A new foster child has arrived, and knocks on our bedroom door at 1.45am first night.
First night is always huge in fostering for all parties.
The child is pretty much an unknown quantity; you have their notes plus titbits of information their social worker can offload, but there's a lot to learn.
Of course, from the child's point of view their foster parents are an unknown quantity too. Blue Sky prepare a child-friendly profile of the parents and their home which the child gets to read before arrival, which is a great idea. In our case they almost always show most interest in our dog.
It's a big moment when the social workers leave and it's just you, your family and your new placement. For the child, waking up in a strange house must be unthinkably baffling and scary, especially at 1.45am.
I'd assured him at bedtime that if he woke up and was frightened to get up, put on the dressing gown I'd given him and knock on our door. I'd shown him how to knock (three gentle ones; you don't want the whole house to wake up).
I sleep nearest the door anyway, and first night I'm always in a very light sleep. My husband always stirs and stays half-awake until I'm back. I put on my dressing gown and silently opened the door.
"Hello" I said, "You alright?"
He was standing there looking so sad, rubbing his eyes with a small fist.
"I had..." he said.
I waited for him to get it out.
"I had a horrible dream".
The middle of the night is where you become a professional foster parent. A lot of the time you're just a full-time parent, doing whatever you'd do if the chid was your own. But the middle of the night is a particular time.
Why? Because if it's your own child you make room in your bed for them. Obviously in fostering that's not an option.
"Oh dear," I said "That's not very nice for you".
Looking at him I could see that although he was awake he was ready to go back to sleep, so I put a hand on his shoulder and guided him round to face his bedroom door. I went in ahead of him and straightened his duvet, discretely checking that the bed was dry.
As he clambered in I noticed he'd drunk the beaker of apple juice I'd given him, and I was tempted to fetch him another one out of consideration; you want a new child to feel well cared for. On the other hand you don't want to trigger a bout of bedwetting. I settled for;
"Can I get you anything?"
Silence. He probably wanted me to get him his mum, get him a peaceful life, get the world off his back.
"You're a good boy Romeo, well done for knocking on my door".
I took his clothes off the chair in his room, put the chair outside the door and said;
"I'll stay here until you're sleepy again".
I sat there for about five or ten minutes listening to him breathe, my thoughts running all over the place, like they do when you've got time to yourself and you're forced to do nothing.
I find myself thinking;
"This fostering lark. What would I be doing without it? Why didn't I get into it sooner? Why doesn't everybody do it? Don't they realise what they're missing?"
I got up and began to tip-toe back to bed, but a voice came;
"I'm not asleep".
I think the staff of life is to be useful, to be needed, to be wanted.
And to do something important to the best of your ability. I didn't want the boy to get the habit of wanting me to stay every night until he nodded off. So I said;
"I'm still here. I was going downstairs to make a cup of tea and come back and drink it while you're falling asleep".
When I got back with a cup of (weak) tea I whisper;
I could feel the sense of re-assurance in his little voice, he simply went;
Now, I've fostered long enough to know that this first few days and nights, the bit they call the honeymoon period has two characteristics;
One; butter wouldn't melt. But the moment will arrive when they relax and trust you. And probably tell you to bog off.
Two; it's a rapid first-strike in repair.
Repair from all the trauma they've undergone. So I try to get everything right as rain; every kindness, every comfort, every detail. It's a long road, but it begins the first night they are in fostering. You go the extra mile and more.
I couldn't keep it up, but during this getting-to-know period I think it's crucial.
So I sit and sip, trying to synchronise my breathing with his and slow it down. Then I try the almost silent yawn trick.
Funny how you can tell, even sat outside the bedroom, when a child has gone to sleep.
I creep back to bed, reminding myself I'd have made a good burglar.
But on the whole, fostering is much more rewarding.