On one of their last dive trips, Dr. Robison and his team detoured to look for Octomom, but for the first time in nearly five years they couldn’t find her. Instead, they discovered countless tattered egg casings. Had her babies hatched? Or were they attacked and devoured? They searched around the ledge, between crevices, under surrounding outcrops—and then they spotted dozens upon dozens of tiny white octopuses crawling on the rocks. The team counted a total of one-hundred-sixty offspring, which means their mother guarded them until the last one emerged from its shell. Too weak and old and blind to see them, she confirmed their births by probing with her tentacles. She touched every hatchling—then finally let go to float away into the big, deep blue.
Francesca Moisin is a journalist and writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She was born in Transylvania during Ceauşescu’s communist regime, and escaped Romania with her parents and sister when she was six years old. She served as copy chief for Droga5 advertising agency in New York, before moving to a small New England town to complete her memoir about the immigrant experience and her relationship with her mother. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and daughter. For more information, visit www.FrancescaMoisin.com.