Tuesday, 30 July 2013

You can't choose your family

So, we all know the phrase "you can choose your friends but you can't choose your family". We were thinking about this over the weekend as we took Andy and Jack-Jack to see the "In the Night Garden" live show. Due to the distance we had to stay overnight the night before, and chose to stay in an apartment rather than a hotel so that we could put the babies down to sleep in the bedroom and still enjoy our evening without disturbing them. After we'd arrived and had some dinner it was past their bedtime so we gave them a bath and settled them down in their travel cots.

The giggling and jumping up and down started the second we pulled the door to as the boys realised that being in the same room together was officially the best and funniest thing ever. Andy got over this pretty quickly but Jack-Jack soon bounced and giggled himself into a hyperactive frenzy, even managing to rock the cot from side to side with loud thumps. Each time I went in to resettle them I saw poor old Andy laying in his cot good as gold, looking more and more exhausted, resigned to the fact that there was a baby-shaped tornado gradually inching his cot closer and closer with each jump. After an hour or so of this Andy fell asleep, but it was another hour before Jack-Jack finally gave in. There was nothing else to do in that situation as we had nowhere we could separate them, and both boys really were too tired (despite appearances!) to get up and try again later.

These boys aren't related by blood, they're not step-siblings or siblings by adoption, they're just living together temporarily in the same foster family. It hardly seems fair when we think about how much they impact on each other.

This is something we think about quite often as we know that we want to carry on fostering once we've started our own family, whether by birth or adoption. We believe that our children will benefit from growing up in a fostering family, and whilst we're sure there'll be highs and lows as different children move in and out of our home, we hope that they'll grow up to be non-judgemental, caring individuals able to connect to and relate to people in all sorts of situations, who will want to grow up to make a positive difference to the world.

We can't choose our family (and our children can't choose their siblings) but we can choose our family values, and we hope that every child of any age who leaves us takes a little bit of these with them in how they've developed, learned and grown whilst they've been with us.

Sunday, 28 July 2013


Andy moves back to his carer in a couple of days - this month has flown by and it's really been a joy to look after him and see him learn and develop. He's grown both physically and in confidence since he's been here, he's learned new skills, had new experiences and tried new tastes, he's sturdier on his feet and has started to stand his ground with Jack-Jack. We'll be very sad to see him go, even though he's going back to his very experienced and loving carer. Over a 6 week period we will have been told about a child who needs a long respite placement, met him, moved him in and settled him, become attached, found out that our first placement is leaving us soon, and then moved the second placement back to his carer.

I'm working on a photobook for Andy's memory box at the moment, putting together a selection of the photographs we've taken of him over the month with captions about what we were doing, where we went and how much fun we had. A month isn't a long time in the grand scheme of things over the course of someone's life, but I still wouldn't like to think that he had no evidence of who he lived with and what we did.

No one ever said it would be easy, but emotions are running pretty high here at the moment as you can probably imagine. We're doing our best not to talk about what's happening in front of the children, and are mindful of who we do discuss things with. Quite aside from the fact that the children's histories (and futures!) are confidential, we don't want to overload our family and friends or give them an unrealistically negative view of fostering. It is hard work, it's completely different to parenting, and it can feel like it's just not worth all the emotional strain at times, but however well-meaning, we don't want anyone to suggest that we just throw in the towel.

Yesterday a little boy, who a month ago cried when he spilled anything down his front, successfully fed himself with a spoon all by himself and got absolutely plastered in yoghurt in the process. We couldn't have been more proud, and although it sounds cheesy, we're hoping that these are the moments we'll remember long after the children have moved on, not how hard it was for us.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Surprise inspection and moving on

We had an unannounced inspection today. I was just sitting down for my lunch when I heard a knock at the door, and a lovely lady stated that she was from social services and was here to check the children's rooms as part of our annual review. Our review isn't due until the end of the year, but apparently carers start to expect these visits around their review date so they have started doing them mid-year in an attempt to make them truly unexpected. We wouldn't have been expecting one at all as this was the first we'd heard of them! I cast my mind nervously around the house, mentally noting the state of the bathroom, whether or not the laundry bin was overflowing, and trying to remember whether I'd washed up the dishes from breakfast, but took a deep breath and invited her in. I needn't have worried as she was very nice, complimented me on our home and commented that any house with young children in shouldn't be tidy or they aren't doing it right!

We now know that the outcome for Jack-Jack is adoption, and although we don't know the official date he'll be moving on from us, we know that it's weeks away rather than months. We both have a mix of feelings about this. I must admit that when I first heard the news, the boys were napping upstairs and I went into the garden for a bit of a weep. It would be strange if I didn't feel sad as Jack-Jack is so deeply loved, attached and settled here, but I feel a peace about the fact that he's moving on to his "forever" home. We are a Christian family and have been praying for the right outcome for Jack-Jack since the moment he moved in, and we trust that the right decision has been made. I'm sure there will be many more tears shed after we've packed up all his belongings and he's gone, but right now it's up to us to work with his new family and help to make this transition as smooth as possible.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Relief from the heat and the passing of time

This week has made me even more in awe of single parents than I was already. The boys have been sweaty and irritable in the heat and have been getting up to mischief - one memorable morning we had a huge poo leak on the carpet and curtain, a cot drenched in wee, a dramatic glitter and water explosion in the living room and then an A&E visit, all within an hour! Thankfully Esmeralda was at home that day. She works four days in the week, but even when it's been a bit of a day I know that she'll be home eventually to talk things through, and of course I look forward to the three days she's at home with us. We've had a week of big tantrums, slapping, pushing and biting (all the boys!), a broken ornament, insect bites, poor Andy got blisters from his new sandals, heat rash, bumps and grazes, and in the midst of it all Jack-Jack took his first steps! It's been amazing to see him practice and explore this new freedom, they're both getting more confident and steadier on their feet each day.

It was a bit cooler today which was a huge relief. We took the boys out to our local Italian restaurant for lunch and they both behaved impeccably. Our landlords have had a new fence installed in the garden which has created a safe area for the children to play without us having to be on top of them all the time, and they had two long play sessions out there today, having a whale of a time (Andy seemed to think he actually was a whale, as he kept sitting in every bit of water he could find and was on his 3rd clothing change by 10am!)

This month is going by so quickly. Andy's only with us for one more week, it will be strange when he goes back to his carer even though this was a planned respite placement and we've always known how long he was going to be staying. He's such a lovely little boy and has settled well into our family life. It must be different for each child and situation, but although with Jack-Jack it took me quite a while to realise that I loved him, with Andy I knew before he'd even moved in. Fostering's a funny thing, we're already wondering and thinking about who will be moving in next...

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Two more?

We found out this week that our approval category has been officially changed at panel, and we're now approved to foster two unrelated children or young people aged 0-18. We currently have two under-twos in placement.

Today I received a call asking whether we could take a short notice placement of twins.

I didn't even ask their age as I didn't want to get that far in the thought process - I had to say no!

It would have definitely been interesting though...

Monday, 15 July 2013

Only human

During our assessment and training, much emphasis was placed on the fact that children just need "good enough" parents/carers - i.e. that no one is perfect, and "good enough" parenting/caring is fine. We've been approved for getting on for 8 months now, and I still have trouble getting my head around this.

It might be because we're looking after other people's children, but it feels like we hold ourselves to very high standards, and once you've set those standards for yourself (even unconsciously), it can be hard to live up to them. Unlike the vast majority of foster carers we haven't had our own children yet, so we are expected to be "professional parents" before we have even parented, which is a bit daunting when we think about it, although of course we're learning more and more each day. I'm sure that our foster children's parents aren't told that they are our first placements and we've never parented before!

I've been feeling poorly for the last week or so which has meant that my patience and energy levels have been rock bottom, and I've felt very guilty at times that my care of the children hasn't been as good as usual. It's taken several friends and family members telling us that we're doing a good job to remind me that it's ok to feel poorly, it's ok to have a day where the TV is on rather more than we would like, and it's ok to lose your cool occasionally. We're only human!

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Final court hearing

We've had some progress - Andy is becoming a little bit more assertive with Jack-Jack and has started hitting him, throwing things at him and snatching toys from him. Although this doesn't sound positive, it shows he's growing in confidence and at the very least means we're not spending all day telling only one child off!

Now that we're more than six months into placement it's starting to get very hard for us that we don't know the plan for Jack-Jack - we don't have any way of preparing ourselves for each eventuality. His final court hearing is coming up, so we should find out whether or not he'll be going home to mum, and if not then what the court's recommended plan for him is. They normally go along with the local authority's recommendation, but not always. Long term fostering is never the plan for under fives (except in extremely rare cases - I've only heard of one), so the likely outcome for him if he doesn't go home is going to be adoption and there is no shortage of adopters waiting for healthy under-twos. We know this is a possibility, but no one has discussed timescales with us so we have no idea how long the process is likely to take.

Parenting is full of uncertainties - as a birth parent when you bring your newborn home from the hospital you don't know when they're going to learn to walk, whether they're going to be an early reader, what their talents are going to be, which childhood diseases they're going to get and when, whether their hair is going to be curly or straight etc. Adoptive parents face even more uncertainties as they may have very little information about the birth parents' histories, so can't even make educated guesses at their child's likely traits, abilities and any possible issues.

Foster parents face a lot of this too of course, but also live with the biggest uncertainty of all: is this child still going to be living with me next year? At Christmas? Next week? Tomorrow?

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Toddler behaviour

As I've been watching Jack-Jack and Andy interacting over the last couple of weeks, I've been thinking quite a lot about toddler behaviour. There's no reasoning with them at this age, nor do they understand action and consequence, so there's no point in disciplining or any sort of punishment/reward system yet. Andy just about understands and responds to being told not to touch something, or not to do something (but not the reasons why, although I do point them out), but Jack-Jack just laughs and does it again.

From an adult perspective, there's a definite freedom in being a toddler. They have no concept of acting a certain way because of what others might think, and are even expected to think and act in a very selfish way. Sometimes as adults I'm sure we have days where we feel like screaming until someone brings us our dinner, or sitting down in the street when we've had enough of walking and waiting to be picked up.

It's also very frustrating for them - they have no real independence or autonomy. We decide when it's time for a nappy change, time to go out, where we're going, what they're going to eat (although not how much), what toys to have in the house, when it's bed time, what they can watch on tv etc. and they have very little say in the matter. They're both also pre-verbal although Andy has a few words, so have very limited ways of telling us if there's something they want or need, unless it's within pointing distance. They can express their outrage, and we encourage them to express their feelings by describing the emotion, but in our house we have a policy of "kicking and screaming gets you nowhere", so the louder they scream, the less likely they are to get their own way. This policy has had a lot of use over the past week and a half, as Andy is a screamer and Jack-Jack was starting to copy the behaviour thinking it would get him more attention or his own way. Nope!

Esmeralda and I have enjoyed watching the series of videos on youtube Conversations with my 2 year old, where a man reenacts real interactions he's had with his 2 year old daughter, where the child is played by a grown man. Every now and then I imagine interactions between Andy and Jack-Jack as though they were two adults, and yesterday it made me realise how much I'm expecting of Andy. Jack-Jack thinks Andy's amazing and wants to be precisely wherever he is all the time, playing with whatever he's playing with (or stealing it from him), drinking out of his beaker, eating out of his bowl and generally touching, poking, pinching, patting or laying on him constantly. Of course I keep them apart and engaged in their own activities as much as possible, and intervene if necessary, but I can't be right by their sides every minute. There is no way I would put up with that from another adult. I'm not sure I'd even last 5 minutes before I'd be politely asking them to back off, let alone cope with it all day!

Friday, 5 July 2013

Changes in behaviour and what foster carers wish other people knew

I've read quite a few adoption blogs where the parents have written about their child's habits and behaviours with respect to what was previously told to them by the child's foster carers. I've seen more than a few comments like "they said he eats anything but we can't get him to even look at a vegetable" (or indeed the other way round - "they said he'd only eat fish fingers but with us he even eats chickpea and lentil soup") or "they said he threw 3-hour tantrums but he's been good as gold here," or "they said she would only fall asleep in front of the tv but we pop her up in her cot and don't hear a peep until morning" or "they said she walks everywhere but we can't get her out of the buggy."

We were a bit surprised at first when we found out that Jack-Jack didn't display any of the behaviours that we saw at home when he was at contact (this was before we found out that this is really common.) We've also seen this phenomenon first hand since Andy moved in. We were told various things about Andy including that he was a terrible eater, that he wouldn't walk more than a few metres at a time, that he wouldn't snack (even that he didn't like biscuits,) that he hates nappy changes and doesn't like taking baths. We haven't seen any of this.

There are many different reasons why a child behaves differently for different carers - perhaps they're not sure how a new carer will react so they hold back from tantrumming and showing strong feelings until they feel more secure, perhaps they are now the only child in the family and are feeling under pressure having 100% of their carers' attention, perhaps they're now one of several siblings and have to learn a different strategy to get attention, perhaps the change of environment and routine has "broken the cycle" of certain habits, perhaps they're in a state of shock or grief from the loss of their previous carers - more often than not we don't know the reason and can only speculate.

I read an article recently called What foster parents wish other people knew which was written collaboratively by a group of foster parents. Although it's written in a rather more forceful tone than we might use, and some of it relates to the foster care system as it is in America rather than the UK, it really struck a chord with us. We've often found ourselves wishing that there was more awareness in the community about fostering and what foster carers do. We've definitely come across some well-meaning but old-fashioned or misguided views on both fostering and adoption, and most people aren't clear on what we can and can't talk about, particularly in front of the children. It's worth a read, even to just open the channels of communication and get people talking about foster care - as it says in the article, becoming a foster carer isn't the only way you can help!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Constant vigilance!

Honestly looking after two toddlers makes me feel like Professor Moody from Harry Potter - "Constant vigilance!"

On Tuesday I had a load of washing on, and Andy managed to change the program and then turn the machine off without me noticing. This happened three times in a row mid-wash after I'd reset it and put it on again each time. You'd think I'd learn!

Esmeralda very bravely took both of them to a sing and play session at the local library by herself this morning whilst I went for a dentist appointment. All was going fine until she came to put them back in the buggy at the end. She stood Andy next to her, turned to strap Jack-Jack in, and had a heart-stopping moment when she turned back and Andy had vanished. She found him seconds later in the crime/thriller section, and when she returned Jack-Jack was chewing on someone else's buggy.

I thought I was staying one step ahead of them by moving the stool and child's wooden chair we have by the fireplace in our living room into the middle of the room, as they had started to use them to crawl up onto the sofas (and thus gain access to the higher shelves.) I popped into the kitchen to fetch them a snack, and came back to find Jack-Jack standing up on the chair and Andy poised to push him off!

Even with both of us there, they still manage to speed off in different directions. They're both very mobile, but not old enough yet to be left to their own devices to play so the other day at our local soft play centre it was hard work keeping both of them in our sights - we were like cowboys on the plains trying to herd them up, shouting out directions and instructions to each other from opposite ends of the room: "To your left!" "Behind you!" "Coming down the slide!" (Ok so that last one doesn't quite fit with the metaphor...)

It's good fun (most of the time!) and definitely a great way to keep fit - if not for the relentless chasing and running around after them, then for the workout you get pushing a double buggy uphill!