I had just returned to work from maternity leave. My baby was six months old, his older brother just over two. I was taking a much-needed break from contentious negotiations to eat with my colleagues-turned-friends in the law firm cafeteria–until a senior partner crashed our lunch. With the manufactured confidence of a corporate lawyer, he spouted misguided theories about childcare and Jewish naming rituals. Over the beloved bi-monthly burrito special, I found myself put on the defensive. Among litigators, even casual conversation can fall prey to courtroom-like conflict. I hadn’t missed this.
Once I had a baby (or a breast pump) waiting for me, I had far less patience for the adversarial nature of my work—for the pissing contests and discovery disputes that wasted our time and our clients’ money. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if we could all just divulge our bottom lines from the start and come to a cordial resolution so we could get home and have dinner with our families?
Truth is, we could all stand to litigate a little less. And love a little more.
Not long ago, an SUV scraped our car’s back bumper on the morning of the Pancreatic Cancer 5K. The area was a zoo. Parking was nowhere to be found. I was squatting a spot in a bus zone with a sleeping baby in the back seat while my husband did the walk.
I hear the crunch.
I exit my car.
I (and she) automatically assume our guarded, litigious personas:
Me: We should exchange information. You scratched my car.
She (defensive, frazzled, exasperated): I’m supposed to be doing this walk and I can’t find parking anywhere and I’m late…The words keep tumbling out, nonsensically.
She dismounts, tries to take pictures of the “damage” with her phone, asks permission to touch my car…I’m nervously calling my husband because despite posturing as a fierce litigator by weekday, I never know what to do when confronted with these situations in my personal life.
And then I saw it. A car seat in the back of her SUV. She’s a mother. A human.
I take a closer look – at the scratch and my attitude – and immediately soften. Sure, some paint came off. But it’s nothing. And even if it’s a little something, it isn’t worth whatever litigiousness is about to follow. It’s superficial damage. And I made the conscious decision that I didn’t want it to extend from the car to my frazzled fellow mom.
Forget about it, I said. From one mom to another, stop frantically trying to fish your insurance information out of your oversized purse. I’m not going to do anything about this. I don’t care enough about my car. It’s not more important than letting you be on your way and just putting all this behind us.
The second I changed my tune, a huge weight was lifted – off both our shoulders. I could stop putting on a front. She let out a marked sigh of relief and shared that she has a three-year-old son at home. They love the Please Touch Museum near the race site. We’re going there later, I offer. We’re both debating the merits of public versus private school for our children. She’s downright lovely. She’s incredibly grateful. I tell her to “pay it forward.” She insists, “believe me, I will.”
Maybe I’ll pay for it later. But I’ll do so gladly to avoid the back-and-forth, the finger-pointing, the suspicious affect, the preservation of “evidence,” the coy demeanor. All that angst and tension. We let it go. And we were both better for it.
I want my sons to grow up to be nice guys. The kind who treat others in a way that would make their mother proud. The other day, while my three-year-old was diligently faux vacuuming the living room, I caught him innocently, but repeatedly, exclaiming, Shoot! Shoot! Shoot! as the vacuum bumped into nearby furniture. He heard it from me. PG expletives often escape my mouth as I angle our massive minivan out of our impossibly small city parking space, sweat and stress mounting.
But these days, I’m trying to bite my tongue. Or at least think before I speak. Not to curse at the cabbie blocking the roadway. Or mutter under my breath when the grocery checkout line creeps along ever so slowly. Not to let daily frustrations or inconsequential inconveniences incite my inner litigator. I’m trying to not focus so much on getting even as just letting go.
Because my sons are listening. And I’d rather teach them love than justice. That often it’s better to be kind—or at least quiet—than right.
I wouldn’t say I’ve lost my fight; I’ve just found what’s worth fighting for.