Contractor mindset vs. homeowner mindset

Jeff is redoing our bathroom, which involves taking down walls with old lead paint on them. He’s sealed off that portion of the house, and when he’s doing leaded work he doesn’t come back in the rest of the house until he’s taken off his coveralls, changed clothes, washed his hands in the basement, showered, and changed clothes again. That’s what you do if you’re an informed parent who doesn’t want your kids to get lead poisoning.

When my dad worked in construction, the comment made after a shoddy job was “Well, I can’t see it from my house.” That’s basically the attitude I’ve seen from contractors about things like lead dust, despite laws about precautions they’re supposed to take. When our electrician’s assistant cut through an old wall with no precautions, scattering lead dust all over the inside of a closet (containing, unfortunately, the cleaning supplies), I called to complain. “I have no way of knowing what’s in your walls,” the electrician told me, though we both know very well what’s likely to be in 1920s walls given that lead paint wasn’t banned until 1978.

I called the state lead safety agency, the ones theoretically in charge of enforcement. They told me to clean my house really well.

The next time the electrician needed to go through a wall, he promised he’d put down a dropcloth. He did — it covered the area just under the work, and the dust extended for yards beyond it, including down the stairway where he tracked it on his way out. When I went to clean it up, it was like one of those cakes where you can see the shape of where the doily was laid, because the icing sugar is sprinkled everywhere else.

That’s the kind of work you get when the incentive is to look like you’re doing the right thing, rather than to actually prevent lead from getting into your children’s bodies. You get a dropcloth that pretends to address the problem. You get a phone number where you can call and get no help.


Last night I was talking with Jeff about some health problems I’ve been trying to figure out. I made a long list of things I had tried already, and a shorter list of things I haven’t tried. I spent a lot of the conversation arguing to him why the remaining things were unlikely to work.

I was essentially in contractor mindset. As if it weren’t my house, and all I needed to do was demonstrate that I’d taken some reasonable steps. But when you’re the homeowner, when it’s your roof that’s leaking, when you’re the parent of the children who live there, it’s not enough to try. You have to actually fix the problem. If you stop when you have taken the steps that could reasonably be expected of you, it’s you and your family who bear the cost.

I’m trying to balance this with the virtue of acceptance. I may try every single thing on both lists, and I may never find anything that works all that well. I may just need to learn to live with the status quo.

But it would suck to try 15 out of 20 things and never find out that the 18th thing on the list would have helped. This body is my home. If I can summon the energy, it’s time to keep trying.





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