between the 33rd and 100th percentile

Baseball is a game of failure.     A highly respectable batting average, .333, means that the player fails to get a hit two-thirds of the time.    Odds like that are unacceptable in most areas of life.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, one of my children was recently told by a coach that it was unacceptable to say, “that’s OK” when a fellow teammate made a mistake, because repeated mistakes were intolerable.     Perfection is beyond most of us as well.  The majority tends to live between the 33rd and 100th percentiles.

Children are constantly being evaluated and graded on their performance—tests, behavior plans, ACTs, standardized testing.  Adults are seldom subjected to the same evaluation.    If I were given a quarterly report card of my job performance as a county social worker, I’m not sure that I would stick around. I expect it might look like this:

Documentation:                   B+ for quality, C+ for timeliness

 Court reports/plans:         A- for quality, B- for timeliness

Comments:  reports are due by 4:00, not 4:30

 Phone Contacts:                   B+ for quality, B- for timeliness of returning phone calls

Comments:  too much time doodling while listening to verbose clients

 Client Contacts:                    A- averaged among all cases

Comments:   some families find social worker to be “power trippy”

Neatness of Office:              B-

Comments:    the system of piles and post-it notes is inefficient and sloppy

Tardies:                                 yes, frequent

That’s about a 3.3 GPA.  I did better in high school and college, but I had an easier time studying for those exams.

The adage says “nobody’s perfect,” but how well do we tolerate imperfection in ourselves, and in the professionals around us?   Recently the pizza deliveryman, a very nice gentleman in his 60s, profusely apologized for mixing up our order.    I was embarrassed that my elder thought that bringing me a supreme pizza instead of cheese was such a serious offense.   I repeatedly told him that it was OK, and we had our correct order a mere 20 minutes later.   We were hungry.  We survived.

Several years ago I experienced severe tooth pain on and off for about 2 years.  I went to the dentist and the orthodontist several times.  I was placed on antibiotics twice, but the pain always returned.  I eventually demanded that my tooth be pulled when the pain became excruciating.    The dentist complied.  When the tooth was finally out he eyed his assistant significantly, and then he gently patted my arm and explained there was a huge infected crack along a root that was not visible on the repeated X-rays.   A mistake?  Perhaps, although I’m not sure how well any other dentist could have found the line that hid itself in a shadow between teeth.   His sincere apology was enough to placate my years of pain and frustration.

What about a mistake in social work?   I am quite certain that I have made many errors in my 18 years as a child protection worker.    Our office is currently preparing for an audit.  Several cases will be extensively evaluated, and we will be given numerical scores and percentages that will be made public.   It is an anxiety inducing process to say the least.

In my novel unprotected, (mild spoiler alert!) Amanda makes a mistake.   This was very intentional on my part.  I wanted her to screw up, because as social workers we always have the fear that we will commit an error that could put a child in jeopardy.

Mistakes are often evaluated based on consequences—no harm, no foul.   It would have been petty to attack our pizza delivery guy, but I believe I was rather gracious with my dentist who had missed the source of years of my dental agony.    The consequences of a social work mistake may be as insignificant as a late report, or as devastating as an injured (or worse) child.     We often feel that we are “damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”   We are either seen as overzealous or careless.   Intrusive or neglectful.   We walk a tightrope between intervention and personal freedom, and sometimes we fall.

In unprotected, Amanda’s mistake is serious, inadvertent, and highly consequential for herself and those around her.    But I’ll leave it to the readers to decide if her mistake was egregious, necessary in the circumstances, and/or forgivable.

Unprotected is now available on Amazon.com, various Barnes and Nobles bookstores around Minnesota, at Cover to Cover bookstore in Brookings, SD, and will soon be at Loons and Ladyslippers in Red Wing.    Thank you for your support!

It’s here!

I held my book in my hand.    There isn’t much in social work that is tangible.       Finally it felt real.

In human services, we so rarely have outward evidence of our accomplishments.   If I help a woman with a crippling addiction stay clean and sober, the proof is in her steady job and clear thinking.    Exciting, but certainly nothing I can hold in my hand.

As child protection social workers, we struggle to make our work into something that can be observed.   We need to write outcomes-based caseplans with concrete results.   We can’t just say that a parent is going to attend therapy as part of his case plan—we need to try to measure progress in therapy.   The glow of more stable mental health isn’t easy to quantify.

With all this abstractness, there are times when I wish I were a professional baker.    I could work with my hands, mixing and blending and folding, and at the end of the day I could point to neat rows of cookies or cupcakes as proof of my efforts.     Many times at the end of a day of social working, I can point to hours of phone calls, documentation and frustration, and I don’t want to hold any of that in my hand.

But my book—that I could hold in my hand.     Is this accomplishment more valuable or notable than the 18 years I have worked as a child protection social worker?   I have to say that it can’t be.   My book is a work of fiction.   My efforts as a social worker, at the risk of sounding dramatic, can be life changing.

So in a job full of (yep I’m going to say it) fifty shades of gray, I’m pretty dang excited to announce that my very tangible book is here!    Please check out unprotected on amazon.com.  And if you like what you read, please “like” it on amazon, recommend it on facebook or pass it on to your friends.  Thank you for your support, and happy reading!

Moving On

My mom passed away last week.    

I don’t know how else to say it.   But words are stupid and can’t begin to describe what it was to watch my mom struggle and fade, and finally slip away from us just days ago.   

I can’t find the words to explain my mom.  I gave her eulogy, and the ten minutes I spoke still didn’t do justice to what it was like to watch my mom crack herself up until she dissolved into silent, hysterical tears.    Or the way the family holidays never really began until Grandma Donna arrived, loaded down with crates of crafts, bags of flour and sugar, and thoughtful trinkets for my kids.   

My mom was kind, but that bland word can’t explain the depth of my mom’s heart.    The way she ached for the losing team or a child scorned.   The unequivocal northward pull of her moral compass.     

My mom was our fuzzy blanket—soothing and peaceful.      She was the quiet smile at the coffee table full of outgoing, bossy, fabulous friends.    “She made our group look good,” one friend said.   “She was so highly respected,” said several.  

I wrote a book, and my mom never saw it.  And while the unfairness of losing my mom makes my heart hurt, my mom never seeing my book is not part of it.   She knew that I wrote a book, and this time the words were insignificant.  It didn’t matter how cleverly I arranged the words on the pages.    She would have been proud of 276 pages of drivel, because I wrote it.

Words are not what sustained us through these last few hard months.    It was the verbs, the actions that have made me believe:  My mom’s invariable smile for us and her caregivers no matter how much she hurt.    Her friends’ daily treats and stories that kept her spirits up when we couldn’t be there.      It was the way we, her kids, took care of her that showed her how important she was—the thousands of miles traveled back and forth to take care of her, the party we gave her with all the cousins from near and so far away, the attentiveness to her needs.   I can breathe a sad sigh of relief knowing that we did our best.  All I ever wanted was to feel like we did right by her.    Those words are stupid too, but they come close.  

And so we move on without her, words that make heart hurt.    But I couldn’t move on to that self-centered task of promoting my book without acknowledging my mom first.    She will be on my mind at every event, and by habit I will probably go home and try to call her or email her about how it went.     And then words will likely fail me again, as I can’t explain the loss, or the ache, or the relief.   I can’t do justice to her humor, or her compassion, or her heart.     All I can do is keep her close, remember her, and try to live the way my mom lived.  My hope is that my family and I can emulate her quiet spirit, and somehow my mom will shine through.