Foster carers should be ambitious for the children and young people we look after. But most of the time progress is measured by tiny, almost imperceptible steps. We want our foster children to grow up to become doctors or teachers, engineers or scientists, to have the same opportunities and aspirations as our own daughters, and how wonderful that would be. But when a placement ends and we take stock of what we have achieved, it can seem so insignificant, particularly when measured against the burden a child must carry when he or she comes into care.
During our training, an experienced foster carer once told us that our role, first and foremost, was to keep a child safe. The implication was that anything else was a bonus. It seemed such a modest, almost miserable target, and her words remain with me to this day, spurring me on to do better whenever the going is tough. And yet there is truth in what she said, for keeping a vulnerable child out of harm's way and helping him understand that he is safe in your care is a momentous step towards overcoming the trauma of abuse and neglect. To be able to sleep through the night, in a clean bed, with fresh pyjamas, in a bedroom that is not cold and damp, or to come down to breakfast knowing that there will be food on the table, these simple things that our own children happily can take for granted, are critical to that sense of feeling safe.
Once a placement is underway it is easy to lose sight of those lofty aspirations that attracted us to foster care in the first place. Now it is about teaching a child to actually use a knife and fork, and to sit at a table for more than a few minutes. It is about teaching a child not to fight, nor scream nor swear. It is about showing a child that spitting and scratching are not acceptable. Bedtime is about a bath, hot chocolate and a night-time story, not about inappropriate TV and computer games until sleep, uneasy and fitful, finally takes over.
It is about bringing asthma and eczema and allergies under control to reduce the amount of time spent in hospital, and learning to play in the garden and to enjoy the spring sunshine. It is about splashing in paddling pools and flicking sand on the beach. And falling asleep in the car on the way home without a care.
And there comes a moment when the little girl who nobody wanted to play with, because she was dirty and smelled, gets her first invitation back to tea or to a birthday party. She has a clean uniform and a pretty bow in her hair, and as she grows in confidence she is learning to navigate around the classroom and the playground. And at the school gate parents begin to introduce themselves and make small talk, curious about this child who everybody is talking about, and for all the right reasons.
Now the placement is coming to an end, and the child's future is decided. Some go home, some to relatives. Others move to long-term placements, or to adoption. A chapter in their lives comes to an end and you, as a foster carer, ask if you have done enough. And the answer is always 'No'.
One day that child might become a doctor or a teacher, an engineer or a scientist. Whatever their future holds, it may have started that first time they had a peaceful night in a bed with clean sheets - actual sheets - or when they were asked back to play. As a foster carer you may never know. But you can be sure you did your best: you kept them safe.