Professional Portraits: Patricia Harnett

Professional Portraits: Patricia Harnett

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On this Merry Christmas day, I bring to you a gift from the suburbs.

I recently was walking in the small town of Narberth when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a giant rainbow flag. In Narberth? In the heart of the conservative Main Line? I had to explore for myself and found a wonderful little shop run by business partners and spouses Patricia Harnett and Barbara Kase. Harnett was kind enough to take time away from the store at this busiest of seasons to chat with me for a while.

PGN: Are you from this area? PH: No, I’m a native New Yorker. I was raised in Long Island and Rockland County. I came here in the mid ’80s to do my graduate work at Bryn Mawr College. I did a social-work program and then stayed here for a number of years after that. Then I moved back to New York for a while and returned to this area about 10 years ago. I’ve been doing clinical social work until I recently added gift-shop owner to my duties.

PGN: What’s the name of the store? PH: Mood Swings!

PGN: What was your family like growing up? PH: My mother died when I was relatively young, so I was raised primarily by a single father who remained a single parent the remainder of his life. I have two older brothers, who are both living now in South Carolina.

PGN: That’s a little unusual, even today, for a man to raise a family as a single parent. PH: Yeah, my brothers were in high school and I was in fourth grade when my mother passed away. I finished the school year and then I went away to an all-girls’ boarding school the following year. We transplanted to Florida after that and I spent several years at Catholic schools before transferring to a public school. I grew up in a Democratic household with Roman Catholic beliefs. I had all the sacraments and everything that goes with being Roman Catholic. I guess it was a bit of a unique family system. There weren’t too many male single parents raising families. I don’t think there was anyone that I knew 40 years ago with a similar situation.

PGN: Do you think the situation led you to doing social work? PH: I definitely believe that losing my mother at such a young age had a profound effect on me. I originally went into education and I became a teacher. I found that I became the teacher that everyone came to for help with their personal difficulties. I spent most of my free periods talking to students and, during my lunch hour, I was running informal support groups for students. I think losing my mother made me very sensitive to other people and mental-health concerns. After a few years of teaching, I decided to go to school for social work. I began to do clinical social work and therapy, primarily with children and adolescents and young adults, and eventually opened up my own practice.

PGN: Where did you do your school work? PH: I went to Hofstra University in Long Island for undergrad work and got a bachelor’s degree there, then I went to Bryn Mawr and got a master’s in clinical social work and a master’s in law and social policy.

PGN: How do the two masters’ intersect? PH: Well, I always was drawn to the legal system and how it affects people but didn’t necessarily want to go to law school and practice law. There are a lot of legal issues that people have to navigate in social services, whether it be school issues or mental-health issues. There’s a lot of advocacy that has to be done with clients in need of help.

PGN: How has it helped? PH: I’ve worked a lot in the education system — elementary, middle-school and high-school settings. And you really need to know what policies and legal statutes govern the work that you do. You have to know how to process child-abuse inquiries, what the legal ramifications are in family situations where drug and alcohol issues are involved, etc. There’s a great deal of overlap with legal structure. In working in the community metal-health field, there was also a lot of overlap. You might come across a situation that necessitates having a client involuntarily committed. It’s very important to know how to navigate the legal system in order to assist the clients. More recently in my private practice, I’ve done work in and around lawsuits that involve discrimination or sexual harassment and things like that. In many cases, attorneys will come to me and ask me to make an assessment of the clients involved. More recently, I’ve been dealing with child-custody and co-parenting situations. I started doing work as a social worker in the mid-’80s so I’ve been in the business for about 24 years. It’s been an evolution.

PGN: Jumping topics, how was your coming-out experience? PH: Growing up, as a child and adolescent, I always felt different from my female peers in the sense that I was never caught up in the things that they were caught up in, such as having a great deal of interest in the opposite sex. I dated and had men in my life, which is actually the reason I came down to Pennsylvania in the first place. I was engaged to a guy who lived in this area. It was during my graduate years at Bryn Mawr that I came out completely.

PGN: They say the Sisters schools are good for that. PH: [Laughs.] I guess so. Though I have to say that I’m not really into labels. Whether it’s labeling myself or others, as a clinician I try to stay away from boxing people in. We all have unique qualities and experiences.

PGN: How did your family react? PH: I told my father in 1985-86 and that was a crucial part of my coming out. Once that took place, my life became a lot easier. I ultimately met my partner and we’ve been together for 19 years and have created our own blended family.

PGN: How did you meet? PH: We met in 1990 and started dating in 1991. I was interviewing for a job at a college in New York. The first day I saw her I knew there was something special. Right away I knew she was someone who was bright and intellectually curious and also very compassionate and giving. We joke and say that in the beginning, I knew I was dating her, but she didn’t necessarily know that she was dating me. But we both immediately felt like we completed each other. I often think back on something she said very early on, she said that she felt that because of the way that we complemented each other, with our strengths and weaknesses, together we could conquer the world. We would go to peace rallies down in D.C. and to protest marches in New York and it just evolved. It was difficult at first because she had two older children and we went through some rocky times. But it turned out fine. We grew into a wonderful family and several years ago decided to add to our family by having another child. So now I have three kids: two step children, Deborah and Jordan, and our daughter Emily, who’s now 11.

PGN: And you have another child in a sense with Mood Swings. When did you open that up? PH: On April 22, 2008. We both have an entrepreneurial spirit and liked the idea of opening a little gift shop that had a social conscience to it. I’ve run my own clinical practice for the last decade and, though it’s in a different field all together, the experience of running a business gave us the confidence to do it.

PGN: What is special about the store? PH: We carry out-of-the-ordinary objects, fair-trade products, green-friendly items and gifts that have a witty and intellectual bent to them.

PGN: Tell me three of your favorite products. PH: We have a product line from the “Unemployed Philosophers Guild.” They have a line of “Little Thinker Dolls” and a line of finger puppets with everyone represented, from Ghandi and Frida Kahlo to Karl Marx or Andy Warhol. And a variety of sticky notes that are clever, like their “Freudian Slips.” Or their collection of breath fresheners with names like Empowermints. I love their stuff. My second-favorite thing would be the fair-trade items we carry — things made of recycled products or sustainable materials. They come from places like South Africa and Chile, and the individuals who make them are treated fairly and paid a good wage. They also give back to the environment by using materials that are left over — old tin cans that have been thrown out that they make into jewelry, trash into various pieces of art, etc. My third-favorite product line would be the recycled wood pieces that we carry. I love the idea that the picture frames and wooden clocks represent pieces that were in someone’s life, whether it was as a barn or porch or what have you; that were not just thrown into a landfill somewhere but salvaged by someone who said, “This can be made into something for someone else.” Those are my favorites.

PGN: A moment in your work life that really moved you? PH: As a social worker, there were so many moments that moved me, times where I feel I was able to have an impact on clients’ lives, and there were many instances where they’ve had an impact on me. I’ve learned and gained something from every client I’ve worked with. But I’d have to say that one of the moments in my life that really moved me was something that occurred in my personal life. In my father’s final years, when he knew he was dying, he shared with me the fact that he felt he got the best daughter-in-law through me. You have to understand that this was a man who was a devout Roman Catholic. If he were alive today, he’d be almost 90 and, for him to say that, after all the years of struggling with my coming out, was amazing. That he came to accept and embrace me and my family, including Barbara’s two children, and that he felt that my wife was his best daughter-in-law, meant the world to me. He came to adore her, and at the end of his life she took very good care of him. In fact, he chose to remain longer in this life because of our daughter Emily. He stayed alive to see her first year and a half. It’s a story that I’ll always carry and share with friends. Barbara and I got married on the beach this summer in Provincetown and I wish he could have been there, but he was there in spirit. We had a picture of him, and of my mother and Barbara’s parents, who are also deceased, there with us.

PGN: Any hobbies? PH: I love films — movies on film, television — I’m just really big into Hollywood. [Laughs.] I know it’s a little odd: I’m supposed to be this grounded social worker, but obviously, opening a store called Mood Swings gives a hint that there’s a whimsical side to me. Had I not been a teacher, social worker and business entrepreneur, I would have chosen a way to do something behind the scenes in movies or television. I’m very interested in that whole arena. Of course, my biggest hobby is our daughter Emily and our two grandkids. They occ upy a lot of our time. We’re very invested in family things these days.

PGN: So you’re a film buff. What actor would you want to portray your life story? PH: Oooh, good question. I don’t know who could play me. I love Meryl Streep and I guess I’m old enough now that she could play me. Of course, she’s so good she could portray anyone. I’ve also always admired Katharine Hepburn.

PGN: What’s a scent that makes you stop and reflect? PH: Cinnamon. Apples and cinnamon. I think the scent of them always brings back memories of my childhood. Apple cider bringing back thoughts of Thanksgivings past and cinnamon brings thoughts of Christmas. I have wonderful memories of those early holidays.

PGN: When it comes to family, what’s something your daughter has taught you? PH: Patience. As Barbara would tell you, I’m not the most patient person in the world. But having had Emily, I have had to adopt a more patient perspective on the world.

PGN: What sort of things try your patience? PH: I would say, generally, I have a very difficult time with people who lack intelligence, who have limited insight into things. Those brick walls who have a stubborn view of things and aren’t willing to take anything else in. They don’t want to open themselves up to the world and explore new things or ideas. That mentality tries my patience.

PGN: Any holiday family traditions? PH: Our family at this point has become a mini United Nations. For the last six-10 years, the family has shifted and expanded with the birth of Emily and the marriage of our children, all the family that comes with their spouses, and the birth of our grandchildren, Kweon 3rd and Jolie. I look forward to the holidays because of the diversity of our family. We go to New York and all celebrate together. We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas: It’s really beautiful.

PGN: So, did you ever write a letter to Santa? PH: Yes, I did. Many, in fact.

Mood Swings 2 Station Circle Narberth (610) 668-0148

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