I loved the Pixar movie, “Finding Nemo” and my favorite character was Dory, the optimistic fish with short term memory loss. She made so many mistakes, resulting in multiple set backs on her journey as a result of this disability. However, instead of getting discouraged, depressed or disillusioned, her motto was, “Just Keep Swimming”.
I repeat that phrase often when talking with social workers who have come to me after set-backs and disappointments. By quoting Dory I am not trivializing their feelings. I have been there myself. So I attend to their thoughts and feelings because they are very real. I validate the emotional impact that set backs can have on those whose goal is to make positive change. I remember how set-backs can bring you down both emotionally and physically.
Once they have unburdened their anger, disappointment and frustration, we talk about getting back up. We discuss learning from what occurred, if possible and returning to the path they had chosen to walk. In other words…Just Keep Swimming.
But what happens if you find you took a wrong turn and find yourself walking down the wrong path?
Child Welfare is not for everyone. Just as teaching Special Education, working with Juvenile Offenders or even with the mentally ill is not for everyone. The importance of finding and traveling the right path cannot be ovet-stressed.
I experienced an episode of wandering off the path myself many years ago. And I can attest that when you are working in an area not suited to your vision, dedication and drive, you will find that it is extremely difficult to “just keep swimming.”
As I have written in earlier blogs, I backed in to Child Welfare Social Work. But once I started down that path, I knew I had found my path. Being human, however, after a couple of years of high caseloads, low pay and little thanks, I found myself burned out. After transporting a teen to a group home in North Mississippi, I was approached by the director. I had placed several foster children in that home and was impressed with their philosophy and outcomes. The director had noticed the attention I gave the foster children in my care. She informed me that she had an opening for a counselor, and would like to offer me the job. The offer included a salary package much better than Child Welfare. A victim of the “grass is greener” mentality, I accepted.
I worked at the shelter for approximately a year and a half. The job was actually easier than CW. I enjoyed the kids and working with their parents to address what led to the disintegration of the family trust. I was able to use writing therapy and other creative methods to get through to the kids. Plus, I made more money than I ever had before.
And I was miserable.
My heart remained with the foster children. I watched as they were dropped off by social workers from all over the state. Most workers were very invested in their children, following up with them regularly, ensuring that their needs were met and working with them on a permanency plan. But some children got dropped off….literally. I found myself championing them and trying to engage their worker’s around the needs of these teenagers. It became so frustrating to see these teens withdraw or devolve from lack of CW involvement.
I realized pretty quickly after taking the job that I had made a mistake. I was meant to be the CW social worker who had too many cases, too little thanks but also was determined to make a difference.
I had made a commitment to this new job. I knew quitting before working at least a year would be unprofessional and impulsive. I had no other opportunities either. I had moved 3 hours away from anyone who knew me as a CW social worker. I had no contacts in that area to help me make a change.
So I decided to “just keep swimming.” I made a commitment to give the job my best for at least a year and find satisfaction in the role I was now playing. I didn’t have a plan after that year, but I knew it would be unwise to either quit suddenly or to give less than my best.
That year ushered in some very difficult situations with a very difficult population. Navigating through those situations, however, increased my knowledge and skills in working with traumatized teens. Those skills, so crucial to social work, would not have been honed had I just quit.
After 18 months at the job, my old CW director called me, asking if I would consider coming back to work for her. Without me asking, she stated that she had talked with the state and was willing to offer me more than I was getting at the current position. I couldn’t believe it.
Of course I accepted.
I gave a full month’s notice to the shelter before returning to the path for which I was meant: Child Welfare Social Worker: A path I stayed on for the next 28 years.
I am not going to say that my subsequent time in CW did not have disappointments, set-backs and even hair pulling stressful days. Anyone who has done this work knows that would be a lie. There were hundreds of times I wanted to quit. There were days I came home convinced I could not go one more step on my chosen path. There were even nights I cried myself to sleep.
But I didn’t leave. Not for 28 more years.
Why did I stay?
Yes I have had horrible days. Yes CW was the most stressful, thankless job I had ever had.
I have also had days where I thought my heart would burst with happiness and pride.
A foster child, held back two grades, graduated college determined to be a social worker to give back to other troubled teens.
A young mother finally broke the cycle of sexual abuse her family had perpetuated for decades.
A three year old girl with selective mutism spoke her first word to her adoptive mother.
Sometimes the good occurs less frequently than the frustrating. But those successes, like time-release capsules can sustain me for quite a while.
If you are experiencing disappointment and set-backs in your path to make a positive change, examine why.
Was the set-back due to an isolated incident that frustrated you and made you want to give up? Talk to someone you trust. Talk to someone who will allow you to vent, listen and validate those feelings. Then look at what happened, what you can learn, how you can try again…And Just Keep Swimming.
Or is the set back due to your general acceptance that you inadvertently got on the wrong career path? Talk to someone you trust: someone who will allow you to vent and who will listen and validate those feelings. Re-examine your self-vision and think about the activities and tasks that bring you the most satisfaction. Take time to really know where you think you should be. Then… Just Keep Swimming…
Do your current job with Excellence and dedication while you search yourself and other opportunities. When the right place comes along, you will know it and will be able to get back on the right path with your head held high. Even if your new job is not in the Social Work field…