Tag Archives: Maggie Karoff

Lessons from the past

When I was 14, I started working in a restaurant as a bus girl.  I grew up in a town that, at the time, I thought was the most boring place on the planet, and was desperate to get out.  I decided I would go abroad for a semester in South America– see the world, learn Spanish, meet South American boys.  Worried my parents would say no, I figured I would get a job so that I could pay for it myself, and then instead of asking them, I would simply tell them I was going (it sort of worked).  So off I went to Stars, a local restaurant down on the harbor.  I filled out an application and mumbled some kind of youthful, naive, something or other about how I was the perfect person for the job while my eyes full of insecurity betrayed my carefully designed speech.  The managers looked at each other skeptically, decided to give me a shot, and so began the multitudes of time I would spend in restaurants for many years into the future.

Stars was the sort of restaurant that had a two hour wait for Sunday brunch and Friday and Saturday dinner–not a place where patrons leisurely lingered over multiple courses.  It was fast–people were in and out, and I was constantly running about doing twelve things at once and trying to remember the six things three different tables had just asked for, all the while trying to remain personable and make people feel like we had some kind of meaningful, albeit brief, relationship.

In conversation with a coworker recently, I realized that working in a restaurant is shockingly similar in many ways to working in child welfare.  There is never ending list of things to do, and occasional lulls are ripe with a feeling of what’s coming.  The last thing you want is for all of your tables to leave (children to go home or get adopted) at once, because when that happens you know you’ll be slammed for the next two hours (months) with new tables (new cases).  There are tables (families/children/foster parents) that are very needy and require much more of your attention, and there are those that make you laugh and ask you how your day is going.  Some say thank you, some don’t.  Your ability to do the work depends on more than just your own actions; the quality of your relationships with the people you work with greatly determines your success– the hostess who gives you the good customers and sends the Europeans who don’t know to tip well to another section, the busser who works extra fast in your section, the chefs who make sure all of your tables’ meals come out just right even when they have picky requests– the service providers who address the needs of your families and give you the reports that you need for court, the CPS workers who help you through bureaucracy and answer the phone for a favor, the case aids who will watch that visit for you so you can squeeze in your home visits at the end of the month, the attorneys who actually call you back, the supervisor who is there to support you, the coworkers in your office who allow you to vent and make you laugh.

As soon as I recognized this analogy, my perspective on casework took on a whole new degree of clarity.  Casework and waitressing demand the say degree of multitasking, juggling, people skills, and relationship building.  And, for one’s own sanity, both demand that you find some kind of a rhythm, a dance as you move through each day.  I had fun traveling down memory lane, looking back back on my years at Stars.  I was the queen of that restaurant.  I had amazing relationships with everyone who worked there–even that angry chef who was more likely to grunt at you and glare than put together a sentence.  I learned Portuguese from some of the Brazilian guys in the kitchen.  I moved faster than anyone, and more gracefully than I would have guessed myself capable.  My mind was sharp as could be, I became one of those servers who never wrote anything down.  It truly did feel like dancing in a way.

What I did not remember until a few weeks after this reminiscing, when the memory finally managed to make its way to the surface, was that I had come very close to being fired from that first restaurant job.  Maybe a month after I had started working at Stars, right before the Sunday brunch rush, the general manager brought me out back and told me that I was just not moving fast enough.  “This is a very busy restaurant,” she said, “and we need everyone to move at light speed, otherwise it messes everyone up.”  She told me she’d give me one more chance, but if I did not improve significantly, and fast, then she would have to let me go.

What was astounding to me as I thought back and remembered a few of the duds they actually allowed to stay over the years was that I really must have been pretty awful for them to have almost fired me.  To think that a year later I was one of the best employees they had ever had must have been some kind of a miracle.  It was also fascinating to me to realize how deeply buried that memory was.  It’s really no wonder why, because as I thought about it more than a decade later, I was overcome with the fear, embarrassment, that sinking feeling in my stomach, and the shakiness in my hands that had hung with me for several days after that conversation– who would ever want to keep those feelings right on top?  My brain had clearly been protecting me from that discomfort.

I think it’s pretty normal to consciously or unconsciously try to forget painful events in our past.  But the trouble with doing so is that we fail to hold on to the memory of overcoming those difficult times.  As crazy as it may sound, realizing today that at age 14 I had what it took to go from a truly terrible, almost fired, bus girl to one of the best that Stars had ever seen helped me to feel reassured that I have what it takes to–with time, experience, and humility–master this child welfare world…or at least to learn to dance through it with grace.  And to me that is very exciting, because as a caseworker in foster care, the stakes are somewhat higher than Sunday brunch and burgers on a Friday night.  In a restaurant, the dance is just a dance.  In foster care, the dance has immeasurably powerful ripples.

It’s certainly ok and perhaps even necessary for our psychological survival to let go of the pain of the past, but there’s so much power in holding on to the moments in our lives that teach us what we’re made of.  So often in the day to day experience of this work I encounter individuals who are so beaten down that they haven’t a clue where their strengths lie; they have forgotten how strong they are and what they are capable of.  So that’s what I’ll ask of the families I work with when they are struggling to feel able to move forward–tell me what you have overcome.  And that’s what I’ll ask of myself, starting with holding on tight to the memory of a silly 14 year old girl who learned how to dance at Stars.

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Finding the Rhythm in Child Welfare

Several weeks ago as I was leaving my office, headed home, all of the sudden I felt guilty for leaving. At the time I was still catching up on the madness of inheriting a caseload of 26, with several families with very long and complex histories. I had a permanency hearing report two days overdue, a FASP that was a week overdue, and two additional permanency hearing reports due by the end of the month for families I knew very little about. I had 3 expired special rate packages with foster parents calling me daily. I had court in two days and somehow needed to refer the father for a random drug test, ensure that he goes, and get the results before then. I needed to do a full day of home visits at the end of the week but had not yet scheduled one of them. l had birth parents I had not yet met. I had several families that I feel like if I could just spend some intensive time with them and invest some serious energy into going the extra mile to get everything in order, the kids could go home within a month or two. And I plan to do just that as soon as I surface from this whirlwind that I keep thinking exists only because I am new, and because the learning curve is massive, and because I inherited a caseload of 26 kids on day one that had seen 3 caseworkers in the last two years. But more and more, I’m realizing that there is no surfacing from the whirlwind–this whirlwind is an eternal whirlwind. And that night, I felt guilty leaving the whirlwind behind me.

I’m not sure why I felt particularly guilty that night. Maybe it was because I was the first of my coworkers to leave, and as I walked out I saw that familiar look on their faces left that says “I wish I were headed home now, but I’ll probably be here for a while…” Perhaps it was because as I left, my director was standing in the doorway, and she has these twinkly eyes full of a constant hint of expectation and a ferocious passion for this work that just makes you want to truly go to the ends of the earth for these kids and families.

Regardless of why, I walked out into the Harlem night feeling guilty– despite knowing that I would be getting home close to 8:00 PM and probably eating dinner around 9:00– and I did not feel okay with it. So then I became mad at myself for feeling guilty, and then I started feeling mad at myself for feeling MAD at myself for feeling guilty. And then I saw the whole thing happening and started wondering just how my brain could become so neurotic in just a few short minutes, and what on earth was I doing in this job that manages to impact me in this way? And maybe I should have quit two months ago–and maybe it’s not too late to do so.

On my commute home, I asked myself what exactly it is about this work that can be so maddening? I have realized that for me the greatest challenge in this work is finding balance–the balance between going the extra mile enough of the time to feel like I’m actually making a difference and putting my heart into this work, and not doing it so much that I burn out. The balance between getting the work done and letting the to do list languish in the interest of taking care of myself.

I have spent much of the last year or so of my life trying to develop some degree of groundedness and inner stability and trust in the universe to direct me to whatever joy or pain and triumphs or obstacles that I may need to get wherever it is I’m going. I think I am a fairly grounded person, but the reality is that this job is shaking that foundation I have so deliberately and carefully built to the core. It is so hard to feel grounded when I am constantly, moment to moment, being pulled in so many different directions. At one moment I’m organizing an emergency meeting, coordinating eight different schedules, the next I’m digging through four year old progress notes to figure out how this whole thing started and what has been tried in the past, and the next I am sitting down with a painfully hard to engage 13 year old boy desperately seeking more then a “yeah, “no” or “I donno.” Five minutes later the phone rings and it is someone from ACS who needs a copy of Form 1862D faxed over (or something equally as enthralling), but I have to hang up that call to answer a call from a birth parent who I have been trying to track down for the last month, and she is going through a crisis and saying I need to do this and that and I’m not doing my job and she’s going to the news first thing in the morning and the agency will be shut down, and in reality all she really needs is someone to listen because she is scared and lonely and angry and just needs to blow off some steam. The whirlwind is unrelenting.

I am pulled into the past to understand how these families got here, to support them in healing and reconciling the impacts of times gone by. I am pulled into the future to plan and figure out how things are going to work out. And I am constantly pulled into the depths of the present moment to be with a client who walks through the door or whose home I visit to simply listen and empathize and be real with them. I am pulled so ceaselessly and forcefully in all directions in time that my soul starts to feel spread thin.

Everything in life has a different rhythm. Different places have different rhythms, different times have different rhythms, the various paces at which we operate have different rhythms. This job has me engaged, simultaneously, in so many different planes of time and scales of human engagement that I’m struggling to find the rhythm. It feels at times like I’m being forced to dance salsa to reggae music or break dance to a waltz. I can’t quite make out the beat, and it just feels like a constant clash.

I am a firm believer in the idea that we always have at our disposal the ability to transform our experience by changing the way we relate to it. Conflict, clash, discomfort, feeling overwhelmed–these experiences are so dense with opportunity and potential for individual growth. This work forces us into a head on collision with the full spectrum of the madness of this world that we humans have created–the stories of horror and tragedy, the stories of resilience and triumph, the humor and the bureaucracy, the mistakes and the miracles and the love that knows no end. We are engaged with the profound moments so close to the core of human existence, and the mind-numbingly trivial. I cannot think of any other line of work that would give one a more complete picture of what it means to be a human being alive in this world today. This is a gift. A tremendously huge gift that is rocking my foundation and forcing me to remind myself every day that it is indeed a gift. Experienced moment to moment, this job is a chaotic concert of clashing rhythms. But the entire experience, seen from a bird’s eye view, comes together as a monumental opportunity, an enormous gift, and an orchestra of unimaginable beauty that helps me to feel closer to the constant knowledge of just how sacred this life is. If I can continue to hear this orchestra in the day to day, moment to moment experience of this work, then I believe the rhythm will be there when that woman calls for the umpteenth time for that form she needs faxed. The constant clashing is part of the rhythm. I just need to keep learning how to hear it.

In our Children’s Corp group and amongst my coworkers, we talk a lot about the importance of celebrating the small victories, no matter how small, and the little bits of joy and happiness that we can get at any moment, because we need those to carry us through. I do think this is hugely important and I try my best to celebrate everything I possibly can and support the people around me to do so as well. But for myself I need to be able to celebrate everything for the role it plays in fitting into the whole, the whole which is neither good nor bad, neither joy nor sorrow, but simply the complete picture of our experience.

So the next time I feel guilty for leaving a long to do list behind, and then proceed to get mad at myself for feeling guilty, I will laugh, because I can see so clearly that I am also a human created and molded by this crazy human world on this overwhelmingly complicated planet. I am as imperfect as anyone, and I fit beautifully into this orchestra. The undone to dos will fall away. The guilt will dissolve. Face to face with this child welfare world that is more densely packed with opportunity for growth than any I have ever confronted before, I will simply be grateful.


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