I was rushing around in the kitchen trying to throw dinner together with my two-year-old on my hip. It was a Monday, and she’s usually fussy in the evening after her first day back at daycare following the weekend. I was still in my work clothes, my lanyard swinging wildly about as I tried to comfort her and pull together a decent dinner. I ushered our three dogs out to our fenced-in yard to calm the chaos inside, but they were still barking at the neighbors’ dogs and anyone else who was walking their dogs around the block after work.
Then there was a knock at the front door of our split-level. I stood at the baby gate at the top of the stairs and saw the top of a man’s head through the door’s window panes. Our middle son answered the door as I looked on; I assumed our smallest dog had escaped under the fence – again – and someone had rescued her.
When the door opened, I didn’t recognize the older gentleman with silver hair; and he didn’t have our tiny pup. He looked up the stairway at me, and without introducing himself, explained that he lived in the cul-de-sac behind us. “I want to be a good neighbor,” he said, then pausing. “I hope you do, too.”
I strained to hear him as the dogs barked out back; they knew someone was at the door.
“Can you hear that?” he asked, referring to the barking. “Surely, you can hear that.”
Irked, I said, “They’re barking because you’re here.”
“No, no, that’s not it. They bark about this time every day.” He said he was out working in the yard, showed me his gardening gloves as evidence, and explained the barking dogs have been impeding his personal peace for some time now.
I knew he was right, and that the dogs have been barking around the same time each day. That’s because lately I’ve been letting them do that while I chase a toddler and make dinner. If I don’t, I trip over them when they sneak under my feet to get crumbs, they noisily wrestle each other in the living room, they bark at the TV, they eat the baby’s toys, they get in the bathroom trash and drag remnants out into the hallway – because no one can ever remember to shut the door – and sometimes they put their paws on the table and counters to get any food that may be nearby. Opening the back door and letting them charge out to the yard is just easier when my husband, who they will obey, isn’t home. So, I ignore the barking in the yard while I take care of business.
I knew he was right about the barking, but his approach rubbed me the wrong way.
“I can’t help it. They bark every time someone walks their dog down the street, and there are a lot of dogs in the neighborhood, and they bark when a dog that lives on this side of our house goes outside, and when the dog that lives on that side of our house goes outside,” I told him as I pointed in both directions. I implied that it was unavoidable – and that’s all technically true most of the time. But I don’t admit that recently I have been intentionally ignoring the barking to keep the burden for me at bay temporarily as I get things inside situated after work. Then, he hit a nerve.
“Well, if you’d stop to take a breath.”
That was it for me. In my mind, that sentence translated to, “Be quiet, you hysterical woman.” And I wasn’t having that. We’re in the #MeToo era and a it felt like he was trying to silence me instead of hearing me. I’d made up my mind at that moment I was not going to accommodate any of his demands.
He continued to complain about the noise, saying again, “Surely, you can hear that.”
I told him frankly, “You know, maybe if you’d come here with a softer approach, I’d be softer with you right now.” He pressed on with his grievance. But I was done. “Okay, noted,” I told him. He continued. “Okay, noted, noted,” I repeated loudly and sternly, trying to signal the conversation was over and he should go. Still standing at the top of the steps, looking down at him with my baby on my hip, I repeated, “Thank you.”
“Oh, okay,” he said, finally getting the hint. “Well, are you going to do anything about it?”
“Thank you,” I said, shooing him away with my eyes and tone.
He finally turned and walked away.
I passive-aggressively kept the dogs outside, letting them bark as I looked from our kitchen while he walked back behind our house and through a patch of trees to his home on the other side. And I kept the dogs outside until I was good and ready to let them back inside, out of principle.
When my husband arrived home later, I told him about the whole ordeal. “Can you believe the nerve of this guy? He didn’t even introduce himself first!” I also admitted I was rude to him. For a good few hours, I accepted that a new feud had developed that would likely go on for years. I was deeply offended.
Then later that night, when I was alone in the bedroom, I thought to myself, “I don’t want to be angry at someone who was a stranger up until today. It takes more energy to be angry at someone than it does to be kind to someone.” I was trying to reduce stress in my life, not create more by steaming over my neighbor’s lackluster communication skills, and I knew that I could have been more understanding in the moment to his annoyance. I realized it must be annoying to hear dogs barking while you’re trying to enjoy some time outside. I wondered how many other neighbors were equally annoyed, but just never said anything. And there was one thing this man said that lingered: “I want to be a good neighbor, and I hope you do, too.”
The next day, after my workday ended and I picked my daughter up at daycare, we stopped at the grocery store to get an apple pie. Then we drove to the cul-de-sac behind our house. I knocked on two wrong doors before tracking down what I thought was the right house, thanks to the insight from the other neighbors based on my vague description. No one answered when I knocked. So, I put my daughter down on the porch while I retrieved a pen from my pocket, and I wrote a message on the box: “I want to be a good neighbor.” I signed my first name and noted my street address so there was no mistake about who left it.
Two months went by, and I never heard a thing. I started to wonder if I did find the right address. Or maybe I did, but there was nothing more to really say.
Then, the week of Christmas, as I was working to get my daughter out of her car seat, I noticed a man walking by, so as I typically did, I looked to make eye contact and say hello. Then the man, stopped, and we both paused and looked at each other. I thought it was my disgruntled neighbor, but I wasn’t sure because he was bundled up.
“Yes,” I said.
“I’m Don,” he said, then paused while we kept looking at each other. “I got your pie,” he said, seemingly cautious. I suspect he was unsure how this conversation would go.
“Oh good,” I said, now certain of who I was looking at, and I immediately walked toward him, smiling. “I wasn’t sure if I left it at the right place.” He smiled back.
I reached out my hand, he took it. As we firmly squeezed hands, I looked him in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry.”
And then he said, “No, I’m sorry.” He also told me that he noticed a difference; less barking. I’d been much more mindful of it, I knew.
He explained that after he left, he realized I had a little one on my hip, a young one at the door, and I was wearing a badge that indicated I also worked. He realized that I had my hands full the moment he came to the door.
He didn’t need to say anything more. As far as I was concerned, he saw me, and his apology was accepted. He saw the chaos of that moment; the struggle of a working mom. At a time when many women, including me, feel invisible, he saw me.
We both apologized multiple times before saying Merry Christmas and going our separate ways.
That night, when I reflected on that exchange, I cried. At first, I was unsure why it made me so emotional. Perhaps because kindness won on this day. But then I realized it was more than that. For me, it was because a complete stranger saw me and understood me. Most days working moms are just expected to do. No one really ever bothers to notice the struggle that goes along with it. But this complete stranger understood me. For once, someone noticed.
I chose to be a good neighbor and he chose to see and understand me. Together, we created something beautiful. We created understanding.