Alison tells us about her and her family’s foster stories.
‘Fostering’ is something I have always had in my mind for as long as I can remember.
As someone who came from a secure and loving background with lots of opportunities of every kind, it has always seemed unfair that not all other children do. The idea of being able to ‘change a life’ seemed a wonderful idea in theory and at different times I have made some enquiries, only to withdraw for many different reasons. The timing finally became right, not just out of a wish to ‘do something good’ however, but equally out of a need to find me a new career path.
I gave up working ‘out of the home’ some years ago when it became clear that two parents working shifts was not a viable option for us and with a house full of three older children, a very elderly blind father, three dogs, a guinea pig and a husband who works shifts and sometimes works away from home, it was very clear that anything new I tried to do would need to fit totally into our existing home life whilst still giving me a chance to learn new things, meet new people and feel like I have a new purpose. Personally, I have felt as my children grow and naturally move physically and emotionally away from me, yet still overall need my presence, that something has become missing from my life.
So I’m not sure if it was the beginning of an ‘empty nest syndrome’, or a lack of mental stimulation, or a wish to ‘make a difference’, or maybe all three, that led me to this place, but it is very safe to say that only 10 months into my fostering career, that any void has been more than filled!
Our foster son, A, arrived with short notice and with little background information available. I had read and researched for hours the effects of childhood trauma, abuse and attachment disorder. I had the benefit of parenting knowledge from rearing three loud and lively children, the eldest of who has a significant learning disability. I spent time in a previous career where I have seen the very worst of what people can inflict on each other. I thought I was a ‘hard core’ parent and totally prepared.
It turned out of course that I was wrong!
Nothing could have prepared me for the little boy of just four years old who came to live with us. He was broken, vacant and presented worrying behaviours and we have all, including him, worked so very, very hard to find the beautiful, bright, clever and funny boy that now lives with us. We love him dearly and hope that his future home will be with us, into adulthood and beyond. But that is all another story, for, amazing as his transformation has been… another amazing thing has been seeing our three birth children invest into a little boy who now has a place firmly in our family.
When we first began the fostering assessment process, we tried to talk at length with all our children about what it might mean to have another child in our home, either short or long term and how that might impact on their lives. They were all happy to give it a go, as they always are. We have always tried to make sure they are aware that they lead a relatively privileged life in many ways and in the past they have embraced puppy-walking guide dogs and welcoming a group of lonely elderly people into our home for regular social occasions amongst lots of other fund raising schemes and charitable events.
They understood that now they were doing many things independently I felt that I would like a new focus in addition to them. They listened to us and the fostering assessors. They read the literature provided and we had discussions about different behaviours we might need to expect from any children in their care…. and then they sloped back off to their own worlds of friends, Xboxes, T.V. mobile phones, clubs and all the other teenage ‘stuff’.
Then A arrived and they were shocked. Really shocked. I wasn’t sure if they had listened or understood properly when I had told them just how bad things need to be before a child is actually removed from their home and birth family and that, consequently, no child from those circumstances is going to arrive unscathed and without significant hurdles to overcome. I am not in fact sure if I had really understood myself, despite what I have personally witnessed at work in years gone by. The younger two of our children have grown up surrounded by children with additional needs, including their own brother, and are by no means usually shocked by atypical behaviours, however extreme, but that is not at all the same thing as moving those behaviours into your home.
They all tried in tentative ‘normal’ ways to make connections with A and those were met with challenging behaviours and a defensive front.
Yet still they persevered, day after day, barely reacting to his defensiveness, and still hoping for a tiny break through. A was with me every waking second as he had no school place yet in our area so being a full-time carer of a child with complex needs was difficult for me. I was worn down, both mentally and physically.
I made a call to our supervising social worker saying that despite the fact we had put heart and soul into the placement I was not sure we could continue.
We had some long and thought-provoking discussions with her, and she wisely suggested taking overnight before making a decision. I did not want to give up and I hate not succeeding, but I recognised that we couldn’t continue like this indefinitely and so we came together for a family discussion that evening and at this point my children as a group both surprised and impressed me more than I could ever have expected– and I have been a very proud mother on countless other occasions: All our children were adamant that A should stay!
I just had to ‘get to the summer holidays’, they said …. ’just a couple of weeks away, which wasn’t long’, …. and then ‘they would be home …. and everything would be better because they could help more….and we couldn’t give up because then everything we had invested would in effect be wasted…..or A would move on and someone else would reap the benefits of all our hard work…. …and then, on top of how guilty I would undoubtedly feel, I would still not have a ‘proper job’ and still be bored at home and of course I am the moodiest mother ever, because I need a real job!’ .…and many other arguments besides these.
So I dug a little deeper down than I thought I could and we got through the next couple of weeks. After this, the little ‘miracles’ began to happen for A and for us. A beautiful smile or a little giggle in place of a shriek, an unsolicited reaching out to take a hand at an anxious time, a willingness to relax a little, to take notice of his surroundings and to start to learn. Just tiny indications that change might just be possible after all.
A had no useful speech when he arrived and so I turned back to Makaton which I had used when our eldest son, who is now aged 17 years and has Down syndrome, was a baby. He hasn’t used it for many, many years, but he remembered far more than I did and he spent ages with me teaching A basic signs for ‘more’, colours, animal sounds and names and all the other basic steps that A had missed. Before moving on to signs for sad, cross and happy to help A express his own emotions and recognise them in others. He was my walking, talking signing reference dictionary. Our son likes things at a slower pace and his gentleness and patience drew A in and they became TV buddies. A, by now feeling safe to sit at his side, watching many children’s classics over and over again, with a constant commentary of signs and words until A started to try to sing along too. We all took a breath when we heard his little voice attempt ‘Circle of Life’ for the first time.
Our daughter of 14 years naturally took a motherly role with A. Tall and feisty she probably took the brunt of A’s behaviours but never once did she take them personally, as sometimes I admit I did. When you try over and over to care for a child and receive nothing but rejection it is unbelievably hard. The girl who seemed to have turned into a grumpy, slouchy, miserable teenager emerged back out as a strong and capable young woman who shrugged off A’s behaviours, took pride in A’s tiny achievements, gave him endless hours of her time, didn’t even mind when he investigated her precious make-up box and took me to Mothercare to buy him a pushchair so that he wouldn’t feel overwhelmed when out in public and need carrying everywhere.
Then to our youngest son of 12 years, sensitive and dramatic in equal measures with a huge heart. He has become A’s ‘spirit buddy.’ He has taught him to laugh at jokes and make his own jokes. He was just entering puberty with all that entails but can slip straight back to being a little boy with A at a moment’s notice, playing in the paddling pool and bouncing on the trampoline. They have laughed and squabbled and got up to mischief in a totally typical way. They have made dens and played in them, sung their hearts out in the back of the car and on the home karaoke machine, spent time digging for worms, worn countless silly hats and been as noisy as two boys can possibly be.
We had a summer holiday last year: The ‘road trip’ my husband has always pushed for and I have always resisted, but as A had no passport, we definitely weren’t going to the airport! ‘Oh Lord, camping!’, I groaned – ‘like being trapped in a bag of ferrets with nowhere comfortable to sleep’….’All of us in one car?!’ cried our boys…’we’ll have to sit in the back and there won’t be any TV in a tent!’… ‘and Centre Parcs?’ wailed our daughter. ‘You have GOT to be kidding me. You said we might go to Greece this year’…. And so on.
Well, it was by far, and we were all in agreement, absolutely the best family holiday we’ve ever had – and we’ve had some pretty good and much more expensive ones. We laughed, sang, flew kites, blew bubbles and chased them around a field, ate huge ice creams, rode mini trains, swam in the sea, visited animal sanctuaries, dinosaur museums and a pile of other things that we haven’t done in years and every one of us enjoyed them.
I can unequivocally say that we would never have done that holiday and those activities if A hadn’t been with us and, even if by some chance we had tried it without him, we wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Our children have revisited their early childhoods with fresh eyes and fresh enjoyment. In helping him to have his early childhood they have allowed themselves to be children again, free from the angst of keeping up teenage appearances.
That has continued. Who can resist a new tub of Play Doh? Not one of us apparently. We’ve all gone back to colouring-in and we’ve all got some great new dance moves! We dance, sing silly songs and laugh at daft jokes, not just because A does – and we do love to see him laugh – but because we all love it too. They still have their daily teenage arguments and frustrations with us and each other of course, but they also each have an unwavering focus on A which draws us closer together as a family and provides some light relief from the grind of parenting teenagers.
Having A come to live with us has brought many unexpected challenges, but also many unexpected gifts. As a mother, watching in pride as our own children willingly set aside some of their difficult teenage times to embrace A’s challenges and help to shape him into the wonderful boy he is becoming today. Together with watching them allow themselves to sometimes be just children again whilst they teach him to enjoy the things he should always have had the chance to experience, has been both a lovely surprise and brought moments of real joy.
I think fostering must bring different things to different people but, for me, this has been one of the best of many good things.
If you have the space, love and stable home to offer a child, please get in touch with us. Our friendly team of professionals will be happy to take you through any questions you may have, let’s write more foster stories together.