There’s this thing in the social work field (and well, all helping/caregiving professions) called compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a sort of secondary traumatic stress felt by those in the field who are helping and caring for people day to day. As social workers we are helping people and families deal with really tough things, and in turn we can experience a level of stress that the people we’re working with experience, and carry that stress on our own shoulders. This stress can affect us physically, emotionally, spiritually. And this can lead to burn out.
I felt this today. I’ve felt it many times before, actually, but not as much as I felt it today.
As I’ve said before, I’m an Infant Mental Health home based clinician. I work with babies and their families, the babies are the identified clients. I have one baby right now who was born 6 weeks premature. She’s so small and fragile and I find myself worrying about her so much. Her mother is suffering from postpartum depression, and her father is doing the best he can given all the circumstances. This family has a lot of risk factors and stressors, as do most of the families I work with. But today was different. My job has been so difference since I became a mother. I feel like I pick up on more than I did before. I feel like I ask different questions than I did before.
Today when I arrived, I asked the usual questions, checking in with the family to see how things have been going since our last visit. The mother said the same things she has said before, like “I’m tired, I haven’t been sleeping, she hasn’t been sleeping,” etc. But she also said some things that broke my heart. She said, “Sometimes I feel like throwing her against the wall because she won’t stop crying. I wish she’d shut the hell up.” Now that statement would shake anyone. I’m sure I’ve heard it before. But this time, it broke me. It made my heart and my stomach drop. It made me cry in my car as I left. It made me cry for 2 hours once back at my office. As I sat there looking at this sweet little baby, who again, is premature, has colic and was failure to thrive, potentially has some other medical issues, I could not help but wonder, would she? Would her mother throw her? Would her mother hurt her? Or was it just a statement? And I of course thought of my son. Have I been frustrated before because I could not figure out how to help calm him? Yes. Have I ever felt like throwing him against the wall? NO. NEVER. And I guess that’s what bothered me. How could anyone have that feeling? I reminded myself also that my baby was full-term, not colic, not failure to thrive, is overall a happy and content baby, easy to soothe, and I did/do not suffer from postpartum depression. I cannot imagine experiencing all of those things at once. So I felt for this mom but I also hurt for her baby. I could not understand or empathize with her feelings. I could not help but wonder what would go on after leaving the home, wondering… “Is she laying there crying with no response from her parents? Are her needs being met? Is she being met with aggression or irritation or anger?
I am so thankful to work with such an amazing team that supports me and that I can process these feelings with. And that helped today. But I still cannot stop thinking about leaving this job. Finding another job that doesn’t hurt this much. So that I don’t carry these thoughts and feelings home with me. It’s not fair to me and it’s certainly not fair to my son or my husband. I knew going back to work as a mom would be difficult, but I didn’t know that it would be this difficult.