My practice

At Christmas little children sing and merry bells jingle,
The cold winter air makes our hands and faces tingle,
And happy families go to church and cheerily they mingle,
And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful if you’re single.

Wendy Cope’s A Christmas Poem applies equally to anyone who is separated from their family, anyone who’s depressed or indeed anyone who is working in a residential unit while their friends or family get drunk at home.

For social workers, the image of Christmas as a time for families brings a sackful of dilemmas. As an optimistic newly qualified worker, I once foolishly arranged a contact session for Christmas Eve. The children had arrived expectantly at the contact centre when I had to ring and say that actually their mother was not coming after all. She told me it was too painful for her, but left me to face the children’s pain at the fact that she was letting them down, at Christmas of all times.

The next year I thought I was ahead of the game by booking Christmas contact for early December. Mother did show up, but unfortunately she got so drunk on the train that when the children went to hug her, she fell over. It went downhill from there. The next year the children said they didn’t want any Christmas contact.

In the adoption team we try to avoid the whole subject by arranging letterbox contact for neutral times of years, as far as possible from Christmas and birthdays. But it feels harsh to have to tell a birth parent she can’t even send a Christmas card.

Adopters love us to place babies before Christmas. But for most of the tears of joy at introduction meetings I attended this year, there was also a tearful goodbye in a contact centre festooned with tinsel that will haunt those birth parents every Christmas from now on.

Often the issues that bring families into contact with social services (alcohol, poverty, mental illness, drugs) are exacerbated at Christmas. Add into this mix the social pressure to be happy and to be with family and it’s often a recipe for disaster. It’s not just clients who succumb to the hope that this year it will be different, we social workers too bring our unconscious wishes to please, to be wanted or to rescue. Last Christmas I made my-two-year old queue for half an hour to see a stranger in a dodgy beard sitting in a broom cupboard. Of course, she ran away screaming. I concluded it was me who wanted to see Father Christmas, and she was just my excuse.

Christmas is a time when our personal lives collide with work issues more frequently than usual, and our own childhood wishes and fears get more easily mixed up with those of our clients, leaving us either over-exposed and vulnerable or defensive and punitive. No wonder it’s so tempting to overdo it at the Christmas party.

Clea Barry is an adoption social worker

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