“We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”
I had high expectations for my new life in NYC. Much like the heroines in the romantic comedies that fill my Netflix queue, I imagined that the city would transform me. Surely I would be absorbed into the vibrant ebb and flow of the concrete jungle, experiencing just the prescribed amount of triumph and heartbreak before emerging a stronger and more confident woman. I have lived in New York City, splitting time between Manhattan and Brooklyn, for a grand total of 29 days, and I am already a different person, but not in the ways that I anticipated.
In the years since I graduated from college I have wrestled with the term “grown up,” trying to decipher what exactly it means to be a grown up and how I would know when I was finally a fully functioning adult. After four years of college and two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda I could certainly see growth in my character and development, but based on my deep love of children’s movies, a lack of crystal clear goals for my future, and a propensity for allowing my bank account to hover just above the minimum, the elusive label of “grown up” seemed to be still out of reach.
I was thrilled to accept a position with Children’s Corps because I am passionate about working with children and the program offered me an opportunity to try to change the world for the better. I also viewed NYC as my opportunity to live independently in an environment that would push me to confront all of the boundaries preventing me from making the grand leap into adulthood.
I hoped that apartment hunting would be my first successful solo venture into the adult world. I had visions of my NYC self, the epitome of maturity and independence, meeting with landlords, negotiating the lease, and securing my ideal apartment. In reality, instead of blossoming into a sophisticated adult, I often found myself playing the role of a petulant child. I struggled to manage expectations and keep a positive attitude as I dove into the chaos of navigating the Craigslist apartment market. Throughout the process I did not feel mature at all, and almost every visit was narrated by a whiney voice chattering in my head. The rooms are too small. The commute to work is too long. The owner has six parrots in the kitchen. I’ll have to harvest an organ to pay rent.
I did eventually find an apartment, and in the process of acclimating to the city I have learned the value of HopStop and Seamless, opened a new bank account, invested in quality headphones for the plethora of train rides ahead of me, and hailed my first cab after new shoes gave me blisters. I wrote a check to my landlord with enough zeros to induce a bout of nausea and filled out stacks of paperwork for the HR department, ecstatic to see all the zeros on my first real salary. All the aspects of my “adult life” started to fall into place and yet I was lacking the epiphany signaling that I was magically an adult, somehow really making a difference amidst all the chaos, sorrow, and violence that plagues our world.
On the first day of shadowing at my agency they were not quite prepared for me, so I had a lot of quiet reflection time. My supervisor gave me a few reports to read and I devoured every word, drew family maps, and studied all aspects of the particular family described in the documents. Three children, two foster homes, an absent birth mother, and two children freed for adoption. I studied the facts, prepared a list of questions I wanted to ask my supervisor, and left that day feeling somewhat confident in my abilities to do this job. The next week I followed another case planner to visit the children, and within a few moments all of the facts and figures jumped off the papers and manifested before me in the shape of three adorable young children, running in circles around my legs and begging to play catch with their new ball. I played basketball with the 3 and 2 year olds, held the baby’s chubby hands as she gurgled and cooed in her stroller, and talked about the children’s progress with both foster moms. I cared deeply about the children when they were numbers and names on paperwork, but to have the kids right in front of me evoked a mixture of joy and panic all at once. Reading about a family, engaging myself in constant theoretical debates about how to best support the people I work with, was nothing like meeting them in person. In that moment the case was no longer theoretical and all the possible solutions I had brainstormed would need to be decided upon and implemented, with real consequences to accompany every choice. The enormity of my job, and the many responsibilities that I have in order keep these children safe and happy, all while moving swiftly towards the best possible permanency goal, was truly overwhelming.
I will be working with many children over the next two years and it can be rather intimidating to contemplate all of the work that stands before me. I don’t want children to languish in the system but I don’t want them to be rushed into unsafe situations. I want children to be reunited with their parents but that will not always be possible. I want to keep siblings together but extenuating circumstances will sometimes keep them apart. After my first visit with the children on my caseload I spent an enormous amount of time pondering how I could be most effective in my job as a case planner.I made a list of the qualities I hope to embody as I embark upon this new journey, and I realized as the bullet points spilled onto a second page that the tasks involved in this job would never be simple or easy. Luckily, I know that I am not alone. There are many other people who will come together to make decisions about what is best for the children. When I am unsure of how to handle situations or escalating stress levels, I have not only my agency colleagues to lean on for support but also the entire staff, and all the members, of Children’s Corps.
It turns out that I was right to expect change when I moved to NYC, but the catalyst is not the city- the work is. I find myself constantly inspired by the families I will work with and my colleagues in the field of child welfare. For every worker I have met who is burnt out and exhausted there are ten more who love what they do and exude passion and empathy in every interaction I have observed. I am so excited to start working with families at my agency and beyond grateful to be a member of Children’s Corps. I have a month’s worth of training, enough handouts to make any tree-hugger cringe, and so much more to learn. I am working to redefine “adulthood” based on the revelation that my life will not be comprised of one great contribution, but a multitude of small efforts- some of which I will completely screw up- some that will end splendidly, and all of which will be based on a true love for the work I get to do each day.