When I met my wife Terry in 1970 I was a medical student and she was a hospital social worker. She and her colleagues were often still called ‘lady almoners’ by the medical staff. There have been huge changes in both medicine and social work – and society – since then; and living together has often prompted us to compare and contrast our changing experiences as professionals.
The similarities are obvious. Social work, like medicine, is often all-consuming, requiring a passion and a concern and a commitment that makes it less a job than a way of life. Terry would, for example, phone up, or meet, clients, at times that were convenient for them rather than for her, even when our children were small, and conflicting commitments threatened to overwhelm her.
And, like me, she frequently agonised over grave decisions which, especially in child care cases, had to be made with incomplete knowledge and less than one hundred per cent certainty. And we were both dealing with people at the most difficult times in their lives, which often made them difficult in turn.
But there are contrasts as well as similarities. Social workers, unlike doctors, are often made unwelcome by their clients. What’s more, the judgements Terry had to make were sometimes more difficult than mine. She could not order up blood tests to help her to know what to do!
And while in the early Noughties doctors were regularly vilified in the press and casually abused in dinner party conversations, social workers have, it seems to me, known nothing else. And the evolution of social work practice, from Maria Colwell onwards, has often been less evidence-based than scandal-driven in the wake of finger-wagging reports.
A succession of critical reports into social work, that have been published at regular intervals throughout our time together, usually in the wake of over-generalisation from some terrible examples of bad practice, have not helped. I have shared her exasperation at their often useless, indeed dangerously bureaucratic, solutions to misunderstood problems. Ever more mandatory documentation, ever greater constraints on the use of her judgement, and sometimes increasing hostility from clients primed by the press to see social workers as at best meddlesome do-gooders and at worst enemy agents of the nanny state, has made her job increasingly stressful.
This has also meant working – or, when not working, worrying – for longer and longer hours and I have (I may as well admit it) got cross with her, especially when I find her rising at 5am to prepare for a court appearance or on the phone to a client on a Sunday afternoon.
Anyway I have spent at least as much time feeling angry on Terry’s behalf as I have applauding what she does. What I have learnt, living with her over all these years, is just how admirable the profession of social work is and I have wanted to shout it from the rooftops.
She has just retired and I suspect that she will miss the satisfaction, if not the stress, of work that is truly important and truly worthwhile. As she has said to me from time to time: ‘I sometimes enjoy this job so much, I wonder why I get paid for it’.
I know why she does get paid but I also know, from the difference she has made to the lives of so many parents and children, why the joy of the job has justified the hassle. And the occasional stress of being a spouse living with a social worker is more than offset by my pride in the values expressed in her work.