We laugh, we cry, we share, we help… that’s what family is all about
Posted by Heather from the Isle of Wight on 11th, November, 2015
When I took my first placement I went into it with my eyes wide open… or so I thought! The phrase “should have gone to Specsavers” now runs through my mind every time I think of it.
I will admit that I had rose-tinted spectacles on. I had a beautiful picture-perfect image of a lovely little child being placed in our home, who would adore us for looking after them, for giving them a warm and comfortable house to live in, with a nice carer who would do anything for them, and give them lots of opportunities to become involved in activities and fun things. Who would love us as much as we loved them and we could make a huge positive impact on their lives. The truth is, nothing can prepare you for the realities of fostering. No matter how many people you talk to, how many courses you go on, what your previous employment was… nothing can prepare you fully for becoming a foster carer… other than becoming a foster carer!
Many people ask what I do for work. As soon as I say I am a foster carer I am usually greeted with a one of the following… Awwwwhhhhh that’s soooooo sweet of you. That’s so kind. How rewarding that must be. Oh what a wonderful person you are. Oh how fab that you’ve got all that time at home with your own children. Oh how lovely. Ohhh that must be so much fun. One long term friend of mine, whilst talking about another fostering friend of hers, told me that she didn’t understand why foster carers got paid so much to do nothing “it must be easy, you just have to feed them and take them to school. Hardly hard work is it?” One person said… you must be bloody mad!!
Well. The realities of fostering are very different to my initial views, and those views of many people who have never fostered.
Getting ‘paid so much’ is a huge misconception. In real terms your hourly rate is less than a third of the national minimum wage standard as you work 24 hours a day. You are always on call. You are so much more than a parent to foster children. You are their counsellor, their friend, their enemy, their nurse, their first port of call, the person they may disclose to, the person they choose to hate, the person they choose to love, the person that offers them safety, the person that can make them feel unsafe through showing them kindness, their emotional and physical punch bag, the person that chases creatures out of their room at night, the person that sits and holds their hand while their heart tragically breaks into a thousand pieces time after time after time, the person who they look up to, the person who gets the brunt of missed contact with their own family members, the person who acts as their go between, the person who is their advocate, the person they sometimes push to the absolute limit… and further…to test how much you really care for them.
This is not a job. This is a life changing and life defining choice, not just for you, but for your whole family.
My definition of family has always been a little different to most people’s. My family consists of my two daughters, a sister I’ve seen four times since birth, and a group of incredibly good friends who have been there for me through thick and thin. But nothing prepared me for the value of the fostering family.
It used to drive me crazy when I was told by my first supervising social worker that I should befriend the other carers and use them for support. My rather narrow minded and arrogant answer was always that I had plenty of friends and I didn’t come into fostering to make friends. I soon learnt the error of my ways!
Nobody, however hard they try, understands the impact of fostering on a household, other than other foster carers… the people who live it. When I first came through panel (the technical term for being approved as a foster carer) I happily skipped home and sat and waited for our first placement. We had a 14 year old girl for respite for a weekend, and what a weekend it was!! Fun fun fun!!! We took her on lots of outings and she loved it. We all laughed so much together. When I dropped her back to her carers I was so full of enthusiasm. The carer looked at me with a knowing glance and said “You’re new aren’t you… wait until you get your own full time one” and sniggered slightly. “Respite is always fun”, followed by another knowing look. Slightly odd I thought, and scuttled off home to reminisce excitedly with my family and friends.
Soon we had our very own “full time one”. She was a runner. For seven weeks she stuck to me like superglue… and then she absconded. I knew the procedure. I rang out of hours, and after a few more hours I rang the police to report a missing looked after young person. This was to be my first experience of the fostering family. The out of hours team let me talk for as long as I needed, and reassured me that I could call them as many times as I needed to throughout the night… which I did. This was my first experience of an absconder and I was terrified that she many have been kidnapped, murdered or even adbucted by aliens. I couldn’t understand what could have happened to my sweet foster child who couldn’t leave my side. Out of hours were brilliant. They allowed me to talk freely about my fears, and actually stopped me from driving myself bonkers that night. The local police were also brilliant. They managed to search my house without waking everyone else in it, and were genuinely sympathetic to the situation. Over the next few months the out of hours team, the police and I began to know each other by our first names.
At 8.30am the next morning my little run away returned. Very soon after her return the family support worker appeared on the door step, took one look at my exhausted face and took my little cherub out for a few hours to find out what had gone on, and to give me the chance to get some much needed sleep.
Absconding was soon to become the norm, and extra support was put in place for me. The family support worker, Polly, was a godsend as she was always on the end of the phone if needed and did all she could to lessen the impact of no sleep on my family. Without her, during the early days of fostering, I don’t think I would still be fostering now. Polly knew all about fostering. Her parents were foster carers so she had grown up in a very similar situation to which I now found myself. She could completely relate to both of my daughters and how they felt about the whole situation. She supported not only me, but my children too. Polly gave them time to vent their frustrations and they soon began to trust that they could be completely honest with her about their feelings. Polly became an incredibly important part of our fostering family, and I am eternally grateful to her for her support.
I very quickly learnt that apart from the out of hours team and the police, there are very few people awake in the early hours of the morning, unless they are out partying, or working night shifts. When my friends finished work for the day and were going to bed, often this would be the time that the real work started for me. My experience is that bedtime is often the time that foster children disclose things to me, or need a lot of support, and the opportunity to talk through things that are worrying them. Often their stories are heartbreaking, and would leave me unable to settle after they had gone to bed.
The dark of night exaggerates everything, and tiredness does funny things to you. You can hear a pin drop three streets away and imagine a murderer/burglar/hungry giant spider creeping around in the shadows. If you are alone – and as a single carer I was – you could begin to think of all sorts of weird and whacky things and sometimes your imagination can run wild. I stopped watching horror films during this time! Although out of hours had told me to call at any time to talk through my feelings and worries during those long nights of A.W.O.L children, I was also very aware that they were needed by other carers and the phone lines needed to be kept clear for emergencies rather than me talking about the non existent bogey man!
There were times when the nights felt like a week. It was during one of these nights that I had a lightbulb moment – a huge revelation! Other foster carers were probably experiencing the same thing! And if not the same, very similar! At the next carers meeting I sat bleary eyed and explained how it felt to be sleep deprived and was so pleased to hear someone say to me: “phone me. Next time, just ring me and I’ll keep you company on the phone”.
There were many times, through different placements that Lisa and I would exchange phone calls in the creepy twilight hours. We kept each other sane when we sometimes felt insane. We had wonderful random conversations until the small hours. We found a funny side to everything and we would talk and talk until we both felt ok and could go to sleep. Our bond was born out of Lisa having had my foster child stay with her for respite. She really knew the challenges, and completely understood the situation; something no social worker or personal friend could – through no fault of their own – ever be able to understand. This developed into an incredibly firm friendship, and Lisa became another branch in my fostering family.
More recently I relocated 100 miles to the Isle of Wight with my youngest daughter. An old school friend drove the lorry and I followed in the car with my little girl, a friend, and her baby boy. I was worried about how we could unload my whole life from the lorry, unpack, and be ready for a house safety inspection at 10am the next morning, a placement meeting after that, and a sibling group to arrive by 5pm that night! Well, I hadn’t reckoned on Carol had I! Carol is the carer rep for the island, and was waiting on the doorstep with her son when I arrived at my new home. This woman is my angel, not only did she help unload the lorry, but she unpacked my little girls bedroom, completely sorted out the kitchen, and was back the next morning to entertain my daughter while the house safety check took place! Carol took me under her wing and introduced me to people who have become firm friends. She supported me and my daughter when we had an incredibly challenging three year old placed with us. She found us a lovely puppy to keep us occupied when our first placement ended. She has supported us over and above when things have felt difficult in between placements, taken time out to meet my eldest daughter when she visits, and she has become not only an amazing friend but a hugely important part of our family.
My life has been enriched by fostering, not just by the new experiences that we as a family have had, but by the growth of my family tree. There are many new buds that have blossomed into full blown branches during the last two years, and I know many more will follow.
My advice to new carers… don’t be as arrogant as I was. Don’t for one minute believe that you can do it all on your own. Instead embrace the new people you will meet during your fostering career, use them as support when things aren’t going quite to plan… they are the ones who really know! And add them as new members to your ever changing and evolving fostering family. Your world will be a better place.