Saturday, April 22, 2017

THE TEA CUP PROBLEM


A teacher in our family says that two of her best friends and allies at school are her selective deaf ear and blind eye.

Same in fostering.

She says that if she picked up on every single thing that the students shouldn't be doing or saying she wouldn't get any teaching done.

And I find that too, especially with our latest placement.

He is pretty much an adult, but because he's dealing with depression there are all sorts of small not-quite-right behaviours which I'd discuss with most children, but which I've found myself ignoring with him. Because if I picked up on them all he'd be crestfallen and that could lead to black dog moods which set him back weeks.

The teacup issue is the absolute case in point.

THE TEA CUP ISSUE

It doesn't seem like a big deal, but then again it is. See, we use rounds of tea in our house to bring everyone together. Saturdays, Sundays, school holidays; the kettle is always warm.

When he first arrived, no-one minded him leaving his cup wherever he put it down after finishing. For the first week or so we didn't want to start nagging; he was in a strange house, he'd had a bad time. He has low self-esteem and over-reacts if he thinks he's being criticised, not in an aggressive way, just withdraws into a cocoon of silent sadness.

He's been steadily improving in most respects, but the tea cup issue must soon be considered.

I've got past being annoyed. Even when, one day, there were only three of our tea mugs available and clean in the kitchen. Several brown-stained ones in the dishwasher. I did a hunt and found two hidden out of sight on the floor next to the armchair he uses, three dotted around the computer room and FIVE up in his room.

One in the back garden and one under the tree in the front garden where we suspect he might hide to have a crafty roll-up even though he swears he doesn't smoke.

Therefore The Tea Cup issue is bigger than I thought. After all, he usually takes his plate up to the sink after a meal. He puts used clothing in the laundry basket.

So; 

WHAT IS THE TEA CUP ISSUE?

Is it an unconscious longing to be an infant again, wherein all things are done for him by the adult? Or at least they should have been done for him, so maybe he's having a miniature re-childhood and experiencing the right feelings of being looked-after. Or perhaps tea-drinking is a mark of adulthood and he doesn't want to be there yet? Doesn't want to be an adult until he's had a proper childhood?

Or is it an unconscious rejection of his new foster home? Does he recognise the symbolism of our relentless; "Who' wants a cuppa?" as a way of saying "We are family" and, grateful as he may be for our support would rather be with his own chaotic clan.

Then again; possibly it's to do with the fact that his mind is always teeming, so that at most given moments he's a million miles away, turning everything over and over in his head so that he's oblivious to the fact he's just finished a cuppa and ought to do something with the empty like everyone else does.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE TEA CUP ISSUE

Well for starters here's what I'm not going to do; I'm NOT going to say;

"Would you mind taking your tea cup out please, and put it in the sink." 

Because;

a) that's only a half solution, I really want him washing it up, drying it and hanging it on its hook. 
b) he'll twig that it's been an ongoing thing and his mood will likely plummet when he works out we've had a long-term grievance and put up with it because he's not well (he is resistant to the idea he has a mental health issue, ask Prince Harry about that). 
c) Bottom line; it wouldn't work. I just know it in my gut, we'd be back to square one on day two.

What I MIGHT do is;

Buy a set of individualised mugs (many of ours are matching) so that everyone has their own mug. It would mean he'd get something he's probably never had, namely ownership of a household item. It would lead to jokes about why is dad drinking out of mum's cup, is there something he wants to tell us?

I might put the communal cups in a cupboard, it's not as though we ever have  two dozen people around all wanting tea.

What I PROBABLY WILL do is...carry on as before, picking up his mugs as I go along and washing them up for him. And feeling a bit like a butler. But also, feeling a bit like someone who's doing all they can for him, showing as much care and love as can be done.

Because I suspect that, bottom line, a piece of him loves testing how much we care and feeling safe when he gets the re-assurance, and if the Tea Cup Issue is giving him that, then bring it on buster!

And;

I'll try to pay enough attention to myself so that when the day dawns that he takes his cup to the sink, washes it out, dries it and hangs it up, I'll notice, say nothing, but do three mental cartwheels for joy. And happen it will.







Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A LONG GOOD FRIDAY




Sometimes you can tell right from the off if a day isn't going to go well.

Children in foster care occasionally get out of bed on the wrong side and there's not much can be done.

I learned the hard way to have my antenna twitching from my first  cheery 'Good Morning!'. If there's no reply you know what you've got. Or maybe you get a grunt back, and have to assess what the grunt means, and what's the level of grump.

When it happens you have to concentrate to get things right and avoid a build up.

When I started fostering, having brought up my own children who by comparison (or so I remembered) were models of consistency, I was a bit affronted when a foster child ignored me or  made dismissive noises that translated as "I don't know/care" if you asked what they'd like for breakfast.

I'd make the big mistake; I'd try to fix things for her. I'd make her favourite breakfast, compliment her hair and choice of T shirt, dangle a treat;

"Would you like to go to the cinema on Saturday, or bowling?"

And somehow my efforts seemed to make things worse.

I learned the best thing to do every morning is to be neutral. No overblown good cheer, no singing along to the radio, in fact no radio. Just a calm, measured household. No fuss when they show their face, sometimes they seem to wish they were invisible. Or maybe not exist at all.

I stopped digging to try to find out what the matter was. The reason I gave up was because they themselves didn't know.

It happened this Easter;

Good Friday morning. A bit of a lie-in for all, but he clearly didn't want to get going. At half past ten he appeared, scurrying to the bathroom then back to his bedroom.

I made a bowl of cereal and took it up.

'Wassat?'

"Coco Pops"

"Don't want it."

What I've found is that it's all down the next things you say or do.

I DON'T say anything like; "There's no need to be like that" Nor do I say "Well what would you like instead."

I MIGHT say "I'll leave it here in case you change your mind".

I DON"T say "What's wrong?"

I WON"T do anything that might be construed judgemental such as pick up socks and pants off the floor or even open the curtains.

I MIGHT say something like; "It's going to be a quiet house today, but if you want a lift to town or a friend's just ask." And I definitely wouldn't mention friends unless I was sure there hadn't been an argument.

I find that if you avoid trying to take control, and definitely avoid getting into a discussion/disagreement/argument, just become a piece of furniture, that's your best bet.

It's frustrating because you want to get to the bottom of the low spirit, maybe even solve a problem.

But you can't; it runs too deep. They have to be permitted to feel glum from time to time, surely to goodness.

The Good Friday grump turned out to be a Short Good Friday grump (apologies to Bob Hoskins).

I tried to suss what had brought it on; maybe bad family memories of Easter, no Easter eggs or egg-hunting games, maybe a child shocked at the story of a man being nailed to a cross, maybe he got busted on a computer game, or someone hacked him off online.

I'll never know. All I know is that by biding my time and picking the right moment to use my secret weapon, distraction, we started to climb upwards. I said;

"Do you remember your April Fools Day joke on dad? When he was in the bath and you knocked on the door and told him there was someone on the phone for him?"

His mind filled with a happy moment, and we were up and running.


Monday, April 10, 2017

MONDAY MORNING PURPLISH BLUES



People often ask me why I started fostering.

It's a hard question to answer, but only because if I decide to answer it honestly it ends up sounding as though I'm actually asking whoever has asked the question why they themselves haven't started fostering.

So, seriously;

"If you haven't started fostering, my question is why not?"

Look, of course it's impossible for some people. They might not have the space or might be having a turbulent time. 

And some people probably aren't cut out for it.

But if I find myself talking to someone who had a spare bedroom - especially for example if they are going through 'empty nest syndrome' - and their family life is reasonably settled, and (crucially) they like children...then yes, I truly wonder why they aren't doing it.

Not that I'm critical, don't misunderstand; I recognise it looks like a big step, scary even.

But take a typical Monday morning. We're all a bit downed by it, I'm just back from the supermarket, the lady on the till was all Monday morning. 

Only I wasn't. I went along with the game, because it's a good game, Monday morning moaning, but my heart wasn't in it.

I love Mondays, especially when the schools have broken up.

The house is a home; full of people who are happy (or at least happier) because there's no school.

One of mine has got a big day planned with a friend, all mapped out; several firsts (first solo bus trip, first visit to a sit-down cafe,) and is excited, nervous and proud. And I get to share it (at a remote distance).

Another of mine intends to stay in bed until about lunchtime, because he can.

Tomorrow I'll get "I'm bored" right left and centre and hey, that's great, because they are asking me to play with them, or at least come up with stuff to do. Baking, painting, hide and seek, chase, pirates, living-room-parkour, den-building - and that's just at home and in the garden.

Fostering beats away the Monday blues even on a school day, there's so much to do you can't start feeling sorry for yourself.

A lot of people feel sorry for themselves because deep down they suspect they haven't fulfilled their potential.  The lady on the supermarket till, I mentioned to her that one of my real children is worried about not doing anything in life. She replied "God I know the feeling, I'm 53 and I haven't done anything in life!"

When we're young we dream of being pop stars or millionaires. As we grow we realise that (though that would be nice), it's even more rewarding, more uplifting, to do something substantial for someone else.

That's fostering, that's largely what drew me to it.

When I look back I remember the first time I learned that there was such a thing as fostering, and thought to myself;

"I bet I'd be okay at that, I reckon it would be tops, wonder if I'll actually ever do it?"

Well, I think I am okay at it ( no more than that, no smugness here), it is tops (yes it has its bottoms moments too) and yes, I did do it, and I'm skipping this Monday morning because I did actually do it.



Thursday, March 30, 2017

EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO ASK ABOUT FOSTERING (WELL ALMOST...)



People who are wondering about entering fostering tend not to ask the questions they really want to know. They usually vague questions such as;

"What's it like?'

If I was starting out again I'd ask the following, more specific questions. 
And I'll try to answer them honestly, from my own personal experience.

Q: "On the whole is fostering worth doing?"

A: "All life's big things; love, marriage (or partnership of whatever flavour), children, family, and work, are what you make them. Fostering has its challenges, I'll be quite honest about that, but on the whole it's fantastic (otherwise I wouldn't still be doing it). In fact, for me, it's the best thing I've ever done.

Q: "Is it hard to get into?"

A: "Takes time. After you've phoned or emailed your local authority or a fostering agency, and said; "I'm interested in becoming a foster parent" someone will visit you and have a chat. They're making an early quick-fire assessment. Some people aren't right for it; maybe their home isn't right, might be their situation, (eg free-roaming pet snakes, the only spare bedroom being the utility room next to the washing machine....)
I don't know what percentage fall at the first hurdle, but no-one's time is wasted. There follows a period of six to twelve months where you get regular visits at home from a specialist social worker whose job is to go through all your circumstances. I've been through this twice, found it fun and helped me focus. They dig into your whole life. They're not looking for perfect angels, those people don't exist. They are interested in how you've dealt with the different difficulties we all face in life.

Q: "Is there an exam?"

A: "No. At the end of your assessment you go and see a panel of people, sounds scary, but they are friendly and supportive. You must be good to have got thus far."

Q: "Do you have any say in which children are placed with you?"

A: "Definitely. Even before you're approved the social workers will be working with you on what sort of profile your ideal placements will be. Some people are better suited to teenagers. Some will prefer younger kids. A lot depends on the shape of your family, especially if you have children of your own. Some carers are initially cautious about children who've had their troubles. Some are worried about being thrown in at the deep end, so they opt for weekend respite (you get a child to foster from Friday afternoon to the next Sunday evening)."

Q:"Are you on your own?"

A: "No! Each foster carer has their own designated social worker whose job is to help, advise and support the foster carer. Mine visit at least once per month, for a whole morning. They are always there at the end of the phone. Plus I can attend support groups with other carers to chew things over. Your foster child has their own designated social worker who also visits regularly, and works with your own social worker to keep things on track. Frankly, in all my years and so many different jobs, I've never felt better supported.

Q: "What happens if things aren't working out?"

A: "Good question. You know, I sometimes wonder if they ever seem to be working as I'd like! But if a carer is having frustrations that's when you pick up the phone for support.  And of it gets too much for you, you can always end the placement. 

Q: "If I end a placement will that be the end of my fostering career?"

A: " No, (unless that's what you want). The UK needs all the foster carers we can get. Your qualifications and credentials are valuable, it's up to the system to play to your strengths. I found that things got easier the more fostering I did, I got familiar with the stresses and strains and learned better to identify the joys."

Q: "What's the hardest thing about fostering?"

A: "For me, and this is only my personal view, the biggest bugbear is Contact. This is where foster children have to be taken to see their real parents (or 'significant others') frequently as often as once a week. It can be very upsetting and often disrupts your efforts to get the child on an even keel. They don't get much from it, nothing they couldn't get from a phone call or even a text message session. In my experience the children just want to know their parents are alive and okay. The idea that it paves the way for the children to return to their real home is basically misguided, especially at first.
The other thing you have to live with is that foster children don't fall on their knees in gratitude when they walk through the door that their foster carers are offering them a much better home life. They don't see it that way because they're frightened, mixed-up or angry. Or all three. But as time goes by they warm and mellow, always. Then the real fostering begins, up until then it's about basic needs, but once they get it, you can do a bit of healing.

Q: "How does the Allowance work?"

A: "Fostering is a profession. We are all professionals. Our remittance is termed an 'allowance' rather than a salary or a wage because i) we are only in receipt when we have a child or children in place ii) If it were called a wage then the fact that we are basically on call 24/7 would mean we'd fall below the National Minimum  hourly wage. The basic payment varies according to your local authority or your agency.  Last year I received £31,000 in allowances (there are 35,000 hours in a year so if I was paid hourly it would be less than £1 an hour). I paid a tiny amount of income tax. I get credits for my NI contributions. Fostering allowances are taxed very sensibly by the Inland Revenue because the foster carer's overheads are hard to calculate so they're very sympathetic. And it's all above board, don't worry about that, it's official; we are special cases.

Q: "Is there anything else I should know?"

A: "Sweet Jericho, yes! Lorry loads. But the bulk of it is stuff you have to find it out for yourself as you go along, and so you do. Each child is so utterly unique you have to make tailored arrangements to help their specific needs, and that means making your fostering up as you go along. There's paperwork; not much. Blue Sky ask you to fill in a report every so often on the child. There's training, and social events. But mostly you're just finding out how to be a good mum or dad to a particular poor lonely child who's done nothing wrong to end up sad, worried and frightened. 

Any other questions, you can post a comment or send me a private email via Blue Sky.

Friday, March 24, 2017

FOSTERING FEELGOOD



Something we're not very good at in this world is giving ourselves a boost.

There are so many terrible things happening around us it almost seems selfish to make ourselves feel good.

But I worked with a kind man way back, I always remember once somebody saying to him;

"Have you had a good day?"

and he replied;

"Of course. No point having a bad day."

So here I sit at the kitchen table, I've got no more worries than anyone else, probably no fewer either and if I wanted to I could drum up no end of problems I have to tackle and end up working my way down to feeling thoroughly glum.

Instead I'm going to cheer myself right up.

This blog is about fostering, so;

Here are my some of my top hundred golden moments in fostering.

Watching a 15 year old boy who'd never known his dad, following my other half around the house and imitating all his little blokey mannerisms. It was devotional.

The way a girl who was desperate for a hamburger after having a panic attack at midnight and we found a place still open and drove there and got her one, the way she said, from the back of the car; "Fank you", and really really meant it. (And it worked, the fast food medicine).

Seeing the blissful look on a girl's face when we took her back to her real mum. The place was in absolute chaos, no offence it was a tip. But it was her tip, her mum was there, sitting on the sofa putting Swarfega on the boil of a one-eyed cat. The look on her face was because she was HOME. Never seen anyone so overcome with peace.

Every time you get one home. It hurts; you'll never see them again. But it's the job. A great job.

The young mum and her baby, the mum was frightened of everybody especially any mother-figure, I met her real mum once, I could tell straight away why. After a few weeks she started venturing out of her room and sitting next to me at the kitchen table in the mornings; we'd chat over tea and biscuits. One day, after her social worker had visited her, the social worker said to me "She told me she didn't know before that there are kind people in the world, and now she wants to be one." I actually cried. Good tears.

The morning I took a troubled lad aged 10 up to the meadows near our house. There's a spot where you can't see a single sign of civilisation. He spread his arms wide and started spinning round and round with a silly grin shouting "I'm Freeeeeee!!! Freeeeeeeeeeeee!!!"

One Christmas morning a child who had never had a Christmas (so we were told :"Too expensive") looked up from unwrapping everything that had been on Santa's list and said, in all seriousness: "I'm dreaming, right? PLEASE don't wake me up."

A difficult child who had been with us for respite and needed another weekend with us to give his carers a well-deserved break. The look on his face when I opened the front door, he was deeply relieved. He'd been taken somewhere he knew, so no surprises or unfamiliarity. There was something else. He saw that we wanted him back, we welcomed him (knowing he would be a handful). He was tasting acceptance, maybe something even sweeter.

The boy who asked if he could try to fix our broken downstairs toilet. He had an hour in there with the toolbox, can't remember if he made it better or worse, but I did the whole workman thing, gave him a radio (tuned to Radio Two, like all workmen), even made him a cup of builders' tea.

Every time; the first time they ever choose to use the word 'mum'.

Sitting up all night one night, squatting on the floor with my back against the wall, next to the half-open bedroom door of a little fellow who'd only just arrived and was getting night terrors. Every ten or twenty minutes he'd say quietly; "You still there?" and I'd just go; "Still here darling." I checked myself in the mirror later that day, expecting to look a wreck, but actually not bad. Maybe fostering keeps you young, maybe it doesn't. Makes you feel fine.

Could go on.

I don't normally go back and read my posts much, but I reckon I'll return to this one from time to time, not to puff myself up but because fostering can knock you around a bit too, and it's important to remember the glorious moments.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

THE PEANUT BUTTER KNIFE



You learn something new every day in fostering.

That's if you have enough of your wits about you, what with putting into practice all the little things you've already taught yourself. Not to mention if you've got enough energy left to keep your eyes and ears peeled and your brain in gear.

The small matter of the peanut butter knife it was, yesterday, that pulled me up sharp and got me thinking.

The peanut butter knife issue.

See, at the moment in our house everyone is able to make themselves a slice of toast whenever they want as long as it's not just before mealtime. Children, especially foster children, love the sense of grown-up-ness from being able to make themselves a cooked snack.

They learn where the small plates are stored, how to raid the bread bin, how to put the slice of bread into the toaster and how to slide down the lever that lowers the bread and gets the toaster grills warming up.

You teach them about the dangers of electricity and heat, not to poke around in a recently hot toaster, not to mess with plugs.

They learn where the marmite and peanut butter is kept (we aren't a jam household and I've always had my doubts about Nutella).

They learn time management; if you get the bread toasting first of all you get 2 minutes to get out a plate, the Flora, the spread, and the knife for the spreading.

These are all bog standard toast-making things.

But what hit me hard yesterday is that there's a bunch of little things which we all do in our house when it comes to toast that are specific to us, they've evolved in our house, and which are so second-nature to us we don't think to point them out. Then when we do point them out, we suddenly seem petty and a tad OCD.

For example; the Flora isn't always in the fridge. Sometimes it gets put in the larder. There's no rhyme or reason to this, except possibly when a person puts the Flora away after making peanut butter toast it's easier to put the Flora back in the larder along with the jar of peanut butter.

The point about the Flora is that it's a family quirk; if it's not in the fridge it's in the larder. But if you're new to our home, it could cause a problem.

Then there's the almost-empty jar problem. When the marmite or peanut butter jar is almost empty we try to remember to leave it out on the kitchen work surface so whoever is going shopping next knows we are out of whatever it is. The empty jar shouldn't go back in the larder because the next person wanting some will have the annoying job of scraping around the contours of the glass.

Ideally, whoever uses up the last of a jar washes it out and inverts it on the draining board so it's ready for the recycling wheelie. Bill and I both try to do this and hope our example rubs off.

Then there's the crumbs. When you make toast there are crumbs. Ideally they should be swept off the work surface into the palm of your hand and chucked in the bin, not wiped into the J cloth. And definitely not left for someone else to discover.

Then there's the peanut butter/marmite knife. Try as you might you can't get the knife completely clean by wiping it on the toast, so it's got a smear. It needs to be run under a tap, dried and put back in the drawer, or maybe put in the cutlery compartment in the dishwasher. It doesn't need to be licked clean. Nor does it need to be left out on the work surface. But, by the time a young mind has got itself a slice of toast all done and dusted it's easy to walk off and leave the crumbs and the smeary knife.

Then there's the plate, which after the toast has been eaten needs to be brought out into the kitchen and dealt with. Not dumped in the sink.

That's merely the making of a slice of toast. A simple enough business. But then again it's anything but simple.

I bet every household has their own variation on the toast thing, and indeed all life's other family activities such as bathroom/toilet practices, use of other people's stuff, whether it's ok to take batteries out of the backup remote to put in the X Box controller...

etc etc etc etc etc etc.......

Difficult enough for a child who has lived all her life in the same household. Nightmare for the new arrival, and funnily enough, a problem for them that gets more difficult before it gets easier.

What do we carers do about this one?

I guess we manage our expectations, stay patient and understanding. While at the same time remembering that it's ok to have our own house rules and practices, and try to teach them as time goes by. And stay flexible and open to new ideas;

After all, it was a foster child who pointed out to me that there's no point cutting a piece of toast in two;

"It just makes more crumbs"

Saturday, March 11, 2017

FOSTERING AN OLDER CHILD


NO-ONE EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION

I have to keep this one short, because it's just an inkling.

Our new placement, Glenn, has been with us a couple of weeks and is settling in.

And then again he isn't.

And the ways in which he isn't settling in leads me to an unsettling thought.

In fostering, usually, the child finds it difficult to fit into the foster family and that's no surprise, what with what they've been through.

One of their fears is that the break-up of their real family was their fault. It's heartbreaking when you find out, for example, that a six-year-old child whose family fell to pieces thinks that it was his fault because he didn't keep himself clean enough.

The above case actually happened with us; the poor boy blurted out that he'd tried everything he could to make the family work; washed his hands 'til they were red before every meal, cleaned his teeth for five minutes after every meal, washed his face and combed his hair with water, you name it. But still the arguments, the drinking, the different people in his mother's bed.

All his fault for not keeping himself tidy enough.

Back to Glenn. He has depression, but it's low-level and manageable, if it wasn't he'd be in specialist care. He is an older foster child, more fully-formed than the average, stronger, less likely to be accepting of new ways of thinking and being.

We (other half and me) are learning his ways and sit up in bed most nights discussing what to do to help.

We know we have to be on our toes with Glenn because we are learning the little things that unsettle him.

We are wondering how much he requires unsettledness.

It's difficult asking him abut himself. Fostered children often clam up when you ask anything about their past or the way they feel. They can make you feel like you're the Spanish Inquisition.

The thing that's in our mind is that maybe, just maybe, in Glenn's case, he did contribute somehow to the deterioration of things in his real home.

Having your own children is not plain sailing by any stretch of the imagination, especially nowadays in that we don't have extended families round the corner, mums have to go out to work, childminding can be expensive, and childhood seems to end around the time children reach double figures, or sooner.

I imagine the burden of bringing up children is sometimes a nail in the coffin of some people's attempts at happy families. After all it's the hardest job and the one with most responsibility that any of us ever do, and yet it's the one thing nobody gets trained or taught how to do.

The job at hand for us right now is to be alert to Glenn trying to unconsciously re-create the home life he was used to, one of trouble and strife.

So we've got two things in our mind now that Glenn is here;

One; did he play a part in the breakdown of his real family?

Two; is he unconsciously trying to lead us towards similar chaos?

And Three, three things, (God I'm starting the Spanish Inquisition sketch from Monty Python), the Third thing is; Do we let him be or try to turn him round?

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.