Christmas is always an interesting time of year… no less for that of our Foster Carers. Jo, a Foster Carer from our South region, tells us about her Christmas experiences…
Christmas in Foster Land
Christmas in my household has never been ‘normal!’ I was blessed with 3 children, all young adults now, but my son (23) has autism, ADHD & learning difficulties so life has been extremely unpredictable ever since his arrival!
Whatever ‘normal’ is, it certainly doesn’t occur within a fostering household either!
A happy time for many children is overshadowed by a complex array of emotions that are experienced by looked after children.
The last few Christmas seasons have, for myself, my own children, my granddaughter & the children I foster, been extremely exciting, challenging & diverse, all at once!
One Christmas, for example, I and my children had welcomed our first foster child exactly one week before Christmas day. She arrived, at just 6 years old, with a list of diagnoses as long as my arm! Nothing that I hadn’t experienced before but living with children who have complex disabilities, not to mention the additional challenges that accompany any looked after child, can be as exhausting as it is exciting. Looked after children, for example, have experienced loss, grief, rejection, heart ache, trauma, abuse, neglect and possibly many of these together along with emotions we can barely begin to comprehend. This particular child had severe autism, global developmental delay, severe speech and language disorder (she had no verbal communication skills), a restricted diet, oh, and how could I forget, a severe sleep disorder.
We had already met, and fallen in love with this delightful little girl though, she had melted out hearts so rearranging Christmas to accommodate her needs was, we felt, a very small price to pay!
So, that Christmas we kept everything quiet, calm & peaceful to allow her to settle and accept us before inviting other’s to our home. At the Christmas table was just myself and my adult daughter with a 3rd place set for our new little girl who was known to eat very little in food variety or, indeed, to even eat at the table. Knowing that she liked white meat but very little of the other traditional Christmas foods, we had placed her specialist high chair & a plate of turkey meat alone, none of the trimmings and none of the fuss. She had actually already been given her own favourite food for lunch earlier so there was no pressure for her to join us at the table.
We made no fuss and ate our dinner quietly as she ran around the room making many of her unique vocal noises, she occasionally glanced over to see what we were doing and appeared to be suspiciously investigating the scene. To our enormous surprise, our cool, calm and almost aloof interpretation of Christmas dinner appeared to be a triumph as our own little Christmas miracle unfolded before us! She very quietly and gingerly approached the table, sat on her chair and gulped down her turkey before skipping off to resume her own private party and engage in activities that gave her pleasure, that is, running around and making lots of noise!
We sat, aghast at the table, speechless yet secretly satisfied that, although it was very early days and a very small achievement, in her world, and ours actually, it was a huge achievement!
We were delighted and felt that we had witnessed our own little Christmas miracle. Not much of a miracle you say? If you knew how difficult life can be for a looked after child then add in profound and complex disability then I think you would agree, a true ‘Christmas miracle!’
The next Christmas in our home was completely different again. We had, by this time welcomed two new arrivals to live as part of our family. We had a mother and her new baby girl arrive in our home just two days after her birth. This mother and baby placement, after a difficult start, had also stolen our hearts and by Christmas, despite knowing that they would be moving on eventually, were truly a part of our family. So, in the lead up to Christmas we excitedly dressed and decorated the house for the festive season with two exciting events to prepare for. One, to celebrate the birth of Jesus and all that this means to Christians, and two, to help with the planned move of mother, baby and baby’s father into a small flat nearby to live as an independent family unit in the community. As such, this had been a successful placement with a very positive outcome so there was much to celebrate. I personally felt that it was a privilege for me and my family to have supported this family and to share in a small part of their amazing life journey.
Preparations for both events meant that it was a very busy but very exciting time. Christmas day itself, waking up with a baby in the house again was actually more fun for the adults I felt. So we allowed ourselves to indulge in the fun in the morning before sending both mother and baby off to join their own family for Christmas dinner.
At the end of Christmas day, as we waited for our youngsters to return, it began to dawn on me that Christmas in our house hold would be celebrated in very different circumstances each and every year as we welcome very unique and diverse youngsters to our family home.
This reflection on the future of Christmas in our home was both exciting and daunting. I think it’s fair to say though that I and my family thrive on meeting new people and new challenges and I’m very intrigued to see what next Christmas brings!
Just a little bit about the Christmas we have just celebrated! I found myself without a child in placement this year as we had been supporting another mother and her new baby boy who had successfully completed the assessment and returned to live as a family unit just a week before Christmas day! This lady was experiencing her own Christmas miracle as she had overcome many hurdles to prove that she could care for her baby independently. Some of the women who come to mother and baby placements have genuinely had a run of bad luck and just need to acknowledge their problems and receive the right support and commitment from others to turn their situations round. This lady did just that and I like to think that we were lucky enough to be involved with yet another such situation.
Finding myself with no child in placement, yet still willing to accept placements at very short notice, I found that the prospect of a short notice placement was very exciting but at the same time I felt it would be lovely to spoil my own family more for just one Christmas. My own mother, a very difficult (I chose this word over challenging deliberately), angry and aggressive lady had just lost her dog and lives alone in Spain with now few friends surrounding her. She also now has limited funds so, against my own better judgement and at very short notice, literally on Christmas Eve, I arranged to fly her home to join us for Christmas. I had let my heart rule my head as, despite loving my mother dearly, maybe like for many of the looked after children, her presence often leaves me feeling confused, disillusioned and down hearted as nothing I do is ever good enough. However, we did have a lovely Christmas in that my own children rallied round and were able to provide some very light hearted and entertaining distraction for me with their humorous and practical responses to any situations that arose. It was a stressful time too though as there was not much in the way of praise or gratitude despite my kind hearted and sympathetic offerings. There was much criticism and a great deal of complaining.
This served to remind me that not only do our looked after children need to be offered as much love, care, consistency, routine, discipline, patience and reassurance as we can provide for them but also that we, the carer’s need to harness our friendship and support networks in order to take care of ourselves. We need to attend to our own emotional health as we need to be in the best place ourselves to care for these very vulnerable children. Even more so at holiday and festival times.
This Christmas I thank God that I had one parent, my father, who was loving, consistent, caring, patient, available and reassuring but who also disciplined firmly but fairly and set a very good example of how to be a decent person. Some children have only one parent or care giver with whom they have a good attachment whilst others, unfortunately have none. These children really need our understanding if they are to feel valued and empowered in this stressful world we live in.
As I learn more about attachment and attachment difficulties, it occurs to me that what I see with my own mother’s presentation could be explained as attachment difficulties. She was sent away to boarding school at a very young age. In the 1950’s this was not unusual for slightly more affluent families as parents travelled and worked abroad. Her own younger siblings were subsequently cared for at home by their parents with a very different upbringing. This does not excuse her behaviour over the years towards myself and my sister but I am trying to demonstrate that there are generally reasons behind behaviours and whilst not ideal, it helps me to be forgiving and to keep trying despite the setbacks. I think I would, in hind sight, now prefer to be looking after children in my home in the Christmas seasons of the future and am now very much recovered and rested and looking forward to the challenges and excitement of my next placement.
Who knows what Christmas holds for foster carer’s and their families each year?! All I have found is that there is no ‘ normal’, we ourselves are all very different, and that for our looked after children the things we all take for granted as being exciting and happy are not always necessarily so.
That is not to say that Christmas is never a happy time in a foster family home, far from it, it just means that we need to be a little bit more inventive, insightful and thoughtful in the way we present Christmas to the youngsters. With a little bit of forethought, Christmas can be a wonderful time for everyone.
I sincerely hope that everyone at the Children’s Family Trust, staff and foster carer’s, have had a happy and a peaceful Christmas! I wish you all a very happy and healthy 2016!