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.

I have a 35 second nap penciled in for today at 3:02

18 06 2012

Social workers are always being told that we need to take time for ourselves. You know, to prevent burnout, so we can force another few years in the profession. (Sorry, it’s been a rough week.)  But it’s hard. We’re so busy during the workday. You’re running to home visits, school visits, child protection meetings, supervision, and whatever random things you get told to do throughout the day. There’s usually not even time for lunch. And I don’t know about you, but even when I can squeeze in a desperately needed break, I’m easily guilted out of it. I can’t sit here and bang out a game of Angry Birds to clear my head, listening to the productive typing of notes all around me!

Parents of toddlers often have trouble getting time for themselves as well. In her brilliant, flawless, laugh-til-you-cry-on-the-subway-or-pee-your-pants-if-that’s-your-thing book “Bossypants,” Tina Fey offered a plethora of tips. They include finishing your child’s dinner over the sink while she tugs on your pant leg and asks for it back, taking forty-five minute showers, and walking into the child’s room and forgetting why you went in there. As many of you know, my ultimate goal in life is to somehow be Tina Fey when I grow up. (I could grow up.) So this is how I’m starting. Adapted for social work, tips to take some time for yourself.

  1. Walk to home visits instead of taking the bus. No one has ever had a nice time on a public bus. Except, I suppose, that man that one of my teenage clients saw sniffing all the seats on the Bx42. He was enjoying himself. But for the rest of us normies, not so much. Take a stroll, if at all possible.
  2. Bathroom breaks. I recently mentioned, in another forum, that I have never once peed at work without at least briefly contemplating a toilet nap. Based on the response, I am not alone. This is the one break they can’t begrudge you. If anyone notices an excessive amount, threaten to expose your agency for running like a Nike sweatshop. The only downside is that people might think you’re pooping, and if you’re a young woman, news of your imagined pregnancy will travel quickly.
  3. Get “lost” on your way to home visits, provided time and neighborhood safety allow. “Oh, it’s on 174th? I walked all the way down to 170th! Silly me.” A little bonus exercise, and a few minutes to yourself. You need it.
  4. Exploit social workers inherent insecurities and obsession with the DSM-V. “Oh, I have school-visit-induced-stress-related-dysphoric-disorder. You haven’t heard of it? Everyone’s debating its inclusion. The only treatment is regular five minute yoga/meditation/Twitter and cheese doodle breaks.” Your coworkers and supervisors will go along with it, to avoid looking foolish.
  5. Make friends with the administrative staff. Getting on the good side of receptionists and secretaries is an age-old office tip. I say go one further. “Allow me to run to Office Max for you!” “I’d be happy to run out and get those stamps!” “Why don’t you put me down as an approved pick-up for your son’s day care?” You’ll get out for a minute, and you’ll never have to wait for your paystub, or get ratted out if you’re a few minutes late.
  6. Wait until a line forms to use the microwave. Oh, there are three people ahead of me making tea? (Of course there are. We’re so predictable.) Best to wait here and zone out for a minute, I don’t want to lose my spot.
  7. Make up a fake birthday. Wasn’t it your birthday last month? Oh well, it’s your half birthday, or everyone’s unbirthday, or you just finished paying off your student loans. (Hahaha, just kidding.) No social worker will question a few minutes off to eat cake.
  8. If all else fails, call in sick. They can’t prove anything.

You want what where?!

16 04 2012

I’m going to share some shocking news with you: I once got turned down for a job.

I know, it’s hard to believe. But it happened. When I was interning at Anonymous Agency, two permanent positions opened up. (I swear, I don’t know how those social workers fell down the stairs.) I interviewed for both of them. One of those was the job I have today. The other was the same position at another office.

My supervisor, who I am not ashamed to admit I was terrified of, was the one who told me I was only being offered one of these jobs. It was a blow to the ego, to be honest. I’m a weirdo and a klutz, but I’m also a perfectionist in my own way. Academic success is like a drug, and I know for a fact that I look awesome on paper.

Scary Supervisor told me that she wanted to share with me the reason I didn’t get the job, and she hoped that I would take this in “the spirit in which it was intended.” I can’t even describe to you the things that went through my mind before she said the next sentence.

“It’s because of your eyebrow ring.”

Fucking seriously?

I thought that was ridiculous. But I realized that I was young and inexperienced, so maybe I was wrong. Scary Supervisor, though, who never tried to reassure me about anything, told me, “Apparently she took it as a sign of immaturity. I don’t know why you would want to work for someone like that.”

Good point. And thank goodness I ended up where I did.

That was the first and last time my eyebrow ring, or my industrial ear piercing (a really stupid name, but feel free to Google it) held me back professionally. They’ve been nothing but an asset since then. My teenagers love them, as do my young moms. Talking about piercings is such an easy way to break the ice and start engagement. A fourteen year old comes in, surly and feeling like a scapegoat, and then all of a sudden it’s, “Miss, did that hurt? Ma, that’s the piercing I want.”

I’ve had lots of piercings in my time, more than I currently have in. My parents were never thrilled about it, but they looked the other way. The parents I work with are, for the most part, pretty relaxed about their kids poking holes in various parts of their bodies. They often take them to get it done, and a lot of the parents I work with have them as well. It’s just something else that we have in common.

The same goes for tattoos. I’ve got a couple, as do almost all of my clients, it seems. I got my first tattoo when I was nineteen. The work I currently have, I love, and of course I want more. But if I had been permitted to get what I wanted when I was fifteen…I’m not saying I don’t still like Sublime, I’m just saying I’m fine with not advertising that fact on my back.

A startling portion of my under-eighteens are already tattooed. The youngest one that I’m aware of is thirteen years old, and has a rather large piece over her heart. In fairness, she did it in homage to her brother, which led to me hearing one of the strangest statements I’ve ever heard. “Who the hell gets their brother’s name written all over their titty?” A seventeen year old left my office in tears once, because I couldn’t help siding with her mother on whether or not getting cupcakes tattooed on her butt was a good idea.

I love tattoos and piercings. Mine are awesome, and some other people have all right ones as well. Tattoos are a commitment. Piercings can be temporary, and I don’t think they’re such a big deal as long as they’re taken care of.

The problem with getting these things done when you’re seriously underage is that you’re probably not going to a reputable source.

When I get a tattoo or piercing, I stop just short of hiring a private investigator to do a background check on the artist. I use the Google, I ask for references, I look at pictures of previous work. If someone is willing to tattoo a thirteen year old, there is probably some shadiness going on that you don’t want to be a part of. When you’re having ink shot into your skin with a needle, you want to avoid shadiness.

When I ask my young teens where they got their tattoos, I’m typically told, “the tattoo guy.” I’m not sure if every building has a different guy, or if he travels, but there is a dude running around with a machine tattooing children, whether their parents know or not. That sounds just great.

There is also a lot of conflicting information on the best aftercare for tattoos and piercings. You will hear something a bit different from different professionals and different people who have been through the process. Do I leave the plastic wrap on for one or four hours? Is Bacitracin really ok, but Neosporin isn’t? A&D ointment, really? Isn’t this stuff for baby’s asses? In Ireland, I was told to put Preparation H on a new tattoo (a purchase I was not hoping to have to make at such an early age) and go downstairs for a Guinness to combat my lightheadedness. (A purchase I was perfectly happy to make. Also, I was tattooed by a large stereotype.)

There are some things that are always wrong, though, and some that are always right. Some days, part of my weird job includes instructing kids in proper aftercare. Half the time this is just admonishing them to keep their dirty hands off their healing wounds. Clients tell me that their piercing is infected, so they’re going to take it out and let it close. You might be shocked to hear this, but trapping the pus and infection under your skin is not the way to heal it. We’re leaving this counseling room, buying some sea salt, and you are going to do some soaking. Don’t tell me you’re putting Vaseline on a new tattoo! Also, I know it’s the summer, but you cannot go swimming. Sorry, but pools and hot tubs are the equivalent of bathing with strangers. Next time wait until January. I see that your tongue ring fell out, but do not stick a dirty pen cap in there to keep the hole open!

I have actually had to say all of those things. Including the last one.

The fact that I have tattoos and piercings is an asset in my work. You can never have too much in your bag of social work tricks. Everything helps when you’re trying to engage a resistant client.

And it gave me the credibility I needed to come out against cupcakes.

Nobody worry, I’m back! Please hold the confetti.

27 03 2012

I’m sure this past week you all sat at your computers, despondent and tearing your hair out due to lack of SocialJerk updates.

No? Maybe a little? I’m being told you were actually all fine. Well, all right then.

Point is, I was gone. For a week. Vacation is important for people in stressful jobs. Unfortunately, “social worker” didn’t make it onto Tina Fey’s work related stress level chart, but I think we’re somewhere between “business guys who do stuff with money” and “managing a Chili’s on a Friday night.” We need to vacate every so often, in order to maintain our sanity.

So the boyfriend and I packed it up for a few days in Orlando. That’s right, Disney, Universal Studios, Pirate’s Cove mini golf, and lots of churros. It’s not what you would necessarily call a relaxing vacation, of course. First of all, the girl who wrote this went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I saw Hagrid’s hut, drank pumpkin juice, toured Hogwart’s, and pretty much turned into Kristen Bell meeting a sloth.

Plus there are crowds, heat, lines, and children. Some moments make you think, “aw, doing this with kids would be so fun!” But more make you think, “thank Jesus we’re the weird adults waiting way too long for the Peter Pan ride.”

You see a lot of sweet family moments, and a lot of nominees for the Terrible Parenting Hall of Fame. (It’s located in Cleveland.) Your two year old is having a tantrum after spending a fourteen hour day in direct sunlight with no nap? Why, that’s practically unheard of! You’re encouraging your seven year old to stomp on adult’s feet to cut to the front of the line at the Haunted Mansion? I can’t identify a single bad lesson there, good work!

But through all the exhaustion, all of the instances of wishing people wouldn’t try to sneak their kids onto rides they’re too little for, there’s one think you have to love–kids are enthusiastic. Whether it was the nine year old next to me on the Test Track at Epcot, yelling, “Now that’s what I call a roller coaster!” or the six year old next to me on the Tower of Terror gleefully informing me that she didn’t scream at all (I could not say the same) kids enjoy things to the fullest and let you know what they’ve achieved. They’re not worried about looking dumb.

It stops at some point. They become cool. Or at least, they want to be. And there’s nothing worse than a child trying to be cool. At one point, in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, I looked to my left and saw a four year old dressed in a full Buzz Lightyear costume. He was in heaven and thought he looked amazing. Directly in front of me were three overindulged pre-teens, saying to their father, “Oh my God, this is just birds talking? Can we go? Whose idea was this?”

Yeah, it’s birds talking. It’s awesome, kid, and you’ll do better to enjoy it.

Because taking a vacation from thinking about work would actually make my brain explode, of course I had to relate it back. This probably most accurately sums up what I love about working with children, before they get prematurely interested in dating and therefore way too concerned about looking cool. They just think they’re good at everything. We always talk about what a person’s strengths are in social work. Ask an eight year old what they’re good at. I hope you have a while. All five year olds are good at drawing. Maybe two of my friends will say they are. Singing, dancing, acting, playing the kazoo, training dogs, doing imitations of cartoon voices? All viable career options for the under ten year olds I work with, based on their stunning talents.

Then I ask my teenagers. As much as I love them, the answers of what they’re good at are decidedly different. (Unless they’re trying to be brash and obnoxious, but you can tell they don’t really mean it.) “Um, I don’t know. What do you mean, what am I good at?” “Nothing, not really.” “I guess I do well in school?”

So, some of my favorites, in no particular order.

1.) Back at Anonymous Youth Center, I had the five to nine year olds out on the playground. A seven year old boy came up to me, unprovoked, to let me know, “I’m really good at running backwards. See, like this.”

He then proceeded to run. Backwards. I’ll be honest, it was mediocre. Because no one is good at running backwards. But he was thrilled to pieces and way proud of himself.

2.) More recently, at Anonymous Agency, one of my eight year old girls started talking about her dreams from the future after a counseling session. “Do you want to hear me sing? I want to be professional. Like, on The Voice.”

As we walked through the office, back to the waiting room where her mom was, past all of my coworkers whom she had never met, she sang something I now unfortunately know to be “Baby” by Justin Bieber. (I’m not linking to it. You’re welcome.) This kid sang with one finger on her ear, because that’s how Christina Aguilera does it.

3.) A six year old girl, when I was an intern, told me, “I think I want to be an archaeologist and a chef and a ballet dancer. But also, I should be an artist, because I’m the best at drawing.”

She owed it to the world.

4.) A nine year old boy insisted on reciting his times tables to me, because he was the only one who had memorized all the way up to twelve. It took a long time, but I was pretty damn impressed.

5.) “Breakdancing? I’m really good at breakdancing!” A ten year old boy, who of course got down on the ground to dance in the waiting room. He was undeterred by the fact that no one had mentioned breakdancing.

My social work advice for the week? If you’re feeling down and bored, try for a minute to look at the world and yourself through the eyes of a latency age child. There’s probably something to get excited about.

If not, find a child to laugh at. That should work too.

“Have you ever tried…” “not being a pain in the ass?”

9 06 2011

Everyone loves unsolicited advice. Nothing make people happier than mentioning that they’re a bit frustrated with someone or something in their lives, and getting twenty five helpful suggestions over drinks on how they can fix it.

B T dubs, it’s Opposite Day.

People tend to hate advice. We’ve all heard friends complain, about a significant other, parent, or miscellaneous, “Why can’t he/she just listen? I don’t want to be fixed, I just wanted to talk!”

And yet, people the world over continue to give advice. We all do it. It’s so hard not to! Other people can be so dumb. It’s so obvious what they need to do!

Logically, most people know what they need to do. If someone is complaining about being overweight, odds are that they know that diet and exercise are the way to go. People in bad, dead-end relationships know that they need to end it.

But when you’re the one in it, it’s infinitely more complicated than that. The gym? Who has time for the gym?! And maybe you would eat less if your job was not super stressful and right across the street from an amazing smelling bakery.

These are things I imagine one would say. Hypothetically.

So we all try to avoid taking the advice approach with out clients. Once in a while, when people are looking for something concrete, like an apartment or benefits, or if they need a disciplinary strategy that does not involve belts or kneeling on rice, you might offer a suggestion. But overall, we know that helping our clients to figure it out for themselves is the best way to go. It’s more meaningful that way, and more empowering. It helps them to see that they have it in them to be good parents and competent adults. It contributes to lasting change, rather than, “Well yeah, it worked your way that one time.”

This also shows them that we have enough respect for them to realize that, “Well, have you ever tried not beating your children?” is a bit too simplistic.

We can hold back for our clients. Even when we really really know what they should be doing. But can we do that with each other?

I recently had to schedule a conference to address elevated risk in the home of a family I work with. This is social work speak for mom moved her baby’s abusive father back into the home. They admit to a history of domestic violence, but there is no order of protection. Legally, we can’t do anything. But we can meet with the mother and the three teenage children, to talk about safety, what this means for them, and what we can do for the family.

As a sidenote, I must mention the incredible bravery and selflessness of the oldest child, a fifteen year old girl, who took it upon herself to come to me and tell me that this man was back in the home full time, and that she didn’t feel that it was safe. I want to give her a medal. I had to settle for my warm regards and a Metrocard. (Budget cuts, you know.)

When we schedule these conferences, we need to go through child services, and explain the need for the conference. The man I email with the request is just supposed to go ahead and schedule. If any information is missing, he can call for clarification.

Instead, he called with some helpful suggestions. “Did you talk to the mom about this?” No, obviously not. Who would think of such a revolutionary approach? I’ve never been much of an innovator.

“Maybe you should stop by the home to evaluate the child who was hit and check for safety. Then you can talk to mom about the conference.” So I shouldn’t just smack my clients and tell them to do as I say. Weird.

Yes, this is the obnoxious, sarcastic attitude we all get (maybe me more so than others) when we get that unsolicited advice. Especially when it’s from someone who doesn’t really know the field, know the case, or who is just kind of annoying.

Advice that I’ve gotten from what I would consider to be random third parties? Let’s see:

  • “Try encouraging them to have dinner as a family every night.” – trainer, unaware most of my families don’t have tables.
  • “You should let her know you’re cool so she’ll want to talk to you. Show her your Silly Bandz!” -CPS worker, not realizing my reputation for cool precedes me.
  • “Tell the mom that her son probably isn’t gay, he’s just confused.” -Stupid coworker, who I encourage you to blame all the world’s problems on.
  • “If the family isn’t willing to come in, try meeting them at a playground.”- Former director who didn’t realize that playgrounds around here are for drug deals.

Sometimes, the advice sounds good. Why haven’t I had the kids in for an individual session? Why didn’t I refer the father to that group that he sounds perfect for? Particularly in trainings, when they offer typed up examples, in which a worker asking a parent, “What’s your greatest fear for your child?” catches the parent off guard, and leads to them spilling their greatest secrets, which in turn leads to flawless work getting done.

Has it ever gone in real life the way it goes in those example scenarios? Like once? Seriously, I’m grasping at straws, people.

It’s easier to take from someone you trust, and have some respect for. When my supervisor gives me a suggestion, based on her knowledge of my families and her own years of experience, I can take it, make it my own, and use it. When a trainer offers a new way to engage families in counseling, that I can fit in with my own style, I’m open to it.

But when someone whose primary job description matches the definition of a calendar essentially tells me, “try doing your job,” or a less than qualified protective worker tells me I should consider going against my social work principles, “open” is not really the word.

I guess it’s all in the delivery.