The most unfathomable question in fostering is; exactly what should your foster child mean to you.
With your own children it's a clear relationship, or at least it ought to be.
Parenting your own child is the most important thing in life. You love them utterly. You want them to be okay, whatever that means, and you know that you'll be tracking them, rooting for them, for the rest of your life.
Why? Because the fact that they are here on planet earth, breathing and living, laughing and crying, was our idea. We planted them here, so if we have any sense of responsibility we'll do everything we can to help them make something of their lives. Which doesn't mean bullying them into having the life we want them to have, but identifying what they want out of life and respecting their dreams enough to get behind them.
Our 'real' children mean everything to us, and dear God trying to make their journey pain-free might be impossible, but it's what we have to do.
I cringe when I meet parents who think their children owe them something for the 'sacrifices' they made for them.
That's our relationship with our own children.
How about the children belonging to other people who we are asked to care for?
Tricky for us, more than tricky for them.
And I'm thinking more and more that the key to knowing what they should mean to us is working out what they want us to mean to them.
Some want a full-on surrogate mother and father. I've not come across that a great deal to be honest.
Many want a strong figure resembling a noble and decent older sibling or grandparent.
Some don't want any familial aura; they want a chief cook and bottle washer who meets their basic needs.
The vast majority want the above three options each to be available depending on their mood and the moment.
So. What should our foster children mean to us?
Well, one minute they are our actual children, especially when the big bad world is snapping at their ankles. Next minute we are someone who can advise the boys on their best haircut now they've moved on from hoodies or josh with the girls about Man Utd's failings. Then in the twinkling of an eye we are their butler/chambermaid, doing their bidding and getting out of their way so they can find themselves as budding adults.
And if that's what they want us to be to them, then that's what each of them are to us depending on their mood and moment;
* occasionally we love them as if they are our own,
* sometimes as if they are our nephews or nieces,
* other times as cherished guests or customers.
In our house recently we've been working on this technique with one particularly mixed-up child who swings this way and that, sometimes several times in a day. We're always on the look-out for which role to play, and find that our feelings towards her match each role change.
But. Underneath all the switchback riding of our emotions is definitely a strong constant;
She means to us exactly what every foster child should.
A helluva lot.