Things Mommy-Social-Workers Think About


Doesn’t it bother anyone else that Curious George is always referred to as a monkey? 

I mean, he is a chimpanzee, and chimpanzees are great apes.  He doesn’t have a tail for crying out loud, that should be the first clue! 

There are distinct differences between apes and monkeys, such as intelligence levels (apes are generally smarter), preferred habitats, and ability to swing from trees (apes do it, monkeys do not).  It is a total misnomer to call Curious George a monkey, and I resent that PBS is perpetuating this error to our innocent youth. 

Speaking of which, why is it funny and cute for Curious George to get into all that mischief?  I don’t want my kids to think it is cool to be filling the entire house with water for ducks, taking someone’s boat on a joyride, or letting animals out of the zoo.  It’s just naughty. 

If Curious George were my client, I would probably diagnose him with ADHD and Disruptive Behavior Disorder. 

But I wonder if Curious George comes by all that disruptive behavior because of attachment issues.  Afterall, the Man With the Yellow Hat ripped him away from his mother, and out of his natural habitat when he was a very little monkey.  I mean very little ape.  That’s got to do some damage on a developing brain right there.  He was probably taken out of the wild before he was even weaned from his mama since apes nurse in the wild until five years of age.  That’s just sad. He’s probably traumatized from not being properly weaned.  

This was my internal monologue as I paced my room gathering various articles of clothing  for a “business casual” outfit.

I caught myself and rolled my eyes.

I’ve been a social worker for a decade and a half.  As a child and family “therapist,” I work with families that are considered “high risk.”  On any given day, I see children with sexual trauma, mood disorders, school refusal/truancy, psychotic disorders, fire setting behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, violent aggression, or severe behavioral and emotional disorders related to abuse and neglect.

I see kids who are placed in foster or residential facilities, either because their families of origin have been deemed unsafe, or because the child him/herself is not safe enough to be in the home.  I see kids who have lost their parents to cancer, suicide, drug abuse, or mental illness.

I think there is a mystique to my profession, for those who are not in it.  Let me be clear:  I am not an expert in any of these areas.  I know a little bit about a lot of things, and flex the skills I have to suit each situation.  When my lack of expertise on a certain issue, sexual perpetrating behavior, for example, borders on unethically slight, I make referrals to  specialists.  But often, insurance or logistics will not allow a child specialized care, so they are stuck with me.

Every once in a while, I get a teen who is depressed over a breakup, or anxious about applying to college, and just needs to talk it out.

I see parents who are struggling with intense pain as they try to help their child.  Parents call me in crisis, fatigue, despair, and anger.  I see parents with their own emotional and cognitive limitations who’s understanding of their child’s developmental issues will not come to fruition under my watch, if ever.  I see other parents who despise their children.

Often, progress is very slim.  Many clients “drop out” of care before we really get to the crux of anything at all.  It can be hard to show up and remember everyone has the potential for change and growth when we see so little of it.

In the beginning, it was a blessing to be let into the lives of these folks, to hear their stories, see their resilience, and share their growth.

Then I had children.  And it became more or less a nightmare.

Becoming a mom brought into sharp focus just how greatly social work shifted my internal monologue, and tainted my world view.

When we go to the playground, I am scared my children are being sexually perpetrated if they are out of my sight for a moment.  If they have developmentally appropriate tantrums, I am frightened they are suffering a traumatic reaction to that time I allowed them to cry just a moment too long.  When I get a migraine, I am certain it is a tumor and envision my children curled in my empty side of the bed, crying for mama.

It is a perverse hypervigilance that causes me concern over Curious George’s mental state and behavioral dys-regulation.

Some people call this “vicarious trauma”, or “burnout”.  Others call it “compassion fatigue”.

Whatever you want to call it, it is basically when a worker starts to feel increased levels of anxiety and discomfort, and sees a darker, more unsafe view of the world.  I do not have any specific statistics to cite for you, but anecdotally, most social-worker-mommies will tell you it is a pretty harsh gig to pull off as a mom.

I’ve struggled with it over the years, since Jack was born.  It has come and gone.  It has cost me sleep and my sense of humor.  It has made me walk down the hall at work, threatening to quit and go work at Trader Joe’s.

At its worst, it makes me see the client as an enemy because no matter how hard I work, they do not do what I recommend and they do not “just get better” like they would if they just “worked the program”.

Of course there are other forces working against us–  mainly poverty, and the appalling limitations of mental health care in this country.  That is the real enemy.  Not my clients, some of whom chose me, and some of whom get stuck with me because that is what the court ordered, or that is all their health care will pay for.

It humbles me that people continue to show up to see me, but it is also a delicate burden to carry.

The population I service is a discreet slice of the humanity pie. But it is the slice I see, day in, day out. Because of this constant exposure, it can be easy to lose perspective, and to believe that the slice is the whole pie. It makes it so much easier to fear the world, to feel unsafe, and most upsetting, to believe my children are in danger whenever they walk out the door.  To worry Curious George is setting a poor example for them, and they will not have the common sense not to climb up the dinosaur skeleton at the museum.

It takes a lot of effort to remain grounded.  It is a balancing act to help “world-proof” my children without indoctrinating them into a culture of fear.  It is almost impossible to find the time necessary for the “self care” involved in treating vicarious trauma.

Sometimes I do pretty well. Sometimes I suck.

I think, before I became a mom, I was on my way to being an amazing therapist.  I was dedicated, motivated, passionate, and had bounding energy.  Buuuuttttt. . .  balancing the responsibilities of being a mom with work and managing my own sanity takes its toll.  And being a mom is more important to me than anything.

Now, instead of pondering how I could lobby to make our systems better, or thinking about new and innovative techniques to use with my clients, I find myself musing on Curious George, because that’s about all my brain can handle.  It is a defense mechanism of sorts for when I am close to overloading all my circuits.

Are you a social-worker-mommy?  If not, how has motherhood changed your career?  What do you think about when you are bordering on burnout?  

15 responses »

  1. Many thanks for writing this. I am a PC, so slightly different training, but our jobs sound similar. I feel like my job makes me a sadder person, and is so very draining. It definitely makes me more fearful for my kids.

    • I think it is important for us to know we are not alone in our feelings, since sometimes they can be so overwhelming. Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving an understanding comment.

  2. Thank you for your eloquence and honesty. This was spot on, from one social worker mommy to another. I admire your ability to work in the trenches! Even before kids I struggled with anxiety related to bearing the responsibility to help people overcome some of these traumas. I left that area, became a parent, and while I feel I have great separation and boundaries now, I am triggered when I see people making (what I perceive to be) selfish decisions that are not in the best interest of their children. I manage it for the sake of professionalism but it still ticks me off.

    • Preach! I didn’t even get into how hard it is to watch some of the situations play our through my mommy-eyes as opposed to my clinical sight. Sometimes it is too hard or impossible to do the distancing that is necessary to separate the two. thanks for the comment and compliment!

  3. Curious George annoys me to no end. But I guess it could be worse.

    Have I asked you if you’ve read Trauma Stewardship? It’s a mindfulness/buddhist type book about social work and I think it applies to social work AND parenting!

  4. I am not a social worker and do not think I will be able to do it: I am really admiring you for these choice of profession and be able to do it. I think that with motherhood we all loose our innocence and since becoming a mother I am sometimes terrified by everything and cannot stand to read some news in the paper anymore, especially involving abused children. I know that the worst can happen because I experienced some of it myself and I am doing everything to protect my child but well, sometimes it’s hard not to be totally paralyzed by fear. Maybe I am more able to protect her because I am aware of the bad in the world, but well… I wish I didn’t…

  5. deep appreciation for those with enough compassion
    to do social work! and like the author’s of curious george
    who were busy fleeing the nazi’s
    sometimes it’s useful not to dwell on details
    to keep the heart open 🙂

  6. I think you should give yourself a break! I feel so many similarities to what you describe, because we see these things and know they are all too possible and are real. Vigilance is not a bad thing, I believe it’s an essential thing. For me, it’s balancing the vigilance and trying to maintain perspective.. More so, self analysis to try to ensure I make the best decisions for my children, not what feels better or comfortable for me. There’s nothing wrong with protecting our kids from what we see. And I feel it much more acutely and passionately now that I have my own children. And I also feel a more acute sense of despair and anger for the continuous cycles and those unwilling to do the hard work to break the cycles and help themselves.
    I am incredible passionate about doing what I can for my children to support growth of happy, confident, independent and self regulating individuals. It’s such a huge learning curve and internal struggle to be aware and enlightened myself. I think you’re amazing 🙂

  7. Hey, love your blog. I am a FM doc, mom, wife, friend, volunteer, etc. . . When my oldest turned nine i was suffering burnout and stressed getting everyone out the door and off to school. He looked at me and said, “hey, in 9 more years I’ll be heading off to college” OMG! I had too much to teach him, did not want him to remember me as that horrible morning grouch, too stressed to care. I backed off of my hours to the point of random substitution, and was so very fortunate I could, you make choices, we certainly did not “need” more things. Even with this reduction, I am not a perfect Mom ( I still worry too much, expect so much, and act immaturely at times) or person, though I think I am better than I would have been if I continued working 70% time thru burnout. I found your blog today, because he is heading off to college, (i still have 2 at home) and I am considering a return to work, but I fear recurrence. Isn’t one definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over expecting a different response? I admire all of my classmates who seem to do it all, but I wonder when they are giving so much of themselves in so many aspects of their lives, and yet they still tell me that they have not done enough, (started a free clinic, wrote a novel, changed the world). Is it our egos or our guilt? I also wonder how I can leave work at work and maintain a sense of balance in life.

    Anyway I share this because these musings allowed me to find your blog today. It made me happy to read your posts, and , more importantly, gave me a measure of peace to know that I was not alone in my perceptions.
    Socially, genetically and societally we are asked, and more importantly, ask ourselves to do the impossible. Sometimes, i guess we just need to remember not to judge ourselves too harshly, when sometimes, for whatever constellation of reasons we have to say, no, or even when we try and fail.

    My solution for burnout was to leave an uncomfortable situation and give myself permission to say no, thank you. There may be better solutions, i was fortunate that I could step back from work, and I love being a wife, mom, and so available for my kids, some day they’ll probably need therapy because Mom was there too much. What can you do. 😜
    Keep the great insight coming, you are not alone. Namaste. ✌️

    • Thank you so much for coming by and letting me know your thoughts!! It sounds like you made a great decision for your family, and certainly one I would likely make if it were financially an option for me… Going back now might be different for you since you are at a different place in your life. But yeah it is great to know we are not alone both in mommy burnout and in work burnout! Thanks again. Hope to hear from you again here at Momaste!

  8. Pingback: End Of The World– Getting Cozy With Dukkha | momaste

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