'I'd like to foster but I couldn't let them go...'

Whenever I mention I am a foster carer, nine times out of ten I hear a version of this statement in response.

"I'd like to foster, but I couldn't let them go..."

Whenever I mention I am a foster carer, nine times out of ten I hear a version of this statement in response.

It used to annoy me. It seems so selfish for the first response to be about your own potential loss, rather than the amazing thing that fostering can be. How self-centred that an adult's fear of hurt could stop them offering the great chunk of love that looked after children yearn for?

But after a while I realised that as a society we are not good at endings - we associate them with pain and tend to fear them.

We have been sold the Disney version of lives having a Happy-ever-after. We dream of true love that never dies, the perfect plan that is out there somewhere; even if there is little evidence in our own lives that it is the way things really work. Sometimes I think that as Christians, unending love from an eternal God can seem so amazing that our own experiences of love - that starts, may wobble or stop - can seem second best.

But I believe everlasting love is not the only version of love that matters. Knowing that there will be an end to a relationship is a really really bad reason not to bother trying in the first place. Jesus said simply, 'love your neighbour'. Not 'only commit to love if you know it will last forever and never ever hurt you'.

We should all love like there's no tomorrow.

My wife and I accept our foster kids for who they are, right now. We are not their forever family, but we are the best they have right now. I will protect them, provide for them and be their grown up. I will make sacrifices and lose sleep for them as I do for my birth children, as today they are my family.

And so as a fostering family we have learned to embrace life's seasons. Kids are placed with us until they find a permanent home - but that doesn't mean their home with us should feel temporary. We try to live in the present and enjoy the here and now. I believe it helps our looked after children when we model this - it helps them to create a safe distance from where they have come from and not to worry about tomorrow.

We have learnt to appreciate the phases of each placement: the whirlwind of arrival and discovery, the settling down into routine when kids unfurl, flourish and develop; the time when we discover the plans for them, and celebrate before they go. We can't always predict the timings and our calendar is full of plans written in pencil - but we try to leave space for good things to happen.

I admit, sometimes fostering stretches us in a way that would not be sustainable over the long term. At that point, it can help that placements have an end in sight. We can push through for a few weeks when we know that change is coming, and at the end of the season there can be a break and a chance to catch our breath. Fostering is a different deal to adoption, and that's okay.

And when kids do move on, it's a wedding day not a funeral.

One of the most amazing parts of fostering is meeting adopters who are about to welcome their new child home. Some have been on a long or painful journey to get to this point and we get the first exciting glimpses of how two separate life stories are about to combine.

Often, we first meet at a planning session for the introductions process, and there can be the weirdest mixture of dull logistics and high emotion. At some point everyone's self-control breaks and the tears might start - perhaps we share recent photos or videos and it all becomes real, or we tell them their child's shoe size and they realise they can finally go shopping. We get to be part of building a new family.

I know there are dozens of professionals involved in the system that makes adoption possible, but on that morning of moving on, we physically hand over our children to their new family. Emotions come close to the surface for everyone, but the new love and new opportunity always overpowers our own loss. I know now why the father of the bride cries.

And then each time: the empty bedroom, the toys and clothes to put away, the extra place at the table that gets laid out of habit for several days afterwards. As the exhaustion of the introduction process fades, we have learnt to embrace the hurt, not to fear it. To sit with it, until it fades just enough to not be all consuming. And slowly the loss turns into a deep urge to do it all again. Plans are made, we think once more about the future. Our life goes on.

Photos from their new life can be like postcards from the honeymoon. Messages asking for advice are like helping newlyweds navigate their new life together. After a respectful gap, we may meet up and see how much they have grown, how far they have come and maybe glimpse how our chapter in the story of their lives will be remembered by them.

We have photos of all our foster children up on the wall in our landing.

Every day we see all our kids and are reminded of the families we have helped create, the lives we've been a part of, the seasons of love and loss that shape us all. That knowledge is deep down and doesn't go away.

We have learnt to love them and let them go, and keep on loving so that we can have more of them. For us, fostering is a life-affirming source of emotional adrenaline. An addictive rollercoaster that stirs the strength of our feelings, gives everything fresh perspective and makes us feel alive. We are teaching our birth children how to love without fear. We are learning it ourselves with each placement.

The 'I couldn't let them go' response no longer bugs me, as I have realised that many of my own motivations for fostering are self-centred too. The feelings I get - the impact it has on me from both the pain and the love - is an exhilaration I now cherish.

"I like to foster, because I love them. They go, so that we can do it again!"

Author:
Alan, a foster carer


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