‘Why do we do social work, when it takes us away from our own children?’

A social worker discusses the worry and regret that come with a job that involves sacrificing time with their children – and what keeps him in the profession despite this

Child looking out of window longingly
Photo: fizkes/Adobe Stock

By Michael Mapp

Driving an hour or two away for a child on safeguarding visits means you’re an hour or two away from your own child should something happen at school or on their walk home from school.

So you can check in on the find my friends app, should you have that resource, and I’m lucky enough to do so. But when you have a look at the app, and their location isn’t showing up, the panic sets in. Where are they? Has someone taken them or stolen their phone?

So then you send a quick text – and they don’t reply straight away. Oh no! Something must have happened!

Ninety nine times out of a hundred, your child will be safe, and they will get home absolutely fine. But that one out a hundred times will play on an anxious and over-thinking mind.

Then there’s the time when you have that phone call from their school, needing to pick them up right now. You are an hour or so away, and their other parent is unavailable and is not answering the schools or your calls.

You could be in an urgent safeguarding visit, or a child protection meeting, or something equally as important. What do you do?

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Feelings of guilt

After working in social care for the last 12 years, as a residential care worker, manager and social worker, there have been many times, working with children during weekends and evenings, where my own child has been playing on his own. This feeling of guilt about not being able to be with my own son has always hit me hard. It isn’t so bad during normal office hours, when my child is at school, but in general, when you know your child has to make their own tea, or get watched by Grandma, this makes you feel like a bad parent.

There has been many instances of my family coming second, such as when I hadn’t finished work until 8.30pm, when emergency-placing two kids and making sure they felt safe with a set of strangers. I missed seeing my son, and my partner’s gym night was ruined – again!

As well as my own personal work-life balance, I have to take into account of my partner’s. My partner is a community nurse for a specialist team, and she also doesn’t finish work on time. This sometimes means that my son and stepdaughter not eating dinner until 8pm on a school night. Though this is a rare occurrence, I hate it when this happens, because they should be eating closer to 6 than 8! It also means we can’t spend quality time together as a family.

On a recent visit, I left later than planned, meaning I was too late to take my stepdaughter to Scouts (and be the helper of the Scout group). I was gutted about it, as this was something I share with my stepdaughter and I love this time together, as well as the routine of this weekly group. That meant her mum had to take her.

Why do we keep going in social work?

So when we add up all these negatives of being a social worker with a young family, why do we continue doing this?

I once heard someone explain about missing their own kids. “I know my kids are ok, and they’ll be fine – but the kids I have to go out and see, they are not fine. They have been abused, and need above-and-beyond care and support. I don’t feel guilty because I know my kids are safe, well fed, and we’ll looked after.”

That stuck with me, and I have always made sure that unless my own child will suffer in any way because of my work, then I will carry on.

My son is very understanding of my job. I explain to him in simple terms that the children I work with aren’t as fortunate as him, and have had very hard lives. I always make sure I’m there for my child, and he knows he has a great support network of family and friends.

Loving the job

But it’s also about loving the job.

Recently, I went out to see a child for what could have been a safeguarding concern. I ended up chatting to him while he showed me around his foster parent’s fields. All was fine in the end, and I came away with a big smile on my face and a tear in my eye having been given some fresh eggs from their poultry. For one child that day, I made them feel comfortable and happy that I listened to them – and they gifted me in the only way they knew how. How could I not love that as part of my job? Don’t worry, I will be checking with HR if I need to officially declare the eggs as ‘gifts’!

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4 Responses to ‘Why do we do social work, when it takes us away from our own children?’

  1. Essing Odeks January 27, 2023 at 2:05 pm #

    Nice right up, Sometimes our kids say it’s ok to go and stay late hours working, but the truth is that they are covering up to make you feel happy, it has a long term effect.

  2. Jo January 27, 2023 at 5:32 pm #

    I am both the child of a local authority social worker and now a parent who is a social worker and this article has brought up quite a strong response. I was fortunate enough to have my mother at home with us until I was 14. She qualified as a SW in the 1970s, practiced until I was born in the 1980s and then returned to work when my youngest sibling went to school in the 1990s. She then worked until her retirement 10 years ago. I can say that the statement ‘I once heard someone explain about missing their own kids. “I know my kids are ok, and they’ll be fine – but the kids I have to go out and see, they are not fine’ was 100% not true for us. Yes we weren’t being abused and harmed but the feeling that someone else’s child is more important to your parent than you are hurts. It has an impact and don’t ever let yourself believe that it doesn’t.

    I was a teenager out with friends when my mum went back to work. The times that she was late home because of an emergency had less of an impact on me in the moment. For my youngest sibling, who was 6 when mum returned to work, it was completely different. Those moments referred to in the article were her experience; being picked up late from the childminder (also a family friend), missing out on Brownies, having someone to check in with after school, knowing your parent is the reliable person in your life. We would have weekends interrupted with placement breakdowns one weekend in six. It’s gone on to shape how she views her own value and needs.

    This whole area was part of my thinking when we decided to try and have a family. I knew what the children on my caseload needed and how much of an impact it could have on personal plans. I am passionate about being a social worker in children’s services and I miss direct practice but, for my own child, I will not be following the same path. For the time being I am now in a role that is more supervisory and does not deal with emergencies.

    We too understood at the time when mum explained why she would be late. We had also been a fostering family and knew that there were children who weren’t safe. Those children are part of our family with one very much a daily part of our lives. Absolutely none of that though takes away that moment when you suddenly feel that you matter less to your own parent than another child. We cannot replace the parents of children open to social care, we cannot fill that gap and I have come to the conclusion we should not try at the expense of our own children. You do not know what your child is keeping from you to try and protect you, especially if your own child is sensitive and reflective. So, whilst I have the financial security to be able to make this choice (and I recognise the privilege in that statement), I will not be doing front line safeguarding work until my son is much older. I would rather leave the profession for a while and have more regular hours. 25 years on, it still hurts a bit even though I know she never meant it that way. We mustn’t kid ourselves that our own kids don’t mind.

  3. Beth January 27, 2023 at 6:29 pm #

    Bless you x
    I’ve done it. Regret some of it to be honest and think there needs to be a total rethink on sustaining social workers in the job. I think they need to work less days for full time pay to compensate for the issues you described otherwise many just leave stressed and burnt out.
    Take care I totally admire you but put your children first. X

  4. Leanora Headley January 28, 2023 at 2:14 pm #

    As a Social Worker myself, I know the anxiety it brings been away from your biological child but it is even worse if you do not safeguard children in your care. After all, I am a parent to all children,.