It’s Friday evening. In the dining room there are four very noisy, very excited boys getting stuck into their sleepover fun. They are shrieking at each other, their mouths open to reveal half masticated hotdog as they discuss the merits of the caterpillar game (a pursuit involving sleeping bags and a staircase). I wonder whether it was such a great idea to suggest tonight as the night to sign off our Form F assessment with our assessor Stef. But anyway it’s too late; Stef arrives at the peak of the children’s excitement.
Jim, who is looking remarkably relaxed (I suspect a pint of lager might feature in this) welcomes Stef in whilst I sort the boys out. By the time I've dispatched the boys upstairs with some sweets and a DVD, it all sounds eerily quiet. I make Stef a cup of tea and enter the lounge.
The light is best described as “mood” and there is some slow music playing.
‘Blimey Jim,’ I say. ‘Couldn't you find the Barry White?’
Jim looks at me questioningly. Stef looks like she’s on the point of laughter or tears. I'm not sure which yet.
‘It’s a bit late for seduction. The form F is complete and Stef has well and truly got the measure of us both.’
Stef does look slightly puzzled at the Jim she has stumbled across tonight and when Jim leaves the room she says, ‘This is a man who’s had a weight lifted off his shoulders!’
And she’s right. The man Stef is meeting tonight is the Jim we all know and love: relaxed, generous, funny and kind. It is the man he is allowed to be now that the invasive questions have ceased.
So it is that we find ourselves in this romantic, relaxed setting thumbing through our form F. We start with the references.
Stef has taken up three personal references for us. This has involved a lengthy interview with each of our nominated friends to really enable her to get the measure of us. Stef says that during this interview, she really pushed our referees to understand their views on our strengths and weaknesses. It’s odd to read what people really think of us. And very touching. I just get to the end of the one I am reading when I notice that Jim is looking particularly smug and puffed up.
‘What are you looking like that for?’ I ask.
‘Two reasons,’ he says. ‘Firstly, it’s clear that as a couple we have a weakness. YOU!’
I ask him to elaborate.
He merely hands me the reference he’s been reading. This reference, provided by a good friend of mine, states that it is very rare that I ask for help and cites this as a potential area of weakness. This is undoubtedly true. I don’t see this as a deliberate ploy on my part to dupe the world into thinking I’m capable, I’m just generally pretty self-sufficient. Looking at that comment in the context of a wider fostering context, however, it’s clear that I am going to have to be aware of this tendency of mine. Looking at it in black and white, I can see that perhaps there is an element of pride to the self-sufficiency and also a tendency towards martyrdom and that is not good news for anyone.
‘OK. Fair enough. What else?’
Jim visibly inflates.
‘I,’ he says, ‘am an Alpha male.’
My stomach sinks. Which of our dim-witted, short-sighted friend has said this about Jim? I actually go back and check the front of the reference to make sure Stef has not enclosed someone else’s report. But alas, it’s there in print, for ever.
‘Do you think I'm an Alpha male?’ he asks.
I groan. This is going to be unbearable. This new status is going to be held aloft at every possible occasion. It will be presented in any dispute, any struggle. It will be carted out whenever his judgement is in question. It will be the rationale behind every success and any petty failure. I suddenly start wondering whatever happened to Tippex...
‘Actually, the reference says that you can come across as quite Alpha male but I think she’s actually saying that…you’re not. Not really.’
Jim smiles at me in a manner that can only be described as sardonic. ‘I think, as an ALPHA MALE, I am capable of cutting through the subtle nuances of language here and drawing the only sensible conclusion…’
Stef is giggling beside me. Quite a lot. I'm glad that she gets us in this way. That she knows we are mocking each other, that she knows we are not serious and that we do this as a way of showing affection. I feel touchingly understood.
We move on and read through the reports on our children. The school has given an honest report of the boys and have stated that they’d have no concerns in relation to us fostering. It seems that everyone has had a say in our application: previous employers, current organisations we volunteer for, organisations we've had involvement with in the past, people in our community who know us. I didn't expect any of them to say anything bad about us but I still breathe a sigh of relief to see that they view us positively. It makes me realise how exposed I've been feeling.
We then read through the rest of the form. This is split into different sections and covers our childhood, our experiences of being parented, our experiences of parenting, the challenges we've faced and how we've overcome them, our training and development and knowledge around fostering and its challenges. Each of these sections draws on past events and reflects on what we've taken from them and how this might qualify us to be successful foster carers.
I'm pretty impressed that Stef has managed to get all this information together so quickly and smoothly. Inside three months, she has questioned us, observed us, tried to understand us. She has shared valuable experience with us. And most impressively of all, she has managed to extract blood from stone or, to put it another way, information from ALPHA MALE.
The home stretch
Both Jim and I are pleased and relieved that such a gargantuan task has been achieved. No more questions, no more time consuming homework, no more cajoling answers out of Jim…until the panel, of course.
I have found the assessment process to be hugely valuable on a personal level. It is surely a healthy thing to question yourself, your motives, your limitations, your strengths and weaknesses, your pressure points, your regrets, your successes. It is surely a good thing to see yourself warts and all. It is a good thing to recognise where you need to change and why.
I have a suspicion that Jim’s experience looks a little different…
We thank Stef sincerely for her patience and her hard work. And because the Alpha male is perfectly at ease with himself, he is not too proud to request a pre-panel preparation session where Stef can put us through our paces. Our Panel date is 20th April. Stef agrees that we’ll meet beforehand for a practise run. So all that’s left to take care of are a few health and safety adjustments to the house, to let our insurers (home and car) know of our intention to foster and last but by no means least, to hope that we can make it through the panel intact.
In the meantime, I'm off to indulge in my new hobby of Alpha male bashing. In the interest of self-improvement I will be approaching my support network to see if any of them can help me out with a suitable bashing implement, instead of stoically sourcing my own.
I’ll keep you posted on the panel…