It’s my social work and I’ll cry if I want to

9 05 2013

A social worker friend was recently talking about a rough day at work. (Most of us have had those, right? Like two, three times a week, max?) It brought us around to the subject of crying at work. We tried to think of a job that wouldn’t make us cry, because I’ve heard that would be the only job worth my tears. I haven’t had too many other jobs. But it seems to me like crying is just a part of social work.

I’ve cried at work. The first time was when one of my kids was shot. Another was when I had to ask for a day off to go to my grandma’s funeral. (That was a little different, though it was made special by the fact that my supervisor had only been with us for about two weeks.) I cried when I hung up after a school social worker accused me of ignoring child abuse and again when I got hung out to dry during an audit.

It might sound like a few times too many, but I’ve been here for over four years. Plus, I have guidelines.

Tina Fey, who I mention in approximately 38% of blog entries, said that women are entitled to a triannual work cry. I try pretty hard to abide by this. It’s a good example of setting a realistic, achievable goal. “Never do it again” just wouldn’t work for me. I cry when I’m emotional. Really angry, really sad, really happy, you name it. You want to see something remarkable, just mention Billy Elliot to me. His dad didn’t get it, but dammit he tried so hard…I need a minute.

At the same time, “do it whenever” won’t work. You can’t cry in front of clients, they have enough to worry about. And we can’t have coworkers slipping in puddles of our tears.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s power lady, wrote that it’s ok to cry at work. Not that it’s necessarily what we should strive for, but that it’s something that happens, it’s authentic and shows your humanity, and it is not the end of the world. Ahh, I love the smell of reason in the morning.

I heard some people really shred what Sandberg had to say. I mean, of course. When a woman makes a point, people generally have to praise it or piss on it, there isn’t much in between. A common dissent that I heard what that crying was immature. Children cry, adults use their words.

This is just inaccurate, though. Children don’t cry. Children bawl. They scream, they kick, they throw themselves on the floor and get snot everywhere. Sometimes barfing is a result, if it’s particularly intense. They need a timeout so they can process and express themselves. This is not professional behavior, which is why you’ll never see a preschooler CEO. That’s not what adults do, generally. They get teary, they take a moment. It’s a physical reaction. Don’t laugh when something is funny, it’s unprofessional! Tough, right? Crying is a release. It’s what allows you to “use your words” when shit gets real.

“But men don’t cry at work, SJ! You don’t know how it is, working in your soft lady environment in the cushy world of Bronx social work. Men face pressure too!”

First of all, who are you and why are you writing on my blog? How dare you. This is a safe space. (Who had “safe space” in social work bingo?) Second of all, yes. Of course! Men are socialized not to cry, not anywhere, certainly not in public and especially not at work. They do, of course, and we feminists think they should be ok with it, but it’s much less acceptable.

The thing is, stress gets to everyone, and emotions run high. Everyone has to let it out somehow. This typically happens in gendered ways. You don’t hear people talking about raising your voice, walking out in a huff, or punching a desk as things to avoid if you want a promotion. I suspect that if crying were viewed as a male coping skill, it would be revered in the workplace. Let it out, Phil. We’ve all been there.

Our work is emotional, by nature. It’s about human relationships and being intimately involved in people’s lives when they’re at their worst. This field is about tragedy and heartbreak. Of course if you collapse into sobs whenever the going gets tough you aren’t going to last. But I wouldn’t want to meet the social worker who perfectly held it together upon hearing of an innocent child being shot, who never got choked up after a removal, who didn’t understand becoming totally overwhelmed by caring.

When I worked at Anonymous Youth Center, the kids would make a huge deal when someone farted. (Bear with me.) When they got really rowdy, I told them to raise their hands if they had never had gas. A few always did. I told them that they ought to leave, as human children fart and this is a program for kids, not robots.

My point is clear, right? Whatever, it’s late.

Human beings cry. We all do it, and, especially in a field like ours, we’ll all do it at work at some point. Even if you’re in the bathroom and no one sees you, it still counts. And it’s fine. We’re not robots, and we shouldn’t feel pressured to be. The idea that being a person is unprofessional is ridiculous.

Just remember, it’s all right to cry. It might make you feel better!



7 responses

9 05 2013

Great post. I work in an office of all women right now so there is usually someone crying at least once a week.

There is one person though where it’s at least once a day, and she is in the main leadership role (A nurse, not a social worker har har).

In her case, I think it’s time to throw in the towel.

It’s already way saturated anyway.

Especially with her comments about how she is the only one who works hard, but that’s another post ;).

9 05 2013

Nice post! I agree totally. Crying once in a while is a sign of compassion, and compassion is a key ingredient in a good social worker.

9 05 2013

I remember shortly (within 18 months) of when I started this job at the children’s hospital. One of the programs I work with in Oncology. It was December and we had just had our fifth death of the month (even for Oncology this is way high). And it was Christmas Eve. I barely made it up to social work row (the corridor where most of the social workers’ offices were) when I started to lose it. One of my colleagues quickly got me into her office and eventually calmed down. As it will happen, two or three other social workers appeared to join in. The discussion turned to how a) it was okay to cry on occasion b) everyone did it c) how when we are told “Oh I couldn’t do that job I’m too sensitive” take it for the rot is is because if we were not sensitive we couldn’t do this job. And that’s why I love working with other social workers! You are with people that can guide you, validate your feelings, reassure you and then send you on your way once again.

9 05 2013
Peaceful Social Worker

Great post and great comments. Heck sometimes if you don’t show some emotion when you are working with clients, you are not being effective. It can be a good connecting point, within reason. 🙂

9 05 2013
Judy Rosen

This post made my cry (in a good way). I handed in my last paper in my MSW today and just came back from my first job interview. You reminded why we do this work and how honored I feel to be part of the club, tears and all. Thank you Social Jerk!

10 05 2013

Well done Judy. Congratulations and remember to breath! (Do you have to do some form of capstone project and defend it or are you done, done!)

15 05 2013

Crying in front of new bosses is THE WORST. My boss three bosses ago (within my first year, which had nothing to do with my emotional vulnerability or anything, lemme tell ya..) came in at the height of me and hubby’s immigration battle. I was maxed out emotionally and he pointed out something that in the long run would’ve saved me a lot of grief…and I lost it. Like, people from surrounding cubicles coming into the ladies room to see what was wrong with the dying walrus in the bathroom-level lost it.

He is a director now. I think that is actually part of the job description for that position.

Now I sit next to a former army brat/soldier/cop with the biggest soft side I’ve ever seen on someone 6’4, 250+. He punches desks, I cry, and then we tell dirty jokes and move on. Muuuuch healthier.

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