My children were nine and seven when we started fostering. Like anyone who decides to foster, I was worried about the impact our decision might have on our family but particularly on my children.
Of course, we had gone to great lengths to include them in the decision making process and to take account of their worries and concerns. But the children knew that fostering was a passion of mine and I was not so disillusioned as to ignore the fact that my children would want to please us.
Their response to the idea of fostering was one of excitement but of course there were things they were worried about.
‘What if the child doesn’t like us or they are not nice to us? What if they run away?’ and from my eldest: 'What if I can’t open my heart to them?’
And then there were the unspoken fears: What if mum and dad don’t have time for us? What if we just don’t like fostering?
It was these unspoken concerns that occupied my thoughts for the first few months of having a child come and live with us. Worrying how my children were doing and worrying about how our foster son was coping felt like walking a tightrope. My technique was all wrong. Instead of keeping my eyes fixed ahead, I was looking down and expecting to fall.
In reality, the children took to fostering like the proverbial ducks to water. If I’m really honest, they coped better than I did. I noticed in them qualities that I have since done my best to adopt. They seemed to have an in-built ability to take our foster son as they found him. When he was withdrawn, they left him to it and when he wanted to engage, they were gracious in their response. They were able to go at his pace. They were infinitely patient. They welcomed him without question.
Equally, they welcomed our supervising social worker, Tricia, with open arms and greedily accepted her time (and chocolates). ‘Having Tricia is like having our own lawyer,’ said my youngest. I think he meant counsellor but who was I to argue. ’She asks us what we like and what we don’t like about fostering and we can say whatever we like!’ And of course, they enjoyed sharing their “dabbing” (a dance move) techniques with her. In fact, I think they were more preoccupied with the dabbing than with the counselling.
Watch and learn
It’s probably taken about a year of watching my boys adapt to fostering to adapt to it myself. In the early days, my eldest son would roll his eyes and say, ‘Stop asking if I’m ok!’ When I asked them how they thought things were going, they would say they love having a new brother. But it was clear that my eldest son worried about me. I would catch him watching me closely. At this time, when I closed my eyes, I would frequently see an image of myself, palms stretched out above the heads of the boys, my husband and my foster son, eyes skittering between them all. And I realised that while I had a degree of influence on how happy they all were, I couldn’t control or manipulate their responses. I had to lower my hands. I had to focus on my own response. I had to take a leaf out of my children’s book.
As I watched my children, I realised that there was something missing in them that was all too present in me. They were able to enter into things without a cumbersome set of expectations, whilst I was staggering beneath mine. It was this realisation that changed things. I needed to let go of my expectations around our foster son’s ability to engage. I needed to let go of the burden of believing I was responsible for everyone’s responses, for their daily sacrifices, for tiny impacts that might never become as huge as I dreaded they would. It was all about me. It was not about me at all.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. If I could go back to the beginning of our fostering journey, I would change many things. But in reality, the things we’ve learned over the last 15 months have made us stronger together, stronger individually and changed for the better. I wasn’t expecting my own children to teach me so much about myself, neither did I foresee that they would shape my approach to fostering. I also had not appreciated that in following my children and letting go of my expectations, it would free my foster son. We still have many challenges ahead but little, by little he is emerging from himself. And if he retreats again? I’ll be doing my utmost to leave those expectations, those disappointments, those unhelpful reactions, well and truly in the bin. In reality, the boys very rarely take the rubbish out on bin day (I’m working on it) but metaphorically, they are expert refuse men, able to instinctively sort through what to throw out and what to keep.
Thank you boys.