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!





Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

29 04 2013

I realize that I have kind of a strange approach to social work. I’ve never really been accused of being a Pollyanna type, who sees the good in everything. (I think that’s what she did. I could never make it through that damn movie. Yawn.) I wouldn’t say I always look for the sunny side of the street. But I do always see the funny.

I was raised a pretty staunch feminist. As in, I chastised my little league coach for sexism when he moved me to the outfield because “she’ll get hurt,” and put a boy in my place. (I was the only girl on the team, and I stand by my assessment.) So yes, I was a trailblazer. I don’t like the word “hero,” but obviously it’s the only one that applies.

It was always weird to me that the feminist stereotype is that we’re humorless. Almost all of my earliest feminist lessons came from I Love Lucy. Dr. Mom was big on teachable moments, so she would point out how things had changed. Lucy getting an allowance, asking for permission for things, generally being treated like a child. But obviously Lucy was the best. Because she was funny. And she got things out there, in her own way. I remember her asking Ricky to get up with the baby during the night, and Ricky saying that was her job, because she was the mother. “Well, next time I want to be the father.”

Think about it. No one would pick Ricky over Lucy. Isn’t assuming that he would be better than her, just because he’s the man, ridiculous? She was so funny.

Nothing gets people on your side like making them laugh. I discovered this power freshman year of high school. In social work, getting people on your side is kind of important. Especially since you’re often assumed to be some evil combination of incompetent jackass and diabolical genius.

In an early girls group, the members started talking about how annoying their social workers and counselors were.

Uh-oh.

13 y/o: “Whenever you’re fighting, they pull you out to talk about it. ‘How do you feel about fighting?”
14 y/o: “Ugh, I know! They always wanna know how you feel.”
13 y/o: “Yes! I don’t know, like, it’s not always about how I feel.”
SJ: “I see. So how does that make you feel?”
13 y/o: “Well, it…”

And then hysterical laughter, followed by “Oh, I was about to say!” Things moved on from there, in a really positive direction. Being able to laugh at yourself, especially when you’re with teenagers, is crucial.

Or the time an eleven year old client walked by my desk, on the way back to tween group (yes, they actually called it that) and noticed that we have a Stewie from Family Guy doll on a filing cabinet. You know, like you do when you’re a professional.

This ensued.

Kid: “Mom!”
SJ: “Mommy!”
Kid: “Ma!”
SJ: “Mama!”
Kid: “Mommy!”
SJ: “Mom!”
Kid: Mom!”
SJ: “Ma!”
Kid: “Mama!”
SJ: “WHAT?!”
Kid: “Hi!”

Her laugh was so hysterical and genuine, I sill think about it. She brought it up about once a week. “Remember the time we did that Stewie thing?” Hell yeah I do.

I’m a fan of fighting sarcasm with sarcasm. Teenagers are sullen and too cool for school by developmental nature. They’ve evolved to be a pain in the butt. One girl I work with seemed to have taken a class in eye-rolling.

“Mara, I’ll come see you at school tomorrow? Maybe show you and your friends some of my dance moves? OK, sounds good.”

I know I saw the hint of a smile. But my purpose in life was confirmed when her mother told me the next week, “Mara won’t admit it, but she likes you better than the last worker. At least you make her laugh.”

The term you’re looking for is pronounced “boo-yah.”

Or when moms are frustrated when their baby won’t stop crying during a visit. “Come on, kid. Stop being such a baby.”

Working with a social worker is so often awkward and uncomfortable for our clients, at least at first. They don’t see us as peers, or really as people. Empathy, active listening, and being generally pleasant (that last one is super key) go a long way. But nothing tells someone that you care, and lets them know that you’re invested in their comfort, like being a little corny and looking a little silly.





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.