When I was asked if I’d be able to put down a few words to share my experience of being approved as a foster carer for a full year, I was jokingly told, by a couple of people I might add, to “make sure you don’t put potential carers off!”. It made me chuckle – mainly because I could see why it was said!
Undoubtedly, without meaning to sound like a million people before me, being a foster carer is a tough, challenging, educational and eye-opening experience. People talk about foster caring being a rewarding experience. And it is. But what I’ve learned in this last year is that the “rewards” and little “wins” might be a little different than what I thought they might be. For most of us reading this article, a “win” in life might be getting really good grades at school, or going to university or getting an excellent job, or getting married or the birth of our children. What you learn as a foster carer is that often the young people that come into our homes and lives have not had “normal” upbringings and their goals and aspirations can be totally different to ours. So in these situations, something like a young person tidying their room, or giving you a hug or opting to hang out with you rather than their (often negative influence) friends could be seen as a win, and a reward. We just need to appreciate the wins when they come around, because sadly many of these young people have been so traumatised in their lives that all they tend to do is attract negative, make “mistakes”, and get told they are problematic.
I mentioned that being a foster carer is challenging. And it is – very much so. I’ve learned that sometimes, no matter how bad the path a young person is taking, there is only so much you can do to try and “correct” their direction. Often, young people in our care are almost hell-bent on self-destruction and the challenge is that, as foster carers, you can sometimes feel like a spectator more than a true force for the good. However, we can’t beat ourselves up or be down-hearted by this. What we’ve seen in our first year is that even when what we are saying or doing seems to be totally ignored, sometimes it actually resonates with the young person and it might be recognised or appreciated later. This again is a big reward and it shows the development and growth in a young person when they reflect and consider that even though they may not have liked your approach or advice, they can get to a stage where they respect it and value the intention behind it – they may even try and take it, just at a pace that suits them.
Something else I’ve experienced is a sense of pride in how friends, peers, work colleagues and so on respond when I tell them that I am a carer. They are often full of admiration and questions about, “how do you do it?! How can you cope?”. The point is that we do it because we care and we cope because, as a family, you learn to cope with challenges and difficult situations anyway. Having another young person with associated issues and problems from the past is just another set of problems you have to try and resolve as best as possible, as a family. Really key for me has been the communication between my wife and I too – we talk regularly about what the young person is going through, what meetings are on-going, what we need to do to make YP feel more comfortable, what activities can we do at the weekend to try and accommodate the YP and so on. If we can’t talk, then we’ll text – either way, we’ll always make sure we have one voice and that we are always aware of what is going on in the YP’s life and what is important to them.
I’ve also seen a rare but cynical reaction from some people. There is a perception that you are raking the money in at someone else’s expense, particularly through their heartache and family issues. I can assure you that in the last year of being a carer, I wouldn’t say that we’re now living in the Bahamas with multiple Swiss bank accounts! Fostering is a 24/7 job – it’s not for 7.5 hours a day after which we switch the monitor off and go back to our “real” life. It’s a full-time job in the truest sense. Whether that means driving across the City to pick a YP up in the middle of the night, whether that means making multiple/waiting for calls to and from agencies at 2 to 3am or whether it involves trying to wake a stroppy teen up at the crack of dawn, it’s a really involving and demanding role. I can’t think of too many jobs at all that require that level of professionalism and being switched on 24/7!
As I said at the beginning, I really don’t want to put people off fostering. Our first year has flown by and we have enjoyed it thoroughly. I just think it’s so important to put things into context and recognise that when you are making “baby steps” of progress with the young people in your care, in their world, that could be start of their life turning around for the better. Maybe if I invested in a crystal ball, I’d be able to tell you for sure!