It can be amazing how some big things in your life go un-noticed until someone else points them out.
So there I am waiting for a taxi last Friday night and my eldest said "God, what did you do for a social life before fostering?" and a penny dropped.
On top of all the things that fostering has given us as a family, it's added a whole new dimension to my world of friends.
I've kept a small group of life-long friends since school. We go back to the days when we were young free and single, and we know each others lives inside out, we're a sort of family. We get together every so often and catch up on the mundane stuff that life is made of; holiday plans, the children, whether Eastenders is as good as it used to be; that sort of guff. I never thought anything could rival them as soul mates. They're still nailed on. We'll be solid until Grim Reaper time.
But my eldest got me thinking. Fostering has given me a whole new network of friendships.
A lot of people think that fostering is something you do in isolation, something that cuts you off and keeps you indoors 24/7.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Before you even start, Blue Sky finds out about your friendship network. It was a surprise to me how interested they were in my friends and how my friendships worked.
Talking to trusted friends keeps everything in your mind in perspective. This is a fact that professionals in fostering recognise as an absolute. In order to foster to the best of your ability you need 1) your own personal strengths, 2) your family (not just the family in your home, you need your parents, your brothers and sisters and whoever else you're close to). And 3) you need friends.
Why? Because of what some great psychiatrist concluded: "Talking is everything".
When you begin fostering, even before your first child arrives, Blue Sky plug you into a network of people like yourself, it's almost like a friendship agency (Note to self; Internet business idea - start a website for people who need friends and haven't discovered fostering).
They hold regular team meetings where you get to meet the other carers in your patch. Twenty, thirty, forty people who turn out to be people out of the same die as yourself. The meetings are all about getting to know each other. Yes there's sometimes a bit of an agenda, you might get a social worker standing in front of you for ten minutes explaining how to claim your expenses or how to use the Blue Sky website. But the meat of the meetings is all about meeting people who also do the unique thing that you do too, and nothing bonds people like shared experience, especially if that expereince is extraordinary. And fostering sure is extraordinary.
So when the coffee is wheeled in and the formal meeting takes a break, that's when the real action begins. You find yourself scoring a biscuit and the person next to you says "I'm tempted but I'm trying to be good" and you discover you have a friend for life you didn't know you had. There's never a moment's awkwardness; everyone in the room wants your phone number and to get you over to their place for a curry, meet your other half, and share.
See, the thing is that there's an important element of confidentiality in fostering, obviously. The children have their right to privacy. You can share experiences of fostering with your other half, your immediate family and your social workers. That's fair; you see your other half at lights out every night, your family are at the end of a phone line and social workers drop in regularly.
But they don't foster.
Only foster parents know what it's like to be a foster parent. Blue Sky know this, and that's why they pull you all into a room, lay on coffee and biscuits and scram. They leave us to it. To share.
These team meetings aren't the only chance to hook up. There are regular training sessions and social events. I found straight away my appetite for other people's news went through the roof, and it was mutual. The cameraderie among fostering people is right up there with what my grandparents tell me about the wartime spirit.
And we can tell it like it is, to other foster folk.
I'm not saying we hold back anything from other people who need to know; our social workers hear everything they need to hear on a professional basis. Our families get the truth too, without actual names and places if you know what I mean.
But when you're bumping the gums with other foster parents it's a togetherness like I've never experienced anywhere ever before.
So then you exchange phone numbers and email addresses and you start to notice your diary is getting chocker. Never a Friday without a curry for four. The baby sitter's number is on your speed dial (Yes you can use a baby sitter in fostering, Blue Sky will talk you through how it works).
You don't only bond on the fostering. Friendships depend on all the details and you find yourself opening up about everything, because everything about you and everything about them is what set you up to foster. You find that you were close to these other fostering pals before you even met in that you have so much in common before you began fostering, the details simply add to the intimacy.
Next thing you know they are the almost-family, just like your life-long friends except you have even more to talk about, and laugh about.
The phone rings and it's a foster-friend. They have fostering news; a new placement is coming, a child has started to call them 'mum', a panel has granted permanency with their child. The fostering-friend called you first.
Too much to talk about in one phone call.
Friday night? Can't do this Friday, we're having a Chinese with the couple who've just found out the girl they are fostering is pregnant; how about Saturday?
To anyone who's thinking of becoming a foster parent I'd say this;
Stand by to be useful.