Guest post by Joanne Hardcastle
This is something we’re not really allowed to talk about on social media, so that part of our life is very carefully edited and not everyone knows this about me, but we are actually a family of five and have been for almost three years now.
I didn’t give up work to become a lady of leisure as some people think, but to be a carer for my birth daughter and my foster child. I’ve written previously about my past; about loosing my mum at an early age, and about suffering from recurrent miscarriages so I’m sure that you will not be surprised at all how we ended up here, it was something we had considered all those years ago when we thought we’d never have children of our own. As my girls were getting older I felt like they didn’t need me as much, I suppose now that was the beginning of the empty nest stage which eventually floored me when the oldest moved away to University. I did go through a stage of wanting a dog, but Tim wouldn’t let me. When a close friend told me they were going to foster I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and knew it was something which I still really wanted to do.
My husband agreed more or less straight way. I was really surprised as he usually needs a lot more persuading, (you should have seen him when I first wanted to paint the dinning room grey!). We then spent a few weeks just mulling it over and thinking about it. Wondering how our lives would change with another one along for the ride (Oh how naïve we were…). We spoke to our girls when we were absolutely sure and asked them what they thought, we would have never make a decision that momentous without them on board. Everyone had an opinion, some friends thought we were mad and my brilliant Grandma thought it was ‘just lovely’.
The whole process took about six months from beginning to end. It involved training courses, intense sessions with a social worker, pouring over our past lives, our politics, our family values, (it was like having therapy!). There were reports to write, references to collect and endless forms to fill in. It all culminated with a formal interview before a panel where we were approved as long term foster careers. (During the recruitment processes we had decided that short term fostering would be too disruptive for our family as our youngest daughter likes routine, and a succession of troubled young people living with us would be too much for her). After that we had to wait to be matched with our young person, complete more paper work and go before another panel before being approved for that match on my youngest daughters thirteenth birthday.
There are rules about how you must now live in your own house. No walking around naked (no biggie for me as it’s not something I was ever into). All the knifes, cleaning products, matches had to be rehoused in safe places. We had to get rid of the blind in the spare room and get curtains as the chord was considered to be a safely hazard. The window in that room had to be fitted with safety glass too. When the social worker started to measure the distance between the spindles on my beloved Edwardian staircase I’m sure the look I gave her told her she’d gone a step too far. We had a fire safety check from the fire brigade and had first aid kits for both cars. The insurance firm had to be notified.
On the 4th April 2015 we became a family of five. I had spent the previous weeks nesting true to form. The spare bedroom was transformed into child’s room of dreams, with a feathery light shade, bursting at the seams with books, soft toys and cushions. Every cake tin was filled with freshly baked goods. There was an extra chair and new place mat at the table.
Now, I had begun the process thinking it would be like having a third child, the recruitment stage did dampen this somewhat and we were told what the reality was like. All foster children are different, no two are the same. The one thing for sure is they all have issues just from the nature of their experiences.
I can liken it having your first baby, you can read all the books and prepare as much as you like but honestly nothing can prepares you for the actuality of it.
This child doesn’t want things, it just needs love and attention and it will get that attention any which way it can. I can only imagine how scared and terrified our little one must have been as they moved into their new home. The next morning we were woken at 4am as they burst of of their bedroom collecting the Easter eggs we had carefully hidden for our usual family Easter hunt. They didn’t go back to sleep but spent the next few hours noisily banging around in their room. After breakfast my front room was trashed as they jumped on the furniture and built a den with all my cushions on the floor. This was when reality hit for the first time. I cried in my bedroom upstairs. Despite having mothered two children I just wasn’t ready for this. I realised that we now had to teach this little one EVERYTHING. Years of working in schools taught me that we had to start off as we meant to go on. There would have to be firm boundaries and rules right from day one.
Those first weeks and months passed in a blur. I cried, we argued and I spent a lot of time hiding in the bedroom. Having a child who is scared, needing attention, who hasn’t experienced normal family life, living with you is hard, so much harder than you can imagine. All your careful plans and ideas get thrown out of the window as you try to find your new norm, and adjust to the new family dynamic. I was now responsible for two children with special needs, that’s two sets of behaviours to manage, two sets of professionals to deal with and more than double the appointments and meetings I had previously had. This is in top of the endless paperwork there is to complete. Eventually I had to give up work to concentrate on bringing up my family.
We had little support from our social worker, in fact she was the reason we so nearly gave up in that first year. She tried to micro manage us and expected our lives to revolve around our foster child at the expense of the needs of our own family. She wouldn’t accept that we needed and deserved respite to stop the placement from breaking down. Eventually things came to a head and we were placed with a new social worker who had a more realistic outlook, and was far more supportive of the family as a whole unit. That’s when things finally began to settle down we started to tentatively find our way.
Three years on and there is such a difference in the child who now lives here. They’ve been places and had experiences they could have only dreamed about before. They identify as a significant part of our family and that’s really good. They feel safe, know that there is always food on the table and that they are surrounded by love. They know that normal families do fall out and argue and that it’s not all roses around the door. They know there are rules to follow, and disappointment to deal with when they are broken.
People often ask, do you love them? Yes I do. It’s not the same love as the love you have for a child you’ve given birth to, but what could be? Another thing people say is ‘Oh I couldn’t do that, I’d get too attached,’ Yes I am attached but how can you ever be too attached to a child who just needs to be loved?
Don’t think that we are saints or that we want praise. We’ve made mistakes and often worry that we are not the foster parents we set out to be. We moan and complain, but we laugh and take pride in our little ones achievements too. We have realised that we probably set the bar too highly the beginning, and this was never gong to be about having our third child. Our foster child will be with us until they are a responsible adult, we are not bonded by blood but by, I hope, years of love, trust and nurturing. I hope they will always be a part of our lives. This is our new family, and it’s a different one to the one we set out to have but I think we all muddle along quite well.