We are fostering again. Our home is filled with the sounds of children playing. Umpteen pairs of little shoes and wellies are piled around the front door, coats and jumpers are draped over stairs and chairs. There are toys in every room. Our foster children come in twos and threes, and sometimes it feels like being hit by a tornado.
We are navigating unfamiliar school runs, strangers at yet another school gate. There is a new team of social workers, teachers, contact staff and drivers. Within just a few days a birthday will be upon us, with a party to organise, and it will be Christmas before we know it. We are piecing together a complex birth family tree, branch by branch.
As a new routine beds down, we learn about the children and they learn about us. They arrive on a gloriously sunny winter's day, which always helps, and together we explore the house and the garden. On their second morning three roe deer stray through the hedge to graze on our plants, much to the children's delight as we stand quietly watching through the window.
Our world must seem so alien and bewildering, our large rumbustious family both welcoming and intimidating. There are unfamiliar sounds and smells, radiators that gurgle in the night, distant traffic, a cantankerous water pump. But already there are subtle, encouraging signs: a joke shared, shy and gentle singing along with a tune playing on the radio, a little hand that slips into my own as we swish through unswept autumn leaves in the garden. We have bake cakes, covered in thick icing of improbably bright colours, and read the story books that delighted our own daughters when they were children. At bedtime we wish them a peaceful, restful night, and we really mean it.
Late evening, when the house has fallen silent, we read and reread the case notes, determined to become as familiar with their short lives, as quickly as possible, as we are with the lives of our own children. As experienced foster carers we are no strangers to case notes like this, but each time it hits us like a punch to the stomach. How do you reconcile the child who laughs at Disney cartoons on TV with the case set out before you, in black and white? The road ahead will be bumpy, full of twists and turns and possibly reach a dead end. We shall be there for the children when that happens.
At the bottom of our garden there is a field, where sheep graze, and beyond the field stands a tall tree from which hangs a big wooden swing. This tree was chosen because the ground quickly slopes away from the swing, making it feel as if you really are flying. Over the years scores of children, including our own as well as boys and girls we have cared for, have enjoyed this swing. With one single push, the swing takes flight. The ride is as exhilarating as it is unexpected and it is physically impossible not to laugh out loud as the swing reaches the highest point before falling back. Under the circumstances, there can be no more joyous sound.