As a new Ongoing case manager, I can be seen in the copy room struggling to scan something to my e-mail and repeatedly punching in the (wrong) user code, or rushing through the office with a flushed face and a car seat, knocking cubicles, walls and the occasional co-worker as I try to make it to a child’s dental appointment on time (having badly underestimated the time it takes me to get to my car), or trying to get the hang of the coffee maker (the coffee comes out as soon as the water goes in!) And I am sure my colleagues are thinking “Newbie!” Well, yes and no. Although I am still struggling with some things in the office setup, I am not completely new to social work, and I am not new to SaintA.
I began working at St. Aemilian-Lakeside when St. A’s (as we called it back then) merged with the former Lakeside Child and Family Center in 1989. I started work as a child care worker. I was hired, with no supervisory experience, by Sister Theresa as a unit/case manager in the residential program for boys with severe emotional and behavioral challenges. She told me she had never gone wrong hiring the oldest child of a big family (nine siblings.)
In those days, we worked in “treatment teams.” I represented the unit, hiring, supervising and training staff and doing some case management, for 8-12 residents. Our team also had a therapist and a teacher. In some ways, the job was similar to what we do as case managers, but much less intense.
The therapist did all of the court work. Case notes were handwritten. Of course, there were crises and competing demands for my time, but my caseload maxed out at 12 boys, and they were all on the unit, right under my watchful eye. At Lakeside, I had learned the “re-parenting” model of child care, and when I started at St. A’s, there were still vestiges of that model. I felt responsible for the boys on my unit, and fiercely protective of them. I was 100% pro-child.
While I was polite, respectful and generally able to work with the boys’ parents, there was a part of me that was angry, and bewildered: how could a parent hurt or neglect their own child? My lack of understanding put a barrier between me and the boys’ parents, but I didn’t give it much thought. I was there to work with the children, and my allegiance was strongly with them. I see now, however, that my point of view was a direct reflection of where I was in my own life.
When I started in social work, I was the young parent of a shiny new baby. She was a blank slate, a bundle of endless possibilities. I was going to write a story on that fresh sheet of paper, and it was not going to contain any of the darker chapters of my own history. My child was going to have a clear path to her (perfect) future. She would not be derailed by any of the flaws and imperfections that sometimes caused me to struggle. I would see to it that she had every tool she needed, so that she could craft the life she wanted for herself, unfettered by any of the detritus that littered my emotional landscape. I would make sure of that.
Well, guess what? Three children and many failures later (some large, some small), I have a different perspective. Try as I might, I was unable to completely protect my children from the roadblock that was me. At every turn of the parenting road I somehow emerged to throw down my own barriers to an already difficult journey. Of course not on purpose — my intent was still to provide my children with a toll-free drive to their future. But I could not always get out of my own way. Sometimes through my own DNA, sometimes through lack of self-awareness and sometimes because it was just too much trouble to go against my usual patterns, I ended up making things harder for my children, despite my best intentions. In the movie “Parenthood,” Steve Martin’s character comes to this realization: “You know, when your kid is born, it can still be perfect. You haven’t made any mistakes yet. And then they grow up to be like…you.”
So you can see where this is going. After many years out of social work, while I raised my children and life took a few turns I didn’t plan on, I have returned to SaintA. And what has changed in those intervening years? A lot, of course. The paperwork, for one! But mostly me.
Of course I am still 100% pro-child. But I am now 100% pro-parent, as well. Because I understand the struggles of parents who love their children but have themselves to contend with. I can empathize with their difficulties in making changes and admire them for their bravery as they try to do so. And even when they don’t succeed I will have a better perspective on the enormous amount of energy it takes to make that effort. While I guess it is technically accurate to say I have returned to SaintA, in some ways I have come back as a very different person. In some ways I am definitely a “newbie.”
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