A knock at the door yesterday. I was upstairs and my wife was on the phone so we ignored it. But with a quick glance my wife noticed that the woman left a note for us.
I retrieved the note, a request on the back of her business card to “Please call me.” On the front of the card: Child Welfare Services, County of San Diego. Confused and curious, I walked out to the street to see if she was still nearby and, sure enough, I saw a woman driving out of our neighborhood.
I flashed the card as she passed by, taking a chance that it was her. She stopped right away, got out of the car and came over to talk with me.
With no introduction and no buildup she simply stated that “There has been a complaint about the welfare of your children. I cannot tell you who filed the complaint but the nature of it is that your home is not well-kept and that your children are often left home without supervision.”
You could have pushed me over with a feather.
I said, “That’s impossible…this must be a joke.”
But you know what I was really thinking?
“Yeah, this summer we’ve let the house get away from us a little bit. Those piles we need to sort through are still there. That garage clean-up is never ending. At least the dishes are done…that much I know.”
And then, this:
“Well, sure…don’t most people leave their teenage kids home alone? At least once in a while? Yes, they are young teenagers but they are more than mature enough to hang out for a few hours on their own.”
And then, this:
“Who in the world said this about us? Who would possibly think that about us? I can think of three families right now whose homes are kept in worse shape than ours.”
All in about three seconds.
And she said, “I know this can be very hard to hear. And I’m not overly concerned at this point but it is something I needed to follow-up on.”
I said, “No, really….this is a mistake. Are you sure you have the right house?”
And she confirmed the address. Our address.
And then she added, “And you are Steve?”
“No, my name is David.”
“Oh. This happens sometimes. I’m sorry about that. Do you know a ‘Steve’ in this neighborhood?”
I said, “I’m not thinking straight right now. Please give me a second.”
My heart was racing. My mind was racing. I was overwhelmed by the suggestion that the assertion was real and that it was made by someone who knew us.
But why would I even for a second doubt what I know to be true? How could I entertain even the slightest impulse that our lifestyle and parenting choices had descended to the level of government intervention?
I guess it’s because we’ve worked hard to create a living/working/learning/playing environment that is loving, positive, productive and inviting. Every day? Of course not! Most days, most of the time. And I don’t want to lose even a tiny piece. I only want to make it stronger and any suggestion to the contrary, that I or we may fail to do so? Well, there’s some defensiveness in there…some perfectionism, too.
An awkward mistake turned into a good reminder. I have a wonderful marriage and a terrific family. We have our struggles, just like everyone else. In the grand scheme of things those struggles, those problems, are small…very small. And there are many around us whose problems are big and scary and that’s painful to realize. Humbling, too.
So, a little more empathy today and a lot more gratitude. Also, a renewed commitment to get that garage cleaned up before my mother calls in another complaint!
DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.