It has taken time but our foster children have finally got used to me doing the washing up, peeling potatoes and preparing lunch, although they still expect me to cut a finger when I chop carrots. Occasionally, when a saucepan spills over, it confirms their view that the man of the house has no business being in the kitchen. But they enjoy my toasted cheese sandwiches and know that I will indulge them with an extra dollop of ketchup, provided they ask politely.
Ours is a fairly ordinary kitchen, with room for a table and chairs, and a picture window that opens out into the garden. But if there is a single room that represents foster care it is our kitchen. It is here that some of life's most important lessons are learned, not least the fact that dads, as well as mums, share the responsibility for the household chores. For some children it comes as a shock to understand that I am no less of a man because I do the ironing.
It is in this kitchen that boys and girls are introduced to the joys of cooking and baking, and to the beauty of vegetables, fruit and salads. They learn to appreciate that potatoes don't have to be chipped and fried, and that thirst can easily be quenched with a glass of fresh water from the tap, rather than from a bottle that fizzes and burps when you open it. They mix dough with their hands, create garish colours for icing and give shape to their own cookies and cakes. These are skills that will serve them well as their make their way in life. The smell of cooking and baking stirs old memories and creates new ones. The radio is always on and children who once feared speaking out of turn now sing along at the top of their voices.
Our fridge has disappeared under invitations to birthday parties and afternoon teas as our children make new friends and build the sort of social life that other kids take for granted. Fridge magnets give way under the weight of newsletters from swim and gym clubs, drama groups, nursery school and playgroups. The walls are covered by drawings and paintings that reveal the growing confidence and ability of children gently encouraged to read and write, with pencils, crayons and paints always within easy reach. Wall posters with the alphabet, a map of the world and a giant calendar spark their imagination.
We sit at the kitchen table and take meals together, uninterrupted by television, and talk about the day, taking care to listen and appreciate each other's stories. We joke and tease without malice; we encourage and comfort.
It is in the kitchen that little lives are gently put back together after a contact session that has not gone well, easing the heartache of separation. Conversation flows a little more easily when you are covered in flour or mixing a jelly, or when the radio plays a familiar tune that conjures up memories of happier times or sparks dreams of a future with endless possibilities.
Our children always have one eye on the garden view through the kitchen window, which can deliver unexpected delights: rabbits scampering across the lawn, a squirrel searching for seeds, magpies splashing in a rain puddle. But the biggest prize is a family of fallow dear who occasionally stray from a neighbouring field to feast on our shrubs. Sometimes magic just happens.
To the uninitiated our kitchen is just a kitchen like any other, with an oven, a sink, a fridge, a dishwasher. But we know otherwise. We are foster carers.