I had the great pleasure of working in Italy last week and at the beginning of that wonderful five night stay at the Hotel Grand Tremezzo filming for This Morning, I was made aware by my agent Del that I would be working the day after I returned home on the following Sunday. Now I'm always quite protective of my Sundays because when I say I am absolutely in love with my role as kids football coach, I don't think I could convey in words just how much satisfaction I get from seeing my team visibly improve week in - week out but let's put it this way, I'm as happy teaching it as I was playing it at their age, maybe it keeps me young!
It was meant to be as fortunately the game kicked off early and it left me just enough time to get over to the job. Because of being distracted by the beauty of my surroundings In Lake Como, I hadn't really focused on what exactly I was booked for, just that it was on a hop farm in Kent. It turned out that it was for Attachments, an Independent fostering agency, and that I was to simply give out some awards to the fostering families who have excelled in their duties over the 10 years since the company was born.
On being greeted in the car park and told what the awards were about, I had assumed I'd been booked because I had been fostered and spent time in care as a toddler, although not common knowledge and certainly not something I talk about very often, somehow they must have known?
As Dot, the founder and manager with over 25 years social work experience, started to read out the accomplishments being rewarded and the inspirational individuals came up to receive their awards for outstanding contributions to fostering I whispered over to her if she had known that I had come from this background?
To both our surprise, I was only booked because they thought me to be of as much interest to the kids as I was to the older adults but no, they didn't know. I immediately felt a sense of fate, that I was meant to be there and on top of that I had an urge to speak to the room, not that I knew what I was going to say, just that I hoped Dot would ask me to say a few words, it felt like there was something I needed to get off my chest.
The surprising thing for me wasn't the fact that everything I said seemed to strike a chord for everyone in the room from a foster parent and foster child's point of view but that I became completely overwhelmed by emotion and found it very hard to talk and suppress the huge lump in my throat at the same time! I found it interesting how I can talk about grief as a subject without breaking my stride yet there was something about the room full of foster children reminding me of the young Jeff Smith, which I found particularly tough.
I told the group about my experience, I hadn't spoke about this for ages and it was really hard getting the words out at first. I spoke about my vivid memories of Margaret and Dave, my foster carers in Upminster, Essex. I remember random things like a cowboy outfit, a game called tin-can alley, a next door neighbour who would give me Mr Men Ice pops and living next to an allotment, lining my cars up in the garden in a traffic jam and interestingly my first memory of giving affection, being in the bed between my sleeping foster parents and cuddling Margaret's leg and kissing her on the knee.
As I recalled my earliest memories I was keen to impress on the group that I don't look back and see my time in foster care as a negative, my expression wasn't from feeling sorry for myself, I completely understand that in the absence of my biological father, my very young mother, too young to even consider a woman would want to get herself together after having me at the age of 15 and, in some respects I think it was very brave decision to take. I didn't say this in front of the room of kids but I'd prefer to be fostered than to have been aborted and to not have had the privilege of life in the first place!
I remembered the moment when my Mum came to collect me, she would have been around 20 years old, bleach blond hair, dressed in black like any new romantic in the 80's should, and I remember feeling excited and it feeling quite natural. At some point during the next year or so I would forget that I was ever away from her. I still don't ask my mum questions I'm entitled to ask about my past because I don't want to be insensitive, it's sad that this wouldn't have started in my adult years, I think we protect our parents from what might be difficult for them to answer to from a very young age anyway.
I haven't seen Margaret and Dave since nor have I searched. I've never really had the impetus to rediscover that part of my life but it took being in a room with some children and imagining myself as one of them to catapult me back into being four or five years old again. If I was to meet with my foster parents again I think I'd probably be an emotional wreck yet if you had asked me last week how I would greet them I would have imagined there to be a lot of catching up but with very little emotion attached.
I felt sad for the children in the room, silly really as so many of them were so happy on the day, why should I feel sad for them? In reality these particular children were part of the chosen few that had been lucky enough to have found someone to care for them. I just knew that at some point in their lives they would have had to have dealt with rejection and abandonment, I realise now that these maybe the emotions that were stirred in me. What they may have endured at such a young age can't be erased but it can hopefully be overridden by memories of consistency, safety, security and ultimately, love.
Through my memories I wanted to assure the foster parents that every ounce of their love, support and patience would be remembered well in to the children's adult years as I was proving. I spoke on behalf of the children in the room when I said that the consistency and normality that they are providing can often be the most valuable gift as when a foster child matures they will often be left with two impressions of what normal actually is and through their foster parents will have learnt that the bad experiences were not how life is meant to be and they can therefore make their own decisions knowing that there is a choice.
That afternoon and the waft of emotion that went with it really made me think about what it must take to be a foster parent? To accept not just a child into your home, but quite often one that has been mistreated, neglected and sometimes abused is something only the most selfless, patient and giving of individuals could contemplate. If Angels were parents that is the role they would play.
I wonder whether I could be a foster parent. The hardest thing must be to take someone in, grow attached only for them to have to leave, maybe that sums up parenting anyway? To give a child a chance, is there truly any greater accomplishment in life? Thank you to Attachments who opened my eyes and unlocked something within me that had sat dormant for 30 odd years. You're never too old to learn something new about yourself.