In honor of National Social Work Month, it’s time to address how to become a social worker. Actually, I’m asking the burning question, How did I decide to become a social worker? Did it all start in childhood as some kind of fairy tale dream?
Like, at age eight or ten or twelve: “Gosh, being a social worker someday would be so cool!”
“Mom, can I get that sensible outfit like the social workers wear?”
“Hey, let’s watch that movie again where the social worker takes away the baby and everyone hates her!”
Never the stuff of my own kid-dreams, I confess. But I did make my choice to be a social worker early in life—tenth grade. Well, it actually started in the ninth.
I had to write a school paper about my future career choice and could only come up with instrumental music teacher. Why? Because I enjoyed playing my clarinet and sax and I was my teacher’s favorite student—or was it the other way around?
Well, anyway, I knew my decision-making wasn’t based on anything substantial. And when I made it to the next grade and still had no satisfying answer to the previous year’s career challenge, I felt like a failure. I needed to know: what will I really be or do? I mean, shouldn’t all 15-year-olds pressure themselves into knowing such a thing?
I turned to my single-parent mom, a nurse at the local hospital, for guidance. She suggested becoming a social worker, partly because she liked the one she knew at work. (Also because I’d already ruled out nursing.) And also because I’d already shown some inclinations toward helping people.
At 14, for example, I was regularly reading palms, offering comical but positive advice to receptive schoolmates. And by 15 I was reading other things, this time things that really mattered—nonfiction sociology and psychology books I nerdily and regularly took out of the public library.
Surely Mom was right. I made my declaration that I would become a social worker—whatever that was. A couple years later I chose a college offering a social work major and got myself into the program lickety-split.
Not-my-childhood-dream now coming true, my first real social work job after college was in child welfare, where I did get to wear drab attire and did have to take away children (though not babies) from their families.
After a few challenging years I still wanted to be a social worker but one with different job opportunities—so I went to graduate school and got the MSW degree that would help me help people who really wanted my help.
About 10 years of outpatient clinical work later, however, the dreaded and pretty common phenomenon of social work burnout emerged. Nothing that a little therapy for myself and a gradual transfer into self-employment couldn’t fix, though.
Why self-employment? As it turned out, being the token out lesbian in 1980’s work environments hadn’t been so good for me. Practicing on my own would enable me to be much less encumbered by oppressive attitudes and systems.
Interestingly, though, my initial special interest and focus on LGBT issues has morphed over the ensuing 30-plus years into a more general mental health practice—yet one that does include an increasingly diverse range of self-identities passing through my door. And I love it.
A total of 42 years into the career of social work and counting, I think this one just might stick.