99 Problems

Published on February 21st, 2018 | by Meg Thompson



Women are weak, but mothers are strong.

Yeonmi Park, defector from dictatorship, quoting a Korean saying


Late into the night of November 9, unable to sleep, I heard my child’s long, singular howl coming through our bedroom wall. It is rare, if ever, that she wails like this, just once, and goes back to sleep. It was 3:08 am. I knew then who our president was.


Masculinity has always frightened me, even when I was younger and first became aware of boys. When I listened to a group of them talk and joke with each other, the storm of their rising laughs made me tense. I wasn’t afraid of their bodies, even the most hulking frames, because I sensed that was just an exterior, not a real identity. I thought of their bodies as houses, something they worked on to keep clean and gleaming. I was impressed by, not attracted to, the muscular athletes that roamed our hallways in high school. If I stood behind them in the lunch line, I’d stare at their biceps in disbelief, amazed at the amount of time they must be investing. I can say with confidence I was not on their radar. I came up to their elbows. If they had turned around, they would not even have known I was there.


On a recent episode of Sesame Street, one of the characters, Nina, a human, is riding her bike. She wears a helmet and pads on her elbows and knees. Nina plays a very specific role on the show. She is energetic, savvy and maternal. She babysits Elmo, gives him a bath. Pairing a bright cardigan with a ceaseless grin, she makes it cool and fun to be safe and healthy.

At two years of age, I let my daughter take the knives out of the dishwasher and place them in the drawer. I look her in the eyes and say These are so sharp. You have to be very careful. I let her run barefoot, knowing our yard is full of bees and prickly weeds. A few times, even though I didn’t want to, I let her skin redden, just barely, in the sun. I monitor her so closely I know where her first freckle came in, and the second, and the third. I let her perch on the step-stool in front of the oven so she can help me drop diced potatoes into boiling water. I point to the burner and say Look at this. This can hurt you.


We scheduled a technician to come to our house and fix the microwave. Before he arrived, I put a knife in my pocket.


I became a stay-at-home mom after my husband took a job in Cleveland that would give our family much better health insurance, amongst other things, than my previous employer provided. It was an easy decision, but I was startled by how quickly I became a ghost of my former self, another dead-eyed Walmart mom. Overnight I went from the breadwinning, well-traveled English professor to my daughter’s mother, my husband’s wife. A statistic: the female that dropped out of academia. After working for a year in sales, my husband already makes more money than I did after working at universities for 10. At family gatherings, I faded behind him, barely touching his shoulder if I needed him to find the diaper bag so I could breastfeed, not wanting to disturb the conversation he was in about his new job. I drifted into a dark room and lifted my shirt, looking forward to her bite to relieve the tight swell of milk. I listened to the muddled sounds of the party, knowing Todd was enjoying his place in the spotlight, where he always thrived. When I emerged into the light, I kept a low profile, walking the perimeters with my baby bouncing lightly against me. Without really knowing it, I used her as a shield. I was a body, tired and voiceless, that took care of my daughter. All questions directed to me were about her. Unnoticed, faceless, a little boring, there was little reason to talk to me save to ask to hold the baby, at which point I could be excused, but not really, I learned. I had to be ready at any point to have her handed back to me, when she grew heavy or squirmed. I was singular in my pursuits: keep my child alive. I was an animal, preoccupied with continuing my species.

I loved it.


“He’s so good with her,” the cashier at Target said to me, watching Todd slip our daughter into her coat.


One of my daughter’s favorite activities is to lay on the floor while I cover her in all the blankets, one by one, that we possess in our small house. Each time I let one fall on her, she says, “More?” She loves the weight they provide, I can tell, the soft security. She will stay underneath them for an hour sometimes, watching videos of herself on our iPad. She looks insane, hardly visible under 17 blankets, but she is safe.


When the future president announced he would sue all of the women who had come forward about him sexually assaulting them, I signed up to volunteer for the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center.


My dad and I watched the Netflix documentary series Making A Murderer. When I asked him if he thought the main character killed the victim, he said yes, quickly.


“Because he wanted to have sex with the lady,” he said, like it was obvious, and I was a fool for not understanding that.


Once when we were at a restaurant, Todd was holding Mae in his arms and someone said to me, “Wow. He’s such a great dad.”

If women stay home, they are giving up. If they go to work, they are ignoring their children. When I bemoaned this issue to my own mother, I asked, “What am I supposed to do?”

“Both,” she said, not joking.


I am sitting at a coffee shop in Oberlin, Ohio, home of the first college to admit women and minorities. Todd has all but demanded I leave the house, and even though I am a little tired and would rather just lay upstairs in our quiet guest bed and read, I make myself go. I watch the college students, gorgeous and androgynous in wire rim glasses and overalls, stare at their computer screens and sip double espresso. Never in my life have I had their confidence, their wit. I’ve never had an espresso, much less a double. Even when I was in college, I was nervous and internal. I drank Pepsi, wore a bra. Each woman that walks through the door is a combination of Lisa on The Cosby Show and Harry Potter. The shop is full and I harbor at a tiny table in a corner by the bar. A couple is trying to arrange themselves next to me at a high table, but the guy, dissatisfied with the chair, leaves to ask the barista for a screwdriver. He comes back and fusses with the chair, while his companion, clearly uncomfortable, tries to study. Eventually she asks him, “Do you just want my chair?”

“No,” he says. “I like back support.”

He stands out from the rest of the looser, emphatically liberal college students. His hair is organized and slick, his clothes form-fitting. When he takes off his lettermen’s jacket and neatly coiled scarf, I can see the terrain of his muscles.

“I almost got it,” he says.

With my peripheral vision, I watch him tighten the screws on the back of the chair, but something isn’t right. I’m pretty sure he isn’t really doing anything. He’s making too much noise, grabbing the chair and shaking it to check how sturdy it is. At this point he has gone beyond trying to impress the woman. He is in too deep, knows he can’t fix the chair, but he doesn’t stop.

“Fuck yeah,” he shouts eventually, and slaps the chair’s seat too hard, wanting us all to see what he accomplished.

He sits and looks at the woman across the table. “That’s a nice sweater,” he tells her.


Todd has a friend who told him that he has never been passed on the highway. “They don’t pass me,” he said. “I pass them.”


I had two conditions for getting pregnant again: a thumbs-up from all off my annual exams and a Hillary Clinton presidency. We started trying around October, when I was certain she would win. The tape had been released, and I would hear his revolting claims of sexual assault in my sleep or when I would watch my daughter go down the slide at the park. At first, I didn’t even understand what he meant. Literal to a fault, I have a tendency to mishear a speaker’s intent. It felt to me like he was trying to be cool and fit in. This, on its own, is horrifying: fitting in means bragging about assault. Still I couldn’t help but think of Steve Carell’s character in The 40-year-old Virgin, specifically when he was talking about feeling a woman’s breast during sex and he described it as a “bag of sand.” Grab her by the pussy? I’m not sure if that’s even anatomically possible. How would that work? I pictured a man’s hand making a swiping motion. In my mind, though, all he comes back with is air. He doesn’t get it.


One of the reasons women tell me that Todd is so good with our daughter is because they want, or wanted, what I have. Perhaps their husband, or their dad, was not there.


In Oberlin it is not uncommon to see a Volvo with a bumper sticker that reads I Love Crockpots or a young man selling grammaphones outside the artisan ice cream shop. People wear t-shirts that say A great nation deserves great art. I used to feel comfortable in this particular corner of the Midwest. And, compared to the town I live in now, 10 minutes down the road, where residents display signs on their lawns and doors that read Parking for Americans only!  and Anything I got ain’t worth your life! I do feel more aligned, at least politically, but two years ago, when my daughter was born, and I assumed the foreign role of mother, a lonesomeness fell on me as well. A hinge formed between me and her and everything else left. I barely remember the person I was before, driving to Georgia to go to a protest (for what?). Shopping a little buzzed at an Urban Outfitters in Kansas City, buying a scarf that costs more than a cart of groceries. My love for my daughter is tragic, breathless, but I stumble through motherhood, baffled by the confidence of other parents, stunned by the advice of the childless. Just give it some time. Have you tried applesauce? Consider all your options. Concentrate on yourself. None of it made sense to me until I read an interview with a new mother where she said, “I wish someone had told me that when you become a mother, you mourn your past self.”


The first time I put a dress on my daughter she looked down at herself, then up at me.

“Mae is a girl,” she said.


In a dream I hand my daughter to my mother and whisper, “Will you watch her?” I turn around to leave her house and in the blurred, watercolored passage of time that happens in a dreamscape, I am now running through a hay field, the same one I used to play in as a girl, except now I’m screaming my daughter’s name, searching for her, because my mother lost her. I catch a glimpse of my parents running, looking for her, which scares me because I have never seen them run. I scream Where is my baby? Where is my girl? In the distance I see two little girls in pink jeans and for a second I think I found her, but just as quickly I know I didn’t. I keep running and I see more little girls, but none of them are mine. I am hysterical, which is precisely how I would be in real life.

To me, the meaning of the dream is clear. One day, I will lose her.


Oberlin College was the first to admit African-Americans and women. That is true. I cherished this fact for years, told it to other people with a certain sort of pride, as if I had something to do with it because I grew up twenty minutes away. But underneath this fact, the one that is cast on signs around town, is another even truer: that when minorities stepped on campus, equality downshifted. Lucy Stone, an early activist in the fight for equality, who graduated from Oberlin College in 1847 since it was literally her only option for higher education, was voted by her classmates to give a graduation speech. Since it wasn’t proper for women to address crowds publicly, she was told that she could write the speech and give it to a man to read.


I sat on my parents’ couch, reading a magazine article.

“What’s that about?” my dad asked, pointing.

“Rape culture.”

He rolled his eyes.


McDonald’s used to sell cheese danishes. They have long been discontinued, but in my youth, to me they were the height of decadence. On the rare occasion my parents took their five children out to breakfast, I stared with longing at the one placed before my brother and the one before my dad. My sisters and I never got one, though, in fairness, I don’t know if we ever asked. It was just known, a fact, that we were not supposed to have one, thus beginning my peculiar sense of a gender hierarchy. Men get, no, deserve, cheese danishes. Women do not.


I am astounded by how progressive, and poised, girls are today. They are so smart,  unstartled, and I am grateful for them. I see in them what I never was. This, on its own, isn’t what bothers me about myself. It is just the way I was, a youthful introvert, desperate for a shield. The part that brings me shame is how shortsighted I was. As a girl, when I watched man after man compete on Jeopardy!, I did not think more women should be on. I thought, women are not smart.


I live my life like any other American, patiently waiting to get shot or robbed. I am not, though, afraid the same way I used to be. Now, everything is filtered through my child. Once, taking a bath with her, colder than any adult would prefer, laughing with her as she poured water on my head, it came to me that I no longer feared death. If I died, she would still be here, and since she is the same as me, I saw no difference.

My two younger sisters work in Cleveland. Rachel is a nurse at a hospital downtown, where she often works the nightshift, walking to and from her car in a dark parking garage. Amy works at Whole Foods, and though she is in a much nicer neighborhood, I do not care. She is still a young woman, walking to and from her car, alone, at night. I have to physically suppress the urge to buy them pepper spray, plead with them to just keep it in their purse. I can see the looks they would give me, because they give those looks to our mother. Once, while we were lounging on her couch, our mother told us that we shouldn’t have our home address programmed in our phone because if it gets stolen, the thief will know how to get to us.


I asked Todd to look at my cover letter and curriculum vita. “Let me know if you think it sounds too showboaty,” I said.

“A man would never say that,” he told me.


Our daughter’s other favorite game involves running around the house and pulling all of the doors shut. Then she sits in a chair and announces, “Open doors for me, mommy.”


My husband and I were treating ourselves to a nice dinner at a restaurant we couldn’t afford. The kind that takes your coat and serves oysters at market price as an appetizer. When our server appeared, he stood next to Todd and asked if we wanted still or sparkling water. Todd said still, and I was on the brink of saying sparkling, but the server turned around and left. He didn’t even glance at me. Favorable hindsight tells me that this is what happens at restaurants where mashed potatoes cost $20. You get one kind of water at your table. You and your partner probably have the same tastes, so why ask both parties? I do not enjoy the idea, however, that it is a natural assumption that my husband will speak for me, his playful mute of a wife. Todd sensed my unease. I tried to push it down. We were visiting Saratoga Springs. Down the street was a shop called Frivolous Boutique. One of the chalkboards propped up on the sidewalk announced in loopy script, When In Doubt, Shop! I was secure in my own socio-economic class, but the town, dripping in that old northeast wealth, had a heavy presence. “Try to have a good time,” Todd whispered to me across the table, but it was too late, and I don’t believe in that brand of advice anyway. When I started to cry, even Todd, usually remarkably patient, was confused, and I could tell, a little angry. I went to the bathroom and, staring at myself in the mirror, knew I was pregnant.

by dotpolka / creative commons license

When I got back to our table. He softened. Still, though, I couldn’t stop crying. I tried to eat my meal, the most expensive steak I had ever seen, but I was blank with emotion. I kept my head down and sliced the meat in uniform rows. When I put it in my mouth with trembling hands, it tasted like nothing.


One morning after a McDonald’s breakfast, my brother took his cheese danish with him to eat later. I was in the very back of our wood-paneled, Pontiac station wagon, in the fold out seat that looks out the back window, a feature that doesn’t exist anymore because it is the safety equivalent of a lawn chair in the bed of a truck. Knowing the danish was in a box at my feet, I told myself I would only eat a piece, but the taste, the feeling, drug-like, propelled me. I couldn’t stop myself.


“It’s a boy,” the sonogram technician said.

“What did she say?” Todd’s mother whispered.

“It’s a boy,” Todd repeated. “We’re having a boy.”

In the dark room, we all stared at the screen and the wild, pulsating images of our son.

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About the Author

Meg Thompson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, Best of the Net, and McSweeney’s. She lives in Ohio with her partner, two children, and their Shih Tzu, Ginger. Read more at megthompsonwriter.com.


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