I’m good friends with foster carers who have had two siblings with them for several years and the girls, both now teenagers, have been settled and well adjusted to life in ‘The Phillips’ household, in spite of the ups and downs any family may experience.
They’ve also been in situations unique to foster care, but have overcome emotional hurdles and upsetting court appearances.
We don’t socialise with them as a family much, as M doesn’t like the stigma of being in foster care or even other children in care talking about their experiences, but when we do see Kerry* and her sister Angela*, they chat to us and we’ve been to many of their birthday parties and supported each other through some uncertain and challenging times.
The Phillips have always prioritised Kerry and Angela; undertaken whatever training has been necessary and fought for counselling and special educational equipment for Angela.
That’s not to say it’s been a one-sided approach. Kerry in particular was very angry when she first came into care with the Phillips whilst Angela revelled in the attention from her new carers. After a complicated first year, Kerry allowed herself to slowly become part of the family and the rest, as they say, is history. Years later they call our friends Mum and Dad, give Mother’s and Father’s Day cards, and talk positively about the future with the Phillips.
I saw Kerry this weekend and, in spite of adjusting to a new life as a college student, she is doing really well, has a part-time job, and was enthusiastic about saving for her first summer holiday with friends next year.
When my foster carer friend went to collect Angela from a party, I stayed with Kerry while she played with Baby S.
Out of nowhere she opened up about what it’s like to be in care over Christmas.
She said “I know you write about kids like me, but you don’t really know what it’s like from my side.”
I asked her out right if she wanted to tell her side of the story and I checked with my friend who felt it would be good for her to have a voice. So, I gave her the opportunity to talk.
Kerry told me that it didn’t matter how much a part of the family she felt with the Phillips, she still found Christmas one of the hardest times of year to deal with.
She really felt like a bit of her was missing and no one could give the gift of being wanted by her birth mum. She felt that the Phillips tried so hard to make Christmas good for the two of them, but nothing was ever going to take away the pain of not being with her birth Mum and Dad during the holidays.
Sadly, Kerry no longer has any contact with her birth mum and this was not her choice; she wanted answers that the Phillips and her social worker couldn’t give her, so she asked her mum instead. Communication broke down and she hasn’t seen them since. They still see Angela from time to time but contact has been erratic and stressful her.
Up until she was 15 years old, Kerry said she saw her birth parents at Christmas and whilst she looked forward to it, she found it difficult as they either tried to overcompensate with what she described as “inappropriate and underage gifts” or they forgot and did nothing.
She told me she loved the Phillips in a very special way and said I could tell them this and put it in my blog, but she said there is nothing that can replace waking up on Christmas morning and opening presents with your real Mum.
As she entertained Baby S, who is now crawling everywhere, Kerry told me she is sick of hearing about what her college friends are doing over Christmas, what they are getting, and how she feels many of them take their families for granted.
She is a bright girl and knows that unless they have been through a similar experience, they can’t possibly understand how she feels. She took a moment to reflect and said that her strongest emotion over Christmas was loneliness.
As Kerry spoke to me I found it hard to keep my emotions in check, partly because I’ve known her a long time and genuinely care for her, and also because I knew she needed to express herself and felt she had little opportunity to have her opinions heard.
When my friend returned with Angela, Kerry went off to her bedroom, catching up on Instagram, and Angela told me about the contact she was due to have this week with her birth mum. When Angela went off to play, my friend told me that Angela is asking a lot of questions about her family and is struggling with Christmas this year.
My friends are experienced foster carers and know that not everything can be fixed. Families are complicated and whether they are birth, step or foster families, Christmas can be a tough time.