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Sylvia’s Story: The importance of Standing Still

In October of last year, I wrote my first blog for New Beginnings called Being Ready: How do we know when parents are ready to work with us?I wrote it because I wanted to explore what ‘being ready’ meant, what it looked like and why I’d heard it being used so often by both professionals and parents.

More recently I’ve noticed that whenever professionals use the term ‘being ready’, it’s not long before it is followed by its loyal partner: ‘moving forwards’. ‘Being ready’ and ‘moving forwards’ are two terms which seem to underpin the way we work with children and families because I think they epitomise what is important for us when we do do social work. They are the bedrock of our practice. We all want our families to be ready to work with us because this is a sign they are ready to make changes. We recognise that once parents engage with us, we have an opportunity to help them make those changes, changes that will be of benefit not only to them but their children also. But what we don’t often pause to consider is that in between being ready and moving forwards, there is another stage which is equally important, if not the most uncomfortable to work in: the standing still stage.

Not all the families we have worked with on New Beginnings spend much time in the standing still stage. Many of them move from ‘the being ready to start learning stage’ to ‘the moving forwards and making changes stage’ quite quickly- the changes they make therefore are evident early on in the project and means they meet their desired goals sooner than anticipated. However, there are few families who although make it clear they are ready to take part in the project, are not entirely certain what it is they want to change when they start. These are the families that some professionals find hard to work with because, I think, the moving forwards stage is not as straight forward as some people think it is. And for those who work in the social care world, which is situated in a performance driven culture, where reaching targets and identified outcomes is what matters to Ofsted inspectors (no matter what they say to the contrary) working with a family that doesn’t move forward within a particular timeframe is not only frustrating but can leave the professional facing criticism for allowing ‘drift’ to occur.

So, taking all of the above into consideration, I’d like to now tell you a story about one of the standing still families with whom I am working with at the moment. It’s not an easy story to tell but it’s one that I want to tell because I think it holds an important message for us all, especially for me. I first met Sylvia* during the first cohort of New Beginnings, in fact, she was the first parent I met when I carried out the initial meetings with the referring social care professional. For a number of reasons, Sylvia wasn’t ready to complete the first cohort of New Beginnings and she stepped off the programme stating that she would return when the next group began. She was true to her word and in February of this year, she came to her first group session and has attended every theory informed group session since.

However, although her attendance to group has been amazing (she has not missed one), she was not so keen to attend the other parts which include keywork sessions; counselling; self- care sessions and meetings with her drugs worker. She has even gone to great lengths to avoid these sessions, often cancelling the sessions as I arrive or saying she’ll be there and then trying to leg it before I get to her house! Even though, therefore, Sylvia has made good progress in some areas, there were other parts that she was keen to miss. This part was frustrating for me. I was not sure whether I was coming or going. And it felt as if whenever Sylvia took some steps forward, she would immediately take a few more backwards and in effect, stand still. I knew that to the outsider there was no visible difference in Sylvia from the moment she started with us. I felt as if I was failing.

I won’t go into all the details of Sylvia’s story because it doesn’t feel right to do so here but I do want to say that Sylvia has suffered a lot of heartache and trauma in her life- more than anyone deserves to ever experience. In fact, I believe that part of the reason Sylvia finds it so difficult to move forwards is because she is frightened to feel any emotion. As a result, she does whatever she can to block it before it surfaces. This means that she will avoid 1:1 contact with any professional trying to help her as best she can because I think she knows that being alone with someone means she will have to focus and talk about herself and something Sylvia is very good at is distracting- she loves to tell stories about something or someone else. And because she tells her stories with good humour, it’s easy to follow her lead and lose sight of her.

Five weeks ago, however, there was a slight change. Sylvia began to attend her keywork sessions with me with the help and encouragement of her social worker who she has a good relationship with. I was shocked when she came to her first one because it was the day after her father had died and she was very close to him. But nonetheless she came and for most of that session she cried. Although it was painful for Sylvia, in a weird way it was good for me as I learned a lot about her during those few hours. In the key work sessions that followed, I helped Sylvia focus in on her thoughts and tried to help her connect these thoughts to her feelings. Sylvia initially said she hated those sessions (she calls me the ‘potato masher’) but she must have secretly liked them too because she hasn’t missed a key work session since. In fact, she has not only engaged with me but also connected with her drugs worker (twice now), her family support worker (twice), and has even organised her own child care so she can attend her first session of Equine Therapy (counselling) next week.

On Tuesday when I visited Sylvia she was frustrated. It was a few days into half term and she was struggling with her children. They weren’t behaving very well and they weren’t listening to her. Midst her frustration she got up and walked away and for a moment I wondered where she was going, and if she’d be returning. She did return but this time with her reflective note book in her hand; the one the women receive at the start of the New Beginnings course. She had completed her first entry and she sat down and read it to me. She realised, she said, that writing is easier for her than talking. She finds she can articulate what she wants to say through the written word therefore rather than through the spoken one.

I asked her if I could include part of it in this blog and she said she’d like that so here goes:

Everyday I try to keep myself busy to make life easier for me so I can block all the past out of my head. I do that because if I don’t I remember and think about it all and then my heart feels the pain all over again. My heart hurts so bad. It’s broken. Just how I feel most of the time. Broken. I don’t want to think about all the bad throughout my relationship with him. He hurt me physically and mentally. I loved him and I lost so much through him. The whole thing has made me into the person I am today. It is because of the past that I handle things the way I do in the present. I have no control over my emotions. I will never enter another relationship. I have to spend the rest of my life alone- no one to love, no one to look after me, just the way I think I deserve. I now know this feeling does affect the way I am with my children. I feel anxious and stressed. I feel they don’t like me. They definitely don’t respect me. But I also know that they deserve more from me than this.

I felt lighter when I read her story. It was a story that provided me with insight into what was going on in Sylvia’s head; it helped me connect the dots, link some of the comments she makes about the past to the way she behaves in the present. This is not the part of Sylvia we often see. There are some professionals with whom Sylvia is fierce and angry. She is not frightened of confrontation and when she has a battle to fight, she often leaves the other person feeling frightened and, in some cases, worried about her children.

Last week Sylvia attended her CP conference and had to listen to the concerns that other professionals had about her parenting for 2 hours. She managed to stay in the room for 1 hour 45 minutes- that was, I learned afterwards, 1 hour 35 minutes longer than usual. In Sylvia’s words “sometimes I need to be carried out because I’m so angry”. Towards the end of the conference, Sylvia was asked by the Chair what kind of impact she thought New Beginnings had had on her parenting to which Sylvia answered, ‘None’. But after reading Sylvia’s reflective story today I’m not sure I entirely agree. And when, at the end of my last visit, she received this box of homemade perfume from her children, I realised that I don’t think I am entirely alone.

Sam’s (social worker) views

This feels like the type of thing that would be easier to write at the end of something. Like maybe when Sylvia gets through New Beginnings and is up and running on the peer mentor scheme and the children are off child protection plans and I can look back with Sylvia and say “You’ve done it!”

I’ve been waiting for that point for a long time. Hoping for it is painful. When Jad first mentioned writing an article about Sylvia and ‘standing still’… was during the first time she was on the programme. The second round of New Beginnings hadn’t started yet. Back then it felt more like Sylvia’s engagement could go either way. I realise it still could.

I’m mindful of that now. It’s not that I feel pessimistic, just aware of how powerful Sylvia’s struggles have been. I’ve been working with her and her children for just under 3 years. There have been lots of steps forward and lots of steps back. It feels like there’s something in what she blocks out and can’t feel that drags her backwards. Something harsh and unrelenting which says she is a terrible mother, a terrible person and someone who deserves to suffer. She does fight against it - ferociously - and clearly wants things to be better, but without being able to face up to what she’s blocking out, it’s often been like she’s swimming frantically against a tide and not getting anywhere.

What frees someone from that? I don’t know. I’ve had countless conversations with her about all of this, and there seems to be moments where she gets it….but she can’t hold on to it. She’s learned to trust and rely on me to some degree, but again, something in what she’s blocking out warns her against trusting anyone fully.

I’ve gone over and over in my mind what I could do differently, whether I’ve been overly optimistic of Sylvia’s ability to make changes or been blinded to some of the harm that’s being done to the children by my desperation for her to succeed. The only happy ending here is if Sylvia resolves more of her difficulties and passes those benefits on to the children. Thinking pragmatically though, if the children were removed from her care, would the immediate benefits in terms of consistency in their care outweigh the trauma of separation from the only person who has ever cared for them?

I’ve not come up with any firm answers to those questions. I mean, there’s lots of things that I could have done differently, but I think focussing too much on that or getting too self-critical and blaming about it plays into something unhelpful. Wanting a happy ending here makes it about me. Their lives will go on whenever I finish working with them, and there will be certain difficulties with that, whatever happens from here. The problems which led to this situation accumulated years before I came on the scene so I can’t base my involvement on the need to fix them all. Equally, Sylvia’s difficulties making and sustaining enough progress for the children does not take away from what she does do for them, the positives I have seen in her relationships with them or her on-going determination for things to be different.

So, I guess that means there is no simple way to help her ‘move forwards’. The infuriating and demoralising set-backs are just part of it; something to bear rather than lash out against. I do also strongly believe that there has to be some value in the efforts Sylvia and those of us around her have been making to get things better. Something gradually accumulating rather than simply drifting or repeating. From my position, in the face of Sylvia’s determination to keep on blocking things out, I have been there consistently: seeing both the harm her resistance to change has caused, and the strengths that mean she isn’t the terrible and hated mother she considers herself to be. I think that presence has made it progressively harder for her to hold on to some of the beliefs about herself and others that she clings on to to keep her from moving forwards.

Before New Beginnings, it was clear for a long time that something more was still needed. Sylvia has suffered significant trauma and she needs a therapeutic approach which is intensive and focussed. New Beginnings has been able to offer her this, but she’s also seen them fight for her. They’ve resisted the desire she’s shown at times to distance herself or withdraw from them without compromising on their expectations in terms of the levels of engagement the course requires. Whatever happens with the rest of the course, exposure to that kind of approach provides a powerful contrast with some of her experiences in her relationships with people in the past and gives her a sense of how things could be different in her life……. when she is ready for it to be.

Sylvia’s Views

When Jad gave me this I was having a bad week. I’d had a run in with school and it had set me back big time so I wasn’t in a good place. I didn’t want to read this letter that she put under my radio for when I was ready but at the same time I wanted to know what was in it. As soon as I read it, I knew it was about me and I got it. I get it. All of it. I don’t want Jad to think she’s failed. She’s gone out of her way for me. And I don’t want to let her, Sam or the girls down. Jad said in week 1 that we would be worried when the programme came to an end. She’s right. I don’t want this to end. What we have is special. The girls are special. They think of me as their mum, not sure if that’s a compliment or not, but I do feel protective over them. They say they can talk to me. I’m not sly. I say it how it is. I want to be there for them when they’re having a hard time because none of this is easy. We aren’t here because life has been easy. But I have learnt some things on the way. Last year I used to shout abuse at my ex-partner whenever I saw him. I’d make phone calls at all hours of the night and do other stuff I’m not proud of. It felt good at the time but I realise now I was angry and none of that was good for my kids. It was not healthy for them to see that or to see me be like that. We’ve moved on recently. Me and him talk by phone now, and sometimes face to face. I’m polite to him. He’s polite to me. Everything feels less volatile. I’m calmer (well with some things). This is important for me because it’s important for my kids. I want my kids to feel safe. I want them to know I love them. I know I’ve got to sort the school thing out but I have started changing the way I am with them. I listen to them and I hear them. I say sorry. I know that when I’m not in the right place then they know that. It’s not good for them. I can have a ‘blip’ as Jad calls it but I know now that I need to get back on it after it’s over. It’s o.k. to have bad days and then get back up and move on. And that’s what I’m doing, moving on.

*Sylvia is a chosen pseudonym.

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