99 Problems

Published on May 18th, 2023 | by Sarah Hare



My toddler doesn’t know the ways of this world yet. Livie looks up at the nurse, pudgy hands gripping the measuring tape she stole from the drawer next to us, and screams “Hi, doctor!” She looks at me and smiles, her grin making my chest flutter, my face warm with pride. “Am I healthy, doctor?” she asks, wholly invested in her diagnosis. I snort, both to laugh at her silliness and to break the tension in the room. The nurse looks uncomfortable being called a doctor. Her eyes shift away from me as her lips form a fake smile. I quickly calculate how differently she’s treated. I think about how often her work is probably seen as mundane, even though it keeps this whole operation going. My toddler can’t know about feminized professions or credentialing or the wage gap yet, of course. But how do I tell her about how our society assigns value to you based on what you do from 9-5, how it’s the first question you’re asked upon meeting someone? How do I explain that her value is innate, even when our society tells her that a doctor is more valuable than a nurse? 

Livie devours a cup of ice cream, her much-awaited nightly dessert, moaning as she licks the spoon and adding “yummy in my tummy!” Red curls frame her tiny face, an almost mirror image of my own. Her hands are sticky, covered in syrupy chocolate. “Wipe my hands!” she exclaims, demanding that I clean her up immediately. I realize that she eats like someone that has not yet been broken, her hunger cues and cravings still intact, and a pang of jealousy fills my body. I’m jealous of a two-year-old. I spend the day mindlessly accounting for the food I’ve eaten, calculating if I can have seconds or add an order of fries to my entrée. At 30, denying my cravings—or at least muffling them—is second nature. Even when I’m not concerned about my weight, I’m concerned about my size. And even when I’m not concerned about my size, I’m swimming in a culture that tells me that I should be, that it’s morally right to be. A few nights later, I look at her in amazement when she announces, “my belly is full!” and promptly pushes her chair away from the table, crawling down and leaving the room, unconcerned if the rest of her family is done. And it hits me: the most primal instinct I have—when and how to nurture my body—is gone, lost, censored into non-existence. How do I tell her that soon she’ll be pressured to forget all her cravings? The ones for food and satiety, yes, but also her cravings for self-fulfillment and change and nuance? Is there still time left to warn her?

She tucks in her baby doll, wrapping a pink sleep sack around its naked body, its eyes still open wide, its mouth ajar. A moment later she announces “CeCe is awake. She’s hungry!” She positions CeCe on her lap, mimicking the way that I breastfed her brother only a few months ago. She looks at me quizzically, wondering why I have a puzzled look on my face. “She’s eating now,” my toddler shares, stating what is obvious to her. I marvel at all that she has soaked up. Her brain is a sponge, constantly absorbing, applying, making things new. She has learned to care for others through observation. She pats the baby doll’s back and coughs aloud, voicing CeCe’s burp. Whose job is it to let her know that nursing is a luxury that many parents aren’t given, that parental leaves are short or non-existent, that the society I’m raising her in doesn’t value caregiving? Or, just like nursing, is this world already seeping into her subconscious? Has she been taught this already?

Livie screams “I need some space!” to her brother, snatching back the toy he was trying to take and frowning. She looks at his little body with indignation. I heed her request, moving him out of her reach. She continues to play with the school bus, shuffling around on her knees as she pushes it forward. The wipers go swish, swish, swish. In line with the parenting trends of the day, our day care teaches her to advocate for herself, to use her words instead of screaming when someone or something makes her uncomfortable. Instead of forcing her to share, they tell the other child that they can have a turn after Livie is done. Instead of making her hug or kiss or high five someone, they encourage her to do what is comfortable for her body. She is responsible for her actions and her actions alone. She is the keeper of herself. I am torn about this. It is a skill that I have craved often—the unflinching ability to not only name what you need but to say it clearly, forcefully even, to others. The alternative is that she learns to quiet her intuition and bend to what is convenient and effortless for other people instead of becoming the fullest version of herself. Still, I know that the world will not cede power to her in this way. It will not make space for her to speak what she wants. When she does, she will be questioned or ignored. Men will ask her to clarify, speak over her, or simply forget to ask her in the first place. She will be pressured to make herself smaller, quieter, easier. How do I encourage her to be everything she isn’t supposed to be: loud and self-preserving, frivolous, and unedited, her edges sharp, her voice unscathed?

Our days are filled with her questions and my flawed attempts to answer. I drive her home from school as the winter sun sets one evening. “Mommy is it dark?” she asks me. “Yes, it’s getting dark,” I say. She starts to laugh. “Why do they do that?” she asks, still giggling. I stop at a red light, looking back at her in the rearview mirror. She’s bundled up, her coat zipped up to her chin, her hat crooked. Her lap is littered in Cheez-Its and her eyes are wide and innocent. I don’t know where to begin. “Why does who do what?” I respond, wondering if I’ll have to explain night and day or God or meteorology. She doesn’t answer. A group of crows congregate above us, black dots filling a pale grey sky. Crows gather at sunset to find a communal place to sleep, sharing information and warmth with each other throughout the bitterness of night. Being together provides them safety. An imperfect solution to an imperfect world. That’s all I have to offer her. 

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About the Author

Sarah Hare lives with her husband, two red headed toddlers, and yorkie in Bloomington, Indiana. She enjoys hiking, writing, and eating too much ice cream. This is her first personal essay.

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