We may be Santa’s worst nightmare. As we enter his grotto we see panic set in as he struggles to reset his script for our burgeoning family, because we are evidently not mummy and daddy, nor nanny and grandad. Then he must master three beautiful but unfamiliar girls’ names, including three different surnames, and quickly get his head around their apparently chaotic plans for Christmas, before wishing he never asked. Never has that glass of sherry tasted so fine.
We are foster carers, and this Christmas is all about creating something special for three children who were unknown to us just a few months ago. We specialise in sibling groups, so our foster children tend to come in twos and threes. They arrive at our doorstep, with belongings crammed into carrier bags, usually frightened and tired, with little sense of where they are and how long it will be before they are moved on again. They may have been removed from their home for their own safety, but at this point the alternative feels anything but welcoming and secure.
Days become weeks, and weeks become months, and our foster children, so shy and withdrawn in those early days, have found their voices and their confidence. They have grown, both physically and emotionally, and we have a better sense of the smart young women they will become. New schools, new friends, new hobbies. At school, they are up there with their peers, no quarter given for the burden they undoubtedly still carry as children in care.
And before we know it, we are getting ready for Christmas. Christmas fayres, carol singing and nativity plays. We take our place among the mums and dads in school halls and cheer with pride. Our angel and our mouse stole the show, didn’t you see? The children come home each day clutching their Christmas bounty, and they spend many hours crafting their own cards to give to teachers and classmates. Their smiles light up the room.
Our own extended family has embraced our role as foster carers, and as we gather for Christmas they sweep up our foster children without skipping a beat. There are always extra presents under the tree, and plenty of chairs at the dinner table.
But, inevitably, the question is asked: how long will they be staying with you this time? And we are reminded of the transient nature of the lives we have created for these children. They are so precious to us, yet they are somebody else’s daughters, and somebody else’s granddaughters. They are celebrating Christmas with people who are little more than strangers, adapting to family traditions that are alien to them. Their festivities must make time for supervised contact with the families from whom they must live apart, a painful reminder for all of the human tragedy that has brought us into their lives.
Their futures will be decided by others, who know little about them other than what they have read in case notes. One day, perhaps in a few weeks, a car will come to take them to their next, and hopefully, permanent home, and this Christmas will become but a distant memory, for us as well as for them. And although we shall feel their absence deeply, it is likely that their place will be taken by children who are spending this Christmas in fear. There will be new names under our Christmas tree, and new names for poor Santa to learn.