I’ve lost count of how many parents I’ve heard talking about how quickly kids grow up, and how you should appreciate every minute you have with them. As a teacher, I’ve always felt the same, and I’ve always been more than a little sad every time the kids I work with ‘graduate’ into a different class, school, or life adventure. For some reason though, I never really saw it coming with fostering.

I think maybe this is because when you have a placement, you have no idea how long it will last. The child may ultimately be reunited in the family home with their parents. The placement might just be a trial for all parties. The whole thing may just break down and be called to a halt for one of a hundred reasons or factors. With all of this in mind, you focus very much on the short term, at least until things begin to settle and pictures begin to form.

You also have to realise with a foster child, that just because that child has joined your family and you’re no doubt doing everything you can to integrate them into your life and home, that child may not respond in the way you may hope or expect. They certainly don’t owe you any kind of unconditional love, that’s for sure. As a result of all of this, you really don’t think about enjoying every minute – you think very much in the here and now, and you are always just a little bit on edge in preparation for something to happen that you just can’t control. It’s natural to assume though, that the longer you have that placement, the harder it’s going to be for you when it ends.

With The Boy, after just 10 months of living with us, the plan from day one had always been to work hard to ensure he had the option of going on to start at university after he’d finished his college studies. On the day he left to start that adventure, my heart broke.

I’ve since been ‘reminded’ by someone whose opinion I neither asked nor cared for, that “it’s not the same” as when other parents cry on university moving out/in day, because “he’s never been your baby”. Well I can’t argue with the biological facts of the latter half of that statement, but I still cried my eyes out when I got back in my car after spending the afternoon on campus moving him into his Halls.

Why did I cry? Was it that he was being taken away from me? No – he’s his own person and has made a logical choice to go and start a life at university. Was it that I was going to have to make the transition from spending every hour with him to not seeing him at all? No – whilst he lived with us he had a better social life and active calendar than I did and was rarely at home anyway!

Instead, the answer to why I cried was because I was caught up in a moment of transition and realisation. I’d played some part in helping this amazing lad build the structures he needed to go off to enjoy a life he’d deserved from day one; a life with a chance to succeed, a life of trying out new things, and a life of knowing that wherever and whatever he moves on to, there would always be someone back home who loves him and supports him. My role was complete.

The Boy would now need me less and less each day, after I’d tried to do in one year what someone should have been able to do for him for the previous 17. I’d done a good thing, I think, and while I was of course happy and proud, I felt an emptiness.

And so, going back to that most helpful and supportive of comments about it not being “the same”… I’d agree – it’s not the same, because in some ways, it’s so much worse.

I find myself in a very privileged position right now as a writer, as Capstone have invited me on board to blog every week for them, thanks to the popularity of my previous monthly blogs since being welcomed into their agency as a Foster Carer last year.

I was delighted to take on the challenge of combining two of my favourite things – working with young people, and writing. “This will be easy – this will be fun!” I thought.  Today though, it’s not easy, and I’m really not having any fun.

Every time something I believe weird or wonderful happens within my fostering adventure, I make a few notes in the hope that I’ll be able to craft each experience into a piece of literary excellence. Those notes are scattered around my house on the backs of envelopes and Post-It notes, and are taking up memory space in the form of disjointed and fairly random voice memos on my phone.

Sitting here to produce a future piece though, I have FIVE unfinished blogs in front of me. All are of course about fostering, all of them have a potential angle, but if I’m honest, absolutely none of them are worth writing about.  However hard I try, I just can’t make any of these pieces passionate, informative or even remotely entertaining.  Right now, my fostering blogging seems utterly unremarkable.

I have to accept this though, because even though fostering is hugely rewarding in terms of its outcomes, the process can prove in no way remarkable for the most part, and in honesty, it can be the hardest job in the world.

People will always tell you how rewarding fostering is, and they’re so right, but if anyone thinks this is a culmination of daily breakthroughs, frequent heart-warming stories and recurrent amusing anecdotes; it’s really not. Over all, what you’re doing as a Foster Carer is both remarkable and rewarding, but you usually don’t see such results until late on or even after the fact.  A lot of the time there’ll just be frustration, hard work and the process of often feeling like you’ve achieved very little for your efforts.

Capstone have always hoped that the nature of my blogs would inspire people to get involved in fostering. It’s important then that I’m honest.  If you want to get into fostering because you crave constant reward and seek ongoing satisfaction that comes from daily positive outcomes, think twice about applying.  You have to prepare for the fact that the reality just isn’t as uplifting and takes a lot of hard work.  Yes, there will certainly be moments that will make you laugh out loud, soar with pride and teach you valuable lessons, and there’s no taking away from the fact that every single day you will be making a difference to a young person’s life, but if you’re expecting remarkable things and rewarding responses on a regular basis, then much like some of my draft blogs; it just won’t materialise.

As with writing, as a Foster Carer, some days you’ll be faced with a jumble of information you just can’t logically piece together into sense, and others you’ll be staring at a blank space and pleading for inspiration. Some days you’ll make small progress, other days you’ll feel like you’ve made none (or even worse, you’ll believe you’ve gone back a step).  With fostering though, you are moving forward, and the child placed with you is most certainly moving forward, because without you, they may have absolutely nobody.  The impact you will have as a Foster Carer is immeasurable, and you are making a child’s life better day by day.  The only problem is that you probably won’t really see it at the time.

Last month I wrote about the newest addition to our family. Not a child, but a dog; Akira the Siberian Husky. It was quite an emotive piece of writing, so I felt I should lift the mood a little this month by talking about the same subject from a different angle, so here it is.

I’ve always praised Capstone as our fostering agency for the high quality of the training and support they provide. Well, Capstone – you’ve been outdone, because this week, we had to have a session with a Dog Psychologist. Yes, that’s a job.

Please don’t freak out – our dog isn’t a psychopath, but she’s a Husky, and so the similarities are there. Akira is beautiful and friendly and intelligent and happy and energetic… but she is also headstrong, and about two minutes after bringing her home from the shelter, it was very apparent that she had never been trained a day in her fluffy little life. Akira is two years old, and, much like a foster child, we know very little about her past or how that shapes her future, so it’s not like we were ever going to have the ease of training this puppy as an empty vessel.

The Dog Psychologist has been a god-send (or dog-send, if you will), but the person who’s had the most success in training Akira is The Boy. Maybe it’s because he knows what it’s like to come into a strange family home and act, adapt and fit in within new surroundings and existing structures? Whatever the reason, The Boy loves the dog, and in working with her he has shown me one or two lessons along the way in patience! The bond is strong, and I wouldn’t change it.

However, not everyone likes the idea of bringing kids AND pets into the family home. I actually had one person ask me if I was scared the dog would attack The Boy. Yes. I have grave concerns that one day the dog will brutally savage him in the kitchen, and that’s exactly why I’ve left them both unattended at the house with easy access to guns, heroin and bleach.

Any pet, whether already in your home or introduced to your family at a later date, will always pose some element of risk, but it’s about weighing up those risks and managing situations carefully – as you would with any contact your child is going to have. In our family, I’m probably less scared of either Akira or Barry (the cat) hurting The Boy than I am about The Boy hurting himself falling over his own boots at football.

For me, pets add a wonderful dimension to any family. They’re non-judgemental (unless you have a cat), loyal (unless you have a cat) and will happily spend their time making you feel loved (unless you have a cat). The focus of attention on a family pet can do so much. It can diffuse an awkward situation or silence, provide unconditional comfort, and teach a child or young person responsibility for the care of another living being. Yes, a cat will take a swipe at you if you push its boundaries, but this in itself is a life lesson, and despite the comments earlier in this paragraph, cats can be wonderful pets, and kids can learn a lot from their resilience.

I don’t know the exact stats, but there are more kids at risk from their own parents than there are those at risk from a family pet. Why else would we need foster carers? So, if you’re put off fostering because you have a pet, or you’re already fostering but putting off the idea of getting a pet in the future, re-think the situation. Weigh up the risks, be vigilant of them, and then once you have put everything in place to ensure that anyone or anything with two, four or more legs is safe in your loving home, enjoy all the benefits that having a pet can bring to your family.

Oh, and take out insurance on your furniture.

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