I haven’t made much of an effort to hide my atheism. (Here, I mean. Christmas dinner is another story, because it’s just not worth it.) Most of my clients identify themselves as having some kind of religious beliefs, and, of course, this doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I’m often happy when my families are actively involved in church, because it can be a great support system. One mother’s congregation helped to pay off her back rent, which was something I certainly couldn’t do for her.
I’m not religious, but I get religion. I grew up rather religious, and identified as Catholic until only a few years ago. So that’s something I can understand. Even when I can’t understand a client’s beliefs, it doesn’t really matter. As long as it works for them.
I guess. But sometimes…things get weird.
The rare, mythical, coworker/friend of mine worked with a really nice family a while back. Mom, dad, and adorable five year old daughter. I got to know them at our Christmas party, where I colored approximately 758 snowmen pictures with the child. I almost envied my friend for working with them.
Then, in group supervision, I learned a bit more. (She only used first names though, so with that flawless attention to anonymity, I really can’t be certain which family it was.
Apparently the parents had some pretty serious flaws in their marriage, and this was affecting their ability to parent their child. There was a history of infidelity, the father was not involved aside from being a physical presence, and there had been some pretty serious fights in front of their daughter. The mother recognized that these were problems, and wanted things to change.
The issue was that she thought God would change her husband.
I don’t mean, “We’re praying about this for guidance” or even, “My religious beliefs tell me this is OK.” Straight up, “There’s nothing I can do aside from wait for divine intervention.”
Meanwhile the child is being exposed to an unhealthy relationship, and mom and dad are being driven further and further apart.
My friend was somewhat religious, but much more of the “God helps those who help themselves” variety. She found herself at a real standstill with this woman. If you’re waiting and waiting for someone to be changed by an outside force, what else is there to be done? Just put in that time on the queue, and surely you’ll be rewarded. Or something. We’ll see.
I was glad that I didn’t have to cope with that particular family. But I have had some belief systems that have thrown me for a loop. The most frequent one I get is, “SJ, my daughter and I just aren’t going to get along. She’s a Libra, I’m a Capricorn.” “He’s a Gemini. What am I supposed to do?”
This is a constant refrain. There’s only so much they can do, as their signs really conflict.
Parents, before you make the decision to start trying for that little bundle of joy, please consider your zodiac signs and plan conception accordingly. Otherwise we’ll have anarchy on our hands.
Zodiac signs are extraordinarily silly to me, but if my clients (and Twitter feed) are any indication, plenty of people take them very seriously. As a social worker, I’m starting where the client is.
This puts a disbeliever such as myself in the awkward position of taking their belief seriously and acknowledging their concerns, while not letting something like the month their kid was born in prevent them from having a positive relationship.
But how do we get past that? A belief is so unchanging. “I am this, you are this.” There’s no in between. Acknowledging that a bit of that might be erroneous–maybe I can get along with my Aries mother-in-law, perhaps Jesus won’t change my husband and I’ll have to leave him–can mean letting go of something much bigger.
Early on, I worked with a mother who had been through the tragic, heartbreaking situation of giving birth to a premature daughter who only lived to be six weeks old. This happened about four years before we started working together, and the mother was still very much grieving this loss. Sadly, her mental health and substance abuse issues were exacerbated by her child’s death, and I was working with her on being able to care for her four older children.
I understood that. It was very real.
One day, she told me that she had seen her youngest daughter over the weekend. As she told me, her child who had passed away, “came to visit.” She knew it was this child, because she was wearing a white dress and was four years old, the age her child would have been if she had survived. My client saw her daughter walk through the kitchen, say hello, and disappear.
My first concern was, given this woman’s history, that she was hallucinating again. (As far as how to tell the difference, I’ve never gotten a particularly clear answer.) The thought that this was a real experience didn’t enter my mind. It’s not my frame of reference; it’s not how my mind works.
However, it was how this woman’s mind worked. She sincerely believed that this was her daughter coming to visit. Something that would scare the shit out of me was something of a comfort to her. Even though I didn’t, and still don’t, understand it, I can work with it.
There are times, though, when it can’t be worked with or around. If your child is at risk because of your beliefs, something has to change. Religion seems to be the ultimate topic we can’t question–I mean, that’s against her religion. But when it’s a part of our client’s lives, and is impacting them, positively or negatively (especially negatively) it needs to be addressed somehow.
That’s one of many things I’m still figuring out.