Fathering the fatherless.
When men turn 40, it is traditional to have a midlife crisis. Some men start going to the gym and wearing age inappropriate clothes. Others get gripped by a malaise and a mourning for their lost youth.
I decided to become a foster carer.
More accurately, my wife suggested we explore the possibility of becoming a foster family.
Our birth children were 5 and 7, and although I am biased, they are really rather fantastic kids. They tick the academic and sport boxes, and more importantly are very sociable, biddable, and yet have very strong personalities.
My job as a secondary school teacher was demanding but going well. My wife was a solicitor. We lived in a semi detached house with pebble dash and a compost heap. Perhaps we were in danger of becoming a little ordinary.
At first glance the risks seemed to outweigh any benefits.
Would we have room in our house and hearts for an extra child?
How would our kids be affected? More importantly, would my wife still have time for me?
My wife said she knew of an information meeting being run by The Council. Perhaps it's typically male, but I tend to follow the path of least resistance and was happy to go along. I’d been on worst dates!
We heard stories from a foster carer, and a young adult who had grown up in foster homes. Their stories had us in both tears and laughter.
Many adults who have grown up in care struggle in later life.
Many of our homeless, our prison population and those suffering from mental health issues were once in care. This information offended my sense of justice. It was not enough to feel pity, I had to show compassion, and take action.
Our own situation also influenced me. My own children had begun to go on sleep overs.
I'm sure your kids have done the same or will do so in the future. I remember my son, then aged five, showing a little bit of anxiety about spending a night at his best friend’s house.
I sought to reassure him. He had known his friend Dan all his life. Dan’s Dad was my best friend. Dan’s Mum was my wife’s best friend. And yes, Dan’s sister was my son’s sister’s best friend.
My son knew what he would be having for tea, he knew where the toilet was, he was taking his own duvet and pillow, his own bag of power rangers and a bag of sweets. He knew what he'd be watching on TV, and he knew his Dad would be picking him up in the morning.
And yet, still he was nervous.
I began to wonder. What would it be like for a five year old, or younger, to be taken to a stranger’s house and left there, perhaps forever?
I was fairly sure our children would never go into care, as we are simply too middle class with many family and friends who would step in if something happened to me and my wife. But what if my kids had to go and live with strangers. I would want those strangers to be people like us. I knew we would do our best to make the worst of all days as bearable as possible. I knew we could keep a child safe. We could provide food, a warm bed and some sort of reassurance.
My wife rang the Council and registered our interest to become foster carers.
Six months later, we were approved to foster children between the ages of 4 and 6 on a short term basis.
8 years on and we have fostered 5 separate children.
We had one little lad for 4 hours, one we have decided to keep permanently, and quite a few in between.
Most people react very positively when they discover we adopted one of our foster children. People see it as highly altruistic and I quite enjoy the kudos! After all, I am a middle aged male, and I thrive on adoration. It's certainly a talking point when there is no football to discuss.
Braver friends tend to ask broadly similar questions.
Yes, I love all three of my children, even though one of them is not blood related. I am not related to my wife and I love her. Does that help?
Why did we keep this one? Well, we just fell in love with him, and he fell in love with us. He's not the most articulate child and can have trouble accessing and expressing his feelings in a socially acceptable way. However, one day when he had been with us a while he was being ominously quiet. I found him in our lounge surrounded by shattered glass wielding a permanent felt tip pen. He had taken a framed family photo from the mantle piece, punched the glass out, and added a picture of himself. I'm not a psychologist, but it was fairly obvious what he was trying to say.
Do my birth children miss out? They do not appear to, and I am fairly sure they won't ever be on Jeremy Kyle lamenting how their parents have ruined their lives. Of course my kids squabble, but in more considered moments, they say it doesn't even cross their minds that we could live differently. I am sure my older two have far more empathy, sympathy, patience, love and understanding than many children their age because of the way we have chosen to live. These are very important values to me and my wife. We are also Christians, and believe that ‘caring for orphan’ is part of our faith.
Is it difficult? Yes. But the rewards outweigh the problems, and its value is unquantifiable. Occasionally I encounter men of my age who talk about wanting a new challenge. They discuss the character building activities in which they engage – running back to back marathons, running a business or climbing kilimanjaro. Meanwhile, I am trying to convince a kid that 3.00am is a bad time to play tennis, and that not every adult is dangerous. It's probably not as glamorous as running a FTSE company, but my wife thinks it's sexy and I get to spend a lot more time on the swings at the park. Clearly, I am the real winner, and so are the kids who we look after.
Fostering isn't for every one, but everyone should consider it before they decide it's not for them.
If you'd like to find out more, please contact me or your local council about fostering.
Phil Watson grew up in Sutton, a commuter town on the edge of South London. Sutton had Europe’s first drive thru Burger King. Armed with modest A level grades and a dubious sense of geography, he ended up studying German and French at Liverpool University in 1989.
He did a Masters in the Administration of the European Union, and became an export sales manager dealing in graphic arts filing. On discovering that this was even more boring that it sounds he became a youth worker and secondary school teacher in Liverpool. His passion for social justice led him and his family into fostering in 2010. Since 2015, he has worked as a recruiter of foster carers for liverpool City Council. He is married to Helenor, a solicitor for Liverpool Council, and invariably has a house full of kids. He knows a lot about the Napoleonic Wars and is a founder member of the ‘Scouse Seagulls’ Liverpool’s premier Brighton and Hove Albion fan club.
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