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!

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and goshdarnit, people like my sarcasm

20 08 2012

When I first started my teen girls’ group, I had to come up with an overarching theme. Apparently “let’s get together to chat and eat cheese” was insufficient. My co-leader and I came up with self-esteem. In some way, everything we wanted to cover–dating, body image, relationships with parents, peer pressure–could be incorporated into this.

Saying I run a “self-esteem group” is kind of embarrassing. It just sounds so Stuart Smalley. The term gets thrown around and degraded so much. My fantasy happy hour guest and Twitter follower personal hero Jessica Valenti wrote about this recently. I thought about it a lot, due to my group and my respect for Ms. Valenti.

Still, I can’t just say “fuck self esteem.” Because it is important. It encompasses so much of what our girls are dealing with. They’re shoplifting because they have to have what everyone else does, and also because their friends are doing it. They’re having sex, at times, to maintain a partner’s interest. They’re getting in fights constantly because they can’t let even the littles comment slide. So what’s the problem?

Self-esteem has gotten kind of weird. Primarily because it is far too tied up in physical appearance, as evidenced by the idea that plastic surgery is going to improve a young woman’s self-esteem. I got teased for being flat-chested when I was in junior high. Fortunately, my parents didn’t start saving up for a boob job for their twelve year old.

“You’re all beautiful in your own way” is remarkably similar to “everyone gets a trophy.” I had a shitload of trophies as a kid, because I participated in a shitload of activities. I sucked at most of them, so I knew those trophies were meaningless. If everyone is beautiful, what’s the point? Not everyone has to think you’re hot. There are standards of beauty in our society. (Impossible, stupid standards, says my brown hair and tummy.) Not everyone conforms to them, even if they want to. Pretending that away doesn’t work, and it puts the focus on the wrong place.

Valenti points out that not growing into your looks until a bit later in life can be beneficial. Hell yeah, it can. You don’t learn to be funny if people are fawning all over your looks. Why bother? If I had known how to brush my hair properly and didn’t wear my brother’s hand-me-downs in junior high, I wouldn’t have had all that time to watch entirely inappropriate stand-up on Comedy Central. Or to finish The Diary of Anne Frank while eating lunch alone. (Oh yes, it was bad.) A friend of mine will sometimes tell others, “you are so beautiful right now” if they tell a joke that falls flat. Just about everyone who is successful in a creative industry will talk about how they were an awkward loser at some point in school. Except the models who talk about how they were way too skinny and couldn’t get a date until they were fourteen. They don’t count.

I’m often told that it is great for my girls’ self-esteem that they are all black or Latina. You know, because their culture, and their men, like “bigger” women. Because there is nothing to make you feel worse than being overweight, everyone is heterosexual, and defining your self worth by men’s attraction to you is a rockin’ idea.

It reminds me of a vintage advertisement that was making the rounds on Facebook recently. It featured an image of a skinny woman and a curvier woman, and implored women to take some snake oil type treatment so they could pack on some pounds to look sexy at the beach. Everyone tagged it with, “How times have changed!” And because I’m obnoxious, I had to keep commenting, “Eighty years ago, people were still telling us we weren’t good enough, so…no, times haven’t changed that much.”

My girls want to be thin, but they don’t want to be skinny. Skinny is a bad word. The constant refrain is “I don’t want to look like a crackhead!” This might be indicative of the devastation that crack cocaine wrought on our inner-cities, or something. Of course, my fantasy therapist and woman who could totally call me to baby-sit other hero Tina Fey said it best. As always.

All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine year old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.

Women and girls are held to very high standards. You have to look a certain way, and you’re not supposed to work at it. Don’t starve yourself, that’s stupid! Just be really skinny! But have boobs, don’t be gross about it. Don’t wear too much make up, it looks fake and gross. A natural, minimal, blemish free perfectly smooth complexion is preferable. Be tall, but not too tall. Dress sexy, but not slutty. (As there are no clear guidelines on this, you will just have to wear what you think is best and then listen when others criticize you. Fun!)

When I ask my girls in group what I like about themselves, they start listing off physical attributes. “My hair,” “my eyes,” “my titties,” (seriously.) It isn’t because they’re shallow, or think that’s all they have to offer. It’s because they think that’s what I mean. I have to press them for what they’re good at, what it is others admire in them.

I try to focus on getting my girls to notice double standards between what’s expected of them and boys, to question why certain things are considered “slutty” or indicative of a “lack of self-respect,” and to get them a little pissed off about these things. I’m not under the impression that pointing out that they are undervalued by society will make them feel good.

But it does make them think about where that poor self-esteem is coming from. It takes some pressure off them to live up to those standards, and spend some more time questioning where they’re coming from and why they feel bad about themselves. It lets them know that they’re not alone in the inequality they notice (believe me, they notice), that gaining or losing five pounds or waxing their eyebrows isn’t the answer to what they’re feeling, and that there are more important things to think about. Being a part of something and connecting with other girls makes them feel pretty good about themselves, and about being a girl.

And things like this come out.

14 y/o: “It’s so much harder to be a girl. We have to get periods.”
Entire group: “Ugh, periods!”
13 y/o #1: “And we have to have babies and decide whether or not to have an abortion.”
13y/o #2: “Yeah, and guys can just leave if they don’t want to take care of the kid.”
14 y/o: “And men say nasty things to us on the street when we’re just trying to walk.”
12 y/o: “Yeah, but our moms teach us to take care of ourselves. One day a boy is going to tell me to cook for him or do his laundry and I’m going to tell him he should have learned when I did!”

It’s a start.

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.

“It’s Women’s Day, Rudy.”

7 03 2012

I’ve hardly had time to put away the decorations from last year, but once again, International Women’s Day is upon us! Before we get started, am I the only one who thinks of that episode of The Cosby Show when Rudy gets her first period, and they all go out for “women’s day?” Just me? All right.

The theme this year is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.” To which I say: cha-ching! I love those things!

I might have mentioned once or twice that my favorite work to do is with my teen girls’ groups. These groups are fun, challenging, different each time, and important. There is something special about bringing a room full of teen girls together and telling them that what they have to say really matters.

Feminism is an integral part of working with girls. We can act like it’s an option, but it’s really a requirement. Trying to help them deal appropriately with their anger, improve their self-esteem, make good choices, have safe sex, live peacefully with their parents, or anything else would be a lot easier if they weren’t already considered a bit less worthy, simply because they are girls.

It seems especially important since we’re living in a country that is still debating birth control. You know, that stuff that lets you have fewer than seventeen kids? And in which a man with millions of listeners saw fit to publicly declare that an intelligent, civic minded, possibly sexually active law student was a “slut” and “prostitute” because she thinks that universities and employers should not have the right to determine what medications the insurance she pays for will cover.

I just need to get this out, and then we can move on. The entire thing is bull shit. The next person who says, “Well, why should I pay for your birth control?” is getting a foot directly in the ass, as that is the orifice that they are talking out of. We are talking about INSURANCE COMPANIES, not taxpayers, paying for medication. We’ve had enough sexism and misogyny, we don’t need outright lies. Taxpayers do pay for birth control–it’s called Medicaid, everybody. The country hasn’t crumbled into the sea and been sucked into the fiery pits of Mordor just yet, so I think we’ll survive a private insurance mandate.

Oh, and I don’t care if you say birth control is not preventive medicine. Doctors say it is. Insurance companies cover it when not blocked by squeamish employers. That’s kind of it.

I’m also sick of all the false information being spread about birth control. Our kids are misinformed enough, we do not need politicians and drooling radio hosts further confusing them. It’s been said a million times now, but apparently it hasn’t sunk in. IT DOES NOT MATTER HOW FREQUENTLY YOU HAVE SEX, IF AT ALL, YOU STILL TAKE ONE BIRTH CONTROL PILL PER DAY. Rush Limbaugh is thinking of condoms…or Viagra…or those other pills he’s known for being so fond of, I’m not sure.

But way to mislead young people, and make them ashamed for taking control of their reproductive health. Yes, better to just have sex without protection. We wouldn’t want people hearing about my prescription.

Whether or not our girls have ever even heard of Rush Limbaugh (I’m sincerely hoping they haven’t) they are living in a society that has given him a platform. In a society that punishes women for speaking out about their rights and sexuality by shaming them for being sluts. A society that publicly admonishes a woman for daring to have sex, because that’s bad, but then says she should let men watch, because it’s cool when men do it.

Or something. It’s so convoluted I have trouble keeping up.

Working with girls to get them to recognize their own value and worth as women in this society is often an uphill battle. It is complete with peaks and valleys, which I present to you now.


14 y/o: “Wait, you can say you were raped even if you’re married? That’s stupid.”

Yes, so silly. If you say yes once, you say yes always, everyone knows that! And your body is there to be used by a man as he sees fit! I’m going to rock in the corner for a bit.

13 y/o: “My teacher was saying that like, if you get pregnant, it’s your responsibility, so like, you have to have the baby. So that’s why abortion is illegal.”
SJ: “OK. That might be what your teacher feels. But we all know that abortion is legal, correct?”
13 y/o: “No, I don’t think it is.”
SJ: “It definitely is. It’s been legal in this country since 1973.”
13 y/o: “Really? That doesn’t make sense, how is that possible?”
SJ: “I’m not saying you have to run out and have an abortion. But it’s really important to know your options.”

Teenage girls in America, many of whom have mothers who have had abortions (trust me) don’t know their rights. That is how demonized and muddled this issue has become. Scary.

15 y/o: “Miss, if a girl is giving head in a stairwell, she’s a slut! It’s ok to call her that!”

Fine. Now we’ve degraded her, and remained suspiciously silent about the boy involved. Are we better people yet?

“You should consider what people are going to think if you dress a certain way, because you might get a reputation. People will think you’re a certain type of girl.”

That was from my co-leader. Because if there’s one thing teen girls need to consider more, it’s what others think of them. And there are very few, very clearly defined types of girls.


15 y/o: “Do you guys notice that we get in more trouble for fighting than boys do?”
13 y/o: “Yeah, they expect them to be aggressive but we’re supposed to be perfect angels. It’s not fair.”

Wait…yes! That’s a double standard! And you’re noticing it on your own!

16 y/o: “Sometimes I think girls say they just got caught up in the moment and had sex because they don’t want to say that they wanted to do it. Like, because people will think they’re slutty. But that’s not slutty. And if you think about it and prepare then you’ll use condoms.”

No shame in wanting to have sex, and condom use?! High five!

14 y/o: “Slut is such a stupid word, can we please not use that in here?”

We should TOTALLY not use that stupid word in here!

15 y/o: “You know, I think I finished an entire bottle of ranch dressing in here tonight, but I don’t even care.”

It’s not groundbreaking, but comfort is important.

14 y/o: “Yeah, but whatever you do and however you dress someone is going to have something bad to say about you, so you might as well do what you want.”


The valleys, the downfalls, the moments that make me want to tear my hair out, have so much value, even though the peaks are what keep me going. Without that being presented, we can’t counteract it effectively. Feminism, and challenging the status quo, is a point of view that these girls are really not hearing.

A lot of lip service is paid to what in my day was called “girl power” (even when I was 13 and the Spice Girls were massive, I thought it sounded a bit silly.) You’re tough, you’re strong, girls rock! While it’s fun, a lot of it is meaningless. People are very often not talking about the real issues with girls, and educating them on issues that affect them. These girls aren’t stupid. They’re young, they’re easily influenced, but at the same time they’re smart, and they know on some level when they encounter inequality. Talking to them and introducing the idea that things actually can be different is an amazing gift for all of us.

So please, let’s try it this women’s day. For Rudy Huxtable, if no one else.

Teenagers From Mars

26 09 2011

I’m very fortunate to have started off my real-live, social work career with family work. For one thing, if you can keep a counseling session with eight family members, ages six to fourty-two, mildly productive and with zero fatalities, you can do anything. For another, you get a little bit of everything. It’s a chance to figure out what kind of work you enjoy, and especially, what populations you work best with.

I adore little kids. They’re hilarious and sweet. They’re cute and get excited when you come visit them in school. A leg-crushing hug from a kindergartener is a pretty sweet way to start off your morning.

But the under ten set, adorable though they may be, are really lacking in their conversational skills. If you’ve got six hours to spare, ask a seven year old what she did in school that day. You will get a real time play by play, and learn all about who her best friend is and what flavor lollipops the bodega had run out of. And do they ever ask how your day was? Being able to effectively counsel kids this age is a real skill. It’s not something I consider myself an expert at.

This is despite my love of play-doh and coloring. Those are things I prefer to do one my own. Little kids always mix up the play-doh colors and break crayons. It’s like, really? Do you have any respect?

I’m sorry, this is getting away from me.

My favorite population, it’s no secret, is a commonly despised demographic–teen girls.

I started working with this group somewhat reluctantly. To be entirely honest, I hid under my desk before I was dragged out in time for group. The walls in that office looked like Lucille Bluth’s uterus by the time they got me out. (If you don’t get that reference, I’m sorry, you have some serious work to do.)

I was a lowly intern when a coworker approached me to ask if I would help out with teen girls group. It was one of those suggestions or requests that you don’t really feel you can say no to. Like when your mom asks if you’d like to set the table, or pull up weeds in the garden. Whether or not you think it would be fun doesn’t really seem to be the point.

I wound up being honest. I told her that teen girls scared the shit out of me and that I thought they were mean. I was relieved with the answer I got.

“Oh my God, I know. I was so scared to do this group at first. But it’s been great. They’re actually really sweet. But I’m still really self-conscious about what I wear on group days.”

I came to the realization that, because I was so afraid, I should probably do this. I couldn’t just ignore this age group forever. So I agreed.

It was one of the best things I ever did. Right up there with spending a semester of my junior year in Galway, and watching Avatar: The Last Air Bender.

Teenage girls love to talk about how they don’t get along with other girls. They relate to boys better. Girls are crazy, and bitchy, and it’s not worth it to be friends with them. Unfortunately, some women don’t grow out of this, and carry this attitude into their 20s. They don’t seem to notice that it’s an attitude tinged with misogyny–being “one of the boys” makes one superior, because things that are feminine (being emotional, sensitive, whatever) make one weak. They don’t consider that saying something negative about “women” is saying something negative about themselves.

For girls who hate other girls so much, they certainly seem to have a good time in group. My co-leader and I could hardly get a word in at times. And the exchanging of email addresses, phone numbers, and whatever they’re doing with AIM these days was a constant flurry.

Not to mention how welcome they made me feel in their lives. Like I said, a leg-crushing hug is great. But it’s also pretty nice to hear, “Hi, Miss SJ!” screamed from across the street on your way back to the office in the afternoon. Followed by, “What do you mean, ‘who is that,’ bitch that’s my counselor!”

And no one has ever made me laugh harder. (Sorry, Bluth family.) Ok, it’s sad when a 15 year old says, “Miss, I had a LOT of sex” in response to an inquiry about her weekend, but it’s also giggle inducing for everyone. Or when one girl decided that we should sit down and make a list of all of the characteristics of unicorns.

I still can’t discuss the whipped cream fight that broke out with a straight face.

Of course they also made me cry, but not in the way I was expecting–no one called me fat or asked what I was thinking with those boots. (One actually told me she liked my style. Who talks like that?) But teenage girls feel everything so massively. Don’t believe me? Look at one of your fifteen year old cousin’s or niece’s Facebook page. The drama, the highs and lows, the feelings. Broken hearts, mothers who don’t understand, not to mention the trauma that rose above the level of typical teen angst.

Teen girls get a bad rap. It’s pretty unfair. It’s considered rather acceptable to talk about how awful they are, and mean, and petty. They were thoughtful enough to make hot chocolate for their friend who showed up shivering due to lack of snow boots, to coordinate a Mother’s Day party for my pregnant co-leader, and to accompany one another to the doctor when family members couldn’t be bothered.

They’re young, and they’re still learning. In a desperate need to be accepted, they often engage in questionable activities and often fail to control their impulses or tempers.

But I promise you, sincerely (I can do that), the rewards of work with this group outweighs the drawbacks.

They almost always bring snacks.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to SocialJerk! (Live accordingly.)

1 08 2011

There are certain words and phrases that tend to shut conversation down. You can’t argue against them. Attempting to do so is considered to be in poor taste. If you’re criticizing someone, and a friend says, “His wife’s in a coma,” you kind of have to shut up. Questioning someone on a particular practice ceases when told, “It’s my religion.” And it seems that the same goes for, “It’s an issue of respect.”

Respect is the most overused and poorly understood word in the English language. As a social worker, I hear it approximately eleventy billion times per day. “My teenage son has no respect!” Um…duh? “Why should I respect my teacher if she doesn’t respect me?” Because you don’t get to grade her. “These girls dress slutty because they have no respect for themselves.” Is that accurate? I dress my trampiest when I feel good about myself. “SocialJerk swears too much, she obviously has no respect.” She obviously was raised in Brooklyn.

It’s always the first thing that comes up when we set ground rules in my teen groups as well. Someone immediately suggests “respect” as a rule. I write it down. Then I ask, “What does that mean?”

You would think I asked them to present me with a unifying theory of physics.

“What do you mean, ‘what does that mean?’ Respect! It means respect.”

So we go over it, more and more. How do we show respect? What does that look like? How do you know someone is being disrespectful? Is it an attitude or an action? You know, annoying social work-y questions.

My helpful dictionary app defines respect as a verb meaning “to hold in esteem or honor.” Basically, to look at someone or something and think that they deserve to be treated a certain way. To treat them the way you want to be treated. To put them ahead of yourself.

How did such a simple, direct concept become so convoluted? I’m not trying to be controversial here, I’m not against respect. But considering how much people talk about it, especially in my work, you would think we’d see more examples of it.

Instead, I see more examples of irony. People screaming and disturbing others in the office, to make sure everyone knows that, “this bitch ain’t got no respect!” A mother telling her thirteen year old daughter that she needs to stop “getting with all these nasty boys in the neighborhood, because people think you’re fast. I want you to have respect for yourself.”

I don’t know about you, but my mother calling me the village bicycle would certainly increase my self-respect.

So many of these admonishments for “respect” are directed at women and girls. It’s an easy way to convey that faux concern. It’s not that I’m being judgmental, it’s that I’m worried about this girl! Those short shorts clearly illustrate that she has zero respect for herself. There is an inverse relationship between the length of your clothing and the amount of self-respect you have. Tube tops and self respect? Mutually exclusive.

Ask any teen girl, she’ll tell you that respect is the most important part of a romantic relationship. Many will then blame other girls for her boyfriend’s cheating, cheat to get back at him, make out with her female friends at a party to get his attention, and not leave immediately the first time he hits her or calls her a bitch.

We’re teaching our girls to talk a good game, but I don’t think we’re really teaching them a whole lot of meaning. Everything is respect or disrespect. It’s so watered down that it’s meaningless. It’s a buzzword. Much like “think outside the box,” “self-care,” or “SJ, this is a staff meeting, please stop coloring,” it seems like the more you hear it, the less it means.

When I worked in a pre-school program, we got a bit nosy and asked a bilingual three year old, “Why is daddy in jail?” She gave us her sassiest look and replied “Porque, no me respeta.” Daddy’s in jail, because he doesn’t respect you. This is a punishable offense, now? Clearly she was repeating what her mother said. But what was the real message there?

That thirteen year old I work with was told that because her boyfriend gave her hickeys, he doesn’t respect her, and she doesn’t respect herself. Erroneous. He did it because he is in ninth grade, overeager, and lacks finesse. What matters is the way he treats her, the way he makes her feel about herself. Not these unwavering, written in stone regulations.

Respect is important, obviously. Of course it’s a crucial part of a relationship. And telling someone that they don’t respect themselves, their parents, or their community because they do something you don’t like or agree with belittles the person and the concept. If something really is as important as we all agree “respect” is, we should probably be able to comfortably define it.

Without a Droid app, that is.

Social Workers Like Us

26 05 2011

It’s three a.m., and I am blogging. This is not how I planned out my evening.

Dr. Mom attended The New York Women’s Foundation “Celebrating Women Breakfast” this past weekend. She gave me a book that she got there: “Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself.” It was written by Rachel Lloyd, a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, who founded Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS.)

It would seem that this book affected me emotionally. By that I mean it ripped my heart out, stomped all over it, and showed it to me while I was still alive. Did I mention it left me wanting more?

So I decided to watch a movie, Very Young Girls (available on Netflix Instant Watch), which is a documentary about the girls GEMS works with, and the work that they do. Guess what? Sleep continues to evade me.

But I still highly recommend both, especially to my fellow social workers. Unless you work for an organization like GEMS, where the mission is specifically geared towards working with this population, you might forget what a serious problem it is. And the fact that it likely affects people we work with.

It’s so easy to make light of this situation. I’ve been guilty of it myself.

What’s that, you say? No one would mock exploited children. What the hell is wrong with you, SocialJerk? The thing is, we do it all the time.

People like victims. Nice, neat, wrapped up in a bow, no blame could conceivably be placed on their shoulders victims. If a suburban girl is kidnapped, beaten, raped, forced to do drugs, and sold against her will, then clearly, she is a victim. If a woman living under an opppressive, totalitarian government is promised a better life in America, and then sold into slavery, we can agree that she’s been victimized. We can all feel like good guys by writing letters to the editor, saying that the thugs that did this (they were black, right?) should be creatively killed in public (I’m the only one with the guts to say it!) and we should take up a collection to help this girl (hey, it’s the thought that counts.)

Actual scenarios are usually much messier. Was she taken and held against her will? Yes. Physically? Not always. Does she do drugs? Does she swear a lot? Does she seem like she doesn’t even want help? Does she keep running back to her pimp?

It’s harder to feel sympathy for girls who, though they’re only 13, don’t look 13. They certainly don’t act like it, y’knowwhatimsayin’? They’re prostitutes. OK, their lives were tough, but things were tough for a lot of people, and they don’t sell themselves on a street corner. Plus pimps wear those hilarious clothes! And I like rap music!

I worked with one girl, back when I was an intern, who broke my heart on a regular basis. Her mother was a drug addict and had a pimp. That man owned her mother. So when my girl was born, the pimp wound up on the birth certificate, though no one seemed to think he was really the father.

The mother drifted in and out of this girl’s life, until she was eventually murdered. My girl spent the majority of her life being raised by her grandmother.

But her mother’s pimp? His name on the birth certificate gave him legal rights. So he took this girl to visit him from the age of five, which is when he started selling her for sex. It was a long time before her grandmother could prove to the courts that seeing this piece of shit (I’m going to let that one ride) was not in this child’s best interests.

This girl wanted nothing more than to please others. She would bring ice cream for the other girls in group. She accompanied one girl to a doctor’s appointment when the father wasn’t willing to go. Once she came in with a good report card, smiling from ear to ear. Her grandmother certainly loved her, but she had a very difficult time showing it. When she brought that report card home, grandma had patted this 15 year old on the arm, and told her she was proud.

When this girl was 12, she began to realize that she had developed into a rather beautiful young girl, with a body that made her look about 16. Guys who had known her mother showed an interest in her. She had never experienced healthy love from a man, never had any kind of father figure. So when guys wanted to spend time with her, which turned into them wanting sex, she went along with it.

When one man, who had always looked out for her, told her that he would bring her to a party, she was thrilled. Then he asked if she would dance, make some money for them both, so she did it. She wanted the money, but she really wanted to please this guy. There were more parties, more dancing, and the line of what she wouldn’t do kept getting blurred, until she ended up having sex for money.

What would you have done, if you were her? How would you have avoided it?

She wasn’t the only one. Two of the eight girls in that group had been sexually exploited at some point. Angelica, who I wrote about a while back, saw prostitution as her only viable source of income, and planned to enter the life when she got out of the hospital. Other girls in group considered it. They all talked about “zoning out,” playing a song in their heads–dissociating, to those of us in the know.

It’s a bleak picture. But Girls Like Us and Very Young Girls gives us exactly what we need as social workers, or at least, what I need. Ebony, who is hilarious and talented, but can’t seem to stay out of the life. She knows what she wants, and what she needs to do to get it, but she’s just not ready. Girls like Carolina and Kim, who are on the road to improving their lives.

And then there is Dominique, who is adorable and wears her heart on her sleeve. You hear her story, which is more than any child should have to deal with, and get to see what she’s up to now–marrying a guy she describes as “beautiful inside and out,” realizing she deserves to be loved, working at GEMS and raising her daughter, conscious that she wants a different life for her child.

She’s only 20, but she seems to be one of those rare success stories that keeps us all going.

You start to feel bad for people who don’t get to see how lovable these girls are. Gossiping about mutual acquaintances, hamming it up and dancing for the camera, talking about their little sisters, doing each other’s hair. To look at them and see broken, used children, teen prostitutes, too far gone to be helped…it really is the loss of everyone who doesn’t give these girls a chance.

I think this calls for a Rod Stewart sing-along

16 05 2011

We’re coming upon an interesting, exciting time in the Bronx–summer. It’s fun wherever you go, but in the lower-income, multi-problem areas known colloquially as “the ghetto,” it’s time to wild out.

The warm weather does something to people. Especially after a long, harsh winter like the one we just had. Talking about it, I start to sound like a pioneer wife who neglected the canning the previous autumn. Once the temperatures heat up, people are outside more, drinking on stoops, playing basketball in the street, wearing less clothing.

All in all, it’s a fun time. But there’s one thing that brings me down.

Street harassment.

For people who don’t deal with it in their day to day lives, it tends to sound kind of funny. People say ridiculous things to you, in some lame attempt at a hook up, or any reaction, really. For those of us who do deal with it all the time, it’s decidedly less amusing.

I don’t flatter myself into thinking that this is because I’m so distractingly hot. (I mean, I am, but I don’t think that’s the main factor at play here.) I’m very often the only white person on the street. I stand out. I’m also usually dressed (somewhat) professionally. People assume I’m a social worker, teacher, something like that. I’m young, and I look even younger. There are also a lot of unemployed guys in the neighborhood where I work, who have nothing better to do than stand outside and annoy passing women.

The combined factors of my race, age, and perceived profession seems to make people think I’ll be easily intimidated.

Take a moment to guffaw at that one.

Part of my job is being out in the community. I am always walking to people’s homes, or going to see kids at schools. Being familiar with the community, and being a part of it, is an important part of social work.

So I get lots of comments. They’re often some variation on “lookin’ beautiful, mami,” “hey, white girl,” “baby, you can’t stop and talk to me?”

If I may quote the great Ms. Jackson, my name ain’t baby. I do not know you sir. I have my headphones on, I’m walking with a purpose and clearly on my way somewhere. There is no way that you have misinterpreted my body language to mean, “I’m walking the streets of the Bronx, looking for a date or perhaps a random sexual encounter. I hope a strange man on the sidewalk will approach me with a backhanded compliment!”

Men have a difficult time understanding why women feel offended or afraid of this kind of behavior. “If I couldn’t walk down the street without someone telling me how good I look, I’d take it as a compliment!”

I’m sorry, but someone leaning into my space and saying, “Hey snowflake, you look sexy, you lost?” is not a compliment. It’s an attempt at intimidation, and at making me feel out of place. It’s a way of a man asserting his superiority through sexual aggression.

I mean, that’s how I take it.

There’s no consensus on the best way to respond. Some friends and I were discussing this recently. They said that sometimes they felt that just saying hello made people leave them alone.

My feeling is, you can’t win. If you ignore the guy, you’re a bitch, and he’ll let you know. Often, in one of the great mysteries of the universe, you’ll be called a slut for not dropping everything to blow this stranger in public. If you say hello, that’s rarely satisfactory. Then we need to have a conversation. This guy will feel at liberty to follow me. When I walk away, again, I’m a bitch.

You might not believe this, but sometimes I think a snarky response is in order.

Recently, I was doing a home visit and had to walk through a crowd of young men standing in front of the building. I had my headphones on, as always, and said “excuse me.” They let me pass, but one asshole always has to ruin it. He leaned over, asking where I was going, why wouldn’t I stop to talk to him, all that nonsense. I just walked by and ignored him.

Of course, guys like this tend not to have a ton of social engagements to attend to, so he was still there when I walked out. He tried saying hello to me again, and ignored my polite attempts at letting him know I was not available for conversation. I was putting my headphones on, and he asked, “What kind of music you listening to, snowflake?”

He had nothing to say when I replied, “Lesbian folk rock.”

What an idiot. I was actually listening to mind altering indie.

Did my sarcastic retort change this man? I’m sure not. But it shut him up for a minute. I don’t like the idea that I should play nice with someone who makes me uncomfortable, because that’s the best way to stay safe. I’m not generally in the mood to smile demurely and say “thank you” when strangers comment on my physical appearance. Whatever gets you through these kinds of encounters, and makes you feel better, I say go for it.

I don’t owe anyone anything, not even a hello, just because I’m walking down the street. This is my neighborhood too. If I feel like talking to someone, I’ll let them know. By talking to them. Guys can talk about how they think they’re just being nice, but I’m quite sure that they know exactly what they’re doing.

So if you need a witty, mildly obnoxious comeback, you know where to find me.

Who left this soapbox unattended?

21 02 2011

I’ve heard it many times now. “Aren’t you glad your mother was pro-choice?” Meaning, “If your mother supported abortion rights, surely she would have had one.”

If that were true, I wouldn’t be dealing with abortion at all. My mother is pro-choice. (She raised me that way.) Somehow, this wicked pro-choice heathen escaped the abortioneers.

OK, but I’m a family social worker. The women I work with are mothers. They’ve chosen life. So why is abortion important to them?

Contrary to popular belief, 61% of women who elect to have abortions already have at least one child. Each pregnancy involves a decision. One can choose to have a child, and then choose an abortion.

Then there are the teenagers, those mother’s children, who don’t yet have children of their own, and would like to keep it that way.

Last week, I got a call from a client. She’s 21 years old, has a four year old daughter and a three month old son, and is a wonderful mother.

She’s also been through hell. Absentee, drug addicted father. Abusive and neglectful mother. Placed in a foster home after she had been damaged enough that she was running the streets and acting out.

This young woman got herself together for the sake of her daughter, and has done better than anyone has the right to expect her to. Unfortunately, she still struggles with relationships. As a result, the man she elected to have her son with is, if I speak generously, a worthless loser.

I don’t have anything better to say about a man who threatens the life of a woman who is pregnant with his child, and then threatens to lie to get custody of that child.

I’m extremely proud of this woman. We’re working on getting her to be proud of herself. She recently started dating a long time friend. Personally, I thought it was a little soon, but that’s not my call to make. It seems to be the first healthy relationship she’s had with any man.

So I was a little heartbroken when I got a call from her just last week. Apparently, she thought she had a stomach virus over the weekend, because she felt so terribly sick.

It wasn’t a stomach virus.

Two young kids at home, a brand new relationship, struggling to move out of a shelter, and pregnant again.

She opted to have an abortion.

Who could blame her? What else could we expect this intelligent, resilient, responsible, though financially and emotionally fragile 21 year old mother to do?

She was not happy about the decision. But she did what she had to do, for herself, and for the two children she already has.

Her boyfriend was not happy about the decision. But he went to the clinic with her, and supported her.

She’s not happy. But she’s coping well. She’ll be all right. I’m much more hopeful than I would be if she were still pregnant.

I’ve worked with other women who’ve had abortions. I’m very supportive of teen mothers, but some girls are not ready. I’m confident that they made the right choice.

One young mother really wanted another child, but recognized that her son’s mental health issues and her own physical health problems meant that this wasn’t the right time.

Then there was a mother of four, who had recently lost an infant daughter born with severe health problems. She had just regained custody of her four surviving children, after physically abusing one, and expressing the desire to kill herself and her children. Throwing a new baby into the mix would have been a disaster.

For anyone wondering about “responsibility,” yes, it is discussed. I don’t think anyone can accuse me of not talking up birth control. We discuss it.

I then direct my clients to Planned Parenthood.

Sometimes for an abortion, but most often not. Usually it’s for information, gynecological exams, pre-natal care…oh, and free or low-cost birth control.  Because we want to prevent unwanted pregnancies. And this is what Planned Parenthood does.

No woman I work with has ever skipped merrily into my office to share with me the details of her latest abortion. (Huzzah!) They are upset that the situation arose, and disappointed that they became pregnant when they didn’t want to.  They sometimes have feelings of guilt, about not being able to carry the pregnancy to term.


Every woman I have worked with who has had an abortion, though, has expressed feelings of relief. Even if they were not happy about it, they know that they made the right decision. For themselves, and for their families.

Planned Parenthood, in case you haven’t heard, is under attack. The house recently voted to strip them of federal funding. If this is allowed to pass, the familiar Bronx building that I refer my clients to when they need things that I can’t provide (often thanks to our funding) will have a much more difficult time meeting those needs. Condoms, Depo shots, HIV testing, cancer screenings, and yes, abortions.

Because for all I hear about taking Planned Parenthood down, I don’t hear about plans to allocate funding to make it easier for a 21 year old mother of three to find day care for two infants so she can complete her GED.

I don’t see those politicians developing plans for increased access to mental heath services in the Bronx, so that a mentally ill mother of four can be there for her children.

I haven’t heard plans to expand TANF or WIC to make it possible for teenage girls to support themselves and their babies while attending school.

I hear New Jersey Republican Chris Smith decrying abortion as “child abuse,” but I haven’t seen him at my clients’ homes, crying with them about their own abusive upbringings, or hearing what having another child would do to their mentally unstable state, and to the safety of their children.

As a social worker, I trust women, and I stand with Planned Parenthood. I hope you all do as well.

Our bodies, Ourselves (Also, our snacks)

3 02 2011

Last night, we packed up the scented candles and snacks (my goodness, my girls love ranch dressing) one last time. It was our final teen girls’ group.

SocialJerk, you said you weren’t going to cry.

OK, I’m back.

We did the things you usually do when terminating (my, that word sounds kind of harsh) with a group. The girls did evaluations. We reminisced. We talked about what went well, what could have gone better. And we asked the girls what they learned.

They had a lot to say. A lot about confidence, and self-esteem, and making friends. But one thing stuck out to me.

“I learned that I can say ‘no.’ Like, that people should listen to it.”

It’s not a groundbreaking idea, I know. And this girl had definitely heard before that she has a right to her boundaries, and that people should respect them.

But still. This was something important, that she credited group in helping her with.

Weeks earlier, we had a rather memorable sex ed chat with the girls, which was spread over two sessions. A lot of the second week was spent talking about the right to say no. Is “no” ever not enough? Can you ever sacrifice that right?

Some of the girls thought that you can. Quite easily.

We asked the question, “If a girl is wearing something sexy, and she’s assaulted, does she have the right to go to the police?”

Why was I so naive to think that this wouldn’t be a debate?

Almost all of the girls thought that a girl dressed “too sexy” was at least partly to blame for her assault. My co-leader and I challenged this assumption. We talked about self-control. Why are we constantly degrading men, acting like they’re dogs who can’t help but hump anything that will hold still for long enough? It seemed like these girls legitimately thought that a man could not be expected to have any restraint if he saw a woman showing too much skin.

I then pointed out how subjective “too sexy” is. Have you ever seen footage from Afghanistan? Saudi Arabia? They would be scandalized by you showing your arms, your ankles, your neck. Does your grandma ever think your clothes are too revealing, when you know they’re exactly what everyone else is wearing? OK, so how could one possibly regulate this?

“Well, maybe the guy AND the girl should go to jail.”

Oh, dear.

One girl (there’s always one) looked at the rest like they were crazy. “I don’t show off my body, but no one has a right to touch you if you don’t want them to.”

Thank God for you!

The other girls came around a bit. And I think they will continue to. I’m glad they were exposed to some different ideas. It’s important to challenge those immediate assumptions, because people really just don’t realize how silly the knee-jerk reaction is. Oprah showed us all when she interviewed Trisha Meili, “the Central Park jogger,” who was raped while out jogging. She asked her what she was doing in the park at that hour, alone?

We’ve all heard it. Most of us have thought it. “It’s terrible what happened, don’t get me wrong. But what was she doing in that area/out at that hour/walking alone/going home with that guy/drinking that much/dressing like that?”

Um, she was probably looking for someone to assault her horribly. I mean, obvi.

We need to teach girls that they have control over their own bodies. That they have rights, and are entitled to their boundaries. That their bodies are not on loan.

A lot of us have been hearing about HR 3, a charming bit of legislation that would make it more difficult for low-income women to have Medicaid pay for their abortions in cases of rape.

Stay classy, Republicans (and one Democrat.)

They want to limit Medicaid funded abortions to cases of “forcible rape.” You attorneys out there will recognize the term “forcible rape” from your second year law class, “Legal Terms That Do Not Exist and In Fact Make No Sense.”

All rape is forcible. What they’re saying here is, you weren’t really raped. Unless a stranger jumped out of the bushes and assaulted you while you were walking to the library in a safe neighborhood at a reasonable hour, preferably while you were wearing a nun’s habit, it simply doesn’t count. Saying “no” isn’t enough. You are not in charge of your own body.

I don’t delude myself into thinking that my girls are C-Span junkies, hanging on John Boehner’s every word. But they are getting this message. It’s a part of our culture.

And let’s bear in mind, in our work, that this is something we need to challenge. Making sure that women are aware that they have agency over their lives and bodies is crucial to what we’re trying to do. The idea that one of these girls, my girls, could be victimized in the future, or think of how they’ve been victimized in the past, and see it as something they brought on themselves, breaks my heart.

Which is enough to get me preparing for our next group already. I’ll get the ranch dressing.