I remember all those articles on what distinguished child and youth care from other social service jobs or from teaching or counselling ... and maybe the really central difference was that we child and youth workers go where the kids and their families are, when they are there, whatever they are doing there ... and we get to experience in their life space what it’s like for the youth to be there and what it’s like for the parents to be there ... and the folks next door and along the street and in the neighbourhood.
And then we were all brought up short by the topic of boundaries and how necessary it is for us to be aware of boundaries and to respect boundaries and to have our clients respect our boundaries ... while we are tonight at Jamie’s place, actually stirring the stew for the family while they are having a go at each other and walking out and slamming doors and yelling and I am prompting the table-laying and seeing the stew as the continuity for everyone this evening and how it is a metaphor of our trade that no matter what people yell at each other and how they separate themselves from each other we’re still going to sit down together and eat that damned stew together this evening.
And we shudder at being in this multi-dimensional life space (because it is everybody’s and it’s coming from everywhere) and the risk and exposure and violation of boundaries we’re putting ourselves to, not really knowing whether the whole shooting match is going to explode this evening but allowing the insults which are traded and forgiving the insults which come our way because at heart we think that there is something bigger than all this which contains this family and this war and this ebb and flow of attack and defence – and that finding it is why we are, however sporadically and ambivalent, all here in this kitchen, now.
Ninety minutes later I am out in the cool air, walking home, trying to collect that self which was somehow in there with me all the time, trying – and then giving up because this is not the time – to summarise what happened, to theorise it, make it verbally loggable, if there is such a word, but as I said, giving up because boundaries were certainly crossed and principles definitely compromised and the whole thing is still far more stirring than intellectual and I am going to have to wait until the tide goes back down. But what will live with me for ever is the moment when this dissonant family rage yielded to a shared reaching for lost values and for shreds of times past as everyone, me included, sat at the table in front of that embattled stewpot and took each others” hands to say a remembered clich’d grace. The sacramental act did not signify that issues and resentments were settled, but the possibility that this might be so, and that in the mean time the something bigger was glimpsed and held on to.
It was later that night when I got back to the centre that Harold and Cassie, both members of my team, uttered their unthinkable words. Cassie told me I had gone beyond the bounds of professionalism and “blurred the lines between helpers and helpees!” and that “invading people’s space and letting them invade mine” was irresponsible and put everyone at risk. And Harold thought it all went beyond the miserable pay-checks we get for this work – “Work on our own turf and do what we have to is my creed.” he pronounced. “If toting sides of frozen beef into a railway car pays better, show me where to sign!” He tossed his plastic coffee mug into the staff room sink and walked out. “Go for it, Harold!” yawned someone else.
I knew at once that the distance between me and a social worker or a teacher or counsellor was no distance at all compared with the unforeseen canyon which lay between me and some of my colleagues. I thought back to the family who, when I had left them, were for the moment, albeit in an armed truce, sitting around the same table.