99 Problems

Published on July 2nd, 2019 | by Erin Pushman


5 Minutes

She pushes the fluff cycle button again.  She doesn’t want to contribute to the polar bears dying on the icecap, but she can’t fold the laundry right now.  Nor is she willing to let it wrinkle.  One more student paper to grade.

But no, that’s Nicholas upstairs crying about the cat.  Forget the last paper—she has to pee anyway, and what if the cat really hurt him this time, or vice versa. So far it’s been only light scratches and tail-pulls, but Nicholas sounds upset.

In the living room, an episode of Lollirock (a cartoon depicting rock-star, alien princesses who volley between singing annoying pop songs and battling other-worldly foes) seems to be wrapping up.

“Time to turn the TV off,” she tells Lucille on her way down the hall. There are days when she gives on the screen-time limits (a little extra can’t be that detrimental, she turned out okay). But not today. Today she will help with the requisite fifteen minutes of kindergarten homework then take Lucille down to their basement work table to finish stringing the beaded bracelets they started last week.

Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

In her bedroom, Nicholas is fine, and so is the cat.

“But he won’t stay in his house,” Nicholas cries. Big, adorable tears slide down his cheeks. Crying brings out his sweetness, transforms his face back to babyhood. She lifts him, and his three-year-old body wraps around hers, conforming contour to contour.  If she could freeze one of her children, Nicholas would be it. Keep him small and sweet and hers. The Lollirock-watching, kindergarten-attending six-year-old already seems a little lost to her, so much of that life shaped by forces beyond their home. She is grateful she and Lucille learned to make jewelry together. Soon, they will need points of connection.

“Help me put the cat in his house,” Nicholas says, climbing out of her arms and onto her always-unmade bed. On the sheets, Nicholas has arranged a cardboard box with two blankets, one pillow, and an open bag of organic cheese crackers. The cat chooses that moment to bolt through the bedroom door.

“Maybe next time,” she says, fingers in Nicholas’ shaggy curls. At least the cracker crumbs in the bed will be chemical-free. “It’s time to heat up dinner anyway.” Leftovers tonight—thank heaven. “Do you want to help?” she asks.

“Can I push the buttons on the stove?”


“You’re the best!” he says—his favorite compliment—and flings his skinny arms around her hips.

“Let me go potty first,” she says, turning toward the bathroom. She can see the drug store bag, holding its single box, still on the vanity beside an uncapped tube of Crest.  Funny how she can completely forget one thing in the minutia of everything else.

But isn’t motherhood like that?

“Mom,” Lucille says, walking into the bedroom with a granola bar, “Can we start our bracelets now?”

“No more snacks,” she says.

“But, Mom, I’m starving!” 

“Okay, but only two bites,” she counters, still half-turned toward the bathroom.

“What about our bracelets?”  Lucille asks, pushing her bangs out of her eyes. “I want to put the pink roses on mine.” Forget the homework—for now. Lucille can do it after dinner.

“We’ll make our bracelets,” she says, taking one more step toward the bathroom.  “Let me put dinner in the oven, and we’ll get started.”

“Momma, I’m ready to push the buttons,” Nicholas says.

“Just a minute,” she says, all the way into the bathroom now. She sits on the toilet, reaches for the bag.

Lucille follows her into the bathroom, opens the vanity cabinet, starts pulling out headbands, finds the blue one with polka dots, tries it on.

She opens the box anyway.  Pees on the stick.  If not now, when is the right time?

Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash

“Mom,” Lucille says.  “What are you doing?” Lucille picks up the off-brand box and starts sounding out the letters. That’s another thing she isn’t used to yet, her daughter being able to read. “P-r-e…” More sounding out. 

She doesn’t want it to be a minus sign.  She’s not sure how she feels about a plus.

“Mom, does this say, ‘pregnant’?” Lucille asks. By now, Nicholas is standing in the bathroom too.

“Pregnancy,” she corrects.

“Mom, why are you doing pregnant things?”  

How should she answer this question?

She puts the cap on the stick, wipes it off with a square of toilet paper, lays it beside the sink, flushes, washes her hands, caps the Crest. Two minutes to wait.

Nicholas pushes imaginary buttons on the bathroom cabinet.  She hears the lock turn on the back door. Chris is home a little early.

“Maybe I should put the purple roses on my bracelet,” Lucille says.

“Purple looks good on you,” she says, glancing at the stick. It isn’t ready yet.

“Hi,” Chris calls from the kitchen

“Daddy!” Nicholas shouts, already running.

She follows Nicholas toward the kitchen, Lucille a step ahead of her, naming the colors she plans to string beside the purple rose beads. By the time she reaches Chris, the children are already between them, filling the small kitchen with movement and sound. She smiles a welcome to her husband before opening the fridge to pull out the leftovers.

From the utility room, a series of tipple-beeps. 

Right: the laundry.

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About the Author

Erin Pushman blogs about her oldest child’s battle with a disfiguring disease at  thefaceofbravery.wordpress.com. Her other writing has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Confrontation, Segue, Breastfeeding Today, 1966: a Journal of Creative NonfictionCold Mountain Review, PangyrusMore New Monologues by Women for Women II (Heinemann), WAVES: a Confluence of Women’s Voices (ARAHO), Boomtown (Press 53), and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a North Carolina Regional Artist Project Grant, a La Leche League Leader, and a working mother of three. Her first textbook, Reading as a Writer: Ten Lessons to Elevate Your Reading and Writing Practice is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Academic. She is currently working on a book about birth choices and the maternal-fetal health crisis in America.

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