What memories do you have of summer holidays? I grew up in South America, so mine are of sandy beaches and a scalding sun in cloudless skies. Our school holidays lasted from just before Christmas until March and for almost 10 weeks every year we were allowed to run wild pretty much from dawn until dusk. After such a long break the return to school uniforms, teachers and homework was traumatic.
As parents we endeavoured to give our daughters joyous memories of summers that they will cherish, and will make them smile long after we are gone. Summer holidays provide shared experiences that bind families and friendships through a lifetime.
As foster carers we have the same aspirations for the children who are in our care as for our own daughters: we want them to enjoy a carefree summer, to feel safe and happy, and to grow and flourish. We want to hear laughter and singing. At the end of every day we want them to sleep deeply and easily, dreaming of sandcastles and ice-cream, candyfloss and merry-go-rounds.
But it is complicated, isn't it? No matter how hard we try, and wherever we go this summer, the reality of their situation is inescapable, as it is for so many looked-after children whose futures are unresolved. Summertime activities have to be organised around the choreography of care, allowing for parental contact sessions or meetings with social workers and legal guardians. Assessments do not pause for summer: difficult questions lurk at every turn. Meetings can be deferred and decisions can be put off, to allow children to do what children should be doing during summer. But only for so long.
And it is during summer when separation from families is felt so keenly. Staying with grandparents or visiting cousins, for example, may be off the agenda. So too are get-togethers with classmates or children from the old neighbourhood. Living away from the parental home often means separation from a community that was familiar and friendly.
The beginning of the summer holidays sometimes brings the anxiety of bidding farewell to one school and preparing to join another, in a new catchment area, with no opportunity to form new friendships that will provide peer support in those difficult early days. Looked-after children who have been able to continue at their old school miss the term-time companionship of friends who may have known them for years and who really know what makes them tick.
Often foster carers have to negotiate the summer weeks with limited support from relatives and close friends. Few of the families who are closest to us have children or teenagers still living at home and it takes time to build new networks that connect and engage our foster children. There are no shortcuts or easy fixes: it takes patience, perseverance and no small amount of diplomacy.
As we get to know the children, and they learn to trust us, we gain a better understanding of what will work for them. A child who is introverted and withdrawn, once interested only in TV and online games, can suddenly discover a passion for art or woodwork. When they grasp the opportunities that being in care can bring, the possibilities are endless. Learning how to ride a bike or to swim, or a first visit to the seaside, can define a summer and set in motion a whole chain of positive, transformative events in a child's life. It is an act of magic.
We hope that, come September, our children will feel taller, stronger, happier and more confident about their place in the world. There will be setbacks, and progress may be measured in tiny steps rather than giant strides. But we will do whatever we can to ensure that they return to school with summer memories they are proud to share with their teachers and classmates. If that is our achievement, then we will also sleep deeply and easily.