The Power is in the Choosing

Part of 4 of in
By Marsha Ungchusri
Feb 18, 2021 | 5 min read
Part of 71: Utopia
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Endless highway stretches as far as I can see from the back seat. “Mommy, Mommy, I have to go to the bathroom. I have to go bad,” I find the courage to say. The hot Texas sun beats down through the window, but I feel clammy and cold. “We’re just five minutes from home. You can hold it.” I can feel the command rattle down my spine, but my body is not cooperating. “I really have to go, Mommy.” 

“YOU CAN HOLD IT UNTIL WE GET HOME. YOU CAN. YOU CAN.”

I am not sure whether she is trying to convince me or herself. My eyes are scrunched shut. I am shaking. Alarm bells sound in my bladder. Panic sets in.

Pre School Marsha Snowflake Sweatshirt

The shame rushes in as fast as my bladder empties. I made a mess. I am not a big girl. I am a baby. Only babies wet their pants.

The brown velour darkened in the growing damp spot on my seat. “I’m sorry, Mommy.” My head hangs in shame. Her hot anger lashes out. My fault. My fault. My fault. Hot tears roll down my cheeks. We are home now. She yanks me out of the car. I stumble. This is my fault. I am bad. 

• • •

I check the time on the microwave clock. It’s been 32 minutes since I accidentally picked up the phone. I hear my Mom sigh deeply. After the longest pause, “You need to talk to your sibling. They always listen to you.”

I am elbows deep in dishes from the last ... how many days? I don’t even know. Why am I even washing the dishes right now? I was just sitting down to eat a very late lunch and doom-scroll on Twitter when I clicked the green accept call button when I really meant to retweet ... A muffled static sound buzzed over the baby monitor. 

She sighs again, louder this time. 

“Mom, look, I love you, but you making this issue your problem isn’t doing them any favors.”

What I really want to ask is, Did you even ask if they want your help? How are they going to ever take responsibility for their life if you keep coming in to “save the day”? 

A deep, frustrated sigh of disagreement and frustration seeps through the speakerphone. I am definitely not playing the role of obedient, eldest daughter at the moment. 

“YOU are the big sister. They look up to you,” she’s yelling now. She wouldn’t categorize it as yelling, but she’s definitely yelling. I see movement on the hazy screen of the baby monitor. I have three minutes and 45 seconds at best before it’s going to be Bebe time 150%.

“That’s not true, Mom.” I hear the urgency rising in my voice. Three minutes and I need to get a snack on the table and prep for dinner. Oh, and these damn dishes. 

“I am the big sister and this is none of my business. If they want to talk to me, they have my number. I have to go. Bebe’s awake now. Love you, Mom.”

A wail sails over the baby monitor as I click the big red end call button. End call. Red. Stop sign. Boundaries. Still working on setting boundaries, but sometimes, for some people, nothing less than an electric fence will do. My stomach rumbles, loudly. The knots my stomach tied itself into over the course of the 38-minute conversation were slowly loosening and reminding me that most of my lunch was still sitting half-eaten on the counter. I snag a bite of cold, mishmashed leftovers, and jog upstairs.

Bebe’s wailing.

As I slowly crack open the bedroom door, Bebe pauses her wailing and tilts her head to one side, always the left, and gives me a toothy grin. She smiles. A shaft of light sneaks through the curtains and catches her shiny, straight brown-black hair, just like mine. Her soft brown eyes sparkle with eye crust. My heart softens.

“Mama! Mama! Hungies!” 

Ah yes, a daughter after my own heart. And stomach. 

She reaches up to me and I pick her up over the bed railing. She tucks her head under my chin and wraps one arm around my neck, burrowing briefly before sticking her middle and ring finger in her mouth. As I plod carefully down the stairs I feel my stomach rumble again as the initial comforting warmth of Bebe starts to feel a bit overwhelming. I notice I still have dish soap all over my forearms. And ugh, my sleeves are damp. 

She looks up at me and hugs tighter. “Mama, I want APP-ULL. I HUNGIES.”

Sirens go off in my head. Oh no, the grocery order is delayed and we just ran out of apples the day before. I try to set her down in her booster seat, but she stubbornly clings on. 

“Bebe, you’re going to need to let Mama go so she can get your snack.” She clings tighter. My stomach rumbles. I notice the fridge door is ... open? A puddle of water on the counter slowly drips water down the cabinets onto the floor. I can hear my Mom’s voice berating my messy kitchen and what kind of mother am I to run out of my child’s favorite snack? My stomach rumbles again. I feel faint and wonder why it is dark all of a sudden.

Oh, it’s because I’m scrunching my eyes shut, but really I’m holding in the eruption surging up from the pit of my growling stomach. 

Flashes of endless Texas highway sear across my mind. I feel clammy and cold. Panic. Alarm. I am bad. My fault. I am bad. I am a bad Mom. My fault. Eyes scrunched shut. I am bad.

“Mama, you squish me. Hehe, you squish me. I hugs you. Love you. I HUNGIES. Snack?” I peek my right eye open and see Bebe’s curious, warm eyes peering up at me. I am hugging her too tightly. My stomach rumbles, bringing me back to the present. 

“Mama, I bad?” she cocks her head to the side again, furrowing her brow.

I take a deep breath. And another. And one more. “No, Bebe, you are good. Mama was remembering something scary and sad. I love you, Bebe. You are so good. You know what? Mama’s hungry too, so she’s going to join you for snack time. Would you like that?” Her toothy grin confirms her yes. She squeezes her little arms around my neck one more time before releasing and settling down in her booster seat. I take another deep, cleansing breath. I stretch my neck left then right as I walk to the fridge and toss a dishtowel on the puddle on the floor. I stretch my arms overhead.

I find two possibly acceptable choices for snack time while I reheat my leftovers for the third time. I look at my sweet child, their dimpled cheek, their little fingers and toes. I notice the emptiness of my stomach, the rush of air filling my lungs, the contrast of warmth in my limbs and cooling space where I had held Bebe, the eruption in my throat subsiding. I hear Bebe giggle, the beep of the microwave, the afternoon traffic noise in the background. The smell of the tangy yogurt mix with the savory smell of my now deliciously hot leftovers. 

The phone rings and my Mom’s face again illuminates the screen. 

I send her call to voicemail and turn the phone over.

I turn to face my child, “Would Bebe like yogurt or blueberries for snack today?”

She grins at me in a way I know she means BOTH, MAMA, BOTH. 

We sit side by side and savor our first bites. Everything is OK. We are good.

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From the author: 

Utopia is not a place we find on a map. I think utopia — the kin-dom of God — resides in each of us, but layers of pain, shame, and lies we’ve internalized about ourselves and each other disconnect us from it. We can experience utopia from within and also in connection with one another.

In Luke 17:20-21, Jesus declares where the kingdom of God resides:

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Depending on the translation, the last part can also be read “the kingdom of God is within you.”

In my healing journey, I have been slowly peeling back layers of unspoken pain and festering wounds to find utopia. For a long time, I convinced myself I did not want to have children because I was afraid I had to be 100% ready and absolutely perfect to be a mother. I doubted my ability to affirm and accept any child of mine as they are, to meet their needs, to repair when I hurt them.

I wrote this piece to give myself permission to suspend the beliefs I’ve internalized over the years, to freely imagine myself being a mother — something that both terrifies and delights me. What would it look like to raise my child from a place of thriving and abundance compared to the scarcity mindset of my immigrant parents? What would it feel like to tend to my child’s emotional needs as well as their physical needs?

I wrote this piece to document my hope that I will be able to show up for my child in the ways they need. And when I don’t or can’t, I’ll ensure there is a village around them where they can be seen and loved by others as well. I have no misconceptions that I can or should be every single thing my child needs.

In delving deeper toward utopia, I am embracing the idea that parenting is a process of learning and unlearning, much like my own healing. My child doesn’t need me to be perfect; they need me to be wholly human. In the radical act of remembering in therapy, I hope to heal so that I will not repeat the cycles of harm moving forward. And I hope when I mess shit up, I can own my mistakes, apologize well, and repair with gentleness and care. I embrace my continued work to peel back the layers, break down the walls, and unlearn the false stories I tell myself, which separate me from the peace and delight God desires for me.

My power is in the choosing, and I choose each day to journey toward the utopia that God desires for my kin and for me.

A heartfelt thanks to Virginia Duan, Stella Won, and Mira Sawlani-Joyner for your wisdom and support to manifest this piece.

Marsha Ungchusri

Marsha Ungchusri (she/her) is a Chinese Thai Texan American residing in the DC metro area. In her adventures in therapy, she realizes now that joy and sorrow (and everything in between) are two sides of the same coin. Her choice is not to feel one emotion or the other, but to cultivate the ability to feel everything because the alternative is to feel nothing at all. She plans to pivot and relaunch her newsletter Have You Eaten Yet? in the spring of 2021.

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