99 Problems

Published on February 28th, 2017 | by Jade Sanchez-Ventura


NAME IT—On the Impossible Balance in SLING CITY

My son has found words. Every day there are new ones. Hat, which is hair (and hat and socks). How, which is water. He lifts both arms and bends them at the elbows and closes his fist and moves them up and down while looking at me and smiling, and this means, “Music please.” If he points at you, and then the floor near him, while music is playing, this means, “Come dance.”

Bat is for back, as in put it back, as in I don’t want to eat this. Also, as in putting things back, as in cleaning up, which is nice, and makes me feel I’ve succeeded as a mother. Until of course, he picks up the quart container of magnets that he just diligently collected, lifts it over his head, dumps it all over the kitchen floor, and then walks purposefully out of the room, that task done.

Dog. Cat. Those were some of the very first. We watched parts of The Incredible Journey the other night because he’s been battling a cold, now an ear infection, for a few weeks, and also maybe teething, and possibly a sleep regression, in other words it’s a shit show and we’re putting on the TV sometimes. Now he points to the TV hopefully, “Dog? Cat? More?”.

More means more.

The people he loves and whom he knows love him: Mama, Dadee, Nana, Baba, Owry (aka Audrey, one of his grandmothers), Nono. Often while tucking in to sleep he stops nursing and looks at me and names them.

He touches his nose, then my nose, then Dadee’s nose, says “nose” and I am quite sure this means “I love you.”

Hands. And then we hold hands.

Ssssss, which is horse.

The weeks before the words began he was a pill. In the morning in the kitchen, whatever food we made was the wrong food, and he wanted only to be held, and he’d dissolve into stomping complaint for no reason that we could understand. So much futile pointing. Same again in the evenings, and also falling asleep late; nine o’ clock, ten, at which point Mike and I would gamely try and hang out as grownups until twenty minutes later we’d surrender and go to bed, too.

Uppy. Uppy uppy. Uppyuppy. Uppyuppyuppyuppyuppyuppy.

I have been working on one manuscript for so very long. That can be called discipline. Also, failure.







Which I’ve been teaching him because he bites me sometimes, and his dad, when he is hyper and jumping and when he wants to express something too much for his little body and list of words and sometimes when we won’t pick him up.

I hate it when he bites me. It makes me feel like a chump. And so I taught him “sorry,” which he usually said only when prompted, with a smile, thus I didn’t think it was having any effect at all, until the other week when he bit me hard and I was pissed and put him down and refused to pick him up and he repeated, “thorry, thorry, thorry” with increasing anxiety. I had never seen him anxious before, and when I understood and picked him up, he was still nervous, and insisted on nursing and was not immediately comforted. It took him longer to recover from this than from most bumps and bruises.

Oh yes, ow.  And, “Oh no!”, which means that just about anything could have happened; from a glass of water spilled to a record out of its sleeve to broken glass.

Around the same time he found words, I lost them. Not exactly lost, nothing as extreme as a block, dare I say it, “writer’s block,” but suddenly I was breaking my own rules and giving over my precious writing time to the overflow from my teaching job. I suppose I should say then, that I gave words up. And when I say I never do this, I pretty much mean it. My professor, one of the sacred ones, told us in grad school, “My mother used to have a gift for calling just when I began my writing session. I learned that if I told her I was writing, she’d say, ‘oh good,’ and keep on talking. But if I told her I was washing the floor, she’d say, ‘Oh you’re busy, I’ll call back later.’” This professor grew up poor. Immigrant poor in Jersey, and a woman to boot, and the fact that she created a life of an academic and writer from her days is one of those miracles that happen all around us and that I sometimes fail to name. She was a fierce guardian of her time, and she impressed the same upon her students.


Never say yes immediately when someone asks you to do something. Tell them you’ll get back to them, and then go home and look at where those hours are going to come from. Because I guarantee you that you’re already busy to capacity and yet we as women tend to always say yes and then you know where those hours are going to come from?

Your writing.


How many times do I need to be taught to be a feminist?


A two-hour gig as a visiting lecturer. Takes two hours, right?  Wrong. It takes an hour and half each way. Now it’s five hours. Another three to prepare. Now it’s eight. The timing means I’ll have to bring my lunch, add another half-hour to prepare and pack it, and another half to eat it. Now it’s nine. Not done yet. I usually prep next week’s class on that day, so those two hours are going to have be moved to another day. That has to be accounted for, as well.  Are they paying me for two hours? Can I negotiate for more? If it has other benefits, prestige or contacts, or perhaps it’s a good cause, then I consider that too. But I do not respond until all these factors have been considered, and I have mapped out exactly what I will cancel that week in order to do the gig.


Belly!  Shouted with delight, and shirt lifted and then he’s asking me to do the same and his Nana and his Dadee and I look around at us with our soft folds of belly and I remember a time when I would not have tolerated that softness and I have to smile. And he stares at us with adoration as we lift our shirts and reveal our belly buttons in response to his imperial pointing.

I am a writer, and a teacher of writing, I say.

Mine, he says. Means it.

I brought him to the doctor last Thursday after an evening of howling with ear pain.  In the office, he was feverish but cheerful as long as he was in my arms. He was sitting in his usual posture: thumb in mouth, the other hand down my shirt, when a nurse, passing by, smiled and said, “Boys love their mamas.”

I call myself a writer but if I’m not writing, or specifically not sharing my writing, then I am a sham. Or a shame. A doable thing becomes an impossible thing. A good routine becomes a grind.

He wakes with words, and they are his delight. Cat for the cat tucked in his Daddy’s legs, soon to be tackled and dislodged. Shh-shh for his slippers. Cowffee? Honey? Bread? Et? Ot? How? Uppy?

More? Which also means nursing.

Mike thinks maybe he bites when it becomes too overwhelming to have to name the thing. He must remember, after all, just weeks before when he did not have to use words, when he could hum and shout and point and grab, that whole life he had lived before the present when we now turn to him, over and over, and ask him to explain.

I have no idea what the word selfish means anymore. Busy, also has no meaning. Love fear patience breast tired sleep night morning working job vacation responsible. These words too are fundamentally altered.

I know that there are women who don’t choose to call themselves feminists but still, when I focus on what that actually means, it astounds me.

Is it because we don’t know what to ask for if we don’t see it right in front of us? My boy says ball, car, moon, orange. He does not say happy, proud, wrong, right. Or perhaps, we can’t name it if we don’t hear it being named. I used to hold his face up to flowers, and watch. Often he didn’t react, but I knew that didn’t mean he wasn’t smelling honeysuckle. I see people of all genders all around me who I would call feminists, the essence of it shaping their every day, but rarely do any of us say so.

But also there’s this: Mike and I would both say he is a feminist, but when the boy needed the doctor, I called out of work, and when I was home sick, somehow I was still nursing him into a nap, and often, I have been the one to give those ten minutes more, those twenty, and arrive late for my job.

And I think my mother and I would both say she is a feminist and yet she has called me during many a writing session, “He needs you. I think you should come home.” To my knowledge, she has never made this request of Mike.

I would say I am a feminist. But then why don’t I say no?

When he wakes from a nap, I am told his first word is usually, “Mama?”

By reihayashi / Creative Commons License

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About the Author

Jade Sanchez-Ventura is a writer and radical educator. She works in memoir and her personal essays have been published across an array of online literary journals, and in print with Slice Magazine and Seal Press. She’s been awarded the Slice Literary Conference Bridging the Gap award, a Disquiet Literary Conference fellowship, and she is a Hertog Fellow. As an educator, she is very good at being continually wowed by her students and their words on the page. Though she has ties to many countries, she has always made her home in Brooklyn, New York. Find her on Instagram @jade_m_sv.

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