Friday, June 15, 2012

The Perils of Caring

In my line of work, there is a lot of discussion about professional boundaries, finding a way to take time for ourselves, and not to let the stories about the children we work with take too much out of us.  We're encouraged  to not take work home, both literally and emotionally.  All of these things take a lot of practice.  I attempt to adhere to these recommendations, but definitely don't succeed every day.

I think most helping professions attract some really interesting people.  I've worked with some that appear as if they switch their hearts off at the beginning of the day.  While I don't find this practice to be particularly effective in education or psychology, I do completely understand it.  It's probably a lot easier for these people to get their jobs done without becoming emotionally shredded. Then there are those on the opposite side of the spectrum, who seem to eat, breathe, and sleep their jobs.  They go way above and beyond what's required, and they become too involved.  They stay late every single day, they give parents their home numbers, and almost every aspect about their lives revolve around what they do for a living. In my opinion, some of them are simply looking to impress others. I'm not going to lie, there are aspects of this level of dedication that I truly admire. However, I don't think that it's entirely healthy, and I just flat out can't do it.

I believe that I'm in between these two extremes, as most probably are. I don't know what the deal has been with this school year, but it's been one of the toughest in my 15 year career.  Children are privileges, blessings, gifts.  They are precious little beings that should have to be earned.  Sadly, this isn't the case, and the fact remains that it takes more time and effort to adopt a rescued dog than to have a child. I'm still in a fairly active state of awe that we were lucky enough to have the children that we do.  So it offends me to my core when I see children being mistreated.  In certain cases, I have gone above and beyond the scope of duty.  I've had CPS on speed dial this year. I've been more confrontational with parents than I have in years past. Some people simply will not listen to what needs to be said unless it is done in a completely blunt, direct manner. However, 9 times out of 10, the results of my efforts are not what I hoped and prayed for.  This can feel like a kick to the chest at times. Wow, that was a lot of work for nothing...but it's NOT for nothing.  Knowing that I did absolutely everything within my power and within the confines of the law (can't kidnap anyone and bring them home) to help a child has got to be enough.  It rarely feels like enough.  That's when I have to remember to let it go, remind myself that the outcome of these situations are ultimately within God's hands, and move onto the next situation.

People I know who aren't in education often say to me, "HOW do you do this?"  My answers over the years have included, "You just have to learn how to compartmentalize, I leave it at work, I come home to my own children and that helps..."  This year, my stock answer has been, "I don't know."  This has been a year full of so many horrific situations that I truly don't know how I'm doing it. The abuse has been worse, the neglect more intense, the complete lack of regard for education even more overwhelming. The amount of truly awful cases have been on the rise this year as well.  It occurred to me yesterday that the sheer volume of these cases may have something to do with my ability to keep going.  There is literally not enough room in my head to remember all the details.  If there were only two or three really heart-wrenching cases, maybe I would think about them all the time.  So my psyche's inability to effectively store all of this information has actually worked to my benefit.  I haven't always shared horror stories with Mike, sometimes I'm just so burnt I don't even want to talk about it.  However, I talked with him this week about some, down to the minute details.  He was speechless for a little bit before saying, "That makes me feel sick."  Yep...indeed it does.

Having the children that we do sometimes makes my job even harder to stomach.  I look at my first grader and just cannot fathom anyone harming him.  I read him stories and think, "Wow, that one kid never got to do this. No one read to him, or cuddled with him in an affectionate, yet non-abusive way." I talk with my daughter and realize how many girls her age are never given any attention at all, or they're told they're mistakes and stupid. I think about the children I know, the same age as my own, who are routinely exposed to drugs and violence.  They don't have beds, let alone books. They don't know if parents will come home at night to feed them. They don't know if they'll have clean clothes to wear to school the next day that don't reek of smoke.  It's important to point out that these families are not merely poor...there are tons of resources.  I, along with other professionals, attempt to get them beds, food, and clothes.  Oftentimes though, the parents don't follow through with anything, and we have absolutely no legal recourse at all.  Calls to CPS are made, of course, but often nothing actually happens to change the situations. The biological parents, no matter how inept, hold all of the legal cards except in extreme cases. Earlier this year, a CPS worker told me that a policeman had told her that a parent showing their 8 year old porn isn't abuse if that's how they choose to teach their children about sex.  I'm not kidding.  So many of these little people are perpetually treading water at the very bottom of Maslow's hierarchy.  Simply being provided with food, water, clothing, and shelter are not part of these children's daily reality, let alone receiving any love.  It's very, very hard to deal with.  It SUCKS, actually.

My biggest fear is that my propensity towards wanting to help young people will adversely affect my own family.  I have to find a balance.  On the one hand, it's important for my kids to understand what I do and know that helping people is an incredibly important, essential part of being a Christian and a human being.  On the other hand, depending on how much I allow myself to get sucked in, it's possible that my own children will get cheated out of my time.  My mother is an incredible person who has helped countless children throughout her career and charity work.  She has a tremendous heart for people who have less, and a strong sense of justice. I am proud to say that I believe I inherited some of these characteristics from her.  However, and I don't think she'd debate this, I did get cheated out of some of my mom's attention growing up.  My parents divorced when I was very young, and she was involved in many things, both professionally and on her own time.  She was gone a lot, at night.  I didn't have a lot of opportunities to talk with her about things that I was experiencing, both in high school and college. To be fair, my mom isn't a talker like I am, I can talk forever. She's accomplished amazing things, but I did miss that, having a mother who was as interested in me as she was in the children she tried to help.  My children have got to come first, and it has to be a conscious, deliberate action on my part.  My daughter, who is about a month shy of being in the 6th grade, still talks to me.    She is full of hormones and drama and uses expressions I don't understand.  She's changing incredibly quickly.  I make it a point to ask her what happened at school, how her friends are, etc.  There are times when I can't even follow what she's saying. I listen. Sometimes it gets to a point where my eyes start to cross and my mind wanders and she's talkingtalkingtalking.  And I have to stop and remind myself, "Jane.  She's talking to you. Stop answering your email, stop texting, put the magazine down."  Listen.  The key with my daughter is to have her continue talking to me, no matter what. Right now is a very pivotal time for her, and she could go north or south. She's beginning to like boys, and she spends a lot of time in her room now. I have to maintain my detective-like level of interest, because she's already trying to get over on us.  She's a great kid, this is all normal. But I also know that children look for small leaks in the dam.  The second it's strength is compromised, it can break and all hell will break loose. No leaks.  Not yet. They have got to come first, and I can't forget this.

At the end of the day, you have to have the heart for this kind of work.  You have to be able to accept the fact that you can do everything you can think of to help children and families and nothing may change.  Even when things do change, things aren't always going to turn out the way you would like them to.  However,  I think it's important to remember that the amount of work we put into children may actually help, we just may not be aware of it.  Maybe the kids remember what we tried to do, and that someone cared. Even if we were unable to swoop in like a superhero and fix everything that was broken in their lives.  A wise person told me recently, "It's a big deal when kids feel cared for. Never underestimate."  I forget that, I'm rarely satisfied with just that, but I know he's right.

Do I get sucked in too much sometimes?  Absolutely.  I take certain things very hard, and have come home more shredded and teary this year than ever before. Have I lost sleep over some of these cases?  Yes, I have. Do I care too much at times?  I think so, yes.  But I'd still prefer to roll the way I have been, trying my best and putting my whole heart into trying to help. Sometimes it hurts, and it can be really frustrating, but I have to keep going, regardless of the repercussions. I still prefer this over being dead inside and just going through the motions. I have no idea how I'll manage the next 20 years of this, but I will. This is what I'm supposed to do, and when you feel a lot of stuff, the bad comes with the good. I choose to blame my dad for my extreme emotions.  Thanks, Dad!  :)  Man, what a legacy I inherited!

It's better to put your heart out there and risk it getting hurt than not having a heart at all.