Foster care would be that little bit easier if you could press a 'pause' button on your own life. What would we not give for some sort of arrangement to put everything on hold, as we work to resolve the seemingly intractable problems of the children who come into our care? But the reality is that our own lives carry on: stuff happens to us too, with no regard for the children and young people who have been entrusted to us.
We consider ourselves a typical family, living in an unremarkable neighbourhood, carrying on fairly ordinary lives, and during the time we have been looking after other people's children we have experienced the ups and downs that families go through: births and bereavements, marriages and breakups, serious illness and redundancy. There have been joyous celebrations and moments of deep sadness.
It took us a couple of years of training to become foster carers and to be able to provide a suitable home. A few weeks into our first placement my wife was diagnosed with cancer, requiring urgent treatment. Ending the placement was unavoidable, but traumatic nonetheless. We never doubted that we would return to fostering; it was a matter of when, rather than if. And so it proved.
We have fostered continuously in the following years, striving to provide a stable and happy family home to children whose early lives have been chaotic. One's instinct is always to protect them from our own personal problems, particularly if they are in short-term care, because they already are coping with more than their fair share of strife. But even the youngest children have an ability to sniff out trouble, to sense a change in the atmosphere. For some, understanding a change in mood is about self-preservation. Dashing from school run to family contact sessions or meetings with social workers they soak up enough from snatched conversations and phone calls to confirm their suspicions that all is not well. Their natural curiosity ensures that nothing remains a secret for long.
Our approach is usually to be open and honest in a way that is appropriate for their age, much as we would with our own children. They learn by seeing how you deal with crises and setbacks, and how a family rallies round in support. Your response provides a powerful example and will inform their behaviour in later life. Whatever the scale of the challenge you face as a parent, son, spouse or brother, you never cease to be a foster carer so long as a child or young person remains in your care.
Inevitably, some children exploit your moment of vulnerability. Behaviour deteriorates when young ones sense you are distracted, or not paying enough attention. They may also be upset for you, or fearful that they may be asked to move on, yet again. It can become an opportunity for birth relatives to restate their opposition to the placement, and to demand that a child be returned home, which further destabilises a placement. All these competing demands for your attention have to be addressed, and it is far from easy. If we have been guilty of anything it has been in neglecting the needs of our own family - parents, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews - because we do not always make time to help them through their own difficult moments, and for that we are sorry.
And yet these times of enormous stress can also provide the sweetest memories and the greatest rewards. During my father-in-law's final weeks we cared for a baby girl, a bundle of fun who brought untold joy to the family and helped us to deal with the sadness. When I was unexpectedly made redundant I was able to spend one glorious summer as a full-time carer for two children, who gave me no time to feel sorry for myself. More recently, recovering from illness I had an unexpected opportunity to former a closer bond with two siblings who shared our home for almost a year. I looked forward to their return from school and hearing all about their day. I still miss them.
Back to that 'pause' button. Maybe we don't need one, after all.