Last week was sort of a blur. I spent Sunday through Wednesday in a hotel conference center for the 2013 National Association of Social Workers IL Chapter conference. I had done some work on the event this past summer in my first level MSW placement as the NASW IL intern. It was exciting to see how it all came together, read the copy I wrote for the brochures, and to see hundreds of social workers come together to learn from and challenge one another. Due to my time at the conference, I only spent one day at my internship last week. And, unsurprising in our line of work, one day was enough to produce material for a column!
My one day at the agency was Halloween. We planned to feed, costume, and candy 120 refugee kids. And of course it rained. And the oven in the rented church basement could only cook three pizzas at a time. But we got them all dressed, fed, and out in groups of 8 with a volunteer to knock on doors and demand candy.
Before the festivities began, a girl came up to me with her homework. I tried to explain that we were not having tutoring hours today, but a party instead. While most of the kids shouted for joy when they learned that they were trading in their math problems for chocolate, this little girl looked bewildered. It became clear that she had to finish this worksheet tonight, or she would be in trouble tomorrow. So as I rotated 26 frozen pizzas out of the plastic wrap, into the oven, and onto the cutting board, I helped with her ESL class homework. They were learning “family words”–mother, father, sister, et cetera.
“I have to ask a friend about their family for my homework. Can I ask you?” she asked.
“Sure!” I said, distracted by the pepperoni slowly burning and smoking on the bottom of the oven.
“Okay. Number one. Fill in the blank with either ‘mother,’ ‘father,’ or ‘sister.’ I have a ‘blank.'” She looked at my expectantly.
My thoughts raced. My face felt hot. My choices were to breeze through her homework by lying, saying I indeed had any of these three relations. Or, stop and explain my complicated familial constellation.
“I don’t have any of those right now,” I said. “My family is a little different, I guess.”
The girl looked at me, confused. “Everyone has a family,” she said.
I was suddenly taken back to the early years of grade school, right after my father died. When only my mother showed up for a school event, and a boy asked where my father was. “Dads don’t die,” said the young, beautifully naive boy. “Grandpas do. But not dads.” When I explained to him that they could, and that mine actually had, he began to cry, and told the teacher. I got in trouble for upsetting him.
Our last art project of the year was always to make a Father’s Day card. Each year I felt embarrassed, anxious, and my classmates would ask, “But what is Mary-Margaret going to make?” One year I thought I’d make one for my friend’s dad, who had helped my mother and I since my own father had died. “That’s not your real dad,” a classmate said.
The first holiday season after my mother died, I was 24. My co-workers asked if I would be visiting my parents during our time off work. Sometimes, I just said “yes” to save myself the explanation. I was 24, with no parents, an only child with no siblings, and the child of only children, so no aunts and uncles either.
All of these moments, and more, came flooding back to me as I was asked about my family. “Everyone has a family.” I abandoned the pizzas for a moment and looked at my little client. “You know,” I said. “You’re right. I do have a family, but they aren’t with me anymore. But I have a lot of friends who are like family to me. Should we write that?” She looked up at me and said, “Oh. I get it. I have family who isn’t here anymore either! How do I write that?”
We filled in the words according to the instructions so she would get the credit. And then at the end of the sheet she wrote, “Some families look different than these families. Some people do not have a mother or a father or a sister. But they are still families.”
I succeeded in that small moment by making my client feel like her family was more normal, and still a family. And I hope we gave her teacher something to think about. I thought about our exchange as I wiped face paint, helped sort candy, and peeled pizza from the floor. I thought about it on my bus ride home. And as soon as I opened my front door, my dog bounded up to greet me, my husband had dinner on the stove, and I hoped my client also came home that night to love, no matter their relation.
Written by Mary-Margaret Sweeney
SJS Student Liaison
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