**Note from Melinda: This guest post is from a relatively new social worker whose career I have watched over the past few years. I have witnessed her family’s financial struggles as she seeks to create what all social workers want: a job opportunity that allows us to use our skills to work towards social justice, while experiencing a measure of that justice–adequate compensation that provides dignity and comfort for those we love–for ourselves. I asked her to write about this journey, and I am so grateful for the very personal and poignant way in which she has shared these very intimate challenges. For me, reading this post prompts all kinds of questions, about economic justice (Why are such valuable jobs so relatively devalued?), women’s rights (How can our female-dominated profession empower women as mothers AND as family wage-earners?), about nonprofit organization reform (If even the best organizations aren’t paying family wages, how can they compete with for-profit companies for the best talent?), and about the future of social services for those whose lives we touch (What will our profession look like in 10 years if excellent social workers can’t afford to stay?). I’d love to hear your comments, in response to those questions and to this narrative. And I thank her so much for sharing.
I assume that most people are like me – they went to school to pursue their passion. I got a law degree and a masters degree in social work because my passion is, in the most general sense, changing the world for the better of all inhabitants.
I know that this is not the only reason people go to school, because we also go to school to get a job that will pay our bills, feed our families, and maybe even allow us to have a hobby. But, in the idealist twenty-something head, this is second to passion.
Upon graduation with both degrees, I got a job at a well-respected non-profit in the state. This is lucky, truly lucky, because it grew out of my second year practicum at a time when job prospects for inexperienced graduates were/are not great. I pursued administrative social work, and this position is the perfect blend of giving me a chance to practice what I want to do and giving me the experience I need to continue pursuing a successful career. It is not a “career” position, but it is an unbelievably fortunate starting point.
Shortly after I began this well-paying job, I realized how insufficient the pay really was. I couldn’t pay the bills, buy the gas, food, and pay rent. I couldn’t afford to send my children to daycare, because my husband, if he were to get a job outside the home, would only make enough to cover the costs of sending them – effectively paying to have someone else raise our children. I couldn’t afford health insurance, and there were times that we were selling our book collection by the box so that we could afford enough food and gas until the next pay day. We couldn’t go to the doctor, go visit family, buy Christmas presents. Everything was going toward staying afloat and avoiding shutoff services.
The financial strain my family was feeling began to seep into my work. I was frustrated. I was the least paid attorney there, and I worked hard. I applied for a higher position, and, although I was led to believe I was a shoo-in, I didn’t get it. I started coming in late. I was sarcastic during meetings. I spent a lot of time online.
How on earth did I not get fired? I have no idea. But I had the good fortune of having an understanding supervisor who had a serious meeting with me. My supervisor made it clear that my job was not in jeopardy before beginning to speak, but let me know that what I was doing wasn’t going unnoticed, and my job could be in jeopardy if I continued as I was. My supervisor made it clear that she knew that I had the skills and personality to do this job well, but I had to make the choice to do it with integrity. My supervisor was respectful but honest, and she gave me the decision-making power. It was truly a reflection of the work of the organization – empowerment.
I was humbled. Sometimes it takes someone on the outside who cares for us to show us what a petulant whiner we’ve become. And I was. Sure, I was struggling – I was a first year graduate, just passed the bar. I have children and a family to support. This is stressful stuff, and it hasn’t gone away. Women as breadwinners for their families have unique issues that society hasn’t even begun to address. Seeking balance is important, and sometimes it’s not immediately possible. My life was beyond balance. My focus was solely on supporting my family.
I forgot that I was also working for an organization that looks at the bigger picture and does work that I believe in. I signed up for this job as an opportunity, and I was no longer seeing it that way. I saw it as beneath me, as something I had to do because I couldn’t find something that would pay me “what I was worth.” I knew it was important work, but I had to find a way to support my family, so I only paid lip service to the mission of the organization. Almost immediately after the conversation with my supervisor, I began to change my behavior. I also continued to pursue the next step in my career.
The first three or four resumes I sent out, I would spend a lot of time fantasizing about the position, my life, paying off credit card and student loan debt, having even ten dollars in the checking account on pay day. I would think about the office, buying a house, having health insurance, fixing the car. The first three or four rejection letters I received, I was crushed. Crying, feeling like the world was against me and my family, not being present, and not giving my whole heart to the job I had again.
It was a slow and painful process, but I’ve come to a pretty good place. Nothing has changed. I don’t make more money. I don’t have an office with a window. The book collection is still dwindling. I hope that my children don’t break a bone or come down with something horrible because a financial blow like that could crumble this fragile house of cards. But I do have perspective. Nothing I was doing was making things better. It was making them worse.
I firmly believe that faith is necessary in our lives. We don’t have to be spiritual in the sense of having a religion or faith community, but we have to have faith in something – be it god, Buddhahood, the almighty dollar, personal ethics, or whatever. I have faith that I still have something to learn. I have somewhere to be, and right now it is right here, whether I’m completely at peace with that or not.
I haven’t stopped putting out resumes, and I still sometimes find myself fantasizing about some positions. I only apply for jobs that I would be passionate about, so it’s hard to refrain sometimes. But I’m here. Putting my heart into my job. Searching for the next step while remaining present where I am. I don’t know where I’ll be in one year or ten years. But, that’s no longer daunting; it’s exciting. Every rejection letter I receive makes the mystery more intriguing, because I have to tell myself that this wasn’t it, it wasn’t the perfect place for me to be. Someday that job will show up, and I will be able to move forward with dignity and integrity, because I know that I’ve worked hard, and I deserve it.
I write this not to show how wonderful I’ve become. I still have petulant days, disappointing moments, and plenty of times when I’m not as present in my work and life as I’d like. I just hope that this helps someone who may be there right now, perhaps saving them a trip to their supervisor’s office to have a humiliating conversation. Starting a career is hard, especially today when one position receives sixty applications from highly qualified, experienced people, and we are merely fledglings trying to learn to fly. May we all end up exactly where we need and want to be, and may we learn the lessons that we need to learn without too many growing pains.