It has become a family tradition: after the end of each fostering placement, our daughters join us for dinner at one of our favourite restaurants. It is not really a celebration, but a moment to reconnect with our loved ones. It is also an opportunity to thank them for their help and support, and for making it all possible.
Our foster children come in all shapes and sizes: boys and girls; newborn, toddlers and teens; boisterous or shy. Some behave impeccably; others have lived without rules or boundaries. They stay for days, weeks or months during placements that are open-ended. With each new arrival our daughters, like children of foster carers everywhere, take a deep breath (and maybe count to 10) and launch themselves into action. Time, once again, to share the parents.
Looked-after children have generally lived chaotic lives and they bring their troubles with them, along with a new cast of characters - birth families, previous carers, social workers, health visitors and legal guardians - who instantly populate our daughters' lives, too. Our girls learn the essentials to navigate their way around the latest case and get a measure of how much it will impinge on their daily routines.
How can foster carers commit to caring for the most vulnerable children and still be sure of doing their best for their own sons and daughters? It can be the most daunting challenge that fostering throws at you. Emotionally and physically, you only have so much to give. As parents you devote your lives to provide for and nurture your children. From the moment they are born you tell them they are the most important people in your lives (they are) and will always come first (they do). And yet the evidence before them often suggests otherwise, as household routines change to suit others and the family's norms and conventions are challenged. Our children have lived through every broken night, every dash to the doctors, every angry phone call.
It is inevitable that the urgent care required by vulnerable children becomes a priority ahead of the (relatively) inconsequential needs of one's own children. When one child is disturbed by a turbulent contact session with a birth parent and another can't decide what clothes to wear to a party, it is obvious where a mum's sympathy will lie. But it is vital to maintain that everyday engagement with sons and daughters who are growing up fast..
Children can become extraordinarily protective over their parents. They may find it perfectly acceptable to rage at mum or dad for stopping them from doing what they want. But they resent it, deeply, when somebody else's child throws a tantrum for the same reason.
And yet, as a placement beds down and new routines evolve, a bond forms between the children. It is imperceptible at first, gentle banter, a helping hand, encouragement and compassion at times of anxiety; it creeps up on you as you look the other way. It is a bond that must never be taken for granted and which only the children of foster carers can really understand. And it is what breaks their hearts when the time comes to say goodbye.
Parents chose to become foster carers, and their children, to one degree or another, go along with that choice. They may not do so with the same conviction, even if they understand its value. But their consent is absolutely essential: they may not realise it, but the success of a placement is down to them as much as it is to the adults, and often even more so.
Our daughters are now young adults and are making their own way. One is a teacher, the fifth generation of our family to teach. She has the gift of empathy with the youngest children and I sense that this is at least partly rooted in fostering. The other is a brilliant mum to our first grandson. Despite her youth we never doubted her preparedness for the responsibility of parenthood, for we have seen her care for the most vulnerable children with love and kindness.
I hope that, in time, both will remember fostering with fondness and understand what a remarkable thing they did: they shared their parents.