Mama bear vs. grace

Pluck
Kim Schomburg

I perfected my angry phone voice as a manager of a dance studio. 

 Liz and I used to run a dance studio together, and she put me in charge of recital costumes. If you’ve never ordered dance costumes (and for your sake, I sincerely hope you haven’t), you have to put in the orders three to six months in advance to get them on time, and often, the order still doesn’t come when they said it would. I made dozens of calls to customer service representatives and after apologizing for making their day hell, said in an eerily calm voice, “I am going to stay on the line or keep calling back until you tell me those dance costumes are going to be here when you said they would. Because my only alternative is to put children on stage naked. Do you want to be the reason children go on stage naked?” 

This skill comes in handy sometimes, when one is dealing with a cell phone company or the like. But this is a skill I want to employ only when necessary. I know what it’s like to be the person on the other end of the phone. And moreover, I don’t want to be that kind of person. I don’t want to be angry. I don’t want to get what I want by bullying or demanding. 

When it comes to Teddy, that can be hard to remember. These last couple months, we have been dealing with my landlord as she is required to deal with the lead hazards that we found in our apartment. It’s been a real test – a constant fight between the mama bear inside of me that wants to rip anyone’s face off who dares mess with my child, and the grownup who wants to be kind and gracious. 

She has not made it easy, I feel. Her communication with me is rare and distant. She has never apologized for the fact that Teddy has lead poisoning. She doesn’t volunteer any information that I don’t ask for, often repeatedly, and sometimes doesn’t answer at all. I communicated my concerns about the front hall carpet that has absorbed lead dust for years and also the soil in the back yard, which is chock full of lead. She said nothing. 

I have tried pleading with her. I have explained how this affects our everyday lives – how it means extra doctors, special vitamins, all organic food, tons of cleaning, plus avoiding a whole area of our apartment and hundreds of dollars I put into a garden that I can’t even step foot in now. No response. 

It makes me angry. This is my kid, dammit. I know she’s out some money and the hassle of dealing with it, but this is my kid’s brain, his health. She doesn’t have kids, so maybe she doesn’t understand, I think. But even my childless friends hear the word “lead poisoning,” and are instantly sympathetic. This is a big deal. Who wouldn’t understand that? 

The other day, mama bear won. Two weeks ago, she said she would email me after her meeting with the inspector. But I had heard nothing. Had she even met with him? Was she working toward getting things fixed? She had told me over a month ago that she was calling contractors to get estimates, and yet, no one has come out to look at the problem. 

I started thinking about it and got myself all wound up. I emailed her and asked for an update. And then I reminded her what the law said – that if she didn’t fix the problem 30 days from when she had received the report (over two weeks ago now), she could be fined $2500 and an additional $250 a day. 

It wasn’t technically a threat. After all, I am not the housing court that imposes the fine. That’s the law. And it’s the only thing I have to get what I need to get done – to clean up this problem for Teddy and any other child who ever lives in this building. 

But I meant it to be a threat. I wanted to wield a weapon. I hoped to scare and shame her into action. 

I have two minds about this. On one hand, I am Teddy’s mother, and it is my job to protect him. On the other hand, I am also his role model, the one who teaches him how to be in the world. We are talking a lot these days about what is kind and what is not. It is kind to say “please” instead of demanding what you want. It is not kind to hit, even if you are feeling angry inside. It’s good to be kind to each other. It makes life nice. 

I am a Christian, although a heretical one. I have my issues with church and many Christians make me want to puke up my communion host and head for the hills. But I know what God asks me to do in these cases. As my husband reminded me recently, if someone takes my shirt, I should offer my cloak. If I am struck, I should turn the other cheek rather than hit back. There is grace, endless grace, for our wrongs, and instead of charging each other, we are to offer it freely. 

Still, I am angry. And truth be told, I want to cause harm. I want my landlord to be angry or scared. I want her to feel something because I am feeling something, something I cannot get away from. I didn’t start out this way, but I feel her lack of communication has made me feel as if she doesn’t care, and since I cannot stop caring, I want to punish her. 

I sent that email. And then we went to the grocery store, my son riding quietly in the back seat, pulling out his pacifier occasionally to tell me about a bike or a light he saw. I had a knot in my stomach. As I wrote my grocery list in my head, the feeling gnawed at me. I had to stop for a minute to remember what was bothering me – the email. 

I felt torn. I still feel torn. I decided to apologize, and so I sent another email, saying I was sorry for being angry with her. True to form, she did not respond for a few days, and when she did, she was short and gave few details. Every day, many times during the day, I want to tell her how I feel in detail. Not just tell her, actually. I want to make her understand how stressful this situation is and how much it matters to me. 

I think this is a problem that will be with me for a long, long time. Maybe forever. I suspect it is going to keep getting harder, especially as Teddy gets better at noticing how mama reacts. He already cries when I shout at someone in the car when I get cut off or honked at by a careless driver. 

I guess this is my problem: my kid is forcing me to be a better person, and that’s hard. It’s a common theme these days. When it comes to patience or giving of myself or having empathy or finding grace, I am constantly being pushed beyond my previous standards and limits. This, along with cleaning up spills, doing endless tiny laundry, washing sticky hands and picking up a million little pieces of everything that are everywhere – this is hard work.

It is good work, but it’s hard work.

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