Father Knows Best (unless he disagrees with SJ)

14 06 2012

People sometimes complain that I don’t write enough about fathers. They don’t complain that I don’t write enough about giraffes, which is strange, as giraffes are another awesome creature that I only see very occasionally. As Father’s Day approaches, I’m considering it more.

There just aren’t many dads on my caseload. I am currently at an all time high with dads, as three out of my twelve families, 25%, have a father involved. My wacky director talked to us during one ritual suicide staff meeting about the “myth of the absentee father.” Her point was that even when the fathers aren’t there, their presence still matters. OK, I agree. Her other point was that we need to be seeking out dads more often. Easy to say when you aren’t in the field anymore. Believe me, I ask. So where are they?

Some are far far away-they’ve moved out of state, and contact is limited to an occasional phone call at most. The move is frequently accompanied by a new family, and that is kind of that.

A lot of our families have histories of domestic violence, meaning that the dads are often legally prohibited from seeing the mothers, and at times the children. (Definitely for the best when you’ve threatened to kill your children and their mother.)

And some dads are not too far away, but they’re just not around. They’re not interested, or they’re not consistent. Obviously plenty of the mothers I work with fall short of their parental responsibilities. But there’s a difference in how the men and women I see experience finding out that they’ll be having a baby. For the mother, it’s real in that moment. For the father, it’s hit or miss.

The thing is, most of the men I work with don’t have a better idea of how to be a father. If your own personal example of a father is someone who you see only occasionally, who breaks promises and doesn’t support you and your family, it’s a struggle to do something different. Even if you know it made you feel terrible.

But we all know that some people do the hard work of making changes and breaking cycles. My father’s example of a dad had a lot to do with supporting the family financially, and drinking in the basement. (The laundry was always done!) Yet my dad managed to be way better than every other dad. Including yours, sorry.

Yeah, let me pick up you and your friends from that ska show in Jersey at 1 am, no problem. Your little league team needs someone to pitch, because we don’t have a tee and five year olds can’t throw? Awesome, I’m in. The man genuinely enjoyed Girl Scout father-daughter dances. He had a true knack for making social studies interesting, and was by far the best at playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Also, he reads my blog regularly. Hi, Dad!)

There are some dads who, like mine, didn’t have the best example of how to be a good father. Or had much worse. But something made them decide to go above and beyond, and be amazing dads.

  1. There is one single father on my caseload. He recently took his teenage daughter and her cousin to see “Think Like a Man” to facilitate a discussion on romantic relationships. Sure, that discussion contained the line, “most boys are just trying to get at your cookies,” but the man gets credit for trying.
  2. The father of an eight year old boy realized he wasn’t spending enough time with his kid, so he managed to secure an extra ticket to ComicCon. It was a surprise. The boy walked into a room full of superheroes and his head exploded.
  3. A proud, and I mean proud father of six told me about the family’s recent trip to the Botanical Gardens. And then showed me pictures…and pictures…and pictures. His wife was telling him, “SJ doesn’t want to see all of them!” while he scrolled through to the last one, because, “look, they’re so cute.” They were pretty cute.
  4. A father of seven who somehow managed to get our entire office, staff and clients alike, engaged in singing Christmas carols at the holiday party. (The moment was ruined when I attempted an “O Holy Night” solo.)
  5. During one home visit, the father of a three year old girl painstakingly painted his daughter’s nails throughout our conversation. He was also a really good sport when it was his turn. Sparkly pink was totally his color.

Fatherhood is tricky. It seems dads are either labeled idiots or saints. Single dads are cheered as heroes in a way single moms rarely get. But it’s also pretty insulting when people act like you couldn’t possibly know how to take care of your own child, or ask if you’re “babysitting.” (People apparently actually say that to fathers about their kids. Gross.)

We’re always analyzing what role fathers play in this work. Why aren’t there more involved fathers? What do we do to change this? How can we teach boys the importance of being an involved parent? Who is going to teach the next generation about cheesy jokes if they don’t have dads?! Sometimes, it’s nice to take a break from that and celebrate the good.

Happy Father’s Day!

I Want My MTV (for social work purposes only)

11 08 2011

Say what you will about MTV, and the fact that they have apparently forgotten what music is. They do some quality documentary television. I could not make it through my time at the gym without True Life ,(you’re in a polyamorous gay relationship and still live with your parents? OK!) I Used to Be Fat, (greatest name for a TV show since Howdy Doody) and, of course, 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom.

You would think I get enough of this at work. But somehow, I don’t.

I like working with teen girls. That’s my passion. Which is cool, because I used to be afraid of teen girls. Especially when I was one. And teen pregnancy is a subject I’ve learned more about, since working with pregnant teens, as well as parenting teens and young moms.

I used to fall into the trap of only learning about teen parenthood through fiction. And not good fiction, like Juno. (Which, let’s face it, got slammed for not punishing a girl enough for having sex and getting pregnant.) Shitty scare stories on Ricki Lake, about 11 year olds desperate to get knocked up by anyone who will have them. I recently got into an argument with someone who quoted a pregnant 15 year old from a Lifetime movie at me. (Hint: don’t do that.)

When I actually started interacting with pregnant teenagers, I realized that there was a lot more to them. So when I’m not getting my fix at work, I get it through MTV.

A lot of people, mostly people who have hardly watched the shows, are shocked that I love them. It’s so exploitative! It glamorizes teen pregnancy! Those children should all be taken away!

To which I say: wrong, wrong, shut up.

I recognize that it’s not entirely realistic. I don’t know exactly how the pay scale works. I don’t know exactly what role the cameras and producers play in daily interactions. But I also know that this is a pretty good depiction of teen pregnancy and parenthood, that a lot of people never get.

What do we learn from all this?

  1. Go to court. You think you don’t need to. You think you’re special, that your love will last forever. If not that, you’ll at least be able to be civil. The non-custodial parent will at least always pay child support!

    Odds are, no. For one thing, teenagers are by nature impulsive. They get angry first and think later. (Trust me. I once saw a girl throw a futon out a window.) For another, the world of love is fraught with tension. (Translation: one of you will start doing someone else. The one not being done will get pissed. The more they say they’re not pissed, the more pissed they are.)You need someone else saying how much time the child spends with each parent, who pays what, where the kid gets dropped off and picked up. I know court is unpleasant. You have to wait in long lines, people are rude, and lord knows where the bathrooms are. But go now. Thank me later.

  2. Talk to your kids about sex. I know it’s awkward and uncomfortable. I have had to explain what oral sex is to rooms full of teenagers. And answer the inevitable “Why do people do that?!” from the one naïve girl in the back. I’ve also had kids who I used to babysit and change diapers for tell me they lost their virginity. But the talk needs to happen.

    Every kid on these shows, and who I meet through my work, say the same thing. “I wish someone had talked to me about birth control. I’m going to talk to my kids about it, starting now.” Not to say that teens who experience good sex education don’t become pregnant. But Schoolhouse Rock was correct–knowledge is power. They can’t make good decisions without this knowledge. And my girls who get dragged to the clinic for their Depo shot every three months? They might not be perfect. But they’re not pregnant.

  3. Date the good guy. Note that I didn’t say “nice guy”. Nice guys are the ones who talk about how nice they are, and how girls don’t like nice guys. Those guys are idiots, and they’re not all that nice. But then there’s the good guy.

    Tyler is a ridiculously sensitive and insightful teenager who divides his time between making sure his girlfriend feels special and loved, encouraging his family to get into counseling, and calling his mother regularly. Kyle dotes on a toddler that isn’t his, and is more involved in caring for the child than most biological fathers. Kayla’s boyfriend Mike stayed home with her, trying desperately to get her to eat despite her anorexia, and paid rent to that horrendous mother-creature of hers, just to be with his girlfriend and child.

    Ryan, the pretty boy with the motorcycle? Calls the mother of his child a liar and a bitch, often in front of said child, and lets his parents do the vast majority of child care. Looks fade, but shitty parenting lasts a lifetime. And don’t get me started on Chelsea’s boyfriend Adam. He’s alluring, because he’s a bad boy. I mean, really. Verbal abuse also lasts a lifetime. How Chelsea’s father has allowed Adam to live is beyond me.

  4. Consider adoption. So many young parents don’t even see it as an option. It’s not the only answer. Often, it’s not the best answer. Adoption is messy and complicated. But it’s also wonderful. I’ve seen it in my family, and I’ve seen it on the show, with Caitlynn and Tyler, and then again with Ashley.

    It’s also shown us the importance of support–one does not just walk away from adoption. Caitlynn had support from her ridiculously awesome (and adorable, come on) boyfriend, a great social worker, (what what) and an adoption support group. Ashley’s family thought they could handle it with just a lawyer, and Ashley suffered because of it.

  5. Consider abortion. Several girls have talked about this crossing their mind upon discovering that they were pregnant. Having an abortion does not make you a bad mother. Deciding you can’t be a parent right now, and possibly being a better parent later, is not a selfish decision.
  6. Your boyfriend is not going to grow up. What someone is giving you now, they will give you once the baby is born. Babies are not magic. Ryan was an idiot before Bentley was born. He seems like the type of guy who would think a burping contest it a sweet way to bond with your dad at a family function. When his child was born, what did he do? Got the baby a mini-motorcycle, tattooed his son’s name on his body, and refused to change a diaper or support the mother of his child.

    The same goes for immature women. Amber was selfish, in her own world, and at a loss for how to control her anger before the baby. Guess what she’s like now?That’s not to say there isn’t hope. I’m in the business of hope. But we’ve seen what counting on, “He’ll change once he sees the baby” leads to.

  7. Listen to your parents. This one comes with a qualifier–if your parents are on meth, and in and out of jail, and can barely take care of you, you might want to ignore this piece of advice. Caitlynn and Tyler did the right thing for themselves and their child by ignoring the guilt trip Caitlynn’s mother and Tyler’s father (who married one another…yeah) and putting their daughter up for adoption.

    But then there are the others. Jenelle’s mom might be a shrew, but she was right in telling Jenelle to stay home with her child, and think less about boys and partying. Jennifer’s parents knew Joshua was not good for their daughter. She saw how disrespectful Joshua was to her parents. But she didn’t really get it until Joshua kicked her out of his car on the side of the road, and took off with the passenger door open and their twins in the backseat.

    Sometimes, parents know what they’re talking about.

  8. Pregnant teenagers, and teen parents, are people. They’re kids. They have to grow up, but they’re young, and they will make mistakes. Like all parents. They need help and support. Shame and blame helps no one.
I’m not saying everyone will love it. I’m not saying that it’s flawless. But there is value to these shows, because, if people are willing to watch, they show us that there’s value to these kids.
So stop judging me for watching.

“Take care of your damn kids” is strengths based advice

6 06 2011

I recently tweeted my frustrations (oh, modern life) over assholes deadbeat dads. It went a little something like this: “‘I don’t have a job’ is not a valid excuse to not pay child support. Your employment status has no impact on your child’s need to eat.”

Most people seemed to agree with this sentiment. Lots of people are out of work. Plenty of people have difficulty paying their bills. However, your number one responsibility is your child. This is a human being who would not exist if it weren’t for you. So you need to figure something out, as soon as possible, rather than expect sympathy for how rough you have it.

I was surprised that some people (actually, only women) objected to my statement, and came to the defense of the fathers in question.

Before anyone tells me that I’m being sexist, or stereotyping, or any other nonsense, let me explain. I don’t care. I can only talk about what I see. I work with thirteen families at the moment. Three have a father in the home. In two of those three families, there are other fathers outside of the home. This leaves me with twelve out of thirteen families with at least one father each out of the home, not paying child support. The ones who are paying do so because public assistance brought them to court. One of those families has a dad who at least comes to see the kids regularly. But that’s it. These kids are being raised and supported by their mothers, or, in one case, their grandmother.

I will acknowledge that there are deadbeat moms in the world. I don’t deal with any, so I’m not talking about them.

In the past two years, I’ve heard lots of excuses for non-payment of child support. Most of them come from the fathers. Some, however, come from women defending the man they used to be with. (We’re still working on that.)

Deadbeat:   “It’s a hard time right now, I can’t find work.”
SocialJerk: “How are you supporting yourself then?
DB:                 “My mom is paying my bills now.”
SJ:                  “Child support doesn’t count as a bill?”
DB:                 “I fell behind because the credit card company was coming after me.”
SJ:                  “Oh, the credit card company doesn’t care about your mom and your unemployment, but your baby should?”
DB:                 “She’s got a new man now, why isn’t he paying?”
SJ:                  “Because they’re your kids! Do you hear yourself?”
DB:                 “I never get to see the kids, so why should I pay?”
SJ:                  “You didn’t show up for visitation! Do you want to reschedule?”
DB:                 “She just wants to spend it on herself.”
SJ:                  “Oh, I get it, you’re being willfully obtuse. Moving on.”

Now, if these men were living on the streets, I might have some sympathy. If they were starving to death, I might agree. If they were having a rough month or two, OK, they might fall a bit behind.

But four, seven, ten, seventeen years? Of not being able to find steady work and being unable to contribute meaningfully to your child’s life?

That’s bullshit.

Not to mention that, though they are at a complete loss as to how to support their children, they seem to be doing all right themselves. They have an apartment, and based on the fact that they are not dead, I gather that they are eating regularly.

One gem actually had the balls to ask the mother of his child for their four month old’s social security number, so he could claim the son he hadn’t seen since the day he was born, or provided a cent for, on his taxes.

Way to go, sir.

Then there is the idea of bringing your child things, like sneakers or toys. Isn’t that important? And isn’t it most important that the child gets to see his or her father?

I hate to break it to these guys (never mind, I actually love it) but their kids can’t eat sneakers and quality time. Yes, it’s great to do those things. You absolutely should do those things. Actually, I’d say that in becoming a father, you agreed to do those things.

But your child also needs food (everyday!) and a place to live. A place with electricity, preferrably. Popping around once every other month for a trip to the movies or Chuck E. Cheese might make you a hero in the eyes of your five year old. But as an adult, you should understand why it makes that child’s mother just think you’re kind of a dick.

I can’t imagine thinking that supporting your children is optional. These men aren’t disputing that the children in question aren’t theirs. They just seem to genuinely think that child support is not a top priority.

People asked me, “How are you supposed to pay for anything if you don’t have a job?” There are some options. The most obvious being, go get a job. I know it’s not easy. But it’s possible. People have made things work throughout history, under worse circumstances. Many of the mothers I work with find time to work, even as they care for their children on their own. I also happen to know that a lot of these dads are, in fact, working, though it’s off the books.

Another option is to talk to the mother of your child. She has figured something out. She had to. She has a kid. And no one would make excuses for her.

Kids are needy. They can be a pain in the ass. But they are innocent, they don’t get to choose their parents, and they deserved to be cared for appropriately. The custodial parent, usually, but certainly not always, the mother, deserves support. Financial support at the very least. It’s one thing that I will forever be hard-line jerk about.

First and foremost, I am a lady

3 01 2011

But I’m sure you all thought nothing less.

I was raised by two staunch feminists. No, really, men can be feminists. They should be, in fact. Feminism is defined as “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.”

Oh heavens, I am scandalized!

I have both my mother and father’s last names. I grew up reading Ms. Magazine. I got in an argument in kindergarten, advocating the view that there was no such thing as boy and girl colors. I also firmly believed that my Peanut league coach would not let me play first base because I was the only girl on the team. (I stand by that. I was a remarkable five year old athlete, meaning my shoes were generally tied and I knew right from left.)

But I digress. What does this have to do with social work?

Social workers work with the marginalized. We work with people in need. By and large, these people are women. And their children.

I currently have a caseload of twelve families. Of those families, ten are headed by single mothers, one by a single grandmother. Only one has an involved father. (And I use the word “involved” loosely.)

Women, very often young women, are the one raising these families. They’re the ones working, paying for day care, taking care of those damn kids day after day. When they can’t do it, it’s most often the grandmothers that step in.

Where are the dads? Sometimes they’ve just taken off. Other times, they’re around. They pop in now and then, drop off some cool sneakers, and go on their way. A lot of the mothers are surprisingly understanding. “Well, he’s not working right now, so how can he pay child support?”

Right. Give him time to find himself while you sacrifice your education and dreams to work a menial job to care for your child. I mean, it’s not like he had anything to do with the pregnancy. It’s only fair.

At what point do you explain that you will have to smack him for hours, until he comes over with Pampers and actually puts them on the kid?

I started this off talking about feminism for a reason. These women, as strong as they are, believe that this is their lot in life. They don’t see options. They don’t think that the men they had children with owe them, and those children. They might ask the guy to bring material things to the child, or to spend some time with the kid. (That’s fun, daddy time. Go to the park, play video games…not the serious mommy stuff of potty training and time outs.)

But they rarely think that the father has a role as a parent. And the men seem to think this as well. Most of them didn’t have a model father to show them the way. By the time they have their own kids, though, they need to figure it out.

These women already expect a lot from themselves. They need to expect more from men. The men need to think about what a father is, and what kind of a father they expect themselves to be.

Oh right, that’s where we come in. We need to come at these issues from a framework that will benefit our clients, and help them to make those difficult changes.

Not pro-choice? Fine. (Well, not really, but that’s not the point.) We need to be for our clients. The social work mantra value of self-determination kind of insists on it. I’ve had two clients in the past year come to me, telling me about their plans to seek abortion. One was a 15 year old child, one was a 24 year old raising a disabled son.

I asked if they needed anything. They both told me they were fine, knew where to go and what to do. They both knew I was there if they needed anything.

And that was my role. It was not my role to look shocked, act like this was a tragedy, or try to talk to them about options they weren’t interested in.

Most social workers, I’m sure, wouldn’t intentionally do this. But some do, and don’t even realize it. Because they start thinking as if they were the ones with the decision to make, when in fact they are not.

Again, I bring up feminism. Because this is an issue of trusting women. Of having enough respect for them to allow them to make their own decisions, and to understand that they are capable of this.

Whatever you would consider yourself to be (and I really hope that you would consider yourself to be a feminist) it’s something we owe to our clients.