You'll be hearing a lot about 'empty nests' over the next few weeks. It is that time of the year when sons and daughters pack their bags for university, or take up new jobs at the beginning of their careers after a final carefree summer. It leaves many parents with a sense of dread, as a family home that was once filled with the sounds of children and young people falls silent. For them it is a time to reminisce about years that have flown by, and to ponder what the future holds. Some will quietly cheer at the thought of having the house to themselves and more free time, but others will lament the passing of time. It really is the end of an era.
Although we have two adult daughters, we have never been troubled by empty nest syndrome. We became foster carers when our girls were teens, and our home has never stopped being a hub of family life. Throw in a rascal of a grandchild and you will get a sense of the gentle chaos that is our home life.
I reflect on this contrast between our lives and those of parents now sizing up their empty nests as we celebrate the birthdays of two of our foster children. As their birthdays fall in the same week, and their ages are not far apart, there is one big joint party at home, bringing together their friends, for games, singing and enough party food for a small army. We are thankful for the help and support of their parents, many of whom were unknown to us until only a months ago, when the fostering placement began. Here we are, laughing and singing as if we were old friends, in between helping our little'uns to navigate around a strange home without (too many) mishaps. They are generous with their gifts but more importantly with their time. They may not know the circumstances that brought these looked after children to our home, but they appreciate the significance of this birthday party for children who are taking tentative steps into an unfamiliar world.
At the end of the party children and parents leave our home, high on cake and sweets, clutching party bags and balloons. Our diary is newly filled with play dates for the children, and friendships forged that will help them when term time begins at our local primary school. These two hours of party fun are the foundations of the fulfilling, and inclusive, childhood that we seek for our children, and which boys and girls of their age have every right to take for granted.
The interaction is invaluable for the children in our care. But as foster carers we are also grateful, for their support and companionship makes our task so much easier and enjoyable. Fostering has introduced us to many wonderful families, of different ages and backgrounds, who would have been strangers to us but for our extended clan. They enrich our lives, forming a bond that will likely outlive the placement itself. We are uplifted when mums and dads we know from earlier placements emerge from a crowd to greet us, and to introduce themselves to our latest charges. Social care works best when the whole community accepts a share of the responsibility for the vulnerable children placed with foster families.
So if the prospect of an empty nest is keeping you awake at night, or raising questions about what to do with this next phase of your life, fostering may hold the answer. Take some time out and enjoy your new-found freedom. Give some thought to what qualities you can bring to fostering, and what you and your family could offer children in need of a loving home. Think also of what fostering might bring to your life at this moment of change. Be honest with yourself, but also be ambitious for your family, and for the children looking for a family like yours. Fill that empty nest.