Awkward with a capital AWK

19 06 2010

No one warned me that social work could be socially awkward (work.) You’re in people’s homes, you’re in people’s lives, and  you see and hear things that you ordinarily wouldn’t. There’s a delicate balance between helping people to see what they could be doing better, and how their family needs to change, and maintaining a good relationship with them. Sometimes you need to gently point out that taking your six year old to the new Freddy Krueger movie might not be the best choice, or that carpeting your hallway with garbage and unwashed clothes might present a bit of a hazard. But you need to do it without seeming like a nosy white bitch.

I was visiting a family with my supervisor, when a mouse ran across the apartment floor. The mother and children didn’t notice, but we certainly did.

It’s not a judgment issue. Everybody in New York has mice. I have them in my apartment. We have them in the office. Both of us typically react by shrieking, running across the room, and causing a huge fuss that gets everyone around us involved.

But we managed to sit silently. Because to do otherwise in someone else’s home would have been rude. And for the rest of our time working together, I would have been the crazy lady who jumped on the table in the middle of the conference.

Last week I stopped by another family’s apartment, because they had missed their appointment. I could hear the young single mother in the hallway, talking loudly to a friend as I walked up. She didn’t notice me as I was coming down the hall, and kept right on with her delightful conversation. “He was like, bitch give me my shit back, and I was like n**** give me my pussy back!”

What in the world does that mean? Honestly. I’ve asked around, and no one has any ideas.

But the immediate question was, how do I react? My response was to be the most lace curtain Irish I’ve ever been. “Oh, I’m sorry for interrupting.” I actually said that. Sorry for interrupting your little chat about n-words and pussy. It sounded like it was just getting good.

Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for social manners, this woman was not in the least bit bothered. She apologized for forgetting the appointment, and brought me in to meet with her son. Before I left, she told me, “I appreciate you. I know we aren’t supposed to be friends, but, we cool.”

Oh, dear.

You’re doing God’s work, they said to the atheist

4 06 2010

The first thing people say when they find out I’m a social worker is usually something along the lines of “You’re really making a difference,” “That must be so rewarding,” or my personal favorite “That’s God’s work.” If it’s so great, why isn’t everybody doing it?

Well, that’s the second thing people say. “Why?” Why do people go into this field? Social workers tend to be underpaid, overworked, and unappreciated. I answer that “Why?” with a resounding “Because we get to complain!”

A lot of people enjoy being martyrs. Social workers tend to be the best at it. (Or the worst, depending on how we’re looking at it.) Teachers can complain about those rotten kids, but whenever they do, we all just think about those sweet, sweet summer vacations. Finance workers and lawyers bitch about their long hours, but I think that spacious apartment in a doorman building kind of speaks for itself.

It starts in the mental hospital social work school. People complain about lack of money and respect in social work school. We haven’t started working for pay yet, but we know we will soon, and we want to be ready with our quips. “Oh, we get treated like crap, but the terrible pay makes up for it.” Oh, ha ha. Ha.

For all the nice things people say when they find out about the work I do, as a field, social work does not get a lot of respect. This wouldn’t matter quite so much if social workers weren’t so damn insecure. That too starts in $20,000 group therapy social work school.

A little history lesson–when the field first started, back with my personal hero Jane Addams, social work was all about the community. Like most female dominated fields, it was seen as a nice pasttime, not a serious profession. In the 1950s, social workers were driven so mad by the thought of their own inadequacy and their peers saying mean things about them that they abandoned their roots and tried to practice Freudian psychotherapy. Reading any social work literature from that time gives you a peek into a sad world of fully grown, well educated professionals clinging to their degrees and shouting “We swear, we know what we’re doing! Why don’t you like us?!”

Social workers are neurotic. They’re almost always well-intentioned, generally well trained, and completely nuts. It starts early (we will get into the insanity I witnessed in the monkey house social work school in future posts) and from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t stop. On behalf of my people, I apologize. But I’m telling you, I’m very good at what I do.