They both pee where they’re not supposed to, and both need to be crated at times.

28 06 2012

I don’t have kids. I’ve said it here before, because, as we all know, it matters to some of our clients. I maintain that it doesn’t really matter. Not having kids doesn’t mean you don’t know kids. It doesn’t mean you’ve never taken care of a child, or have children in your life who you love dearly.

But there are some things you can’t entirely understand. One is the feeling of loving someone more than anything, knowing what’s best for them, and sending them out into the world to make mistakes. Another is everyone in the world thinking they know how to parent your child better than you do.

That last one, I can kind of relate to. Ever since I got a dog.

Now, I have no intention of becoming one of those lunatics who refers to myself as my dog’s mommy, or tells people I have a six month old, or requests maternity leave when I bring a pet home. But the fact remains that there are some similarities to life with a dog and life with a baby. I say things like “It’s not time for dinner yet” to someone who doesn’t speak English, my boyfriend and I regularly discuss the timing and location of poops, I feel guilty leaving him at day care, I show coworkers pictures of him doing cute things, I do way more laundry than I thought possible, and I have someone to blame all weird household smells on.

Also, everyone else is an expert.

I admit that I don’t know a whole lot. So I turn to the source of all modern knowledge, the great and powerful Oz Google. (It’s how Jenny McCarthy cured autism, you know.) And right away I’m confronted with guilt. “Your dog is exhibiting signs of separation anxiety. First of all, stop getting angry at him. Think of it from his perspective. He just wants to be with you.” What kind of an asshole do you think I am, Mr. Google? I already feel bad! That’s why I’m here. “If your dog has an accident in the house, do not rub his nose in it.” Yeah, I’m not the mean dad from The Wonder Years. I got it.

There’s also the confusion. To address separation anxiety, we must teach the dog that it’s ok to be away from us. Leave the room, and encourage him to stay behind. To ensure that your dog is entirely housebroken, DO NOT LEAVE HIM ALONE FOR A MOMENT! You must be right there to interrupt any and all accidents. If you miss one, you have no one but yourself to blame. But stop following him around, you’re making his anxiety worse!

There’s little consensus on what you should be doing to raise a happy, healthy dog. This person says you need a choke collar. That person says they’re damaging. Everyone has an Invisible Fence, so that seems like the way to go. Except this expert says that’s a move for lazy assholes. Apparently we should feed him fresh chicken once a week? Oh wait, only if we want terrible things to happen to him. Dog food or no food! Crating is good. I mean bad. I mean no more than six four hours?

Then there are people on the street with helpful advice. “You should praise him when he does something good. Give him a little treat.” Well, you should write a book. ” “Tap him on the nose with a newspaper.” Again, is it the 50s? Who has a newspaper? “It’s important for them to socialize.” With your yippy, feral, biting machine? No thanks. “He’s so skinny. Maybe you should feed him more.” Was that on Animal Planet?

I know that if I mention anything about how we train or care for the dog, someone will disagree and be able to tell me how I’m irrevocably harming him. I mean, his treats aren’t locally grown or organic, so they’re probably right.

This is a fraction of what new parents are faced with. If you’re single, a teenager, or a father, forget it. Obviously you know nothing.

Most people seem incapable of determining what a “safety issue” that requires intervention really is. Parents playing a round of Baby Tetherball is dangerous. An infant being bottle fed in public is not.

Other young parents have a million must-haves for an expectant mother. “How many Boppys do you have? You got the Bumbo as well, right? Those are amazing. Just don’t leave the kid unattended, or she will die instantly. Also get the vibrating chair. And a walker, but if you put her in it too soon she’ll become bowlegged and hate you forever. Which breast pump are you getting? Why are you getting all those bottles? You will be breastfeeding, right? Only breastfed humans have gone on to happiness and success, it’s scientifically proven. You also need the video monitor! Obviously you won’t have any blankets or anything in her crib, but you need this too, so you can make sure she’s breathing all night.”

OK, Babies R Us cashier. Can we just finish checking out and get back to being strangers?

The generation that raised us is great for making new parents feel stupid. “Ok, I didn’t have six special chairs for you before you could sit up, or a baby monitor, but sure, that’s a necessity” as the eyes roll. It’s true, but at some point things change and we need to deal with it. I don’t hear any of those grandmothers pining for the days of outhouses or maxi-pads with belts, so we need to accept some progress.

And some of those innovations are ridiculous, of course. Wipe warmers spring to mind. No baby has ever died of Chilly Tush Syndrome, so I think we would be fine without one. But we have to consider it from the point of view of someone who is excited to be expecting a child, and is then confronted with everything that will go wrong and kill your baby. SIDS is everywhere! You’re probably passing along pertussis through hugs! But vaccinations cause autism!

Everything a pregnant woman or a person with a baby does seems to be up for debate. Most of my clients don’t have the luxury of a million different items to make their lives more convenient, or even to make their child’s life a bit easier. But they certainly get to enjoy everyone on the planet telling them how they could be doing things better.

Many moms, especially young ones, get it from their mothers or grandmothers. Not that they don’t appreciate the help, but they want it to be clear who the parent is. They get it from their friends who have been through it. They hear it from politicians who talk about single and teenage mothers receiving welfare as the latest sign of the apocalypse.

And of course they get it from us.

We don’t want to be that way. We try really hard not to undermine parents, assume they don’t know basic, obvious stuff. We even get a bit defensive when it seems that clients assume that we’re like this. But the fact that they expect us to be hypercritical makes perfect sense. We need to remember that we’re the latest in a long line of people who seem to think that they know better, and how annoying and frustrating that is to deal with.

Because honestly, I know my dog is too skinny.





Unforgiven: Social Work edition

13 02 2012

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (thank you, as my self esteem is directly proportional to my number of followers) will know that I was a little upset about the Grammys last night. It’s surprising, because I didn’t even watch them.

Was Chris Brown at the Grammys before? I think maybe he was…ah yes, three years ago! He was going to perform, but the night before he punched Rihanna, his girlfriend at the time, leaving her face a bloody and bruised mess.

I’ve already talked about the damage Chris Brown has done. Not only to Rihanna, but to young people across the country, for whom he further normalized violence as a part of romantic relationships. So I’m not going to go into that again. (Though he did. He did a lot of damage, on a problem that was already bad enough.)

Chris Brown is right at the top of SocialJerk’s Shit List. I assure you, it’s an unpleasant place to be.

But he’s not alone. He has the company of Ben Roethlisberger and Roman Polanksi, to name a couple. Michael Vick had set up residence, but he’s done some work in getting himself removed.

A dinner party you’d never want to attend, amiriteladies? These are people that my friends and family members know not to mention in my presence. If they don’t want me to turn red, and them to not have a chance to speak for the next twenty minutes.

Just so we’re clear–Michael Vick, the one who killed and mistreated dogs, got the harshest sentence (a fine and a suspended prion sentence) and has done the most to make up for his crimes (through seemingly heartfelt apologies, and by lobbying for harsher penalties for animal fighting.) He’s also, arguably, the most vilified. He’s the one who mistreated and killed dogs. The others exploited, raped, or beat women and children. In case you weren’t feeling my rage.

I can’t see any of these individuals ever getting off said shitlist. I just can’t.

Chris Brown and Roman Polanksi in particular have acted like and been treated like victims. They have whined like petulant children about how unfairly they’ve been treated. None of these men have made a real, meaningful apology. They’ve all been defended relentlessly in the press.

What do I want from them? So glad you asked. I want this:

“Wow, I appreciate you all caring about me, but I’m a total piece of shit. I hope that by taking some time out of the public eye, I can do a lot of work on myself, and be deserving of your respect. But until then, remember–I’m a real asshole, a danger to society, and I’m just not worthy of it.”

Then, after some time off, they either shut up and stay that way, or, preferably, get out there and educate people as to why they were wrong.

Chris Brown tells young women that real men won’t hit them, and tells young men that he was an idiot for ever putting his hands on Rihanna. Roman Polanksi will explain that it doesn’t matter if that 13 year old got herself wasted and ran around naked begging for him to anally penetrate her (which people seem to believe), he was the adult and should have acted like it. Ben Roethlisberger will tell men the world over that, even if you’re a big star, more physically powerful than women, and a women is drunk, she can still say no to any sexual encounter with you.

The social work connection, and there is one, is forgiveness. Forgiving the unforgivable, excusing the inexcusable.

Not all of the people we work with are exclusively victims. Some of us work with men who abuse women, women who abuse children, people who abuse animals, and many variations thereof.

People who are abused, very often, want to go back to the person who violated them. They want the abuse to stop, of course, but they don’t want that person out of their life. Children love their parents. People love their partners. Teenage girls at least feel like they love their boyfriends, and maybe they do. They want to forgive their abuser. It’s normal. It takes a domestic violence victim an average of seven times to leave an abusive partner, before leaving for good. And the time that victim is most at risk to be killed is when she’s attempting to leave, and right after.

Remember that next time someone offers Rihanna talking to Chris Brown as evidence that we should all get over it.

Many of the women I work with have suffered through domestic violence. This means that their children have as well. One of those women lived with the man who beat her horribly for thirteen years and had five children with him. Just recently, she left him for good. When she says she hopes she never sees him again, I believe her. She made her kids deactivate their Facebook pages so their father couldn’t find them–these days, that’s the ultimate in putting your foot down.

Another woman is, sadly, just at the beginning of this process. She left her abusive partner once, and has considered leaving him many more times. She has one very young child with him, and three older children who are completely fed up with their mother’s relationship.

She keeps bringing this man, who hits and intimidates her, back into her home. This woman forgives this man, for some reason. Her children are in the position of trying to forgive her, because she’e their mother. And I’m doing my home visits, trying not to narrow my eyes and spit every time this dick man looks in my direction.

She’s made her decision. I can make sure that the children are safe, and that this family has somewhere to go when he inevitably does it again, and I can try to help her to understand that what he’s doing is inexcusable and that it follows a pattern. But I can’t make her decide that it’s unforgivable.

She can forgive this man. It doesn’t mean I have to. Rihanna can forgive and Tweet at Chris Brown. That doesn’t mean we should forget what he did and applaud him at award shows. Samantha Geimer can say she’s over what Roman Polanski did to her. Of course she wants it all to go away. It doesn’t make him any less of a sick bastard, and a fugitive from the law.

Don’t let anyone tell you different. Victims can forgive if they feel they need to. We have an obligation to remind them that they deserve better.

I need to figure out a way to work with them all. (My client’s abusive boyfriend, not Brown and Polanski.) Ignoring him and feeling self-righteously angry about the fact that I hate this guy doesn’t move us forward. It makes mom feel like she needs to lie to me about her feelings for him, or her intentions to leave.

I heard a man speak once about telling his friends that street harassment is, for lack of a better term, a dick move. He admitted that it was a while before they took him seriously, because he used to shout sexual comments at strange women right along with them. A friend of mine just stopped using the “f” word (no, the other “f” word) because he realized, “I’m offending an entire group of people that I actually don’t have a problem with when I do that.”

Both of these guys used to do something stupid and offensive. We’ve all made mistakes. Many things can be forgiven. People can learn. And, I think, they can change. We can agree to disagree, but that’s the basis of the profession, and if I didn’t believe that I’d quit and work at Starbucks.

I don’t want to go out for a drink with anyone on my shitlist. They’re bad people, and some of them would probably assault me. But I do honestly believe that they can improve themselves. Michael Vick, even if you still choose to hate him, has taken some steps. Many of us have people in our lives who did as well. Whether we want to deal in forgiveness or not, the reality is that we have to work with it.

And please, if you’re as angry as I am, consider making a donation to SafeHorizon, a wonderful organization that helps  victims of domestic violence. (I swear, I did!) Tell them the Grammy’s sent you.





Dr. Dolittle failed out of social work school

2 05 2011

We all got into social work to work with people. Strange choice for a misanthrope like myself, but it happened. I signed on to work with all sorts of people–young, old, mentally ill, violent, funny, pleasant, everything in between.

I was ready for all sorts of possibilities. I was not, however, prepared for the role that animals would play in my work.

Animals are a part of people’s lives. Pets, trips to the zoo, Animal Planet marathons (I just need to know what those guys on Whale Wars are up to, don’t judge me) whatever it may be. If they’re a part of people’s lives, they’re a part of our work.

Lots of people have dogs, but often don’t seem to think ahead when getting one. Hint: if you bring home a small plant, animal, or person, it’s probably going to get bigger. I had the misfortune of conducting a home visit one afternoon when a family came to the realization that the cute puppy they had brought into their one bedroom apartment had reached a weight of 65 pounds and was still growing.

Never again will I allow myself to be subjected to children crying over their dad bringing their ginormous dog back to the shelter. You can’t make me.

Nobody worry. The following month the family brought in a ferret and a parakeet. The parakeet provides a lovely background screeching to our visits. And the ferret’s interactions with the family’s smaller dog gives mom plenty of opportunity to explain the birds and the bees (ferrets and the spaniels?) to the kids.

Incidentally, ferret–no means no.

For some reason, my clients either want massive dogs or tiny ones. There’s no in between. I’ve always been a fan of big dogs. Growing up I had a husky/collie/retriever mix. That, to me, was a “real” dog. Yappy chihuahuas were not.

However, I have kind of fallen in love formed a bond with a Pomeranian named Paris. She seems like exactly the type of dog I’d normally hate, but I’ve grown accustomed to her face. She has the misfortune of living with a three and five year old who have not yet learned that Paris does not like to wear hats and is too small to be ridden. As a result, she seems to be plotting a great escape. I have to check my purse before leaving any visit, for fear that she’s trying to make a break for it. Probably to start a better life. In Canada.

Pit bulls are the ultimate status symbol. Walking a pit bull (usually male, never fixed) on a chain through the neighborhood is a great way to say, “I’m a real asshole man.”

Pit bulls are a touchy subject for people. Personally, I adore them. They’re beautiful dogs, and I’ve known incredibly sweet, well-behaved pit bulls. In the Bronx, though, people aren’t usually trying to break the bad reputation put bulls have gotten. That bad reputation seems to be what makes them such symbols of bad-assery.

As a result, people have these dogs in tiny apartments, hit them in public, and, all too often, breed them for fighting.

Two families on my caseload who have had a child attacked by their pet pit bull. A four year old was bit on the face after jumping on the dog. Somehow, she got away with only needing one stitch, and is perfectly fine now. The dog belonged to mom’s sister’s boyfriend’s, and is now out of the apartment.

More recently, I went to a home for an initial home visit, and found myself faced with three full grown pit bulls. They were gorgeous, and two came over to say hello immediately. The biggest one, though, was tied to a doorknob. The three year old was kind enough to inform me, “That one bites. Hard.”

When her sixteen year old sister hobbled in on crutches and showed me two holes in her leg, I was inclined to agree.

Some opt for cats, which seems to be a more sensible option given the realities of NYC apartment living. They’re also less likely to do bodily harm. Or so one would think. I was once meeting with a mom and daughter in the bedroom they rented on the second floor of a house. While discussing the daughter’s school enrollment, I realized that I had been shot in the back with eight tiny darts.

Actually, it turned out that they had gotten a kitten and neglected to tell me. And that kitten liked to climb. I was able to scrape myself off the ceiling after a few moments, and I think was made a better person for it.

Until the mom thought that it would be a good idea to bring said kitten into the office in her purse. Spoiler alert: it was not.

Then there are the animals no one welcomes into their home. After spending a half hour in one apartment, the five year old girl volunteered to show me her bedroom.

“I love your princess sheets!”
“Thanks. Mommy got them for me after we sprayed for the bugs.”

The bugs…oh, the bedbugs. Shit, is my purse on the couch?! Sorry, I have to run!

“What is that noise? Is someone in the bedroom?”
“Oh no, that’s just Mickey.”

Mickey? Is that a boyfriend? Oh, no, that’s a cuter way of saying, “we have giant rats who live in the sofa you’re sitting on, and they no longer fear man.”

Jumping up and running would have been rude. So I sat there and completed our visit, jumping and shrieking whenever I saw a “little animal.” That’s what my former landlord who didn’t want to pay for an exterminator called them.

Accepting people’s pets, welcome or unwelcome, is just another part of accepting our clients.

As long as they don’t try to eat us. Hungry pit bulls? Climby-cats? Sexually assaulted ferrets? I repeat my social work mantra: it could always be worse.








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