We didn't foster until our own children were old enough to join in the experience.
Sometimes I wish I'd fostered before we had our own children.
Fostering has made me a better parent, no doubt about it.
I don't think I was a bad parent to my own children. Then again who does? In fostering you meet up with people who are close to being jailed for their parenting, and yep, they are all absolutely certain they are great parents.
I think most of us base our parenting on what happened to us when we were children, so we do most of our parenting like our parents did, maybe we change a couple of things we thought could be done better.
Even if our parents were brilliant parents 20 years ago, the world has changed so much that our parent's way of parenting belongs in a museum. How would my dad have dealt with modern issues like the mobile phone and the internet? My dad didn't even know about drugs, he only knew that three pints were your limit. Even that isn't true any more.
He cared for us, full stop. But all the little details, they're changing all the time. And so am I as I learn.
Here's what I'm talking about in one example; the issue of eating before mealtimes.
I never allowed my children to eat before mealtimes. I'm talking not even a custard cream an hour before fish fingers and chips. This was a rule, as rigid as no 'F' word and writing birthday 'Thank You' letters to aunties.
Thanks to fostering I now know this was a stupid rule, and I deeply regret that I inflicted it on my children, I don't do it any more.
I've tried to explain to my own children, when they see one of our foster children snag a few grapes just as the food is going on the table, that it's not because our foster children are more special or loved, it's just that I've learned. I've got better at this parenting lark. I've apologised to my own children for being so rigid and authoritarian about food.
I've learned about myself; that the whole meal issue was more about me and me being in control than meeting their needs.
I had an insecure need for my simple little serve-up of sausages or pasta bake to have them cleaning their plates and begging for more, as if my supermarket heat-ups were something special.
Well, thanks to fostering, that's all gone. It's impossible to overstate how important food is to children.
It's like air.
You wouldn't say to someone who was drowning "Just you wait for air, it's not due to be served for half an hour"
I'm not exaggerating the importance of food. I've learned it means everything especially to foster children. It means more than the taste pleasure. It means life. It means being sustained. It means someone is sustaining you. Someone loves you. Imagine.
You won't believe this but it's totally true. One of our foster children, who was with us last Christmas is looking forward to another Christmas with us. The child is more excited by the memory of food food food all day than presents. I promise this is true, I find it hard to comprehend. The child remembers snacks being out on the coffee table, a bowl of nuts, sausage rolls served for no reason, a Terry's chocolate orange in the stocking. Dates. Crisps. Pickled onions. Then there's Christmas dinner. The child remembers vividly there wasn't enough room on the family table for all the dishes of help-yourself food. Sprouts with chestnuts, glazed carrots, roast and mashed potato. Gravy and cranberry sauce. Pigs in blankets. Oh God, the child marvelled at pigs in blankets, and counted them, divided them by how many of us there were and worked out that four of them were hers. She ended up eating seven.
The above child is a perfect weight, in case you're wondering. And totally more mesmerised by Christmas food than her electronic Christmas presents and general gifts under the tree.
It's not the eating of food. It's the availability of food that's important. Not just available for them in their room so they can choose when to eat, or available in the fridge - I tell my children they can help themselves as long as they ask. The crucial ingredient is the parent physically providing the food. The statement of love and protection and care when the parent says "Here's a snack to hold you till dinner time" and places a plate of something at their elbow. The bringing and giving of the food, and how it speaks of care and security.
I had a child who was permanently unhappy at first. He'd shape up when X Factor was on. Then I discovered if I placed a bowl of popcorn on one side of him and a bag of crisps on the other side, he'd relax and be contented.
My social workers tell me that eating times in the homes of children coming into care generally don't exist in the way they do in most homes. Children who don't know anything except that they need food don't know when it's coming and they know that sometimes it doesn't.
I can't tell you some of the horror stories I've had to listen to about food and food deprivation. If you foster I bet you have a few of your own.
But when a foster chid comes to me in the kitchen and plaintively says "Can I get a bag of Hula Hoops", I no longer reply "No because your previously-frozen pack of BOGOF Chicken Kievs with oven chips and own-brand beans is on its way and... you don't want to spoil your dinner"
No, because the nutrition they need is our understanding and support.
If I could turn back the clock I'd let my own children have food when they needed it.
Maybe the nation's obesity problem is linked to all this, but that's not my problem.