One of the joys of being a parent is being able to witness milestones in your child's life; first steps, first day at school, riding a bike, passing a driving test, graduating from university. As a dad, you even get to pretend to be upset when your daughter, finally, dumps the boyfriend you really did not like.
One of the perks of being a foster carer is that you get to do many of these things over again, and again and again. And, believe you me, it is just as memorable, each and every time. Money cannot buy the excitement of seeing a child discover that the tooth fairy has been. Or when a little girl keeps on going, pedalling with determination on a bike without stabilisers for the first time. Or when a teacher summons you to school, to tell you that your foster child has progressed to the next reading group. We once attended a school musical, to hear our foster daughter belt out a tune, on her own, in a beautiful voice that she had kept to herself for far too long.
These are the memories that every parent treasures, and that foster carers get to enjoy, in a different way, with each and every placement. Sometimes those moments are so precious, yet so difficult to capture and share. How do you explain how momentous it is when a seven-year-old is invited to tea for the first time in her life? Or when children go to the beach and dip their toes in the water for the first time, despite living just a few miles from the seaside all their lives? How about when a child wakes up from a good night's sleep to find that breakfast is on the table, with a choice of cereals, and cannot understand that it is for him?
For, as foster carers, these are the milestones that we witness, almost every day, and which nourish and energise our commitment to foster care. Just as we celebrate the top marks at school, and the next gymnastics badge, we celebrate the dry beds, the days without tantrums and the gentle healing of skin as the urge to self-harm abates.
We never forget what a privilege it is, to be granted these memories and to share in the joy, nor do we underestimated the scale of the responsibility we have been given. We also are conscious that each milestone we witness is a milestone withheld from a birth parent or grandparent, or a moment that has not been shared with a forever family. We are mere custodians of other people's memories, and beyond the celebration, there is a job to be done. We document the time and place, the circumstances and context. We note who else was there and why. We take pictures, hundreds of pictures (how did foster carers ever cope before digital photography?) and collate the memory books that document each life story during their time with us. When the time comes to move on, these memory books will go with them, and help their forever families get to know the children and young people who are to become such a significant part of their lives.
Sorting through these pictures, we reminisce and smile at the happy times we have spent together. They also remind us how far the children have come, since joining our family. The transformation in their appearance is striking, well beyond the changes you associate with a child in development. It is physical, as you would expect with a healthy diet, exercise and sleep. But it is also emotional, as a child learns what it is like to feel respected, cherished even, and to live without fear of hunger or violence. It changes how they walk, and laugh, and reach out to others.
We are aware of the limitations of foster care, and we acknowledge that sometimes it lets children and young people down. We know that foster carers, and foster care, can and must do better. We also understand that progress can be uneven, and that children in care face unique challenges as they grow older. But for thousands of children and young people in care, foster families open a door to a world of infinite possibilities, with the potential to transform lives. We have witnessed milestones that once seemed beyond reach, and know that there are many more to come.
Welcome to Fostering, edited by Andy Elvin and Martin Barrow, is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers http://www.jkp.com/uk/the-foster-carer-s-handbook-2.html