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.

Do we like boy bands again?

12 06 2012

Very often, families end up working with us when entirely normal developmental tasks go wrong. Essentially, kids are designed to be a pain in the ass in a variety of different ways throughout their lives. If parents aren’t ready for this, they might handle it badly enough that they need some outside help. Infants are supposed to scream. Toddlers are supposed to have tantrums and occasionally pee on the floor. Teens are supposed to test boundaries. Not understanding this contributes to shaken babies, toddlers smacked around during potty training, and mothers insisting that someone take their teenage daughters and return them when they’re back to normal.

Since I started this work, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the relationships between moms and their teenage daughters. Those are a writer’s goldmine. (Ask Judy Blume. Or whoever did “Thirteen.”) It’s a fascinating mess, almost every time. And almost every time, it catches us by surprise.

Every mother I work with is astonished by what an ungrateful little bitch her teenager has turned into, seemingly over night. As always, we look for patterns in the family. “What was your relationship with your mom like when you were 15?” Inevitably, it was terrible. The mother’s mother was unsupportive,didn’t listen, treated her daughter like a slave…the mothers I’m working with think they’re doing a better job, and can’t understand why this didn’t prevent nightmare teenagerdom. I mean, my daughter doesn’t have to do everyone’s laundry like I did, and I don’t beat her with an extension cord! What more do kids these days want?

I’m always struck by this. Don’t they ever think back on the dramatic thoughts and journal entries they kept as teenagers and cringe? Do they remember how seriously they took everything that came to their friends and popularity, or the stupid nonsense that made them laugh until they snorted? Didn’t they ever read Judy Blume?!

Working with teenagers, I spend a lot of time relating to them. I reflect on myself as a teenager more than “normal” adults–you know, those people who spend a majority of their time with people their own age. Not to mention the whole writer thing. Writers are notoriously weird and reclusive introspective and observant, so I wind up writing about teen characters a lot. The two kind of feed into each other. Not to mention the fact that I don’t have a teenager at this point. As much as my teenage cousins have put me through the ringer once or twice, it’s not quite the same.

So I remember, I think better than a lot of people, the turmoil and agony that accompanies mundane, normal stuff when you’re a teenager. Are my friends hanging out without me? Why did my “best friend” tell that guy that I liked him? Now I look like an idiot and I can never leave the house again! This is just the normal stuff. Throw in abuse, homelessness, mental illness, and shit gets real quite quickly.

I’m only telling you this because I feel this is a safe space. High school SJ had a journal entry that contained the line “we’re not allowed to be in love.” Ugh. Everything I did was so dramatic and flamboyant. It just makes me want to set myself on fire.

It sounds so silly now. But when you’re living it, it’s of the utmost importance, and the only thing that makes it worse is being told how ridiculous you’re being.

My mom and I had a rough relationship when I was a teenager. I was a nightmare, and she was personally insulted by what a nightmare I was being to her. Par for the course. Dr. Mom was aware of this, which helped, but that didn’t make it all that much easier when the kid who last year begged for you to play Clue with her all of a sudden is mortified by everything you do.

She picked me up from junior high one time, and rolled down the window and screamed from across the street, “SJ! Over here!” I must be the messiah, readers, because I died. Actually died. And rose again. What to her was a nice thing to do–not making me walk home when she had a day off, and letting me know she was there–caused me extreme mortification and probably led to a surly silent treatment.

My mother was also a bit distressed by my choice of idols. My undying love for Kurt Cobain said to her, “My child can’t get enough of a suicidal drug addict.” As an adult, I get it. As a kid…oh my. Why couldn’t she understand how much Nirvana spoke to me?

But the thing is, she tried. She really tried to get me. When I managed to obtain all nineteen episodes of My So-Called Life on VHS (you kids with your DVD collections, you have no idea how good you have it) she told me she wanted to watch it with me. And she actually did. When I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower on Christmas Day 1999, and proclaimed I had never related to something so much in my life (I said I was dramatic. I also really wanted to have grown up in the early ’90s) she asked to borrow it, and talked about it with me.

Despite the disapproval of the genuinely stupid things I did, I knew my mom liked me as a person and thought I was an interesting kid. She talked to me like a person, when I allowed it, and defended me to strangers who criticized my purple hair. That went a long way towards me being able to be one of those adults who is friends with my mother, and likes hanging out with my family.

So moms, social workers, countrymen, it’s going to suck. It just is. It comes with the territory. You can’t be your daughter’s friend (not until she’s through college and in her 20s) but you can find things that you genuinely like about her. Even if you have to wrack your brain, the kid has good qualities. The more specific the better. “You’re a good kid” doesn’t mean a whole lot, but “you’re creative and a good baker” does. Taking an interest in the things they like is incredibly important. Not to the point of being a weirdo who doesn’t give your child space and knocks other children out of the way for the last One Direction t-shirt, but in a way that lets your kid know that what matters to them matters to you. One of my chronically crabby thirteen year olds was the happiest girl in the world when her mother took her to see that god forsaken Justin Bieber movie, and actually had a nice time.

It’s worth a try. It really can only get better. And then maybe, when your child is a reflective grown-up, she’ll write a nice blog post about you.

You Gotta Give ‘Em Hope, Jr.

17 05 2012

A groundbreaking article was recently released on the subject of teen pregnancy and parenting, that is apparently based on new research. I say “apparently” because it’s possible that it was actually based on one of my rants from when I worked at Anonymous Youth Center, and began my relationship with pregnant and parenting teens. The article states that getting pregnant and raising a child is not typically the thing forcing young women into poverty. They start off in poverty, and this makes them more likely to become pregnant and choose to parent, for a variety of reasons.

And everyone who works with these young women kind of knew that already.

We talk about how likely it is for young parents and their children to live in poverty, for the parents to not finish school, and to work in menial jobs. For a lot of the girls I work with, that’s not all that different from the future they see for themselves without a child. It’s what their experience and examples dictate. While I certainly believe that young people who work really hard and have the right support, opportunities, and talents can create a different life for themselves, it’s incredibly difficult. We ask a lot of these kids, much more than we ask of those who were lucky enough not to be born poor.

If I had a child at seventeen, it would have meant giving up the scholarship I had to go away to college. It would have meant no study abroad. It would have meant not getting to do the things that most of my friends were doing. For my girls, this isn’t the case.

I recently went a high school to visit a sixteen year old girl I’ve been work with for the past year. She was in quite a mood, saying she was exhausted and nauseated. My mind started racing. “Weren’t you exhausted and nauseated two weeks ago?” “Yeah…”

Oh boy.

Now, I’m very positive when it comes to teen mothers. I have worked with many wonderful young moms. (Sorry I don’t write about teen dads, but I don’t have any!) I have written about it extensively, as I adore them and their kids, and feel that they can do a wonderful job, provided they have some chances and support.

This girl does not want to be a mother, teen or otherwise. She has said this for as long as I’ve known her. Her own family is, in her words, a disaster. She’s never felt taken care of, and has experienced all too frequently the many ways in which this world can suck. The kid wants an abortion.

But she’s being pressured, by her mother, by her boyfriend, not to take that route. So she’s considering what life would be like as a mother. I worked with her on taking some time to consider her options, as it’s still very early. What would be good about having a baby and raising it? What would be good about having an abortion? Can we even talk about adoption?

The answer to the third question is no, we can’t. Why you so crazy, SJ?

The answer to the second question is that she doesn’t want a child. No one is taking care of her, and she’s trying to focus on taking care of herself.

The answer to the first question was, essentially, meh? Why not? Things aren’t going to get any worse, and maybe it would motivate her to get up and get things done. The rationale that most people utilize to decide to chug a Five Hour Energy.

I was once informed that, because I expressed the hope that my teen girls would focus on developing interests and goals for furthering their education and careers, I did not have the necessary respect for motherhood, which is rooted in sexism. I would take a moment to address that point, but it’s so obviously stupid.

I have tons of respect for motherhood parenthood. I also have tons of respect for dismantling bombs. I don’t think either of these activities should be entered into lightly, or without preparation. At age 28, the idea of being responsible for another human (they don’t stay babies for long, do they?) blows my mind and terrifies me. Most parents I know say the same thing. It’s not that I don’t respect having children. It’s that I respect it too much.

Sometimes a pregnancy is a welcome surprise. I get that. I saw “Knocked Up” I also know actual humans who got pregnant before they intended to, but decided to go with it, because they realized it was what they wanted, and the time might never be exactly right, but they could do it. Mazel tov.

The idea of going into having a child the same way I go into having edamame for dinner four nights in a row is what’s troublesome to me. “Eh, why not? There are really no other options, and it doesn’t make a difference one way or the other.” It’s also sad. Profoundly sad. Because this girl honestly believes what she’s saying. That there’s no hope for her. Taking care of herself is not enough of a motivation. A child might be worthy of that, but she’s not.

This is a rare instance in which I wish I could take a child home.

I have faith that this girl could be a wonderful mother if that’s what she wanted, whenever she wanted it. I have faith that she could be amazing at whatever she chooses to do. Chef, rocket scientist, sanitation worker, poet, kickboxer, literally anything. She is smart, capable, and has proven over and over again that she is crafty as hell, and has essentially been responsible for herself and her siblings since adolescence. But she doesn’t have hope.

I have hope for her, and faith in her. Getting her to have that for herself is much more difficult. That is the hardest part, for me, about working with teen pregnancy.

Much harder than talking to a roomful of teenagers about condoms.

Unforgiven: Social Work edition

13 02 2012

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (thank you, as my self esteem is directly proportional to my number of followers) will know that I was a little upset about the Grammys last night. It’s surprising, because I didn’t even watch them.

Was Chris Brown at the Grammys before? I think maybe he was…ah yes, three years ago! He was going to perform, but the night before he punched Rihanna, his girlfriend at the time, leaving her face a bloody and bruised mess.

I’ve already talked about the damage Chris Brown has done. Not only to Rihanna, but to young people across the country, for whom he further normalized violence as a part of romantic relationships. So I’m not going to go into that again. (Though he did. He did a lot of damage, on a problem that was already bad enough.)

Chris Brown is right at the top of SocialJerk’s Shit List. I assure you, it’s an unpleasant place to be.

But he’s not alone. He has the company of Ben Roethlisberger and Roman Polanksi, to name a couple. Michael Vick had set up residence, but he’s done some work in getting himself removed.

A dinner party you’d never want to attend, amiriteladies? These are people that my friends and family members know not to mention in my presence. If they don’t want me to turn red, and them to not have a chance to speak for the next twenty minutes.

Just so we’re clear–Michael Vick, the one who killed and mistreated dogs, got the harshest sentence (a fine and a suspended prion sentence) and has done the most to make up for his crimes (through seemingly heartfelt apologies, and by lobbying for harsher penalties for animal fighting.) He’s also, arguably, the most vilified. He’s the one who mistreated and killed dogs. The others exploited, raped, or beat women and children. In case you weren’t feeling my rage.

I can’t see any of these individuals ever getting off said shitlist. I just can’t.

Chris Brown and Roman Polanksi in particular have acted like and been treated like victims. They have whined like petulant children about how unfairly they’ve been treated. None of these men have made a real, meaningful apology. They’ve all been defended relentlessly in the press.

What do I want from them? So glad you asked. I want this:

“Wow, I appreciate you all caring about me, but I’m a total piece of shit. I hope that by taking some time out of the public eye, I can do a lot of work on myself, and be deserving of your respect. But until then, remember–I’m a real asshole, a danger to society, and I’m just not worthy of it.”

Then, after some time off, they either shut up and stay that way, or, preferably, get out there and educate people as to why they were wrong.

Chris Brown tells young women that real men won’t hit them, and tells young men that he was an idiot for ever putting his hands on Rihanna. Roman Polanksi will explain that it doesn’t matter if that 13 year old got herself wasted and ran around naked begging for him to anally penetrate her (which people seem to believe), he was the adult and should have acted like it. Ben Roethlisberger will tell men the world over that, even if you’re a big star, more physically powerful than women, and a women is drunk, she can still say no to any sexual encounter with you.

The social work connection, and there is one, is forgiveness. Forgiving the unforgivable, excusing the inexcusable.

Not all of the people we work with are exclusively victims. Some of us work with men who abuse women, women who abuse children, people who abuse animals, and many variations thereof.

People who are abused, very often, want to go back to the person who violated them. They want the abuse to stop, of course, but they don’t want that person out of their life. Children love their parents. People love their partners. Teenage girls at least feel like they love their boyfriends, and maybe they do. They want to forgive their abuser. It’s normal. It takes a domestic violence victim an average of seven times to leave an abusive partner, before leaving for good. And the time that victim is most at risk to be killed is when she’s attempting to leave, and right after.

Remember that next time someone offers Rihanna talking to Chris Brown as evidence that we should all get over it.

Many of the women I work with have suffered through domestic violence. This means that their children have as well. One of those women lived with the man who beat her horribly for thirteen years and had five children with him. Just recently, she left him for good. When she says she hopes she never sees him again, I believe her. She made her kids deactivate their Facebook pages so their father couldn’t find them–these days, that’s the ultimate in putting your foot down.

Another woman is, sadly, just at the beginning of this process. She left her abusive partner once, and has considered leaving him many more times. She has one very young child with him, and three older children who are completely fed up with their mother’s relationship.

She keeps bringing this man, who hits and intimidates her, back into her home. This woman forgives this man, for some reason. Her children are in the position of trying to forgive her, because she’e their mother. And I’m doing my home visits, trying not to narrow my eyes and spit every time this dick man looks in my direction.

She’s made her decision. I can make sure that the children are safe, and that this family has somewhere to go when he inevitably does it again, and I can try to help her to understand that what he’s doing is inexcusable and that it follows a pattern. But I can’t make her decide that it’s unforgivable.

She can forgive this man. It doesn’t mean I have to. Rihanna can forgive and Tweet at Chris Brown. That doesn’t mean we should forget what he did and applaud him at award shows. Samantha Geimer can say she’s over what Roman Polanski did to her. Of course she wants it all to go away. It doesn’t make him any less of a sick bastard, and a fugitive from the law.

Don’t let anyone tell you different. Victims can forgive if they feel they need to. We have an obligation to remind them that they deserve better.

I need to figure out a way to work with them all. (My client’s abusive boyfriend, not Brown and Polanski.) Ignoring him and feeling self-righteously angry about the fact that I hate this guy doesn’t move us forward. It makes mom feel like she needs to lie to me about her feelings for him, or her intentions to leave.

I heard a man speak once about telling his friends that street harassment is, for lack of a better term, a dick move. He admitted that it was a while before they took him seriously, because he used to shout sexual comments at strange women right along with them. A friend of mine just stopped using the “f” word (no, the other “f” word) because he realized, “I’m offending an entire group of people that I actually don’t have a problem with when I do that.”

Both of these guys used to do something stupid and offensive. We’ve all made mistakes. Many things can be forgiven. People can learn. And, I think, they can change. We can agree to disagree, but that’s the basis of the profession, and if I didn’t believe that I’d quit and work at Starbucks.

I don’t want to go out for a drink with anyone on my shitlist. They’re bad people, and some of them would probably assault me. But I do honestly believe that they can improve themselves. Michael Vick, even if you still choose to hate him, has taken some steps. Many of us have people in our lives who did as well. Whether we want to deal in forgiveness or not, the reality is that we have to work with it.

And please, if you’re as angry as I am, consider making a donation to SafeHorizon, a wonderful organization that helps  victims of domestic violence. (I swear, I did!) Tell them the Grammy’s sent you.

Dating’s all fun and games, until someone loses their self respect.

24 10 2011

Dating is a funny thing. Older people, and people in relationships, tend to talk about it like it’s fun and exciting. Nights out on the town, meeting new people, the thrill of the chase. (Or is that a safari?) I blame romantic comedies. Terrible movies sending a bad message. Why do they even make those things?

In reality, I hope we all know that it’s pretty horrible. Debating whether or not you should call, or if you should be waiting for the other person to text. If he texts, rather than calls, what does that mean? What is she really saying with that Facebook friend request? How soon is too soon to introduce this person to friends? And why do we all get so pissed when we’re rejected by someone we weren’t even interested in? (Side note: if the son of a friend of my aunt’s happens to be reading this: when she gave you my email address eight years ago, I didn’t even know that she was doing that. I didn’t want to talk to you either.)

OK. Glad I got that out there.

Dating drama has always been fairly minimal in my own life. But my clients manage to bring it back, and remind me of what I missed.

Thank goodness I missed it.

I have to give most of my female clients credit for being hopelessly optimistic. “Hopelessly optimistic” is my strengths-based translation of “blindly in denial.” One young mother I worked with had two children by two different fathers. She presented as being rather tough, and had in fact had a very difficult life. Her father was a drug addict, her mother was abusive, and she was in and out of foster care. She was extremely intelligent, and really trying to be a better parent for her children.

All that intelligence, experience, and toughness, though, didn’t stop her from wanting the storybook romance. I was thrilled to pieces when she finally seemed to be putting those restraining orders against her violent former partners to use. She talked about needing to focus on her children, work on herself, get back to school.

When she came in to the office with stars in her eyes, telling me that she and a friend were suddenly more than friends, I think she could sense my apprehension.

I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to have the best friend, boyfriend, whatever she wanted. But I also really wanted her to see that the problem wasn’t just that men turned out to be assholes. It was that the men she chose turned out to be assholes. It wasn’t a matter of getting out there and trying more and more, and eventually you’ll find the right one. It was a matter of saying, hey, I’m attracted to scumbags. Let’s rectify that.

But it’s not an easy thing to do. I had to close her case when she moved herself to a foreign suburban land to be with this man. He seemed like a genuinely good guy, so I’m hoping they made it work. Realistically, I assume he either turned out to be hiding his jackass nature really well, or he remained a good guy, so she got bored and left.

Hopelessly optimistic I’m not. But unfortunately, I’m often correct. (I might need to make that my new tagline.)

The world of teen dating is just as torrid, dramatic, and unpredictable as I remember. My goodness, they don’t learn and they don’t give up. No matter what their parents and social workers try to teach them.

Teenagers, particularly girls, are always talking to me about their latest romantic fiascos. The boys are involved in these too, but they like to act as though they’re only interested in sex. They also have a hard time getting their viewpoints across, once I explain to them that they have to say “women” or “girls,” rather than “bitches” or “hos.”

I hear these kids complain about their significant others all the time. One fifteen year old I’ll never forget kept going back to this one boy in particular, always assuming he’d change at some point. He cheated on her, made fun of her in public, swore at her, called her names, and set her up to get jumped by his friends.

He claimed that he tried to get back the jewelry they stole. Apparently that made everything better.

When he said he wanted a baby with her, she was pretty heavily considering it. I mean, who wouldn’t? She’s only human.

We tried to figure out what she liked about him. It took a long time to identify even one thing, though she vehemently defended this boy to her mother. It finally came down to her saying that he was nice to her when it was just the two of them. Sometimes.

This boy being “nice” once erased a thousand wrongs. Just the opposite of this girl’s relationship with her mother.

The mothers are always very concerned about their daughters’ dating. The concerns for “reputation” start very early on. My personal view is that the neighbors can talk all they want, as long as you’re healthy and not pregnant. But I seem to be in the minority.

Yes, your thirteen year old daughter has a hickey. OK, your sixteen year old daughter admitted to letting her boyfriend, in her words, “grab her titties.” (Sounds like a lovely experience, by the way.) My concern is that the relationships they’re involved with are respectful, and that they’re being safe. The moms had other concerns.

“People could have seen them. What are they going to think about what kind of a parent I am, that I’m letting my daughter run around like this?”
Well, your daughter is running around with their sons, so they don’t have a leg to stand on.

“I just need to know if she’s still a virgin.”
Is the priority knowing the answer to that question? Or is it about finding out if you know what your daughter is doing, knowing if she’s at risk, and if she can handle the activities she’s engaging in? P.S. I’ve heard about what some “virgins” get up to. The entire concept is useless and far from exact.

“Can I take her to the doctor to find out if she’s still a virgin?”
NO. For the last time. That is not possible, shows a poor understanding of female anatomy, and is wrong and ridiculous.

“Can you ask her if she’s a virgin?”
All right, I don’t know if we’re getting anywhere with this.

The best handling of a teen relationship I’ve witnessed was a few months ago, during a home visit. The sixteen year old daughter, who is very sweet, quiet, and a wonderful student and artist, had brought her girlfriend home to meet her family for the first time. She was appropriately mortified. Her mother asked, “Oh, you’re Shawna’s girlfriend? OK. You’re gonna be around? You’re gonna be good to her? You’re a junior too, right?” The tattooed gang member twin brother hopped around like a hyperactive goober, making empty, joking threats about what would happen if this girl was mean to his sister. The two then left to take Shawna’s six year old sister to the park. And apparently returned with her intact.

Apparently it can be done. Dating, romance, all that crap, can be gotten through with minimal injuries, physical and otherwise. We can learn from it, and occasionally enjoy it.

But that’s no excuse for the existence of romantic comedies.

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.

Real wars involve guns–step it up!

6 07 2011

I was recently asked if I felt that there was a “prejudice” against breastfeeding, that I experienced in my work. I was a bit taken aback by the question. Why would someone even think to ask that? Then I realized what I was being asked to take a side in.

Mommy wars.

The “mommy wars” is a ridiculous term used for the ridiculous practice of pitting women against one another based on their parenting choices. Working, or staying at home. Day care or not. Breast or bottle.

Because if there’s one thing I learned in social work, it’s that all families are exactly the same, and there is a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem that may develop.

Personally, I was raised by a working mother and father. If either of my parents were suited to stay home and take care of the kids, it was probably my dad. (He actually offered to do this when I was about 22.) I was fortunate to be surrounded by a supportive extended family and exposed to quality day care. This was my family’s situation, and it is what worked best for us.

But when it comes down to the families I work with, things are a bit different. My answer when people ask where I stand on these non-issues-breastfeeding, baby wearing, sleep training-is: I honestly don’t care. In the line of work I do, these are not choices. Being a “stay at home mom” or even more irritating “full time mom” (because my mom ceased to be a parent while working) as opposed to a “working mom” (yes, you’re the only one who has ever worked, your medal is in the mail) is not a choice. It’s whatever works, based on a number of factors: if the father is involved, if there are other family members available, if affordable child care is an option, if mom’s education, health, and job history make work a viable possibility.

It’s the same with breastfeeding. Like it or not, it doesn’t work for everyone. Some women need to leave their babies with whatever family member is willing. Those pumps you all register for, I assume for the express purpose of making me uncomfortable, are expensive. It might not be an option. And, as one 21 year old mother was kind enough to tell me, breastfeeding makes your titties hurt.

People who get to choose what works best for their family, or what they really want to do, and what is most fulfilling for them, are extraordinarily fortunate. A lot of people don’t have that. They do what they have to do. “OK, we can’t afford camp this summer, so I’ll stay home because my husband was able to get some extra hours.” “Well, I don’t love this day care, and I wish she didn’t have to start so young, but it’s the only one the city will pay for.” “I’d like to breastfeed, but I need to leave the baby with my grandmother and I just don’t have time.”

So, as for prejudice against breastfeeding – no. No one gives a shit. Be grateful that you have options and move on with your life. I’m sorry if someone looks at you askance for doing it in public, but if that’s the worst moment of “prejudice” you experience…as a great philosopher once said, “You’re gonna write a sad poem in your journal, and move on.” I’ve seen women breastfeed in public. I don’t fall to my knees to thank the universe for exposing me to such a beautiful and natural moment, but I. Don’t. Care.

I say this as someone whose mother is fond of telling friends about the time your favorite social worker was breastfed at the Bronx Zoo.

My point? I do have one. A lot of people on both sides make it an issue when it’s not. There are important things going on in the world. My concern and moral outrage is reserved for children without after school programs, families who have their child care or housing subsidy cut off, fathers who neglect their children, mothers who bring abusive men into their homes, kids in school systems with a 40% graduation rate, children who are forced to be soldiers in actual wars.

These issues simply don’t register. Let’s all learn to mind our own business and recognize that we don’t have all the answers.  Because this is just getting silly.

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.

Hot for social work

25 04 2011

When my cousin started law school, she informed me of a helpful new term: “hot for law school.” Once I stopped singing inappropriate Van Halen lyrics, she explained to me what it actually meant. Apparently, many law schools have many more female students than male. As such, guys who did not get much action as undergraduates suddenly find themselves to be rock stars. (“That guy is kind of hot…for law school.”)

In social work, this phenomenon borders on dangerous. It’s a female dominated field. Men in this profession are few and far between. Those that are around tend to either look like everyone’s dad, or also lament the lack of available men.

Back in Dr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium social work school, this was rather pronounced. During a group project meeting, two other young women and I decided to tick off the straight men in our year. We came up with three. One was insufferably pompous and brought up the military-industrial complex in class at least twice a week. One worked full time in addition to attending school, and lived on Five Hour Energies, Red Bull, and napped whenever his eyes closed. The final one was, I believe, a myth.

Getting out into the trenches, it’s pretty much the same thing. There are days when there is scarcely a man in this office. Clients are included in this. Fathers are not nearly as present as mothers. A majority of people who receive services here are single mothers. We’ve had one single father in my time here.

So things can get a little crazy when guys show up. It’s like attending single sex high school. It’s great for your focus during the day, and you don’t have to brush your hair, but watch out if they hire a young, mildly attractive AP english teacher. (I mean, for example.)

I suspect that our receptionist was sabatoging mouse traps and leaving cookies out, because the exterminator was kind of cute.

Things really got out of hand when we had a young, attractive (objectively speaking), man transferred to our office to help clients with benefits. He didn’t do it for me. I thought he was kind of annoying and a little full of himself, But I was in the minority. Actually, I was the minority.

Female workers seen lingering too long at his desk were automatically assumed of plotting to carry on an illicit affair. Some might have been, I don’t know. Female clients could barely function.

I had to have a decidedly awkward conversation with a 17 year old girl, after she apparently decided to pounce, while her mother and I were in session. By the time I was done meeting with the mom, Male Office Hottie had taken refuge in my supervisor’s office. Apparently, this girl had been sitting on his desk, giggling, and stopping just short of jumping in the man’s lap. (But only just.)

Another client, a 42 year old mother who was facing sanctions on her public assistance case, refused to meet with this man. Why, I asked? Public assistance, this is his area of expertise! He can go with you to your appointment, and guide you through this drawn out, complicated process!

“Him? I can’t talk to him. He’s too sexy.”


Eventually Señor Hotpants had to be let go. Not for excessive sexiness, but because of lost funding. Many took a brief time for mourning. (Once again, not me. He’s. Not. That. Hot.) But I think we’ve moved on, as an office. I hope we’ve learned and matured from the experience.

At least we still have the exterminator.