The venue is booked, the guests have been invited. The eldest of our three foster children is preparing to celebrate her birthday. She is drawing up a list of presents that she would like, tentatively at first but gradually growing in confidence, with some encouragement. This is not something she has been able to do in the past, and it takes some getting used to.
This is the second birthday she will spend with our family, and it reminds us that a whole year has passed since we opened our door to welcome her and her sisters. They had not met us before, never heard of our village and had little sense of the kind of life that we live. They entered our home, shy and not a little frightened, carrying their meagre belongings in small bags. They likely expected this to be no more than just another stopover in their nomadic journey through childhood.
When we accept a foster placement we usually allow for a year. Sometimes the situation is resolved sooner, and sometimes it takes longer. But a year is fairly standard for the time it takes for social workers, legal guardians and the family court to work their way through the wreckage of people’s lives and come up with a viable plan that, hopefully, will bring some stability for the children and young people in our care.
And yet, as pragmatic as we are, it still comes as a surprise when that first year is up and the situation is unresolved. Hence, we find ourselves with our extended family preparing for a second birthday, and a second Christmas, and probably other milestones beyond that.
From our perspective as foster carers, we are more than ready for this. The reality is that the children, inevitably, have become part of our lives. It is hard to imagine a world in which they do not exist. As I walk around our garden I know that a little hand will find its way into mine. I know how to avoid tripping over their myriad shoes as I enter the front door, and that there is a silver fridge somewhere underneath the pictures, paintings, school notices and general debris fastened precariously by colourful magnets.
There is a new cast of people in our lives, from the parents of our children’s classmates at school, who have been wonderfully inclusive, to the contact supervisors, who bring such humanity to dispiriting situations. School runs have evolved, with shared lifts and pick-ups, which seem to have existed forever. There’s swimming, netball, gym, dance, youth club. Throw in birthday parties and sleep overs. Busy, busy, and so wonderfully normal for children of this age.
Poignant reminders of the reality are never far away. Our child’s party will include not one friend who came to last year’s birthday. She has moved on, and is building a new life. This time next year she becomes a teenager and the big question, as yet unanswered, is how many of her current friends will be able to celebrate her next birthday with her?
As we make plans for birthdays and for Christmas, discussions continue about the future of our foster children. Questions about our role in their future are never far from our minds, although we understand that the decision is not ultimately ours to make. We fear the moment when that decision is sealed, and yet question our own capacity to provide the care and support they will need, not now or in five years’ time, but over the next 15 or 20 years.
Will the girls look back on us as the family that was there for them in their hour of greatest need, or as the family that did not care enough to make a long-term commitment to them? Will they ever understand that maybe it is our role to help them move on, to make way for the next children who will arrive at our doorstep, tired and confused?
More than anything, we wished that we lived in a world where these decisions were unnecessary. One day, who knows? In the meantime, we have a birthday to celebrate.