The season to be merry is in full swing, and all around us people appear to be having a great time. As a family we love Christmas and everything it stands for. We celebrate with close relatives and friends, reflect on the year that is drawing to a close and to make plans for the year ahead.
But as foster carers? Well, it is complicated, isn't it? At the merriest, jolliest time of the year, the sadness that exists at the heart of all fostering seems so stark.
We gather our parents and children around us and hold them close, and remember those who are no longer with us. We set aside our troubles, if only for a day or two, and make time to share truly precious moments, to eat and drink together, to laugh, play silly games and sing.
Yet we also have a responsibility for the looked-after children in our care, who find themselves separated from their loved-ones through no fault of their own, living with families who were strangers until just a few weeks ago.
These family rituals, so significant and comforting for those who have grown up within the four walls of our rambling old house, seem strange and even unsettling to children whose thoughts are with estranged mums and dads living in another town or city. Presents under the Christmas tree are from well-meaning but unfamiliar people. Greetings and hugs are discreet and polite rather than hearty or intimate. Jokes fall flat, anecdotes make no sense. For all their imperfections, mum and dad are never missed more keenly than at Christmas. Those awkward contact sessions, held in the days before and after Christmas, are never long enough, and so much is left unsaid. There will be tears, and more tears.
How to juggle the demands of a traditional family Christmas, and provide comfort and love to those children who share our lives for a few weeks or months, but who really would rather be somewhere else? Foster carers become experts at navigating through the sometimes conflicting demands, at finding time for children and grandchildren as well as for those boys and girls knocked off course when their temporary homes are invaded by more strangers. We don't always get it right, we are only human after all. But we do our best.
The children who are in our care this Christmas are not the same ones who were with us last year. There is a rawness about this placement, the outcome still far from clear. We are still getting used to each other, struggling to condense a lifetime of experiences into a few short weeks. My sense is that the children have been more excited about Christmas than they are prepared to reveal, out of respect for birth families who are not there to share the experience. And we are sensitive to the fact that the lives the children are now living are so different to the ones they have left behind.
We are blessed with the support of our extended, rumbustious families, who routinely open their lives and hearts to the children who are in our care. Without them, our mission as foster carers would be so much more difficult, barely possible even. We give our thanks to them this Christmas.