Cleaning the garage, the most odious of tasks, ranks highly on my list of things I try to avoid at all costs. How one large area can accumulate so much “stuff” is beyond me. Things that were “must-haves” now sit in the corner, covered with dust with the other “what was I thinking?” pile. Yet, today was the day my excuses ran out. Sighing heavily, yet armed with boxes, labeled for charity, trash, and “Oh, yeah, I forgot about that thing!” I descended to the dreaded basement/garage.
Only thirty minutes in, I found a box of old pictures that had been packed up after one of my moves. Curious, as I had not gone through them in years, I opened the box.
And naturally, I took a break.
As I combed through the photographs, the chronology of my daughter’s life played like gentle music in my mind. I reabsorbed our history, and a smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. The dusty boxes surrounding me faded into an opaque mist and I no longer sat atop a craft table.
I traveled back to Mobile, Alabama and sat on an equally dusty bench as she climb a jungle gym. She loved that park. When I could get away, we would head there so she could play on the equipment while I watched, delighted at her “Joi de vie”. Other children interacted happily with her and each other with little thought to their differing backgrounds, political leanings or social status.
Play was the great equalizer.
A pang tugged at my heart when I remembered how hard I worked back then. We didn’t get to go to the park as often as either or us would have wanted. Being a social worker often interfered with family time, so we had to catch it when we could. But she always exuded joy when we spent time together.
The next picture portrayed a 9 year old, dressed as a puppy for Halloween. That had been the year we moved to Cullman. Due to a job transfer, we had moved several hours away to a town neither of us had even visited before. The opportunity for advancement for me, coupled with an increase in income for my family, gave me the courage to uproot. I had worried about my little girl having to start over, but she seemed to adjust more quickly than I did. Always carrying a bright outlook, she would assuage my worries by making new friends. And, as our time in the small town grew, so did her circle of friends.
We stayed in Cullman for only one and a half years. Another promotion and transfer, uprooted us yet again. The next picture showed a smiling little girl in her 6th grade school uniform of Jefferson County. But her smile was not as large as before. How did I not notice the slight change in her eyes back then? This transition was not as seamless as our first move, however she slowly adjusted again.
We clashed a little more as she entered her tween years and she felt more confident sharing her truths with me. I will never forget when I had to leave her with her daddy while I went out on a crisis. She defiantly proclaimed, “I wish I were a foster child! Then you would spend time with me!”
Did I ask too much of a child? While I ran all over the city helping other people’s children, did I give all I could to my own?
I came across her high school portraits and smiled again. At least we stayed in the Birmingham area so that she never had to move far away again. The teen years were definitely stressful though as most parents can attest! We navigated the typical ups and downs of the growing adolescent, who inherited her mother’s strength of will. There were times I swore I didn’t even recognize my own daughter, but I never gave up. I could see the beautiful person still inside of the adolescent hard core outside, trying to figure out the women she wanted to be. Our main rule then was to be honest with each other. I stressed to her that no matter how bad the truth was, it was better than a lie. (Sometimes, I wish she had lied to me). But, on reflection, I am glad we stuck to the rule. In the truths, good and bad, a real understanding began and grew to fruition.
The last of the pictures were of her and him. The boy.
She met him when she was 15 years old. He was 18. They started dating when they both attended high school. They have been together now for 11 years, married for 2. They are a complete picture, a true partnership of respect, advocacy for others and love for family. Don’t ask me how, but they got it right the first time. And, I love him like my own son and he loves me back. They both live in Tuscaloosa, but we spend time together as a family every week.
So how does this stroll down memory lane have anything at all to do with social work? Believe it or not…I’m getting to that.
The simple truth of social work is that it can and often does consume you. As I previously stated, constant crisis work with other families, can eat into the time with your own family. I have heard my own staff complain about the demands that take them away from their families. I will not sugar coat it, because it happens to us all.
My only advice for those starting in social work with families should be taken as cautionary.
Make the time.
Find the joy in the little moments.
Build traditions and habits that involve spending the time with those you love. By creating positive experiences, you are strengthening attachments and providing that emotional safety that children need.
Your family time should factor into your plan for self care. Believe me, the joy you get from your family can ease some of the stress of trauma work.
As for me, I am so extremely blessed and thankful on this Thanksgiving week. When I see the mature, creative, intelligent, caring and passionate women that once was that little girl on the jungle gym, I bow my head and give thanks.