An unexpected reunion with a much-loved former foster child brings memories flooding back. She came to us as a new-born and left just before her first birthday. She is thriving with her forever family, who are as dear to us as our own. We reminisce about that special year and our minds wander to other children who came and went, leaving us with the memories that define us as foster carers. I share some of them with you.
1. They run out of school hand in hand, our foster daughter and the friend she has asked to tea. It is the first time, ever, that she has been able to have someone back to play, and it happens that she has chosen a little girl who has also never been invited home. In the car they cannot stop giggling, such is their excitement. At home they run from room to room, and then do it all over again. When teatime comes they sit next to each other and our foster daughter plays host, offering more sandwiches and cake and biscuits. They are exquisitely polite to one another, saying please and thank you at every opportunity. They say goodbye with biggest hug, as if they will never meet again. Until tomorrow, at least.
2. She walks anxiously around the unfamiliar house, which through no fault of her own is to become her home, and who knows for how long. She gives little away, showing no emotion, until she notices the bookcase in our makeshift playroom, and then he eyes light up. Upstairs on the landing two more bookcases await her, and yet another in the room where she will sleep. She has never seen so many books, and struggles to understand that they are there for her to read. Soon she will have three or four books on the go at any one time. For World Book Day she dresses as Fagin from Oliver! and wins a prize. For days it is all she can talk about.
3. After many days of rain, the sun shines in a cloudless sky and there is a gentle, soothing breeze. As I hang washing on the clothes line in the garden I am joined by two little girls who ask me what I am doing. "Why?", they reply to every answer I give. "That's my jumper," shouts one. "Those are my pyjamas," cries the other. And so on, until every item of clothing is identified and described. For they have never seen washing on a line, or ever had enough spare clothes to put in a laundry basket. Their short lives have been lived in hostels and bedsits.
4. They come as a threesome, and woe betide anyone who comes in between. Hyperactive bundles of energy, with an extraordinary curiosity about the world that exists beyond their estate. Even though they have lived only a few miles from the seaside, this is their first outing to the beach, and it proved to be a meeting of powerful forces. The oldest run wild, splashing through the waves, but their little brother stays at the shore, shrieking at the approach of every ripple. He puts his ear to the wet shingle, listening to the drag of the water. Even as the sun sets and the air chills they don't want to leave, refusing to believe that this magnificent playground will still be there when they next return.
5. She barely seems strong enough to support her new bike. But there can be no doubting her determination: she will not leave the park today until she can cycle without her training wheels. There are falls and there are bumps; there are tears and tantrums. But suddenly, when all hope seems lost, she takes flight. She's pedalling and pedalling and beyond our reach. If only she had learned how to stop without falling off... Her mum should be there to enjoy this wonder. Instead, we are there, relative strangers, and we feel blessed.
6. In our local shopping centre, a chance encounter with the great-grandmother of children we once cared for. Without hesitation, she puts her arms around us and welcomes us with the warmest embrace. She notices the toddler who is with us and sweeps him up as if he were her own. Nothing is said, but she knows why he is with us, and shares his pain. We are all, in the most unlikely way, one family.
Every 20 minutes a child comes into care in the UK, needing a foster family. The number of care orders is at an all-time high and The Fostering Network estimates that 9,000 new foster families will be needed over the next year. Being a foster carer is challenging, possibly the toughest thing you will ever do. But the memories are precious.