A couple weeks ago, I handed my supervisor an application for B2H services for a child on my caseload. She looked it over and gave it back to me, saying that the psychiatric evaluation included in the application was outdated. “What do you mean?” I asked her, “it’s not more than six months old, it’s only from November!” She started laughing, and said to me, “Maggie! It’s August! November was nine months ago!” My eyes widened as I realized it was true. “The months just fly by in foster care,” she said, still laughing as she walked away from my desk.
It’s true. The months DO fly by. Here we are, those of us from the first Children’s Corps class already having passed our one year mark, and a brand new class of Corps members trained, placed, and out there working hard.
In the last year I have found that because, as Children’s Corps members, we are committed to our jobs specifically for a two year period, the way we experience time is different. The future, rather than a blank canvas devoid of an eventual completion of sorts, is marked with signposts measuring the distance towards two years like mile markers in a marathon. Regardless of what we do with our lives after that 365th day of Year Two, whether we move on or continue this work with our respective agencies indefinitely, on that day we will have completed something. And so until that day, time has its signposts.
My own personal signposts have taken the form of seasons. While I dearly miss the California lifestyle and can’t deny I enjoyed the weather that felt like eternal September—ever sunny and warm-but-not-too-warm— in moving back to the northeast, I am immeasurably glad to once again be bombarded by the full force of seasons. They give us something to distinctly measure the passage of time. I began this job in mid September of last year, one week before the autumnal equinox. At that time I was wide eyed and eager and invincible, though I had also thought, “Oh no, what on earth have I gotten myself into?” But I dove head first into the work with a full caseload, and when the end of December came, I looked back and thought “Phew! I survived the Fall!” and looked forward and realized for the first time that I could finally at least see everything that I still did not know, which felt like quite an accomplishment in itself. When the spring arrived and I found myself giving tips and answering questions for my coworkers, and finally feeling that my caseload was under control, I thought, “Wow, I’m really getting the hang of this.” When June rolled around and I found myself working less hours because I was able to get the work done in less time, I started feeling like a veteran, totally on top of things, and actually had to kick myself to inspire some humility and appreciation for how much more I have to learn.
What I love about the seasons is that it’s almost possible to forget them as each one passes and we leave it behind us. As we cross into them again with another year under us, we remember them like places we once had a special fondness for but have not traveled through for some time. Oh yes, we remember when winter sneaks up on us, THIS is what it feels like when the cold takes my breath away, and this is how magical that first snow really is.
What I love even more about seasons is that, as we tread through the same seasons again and again, our lives become a walk along a spiral path that rises vertically instead of outward, with each circle coming back around to that remembered familiarity of each season. It’s as if we look down at ourselves through the layers of time, the mile marker seasons that came before. And from this vantage point we see our journey with a bit more contrast. We see the layered impact that time has had on our weathered souls, and we see our path of becoming.
Suddenly now, it’s the beginning of September, and I am quickly nearing my own one year mark in this work, about to stride forward into another new school year, another wave of falling leaves. I’m looking down from where I stand and seeing the eager, hopeful-hearted rookie that I was one year ago. I see how much I have learned, how much I have experienced, how I have been changed. And in this moment, as if in karmic return for my early summer arrogance of self-declared totally-on-top-of-things veteran status, I find myself contemplating what it means to feel burned out.
Coming into this work, I was cognizant of the horror stories of child abuse and neglect, forewarned about the frequency with which I could expect be cursed out by angry parents, and generally aware of the commonly thought of factors that make this work unappealing to most. I was prepared for all this and had my guard up against the impact it might have. But these are not the most difficult aspects of this work for me.
This work is a constant fight. A fight to get parents to do what they need to do. A fight to get kids to do what they need to do. A fight to get children the services they need and a fight to do anything we can to heal the impacts of trauma and neglect for parents and children alike. A fight to stay on top of the adrenaline filled crises that erupt as soon as the last one has settled down. This work is all of those heart wrenching things that people outside the field think about as their eyes get big when you tell them what you do. Heavy stuff! But these are such obviously worthy fights, and they are fights I honestly don’t get tired of. What really wear me down are the fights that I feel I shouldn’t have to fight. Like the fight against waitlists that are too long. And the occasional fight to get a foster parent to carry out a simple task of caretaking. Or the occasional confrontation with typical ego-driven office politics. Or the fight against adjourn dates for court hearings that are too far apart and stand in the way of permanency. We’re confronted often with a war against an imperfect, underfunded system that manifests in bureaucratic battles that lack the glory and the urgency of the more obviously worthy fights. These are the fights that tire me out and break my spirit. The little things. The mundane things. The fights I shouldn’t have to fight.
This past week in my office, morale was low among the case planners. The good that came of it was lots of bonding amongst our small team of case planners over a handful of long lunches of venting, storytelling, and dreams of what comes next for each of us. There was light hearted, not-too-serious talk of radically changing careers, starting a business, anything that pays more, and, of course, graduate school. I’ve found that the moments when one starts thinking about graduate school or any significant next steps are very telling moments. They tell us that either we are unhappy, and we want to get out of what we’re doing, or we’re so happy that we just can’t get enough and we’ve got to somehow find a way to do more.
As for myself, I was feeling low at the time because of two particularly trying “fights I shouldn’t have to fight” that had come my way that week. One night after work, I was telling a friend about one of these two “battles”. I had almost given in and backed down, but I knew that if I had, at the end of the day I would not be being true to myself and I would regret it. So I fought back. I can’t exactly say that I won that battle, and the strength it had taken me to not surrender from the start had left me exhausted. After I relayed the battle story, my friend asked me how I was feeling. Without hesitation and without thought I confidently said “I feel like a warrior.” I laughed in surprise, feeling as if someone else had forced the words out of my mouth. I laughed because I said those words with such fortitude as I sat slumped on the couch at home, half asleep–I really did not think I looked much like a warrior at all. And I laughed with a light heart as I felt the weight lift off my chest, knowing that it was true. I did feel like a warrior, in the proudest and noblest sense of what it means to be a warrior.
A warrior is not simply one who goes to war, but one who does so with courage, with heart, and for the right reasons. It takes a warrior to choose to come into this field in the first place. There’s simply no reason to be here if you don’t have an oversized heart full of fire. I see that every day in each and every one of my coworkers. But once we are here, the day to day, moment to moment experience is simply one choice after another after another of whether to be a warrior or not. A choice of whether or not to fight and with how much heart. And the way we choose is how we express who we are in this moment, and who we are choosing to become.
The “obviously worthy” fights present that choice as much as the “fights I shouldn’t have to fight,” but perhaps the latter even moreso, because in those instances, the obligation to fight and the glory that comes of it are much less. Beneath it all, I somehow suspect that these less than glorious fights are none other than the outer branches of trees deeply rooted in such things as structural racism and systemic poverty and inequality. Perhaps that is why these battles are so exasperating—because there is a cruel deception in the sterility of it. We start to get a sense, consciously or not, that we are some kind of pawn piece in a game we never chose and never would choose to play. We start to wonder what the point is, and what can really be done from where we stand as a case planner. I think that this sense of powerlessness is unbearable for most, even when we never realize that this is what we are feeling.
Burnout, I think, happens when we are confronted with these moments of choice of whether or not to fight, and with how much heart, and we start to worry too much about winning, about outcomes. Either we think we might not win, or we simply know we can’t. And we start wondering, why bother? We tire of fighting, we tire of the poor odds that are so often present in this work, and the fire in our hearts burns out. What I’m realizing, though, is that if it’s all about winning and outcomes (reunification with birth families, adoptions, permanency, changing behaviors, gaining access to needed services, etc.), then we very well may burn out quickly. It has to be about those moments of choice, those moments when we decide who we are. It’s about the process of choosing again and again. And if we find our resolute rhythm of choosing in the process itself, then the wins will come naturally in each and every moment where a win was ever possible.
From this angle, burnout too becomes a choice. Even when the odds are terrible, still if in confronting each choice we consciously say through our actions and our reactions—This is who I am—then we will already have won to begin with. We win when we see and feel our own hearts alive with courage. And through this palpable courageousness, we help to bring to light the truth that it is better to fight than not to, even when the odds are against us. I think this courage becomes contagious, and so this process of courageous choice making is one of the many ways we get the opportunity to change the odds.
How we fight, I believe, is a matter of wisdom rather than courage. And that is another chapter—a never-ending chapter—of my own experience and growth, and a matter in which the focus on the conversation between intentions and the outcomes themselves is perhaps essential.
My One Year signpost approaches at right about the same time that my birthday marks the end of my first quarter century in this life. It is so easy in these moments of reflection to look back and try to account for what we have done and what we have accomplished in some concrete sort of way. In my last year as a case planner, of the 31 children I have worked with, five have gone home to their families, three went home and quickly came back, four were transferred internally to our adoption unit, and one was stepped up to Treatment Family Foster Care. Those are the numbers. And they speak very little truth about my experience in this field or the experiences that those 31 children and their families and foster families have had in the last year. The truth comes from this moment, looking back through four seasons of child welfare and feeling full of pride in the work I have done, the relationships I have built, and the courage that has surfaced from within. I have faith in my ability to continue on this path of courageous choice making, faith enough to leave myself on auto-pilot in this next year in order to open myself more fully to learning the wisdom of how.
As I simultaneously begin my second year and my second quarter century, I am surrendering completely to an eternity of walking a spiral path of endless choices through the seasons of becoming. In so doing, I consciously choose not to burn out, and I walk confidently into the oncoming wave of falling leaves and yellow buses.