99 Problems

Published on June 12th, 2023 | by Stephanie Sprenger


Maiden, Mother, Bitch

The bathroom line was predictably long. My daughters and I stood clutching our swimsuits, sandwiched by eager patrons of the off-the-beaten-path hot springs. While we waited, we did what we did best: eavesdrop. 

It wasn’t hard—one of the two twenty-something women behind us was carrying on as though she possessed the stage at open mic night. 

“I’ll have to make sure you get a chance to feel it once the rolling starts,” she announced, clutching her small second trimester bump. “It moves across your whole belly like a wave,” she patiently explained to her companion, to whom I had deftly assigned the role of second-fiddle sorority sister.

My toes clenched as her unsolicited tutelage continued. The developing fetus can actually hear!—“…and so it’s really important to play music to them, but there are actually different kinds of sounds that…” 

Ah, the bluster and bravado of a first-time mother-to-be.

My teenager picked up on my irritation, as I was practically telecasting my “Can you believe this shit?” silent commentary. “Can you read my mind?” I pointedly asked my oldest, a signal we had perfected to convey chagrin or mirth when verbal expression was gauche.  

She rolled her eyes and mimed picking up a telephone. “Hello? Satan? It’s for you,” she deadpanned, handing me the invisible phone. 

The pregnant one continued on about fetal headphones and gestational milestones as her notably disinterested sorority sister listened politely while gazing, enamored, at her own navel, so to speak—that is, her sparkling engagement ring.

What are you, the first woman to ever become pregnant? I thought.

“So, will there be more people at the party tonight than just us, or…” the gestating goddess inquired, her intensifying belly rubbing betraying mild nervousness.

Suddenly I had the whole dynamic pegged: clearly, they were here at the hot springs as some sort of engagement party for the non-pregnant friend, the prego pal sadly unable to indulge in either alcohol or scalding water soaks. No matter, she still had the edge! She was the first person in their friend group to conceive, and she was here to rub their faces in it, cough, educate them on the magic, the specialness of it all, the miracle happening right there in her very uterus!

I congratulated myself on having so obviously nailed the restroom line scenario, and all within a mere 45 seconds! I was good. I mean, good aside from the fact that I was clearly a complete asshole.

“I totally have them figured out,” I whispered gleefully to my oldest child, generally my willing co-conspirator in coming up with names, roles, and sordid storylines for strangers we encountered in the wild.

Heading outside, I scanned the pools for the celebratory party—sure enough, there was a large gathering, including some middle-aged parents. A circle of young people hooted loudly in the pool, unencumbered by fetuses and thus able to live it up, while the pregnant blonde sat under an umbrella, hands primly folded on her belly of course while she likely pondered her next serving of leafy greens to ensure the proper brain development of her wallet-sized little angel.

Damn, I should really be ashamed of myself. As I soaked, I pondered my obsessional storytelling and the cruel inner commentary these frenemies had unleashed.

The kind therapist part of me folded her hands and inquired benignly about my reaction—why did I respond with hostility rather than compassion, or at the very least, mild amusement? Any guesses as to why I was being so ruthless? I guiltily shrugged her off. She continued on sagely about exiled shadow parts, but I had stopped listening. My inner therapist was a smug, self-righteous know-it-all.

But really, I should have pitied the pregnant woman’s innocence, as I knew what she did not: that after this momentary flash in the pan, nothing would ever truly be all about her ever again. Her poised, graceful self would soon become unrecognizable, yielding to cracked nipples, adult diapers, and a chart taped to the nursery wall, fastidiously monitoring the bowel movements of another human being. 

Where was my compassionate “Oh, darling, I’ve been where you are,” or even a condescending “Just you wait;” “This is the easy part,” or all the other tropes I railed against when I was procreating? I’d like to think I might have responded with a fond chuckle or discreet eye roll, but it was her earnestness about the whole thing that really did me in, pushing my buttons with disarming ferocity.

It’s my sneering inner bully who goes in for the kill: It’s because you’re jealous, asshole.

I had been earnest, too, hadn’t I? Sitting serenely in the glider while my childless friends painted a Winnie the Pooh mural on the nursery wall. Sipping a delicious mocktail that was not at all disappointing, I mean I didn’t even crave alcohol, so strong was my maternal instinct.

I had been one of those women who fucking loved pregnancy. And yes, it was the most special thing that had ever happened to anyone, ever, and my personalized daily journal chronicled what miracle was transpiring in my womb and what size produce item my progeny was. . . oh, the tiny pink Converse, ironic onesies, amniotic fluid-encased hiccups, and the goddamn magic of it all.

From the moment I suspected pregnancy with both of my daughters, I felt possessed by something sacred and powerful, like the electricity of falling in love, that inner whisper of, I can’t believe this is happening to ME. In my dewy-eyed maternal zest, motherhood was the divine apex of existence. I was called to my next step in the mythical womanhood journey of maiden, mother, crone—an invisible cosmic bell had tolled.

Perhaps in actuality, I clawed my way to the top of the tower and clanged the goddamn bell myself. Details. Regardless, the transition from maiden to mother felt like the most natural thing in the world—I fell into it like Alice down the rabbit hole—now, at age 44, the impending mother/crone shift feels slightly more…fraught. After all, as the earnest hot springs blonde and I knew all too well, few things feel as cosmically significant as motherhood.

Of course I was jealous.

The stage clears for the crone whispering beneath the midlife ripples, foreshadowing her eventual appearance (not yet, please, kindly ignore the preliminary signs of turkey neck). She is here to bring perspective as you navigate the murky purgatory between mother and crone, to tell you what you already know:

That it’s an embarrassment to reduce the alchemy of motherhood to cellular growth, uterine contractions, and umbilical unity, the biology itself reductive and exclusionary. As if the connection fades. As if my daughters couldn’t feel the magnetism of one disapprovingly raised eyebrow from across a crowded room. As if my system didn’t silently calibrate to their invisible distress signals.

The crone reminds me that after the whole production concluded—birth, babyhood, the weaning of us all—I realized the rose-tinted flaws of my idealized logic. I now craved the scarcest commodity—my self. There were times when I was nearly delirious with my own autonomy, so desperate was I to preserve the enchantment of my separateness as an individual.

 And yet, despite the “I have my life back!” self-worship, the era of the crone looms unappealing from the midlife mother perch, never mind stunning photos of Helen Mirren after sixty, Brene Brown’s reassurance that it’s not a crisis but an unraveling, and confessions that Nora Ephron also felt bad about her neck. In a culture obsessed with youth and all things supple, how does one embrace a role some traditions actually label a hag, who delights in their proverbial moon fucking waning

But quietly, an imperceptible shift begins. 

I pass glowing grandmothers in the grocery store and tell them how beautiful they are, that I love their dress or their hair or their goddamn aura and I whisper to myself that it will be okay, that I too can uncover power and beauty that I do not yet possess in decades to come.

I buy a silk patchwork kimono at an art museum, feel like a sexy and elegant crone when I wear it, and decide I am starting to love my aging body. I take a selfie and am not displeased by my wrinkles and shimmering grays. When my period comes each month, I feel relieved, and not because menopause remains distant, but because the idea of carrying babies feels distasteful and exhausting. For the first time, I am not talking myself into these feelings, they are real. I mean, most of the time. The turkey neck I could do without.

I wished I could go back and convey all this to the blond woman at the hot springs. I wanted to press my hand urgently against hers that she might somehow understand what was happening, what was to come. But let’s be honest—she probably wouldn’t be interested in what I was saying; she seemed like kind of a bitch. Or maybe that was just me.

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About the Author

Stephanie Sprenger is a music therapist, freelancer writer, Executive Producer of Listen To Your Mother Denver + Boulder, and mother of two daughters. Her work has been published in O Magazine, The Washington Post, Cosmpolitan.comRedbook.comand Brain, Child Magazine, among other places.

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