Wednesday, July 21, 2021

NEVER BEEN CALLED "MUM" THIS QUICK

 Been a gap in my blog posting because a new child has arrived.

He's actually a dream placement (oh yes, they're out there, most times you only hear about the challenges).

He's 17 years old coming up 18. His being fostered is being wound down, tapered off. Won't be long before he's out in the world fending for himself.

He's sturdy physically and emotionally. Carries himself with dignity, wit and warmth. 

Our fostering of him is almost hands-off, that's how they want it; let him experience all the sense of independence available so that he's as ready as possible for adulthood.

Here's a little story that'll give you an idea of this fine guy; his name's Joe.

Joe goes out most nights, tells us where he's going and what he's planning. Whether he tells us everything or not…you know what teenagers are about, you must do. You were one once. Remember?

He takes the train each evening and catches the last one back. Our house is a bit too far for a walk home from the station so I pick him up. 

The first time I collected him it was about 10.45. I parked in the station car park. It's next to one of those pubs you get near railway stations, a bit of hurley burley about it. I wound up my windows and clicked the button to lock all the doors.

When his train pulled in he appeared and strode across the car park towards me with a nonchalent wave and a friendly grin.

As he reached the car I unlocked the doors and he opened the passenger door. Three lads were spilling out of the pub and ragging each other in a friendly/confrontational way, calling each other names in that jokey/ironic way they've heard grown men do. The language was colourful but harmless. 

They were going past the car and Joe had the door open.

"Guys," he said in a friendly voice - I could hear the smile - "I got me mum in the car 'ere".

The lads fell silent. They carried on walking. About ten yards beyond us one of them shouted an expletive, just to save face.

Joe got in. "Kids!" he sighed. Then he said;

"Mind if I wind down the window?"

I agreed. But I could still smell the smoke on his parker.

I'm not clued up enough to know what he'd been smoking. If he'd been twelve it would have been an issue for me, I'd bring it up with my Blue Sky Social Worker at our next supervision session.

Joe told me that being mixed race had many benefits. He hopes to go into the music business, he spends a lot of time creating digital music. 

I tell him that however and wherever he goes along in life, I'll always be in his fan club.




Monday, July 12, 2021

TO FEED A FOSTER CHILD

 Food is right up there in the minds of most foster children.

Funny, I must mention this to Blue Sky; to my knowledge we've not yet had a training session on cooking for looked-after kids.

When a young body's growing it gets hungry and in many chaotic homes mealtimes are…let's say unpredictable.

In our house we're the opposite; weekday breakfast is 7.30am, tea's at 5.30pm. Weekends are more relaxed but I keep on top of everyone's food needs. I'm always asking "Sandwich?".

A full tummy, or the prospect of one, is incredibly comforting for kids in care.

One of ours at the moment is going through a challenging phase; questioning this, poo-pooing that. It's ok, not abusive, in fact it's done with a twinkle in the eye; there's a lot of affection in it.

When I dish up he looks down at his plate and says;

"What's this? We had it night before last!"

He will be referring to his plate of fishfingers and fries with baked beans and a side of lettuce, cucumber and tomato.

And referring back to four nights prior when it had been oven baked fish in breadcrumbs, boiled spuds and green beans.

So here's what happened tonight…I love it.

A week before he'd found a recipe book in the kitchen, a book I'd been given as a Christmas present (aren't they all?) last year. A Nigel Slater full offancy dan small portion vegetarian dishes, often using types of pasta I've never heard of.

Our kid flipped it open and started going;

"Wow! Look at this!" and "This looks fantastic!"

I festered for about a week.

Then I wen to Waitrose and bought Romano peppers, puy lentils, Gorganzola, basil, parsley, a red chilli..blah blah.

Oh, by the way as you read this, I know you're ahead of me and you know exactly where this is going..

Two hours I slaved. 

Well, not slaved. More like shaved;shaved garlic and ginger. I diced and skinned, I whizzed and blended, I roasted and marintated.

About 5.00pm (30 minutes to teatime) I texted him; "Tea at 5.30pm. A Nigel Slater recipe. I've made a red pepper and green lentil melange with feta cheese, marinated red onion and a home made pesto of fresh basil, parsley, walnuts and olive oil"

Then I added (as you would have done);

"Or you can have a Cornish pasty."

Cornered, he came back:

"I'll take it"

He came downstairs and looked at the plate. It did not look as irresistible as the platefuls do in recipe books.

He had the pick though; melange or pasty.

I knew what he was thinking. It was nice he didn't want to hurt my feelings.

I said:

'It's not your sort of thing after a hard day is it?"

We had a fantastic 10 minute exchange. He was hungry and wanted his usual tea-food, but for maybe the first time, was cautious about hurting me:

"The thing is kinda alright. But why'dya put peas in it?"

I aplogised.

Short stort long; he let me order him a Dominos pizza. There were no hard feelings.

In fact it was a great thing, he saw I'd tried and was okay that food-wise he'd over-reached.

In fostering you're growing all the time.

Fostering is more nutritious than mere food.




Friday, July 09, 2021

THE ART OF REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY

One of my happiest memories in fostering is a tale of reverse psychology. At least I think it's reverse psychology, the colleague who worked it on me was a dab hand and the trick is to make sure the other party isn't aware of it.

I'd used reverse psychology with our own children with modest success, I think they tumbled pretty quick. Getting them to drink water was a long battle. I tried calling it "Sky juice" or even "Chateau faucet", no dice. Then I hit on "Please do not drink water as drinking water helps you run faster and you'll be able to beat me in a race and I can't have that."

That one worked, for a while.

In fostering, it can be a magic wand.

"I bet you can't run upstairs and clean your teeth and be in the car for the school run before I count to ten". That sort of low-level thing. Works EVERY time. They love the challenge, love the game. What's more I make sure they always win, and winning is so rare for most kids in care they lap it up. They probably tumble too, but carry on the charade because the kick they get is so pleasant.

I never thought I'd fall for reverse psychology myself. One of my happiest memories, though, is of falling for it hook, line and sinker..I think. Maybe. I still don't know. See what you think. 

We'd had a call from Blue Sky asking; "Would we be willing to take a child who…?"

We said yes, and the boy arrived.

Poor lad, he'd been through absolute hell. I can't and won't give you any details because you don't need the pictures in your head. It was truly horrific, a criminal matter. Literally.

Two long weeks into the most challenging placement we'd ever had, we weren't exactly at the end of our tether but the pressure was on. Blue Sky sent troops of social workers to us, even one of their head honchos paid a visit to check we were ok and bolster our resolve.

I've never given up on any child, but on rare ocassions each and every foster carer is entitled to consider passing a child on, perhaps to a home that doesn't have a housefull of others as we do, in which case you'd be doing it for the child's benefit, and that thought can sugar the pill.

So I can't be certain that we weren't wondering if the lad was too much.

Then we got a phone call from the courts. They needed a psychological assesment of the lad so they were sending a top man to visit us.

And boy, was he ever a top man.

He gave me his card on the doorstep which had his qualifications on it. I've kept it down the years as a souvenir. He had 14 letters after his name. He was billed as a "Chartered Psychologist". He explained;

"There are psychiatrists and psychologists, then one step up from them you have your Clinical Psychologists, I'm sure you fostering folk have heard of them."

I nodded.

"Well," he said "Most of us Chartered Psychologists like to think we're one step up from your Clinical Psychologists. So I'd better be on my toes."

Blimey. 

He had two private sessions with the lad. Then he sat me down at our kitchen table for a chat. His verdict was very saddening;

"In simple terms the lad has little or no chance of repair from the damage that's been done from birth".

To allow me to take this in he glanced away over my shoulder at the kitchen dresser behind me where we accumulate various bits of flotsam and jetsam; string, cotton reels and old books. Then he said;

"It's like when a boxer takes so much punishment there's no way he should still be standing. I don't know if you ever saw Mohammed Ali fight George Foreman?"

I replied yes, it was a dim and distant memory. Actually I remembered it well. I happen to enjoy boxing. I know it's not a proper reflection of me, and if they banned it I wouldn't miss it, but while it's around I can't resist it.

"Well," he continued "This lad has been punched out, literally and metaphorically all his life. Just like Ali was that night, taking punch after punch after punch. No-one can take punches for that long and stay standing."

"So," I said "Are you saying that the child will need to be Mohammed Ali to survive?"

"No." said this clever man. "I'm afraid I think the poor lad has little or no chance. You can try if you want, good luck. I would expect he's going to end up in a unit."

"No," he continued "I'm saying that his foster parents will need to be Mohammed Ali for them to survive."

We took the job on. Somehow we stuck by the lad, it was a long haul, but worth it. Oh so worth it. He ended up doing pretty fine. He's not without his moments apparently, but on the whole he's…well…whole.

It was a few days after the psychologist's visit and his words were still rattling in my head. Telling me I stood no chance with the lad? He doesn't know me. I see myself as an; "I've started so I'll finish type of person". I happened to be sitting in the seat he'd sat in, and, deep in thought glanced up at the kitchen dresser. Suddenly for the first time in years, I actually took notice of the books gathering dust there.  A couple of Nigel Slater's alongside a Weight Watchers, a few cheap novels…

…and a biography of Mohammed Ali.

Not only that, but hanging on the back of our kitchen door was a bunch of shopping bags, one of which my other half bought in Sports Direct with a picture on it of Mohammed Ali standing triumphantly over a fallen opponent. The image had lost it's meaning down the years, but now I suddenly saw it afresh. And a massive penny dropped.

This Chartered Psychologist saw that part of his job was to motovate us into giving the lad our best shot, and figured the way to do it might be to summon the spirit of a man who happends to be a bit of a hero in our house.

Telling us the lad stood no chance and that we'd have to be Mohammed Ali to succeed, well…who wouldn't come out at the bell for another round?

Was I had?

Probably yes. But in the nicest, kindest professional way.

And I'm so grateful for it.

So, I hope, is the lad. Which is what matters most.




Saturday, July 03, 2021

ON BEING GIVEN 'ADVICE'

 A reader writes;

"Maybe you can direct me to the posts if you've written about this before, but do you have any advice for dealing with well-meaning family and friends who have concerns(read: fears) about my family's interest in fostering ? For example, teenage boys seem to make people really nervous ("aren't you afraid they will steal, lie, do drugs, abuse your bio kids??") Husband and I aren't stupid about risks involved, and the precautions necessary to protect family and property, but I struggle to reassure others in our circle. We tend to see teenagers as children (albeit with certain, often serious difficulties) just as much in need of homes as younger kids, but to society at large, teenagers,and foster teens in particular seem to be very threatening. Anon."

Oh dear Anon, I've always kept unasked-for advice from 'well-meaning' others at arm's length. The advice is often ill-informed and usually gloomy. I don't know why people have such affection for what they call 'The Worst Case Scenario".

Everyone sees themselves as well-meaning. Most people judge themselves by their motives, but we should really judge ourselves by our actions and their consequences.

I even try not to give advice myself, simply tell stories of how fostering can be and let people draw their own conclusions.

But I'll break that habit at the end of this peice, and give some advice directly to those people who wade in with their well-meaning advice and see if they find it helpful.

If push came to shove I'd advise you to sign up to foster (you seem just the type), and tell your family and friends that if it doesn't work out you'll opt out of the profession. 

But you might ask them what they're basing their advice on;

Actual personal experience of fostering? Doesn't sound like it. 

Verifiable statistics? Concrete information? Solid facts? 

Or maybe they're dependent on those good old fall-back canteen culture wisdoms such as "It's a well-known fact" or "Ask anybody, they'll say the same".

Then there's the Chinese Whispers syndrome where someone knows someone whose friend was friends with a man whose wife's sister-in law tried fostering and "it was a nighmare". I've heard that one a few times.

They like to add that suchlike information is "straight from the horse's mouth".

Oh and there's also "They don't warn you in advance because they need all the fosterers they can get."

Look, I've had plenty of teenagers come to us for fostering, I cherish the memories of every single one of them. Teenagers were the age-group we went into fostering to care for. 

You can tell your friends and family this; a foster mum (me) told you personally that before fostering she'd taken in foreign students. All of them middle class, with affluent parents, solid homes, academic success and real prospects in life. I bet you a pound to a penny your friends and family would be alright with them eh? Give them a mo to check their stereotype handbook…and yes…foreign students, they'll be good as gold.

Well let me tell you they'd be wrong there too. Those little minxes; stole from us, got pregnant, got brought home in police cars, smashed a hole in a bedroom wall, threw up on their bedroom floor…I could go on.

None of the teenagers I've fostered did any of that. 

Not one.

Of course they have their problems.You are clear you're conscious of that and consequently halfway to dealing with whatever the issues. Tackling the problems of our foster kids, that's the nub of the job, right there. The Von Trapp children you do not get when you foster, who wants them anyway?

I'm truly shocked that people are coming at you with what sounds like unsubstantiated drivel about stealing, lying, drugs and abuse. Jees, you wouldn't be allowed to spurt such prejudice and negative stereotyping about any other group in society.

Give those family and friends the link to this piece and ask them to read the next paragraph out loud to themselves looking in the mirror, because it's how they should start talking to themselves;

"I can go on telling myself I care for a friend or family member who wants to foster til I'm blue in the mouth but to stand in their way of caring for a child who is alone and frightened is  wrong. 

If I was a kid with no home and no family to care for me I'd be shocked that on top of what the world has done to me, my  foster parents have to listen to others telling them I'm maybe a thief, a liar, a druggie, an abuser.  

Instead, from now on, I'll tell my family and friends who want to foster to go for it, wish them good luck, and ask them if there's anything I can do to help, encourage and support them."






Tuesday, June 29, 2021

A REALLY LONG WEEKEND...

 Been a hectic few days here since my last post, we had a respite placement.

A respite child is one you look after for a short, fixed period of days to give his long-term foster parents a break. They literally had a break, went to Wales for a few days. They needed time away from fostering, and I learned they needed a little time away from their lives too.

When I talk about the highs and lows of fostering I often forget that we're doing it alongside the highs and lows of everything else in life.

I'll tell you what I know about them - and what I can publish, because their anonymity is as important as that of every child I talk about.

They are a couple, he's on his second marriage, she's never been in anything of a serious relationship so they both got a bit of baggage of different sorts.

He drives for a living and has started to struggle with the pressures put on him by his job and his employer such as the time expectations, the traffic, customers being obnoxious and the sheer lonliness of having no-one but your own company unless you count Radio Two and Ken Bruce…

His first marriage had ended in him letting her have everything; the kids, the home, the car and most of his earnings until the kids grew up. Apparently he's simply Mr Nice and wanted them to be ok.

She had some sort of office job before fostering; I gather she felt it was a career rather than a job if you know what I mean. Then she got the chop from out of the blue. They spat her out like she was a bit of gristle. She went in one Monday and they were waiting for her, asked for her badge and told her that her stuff was by the door. She went to collect it in tears and noticed her desk was already gone. Why do some employers kick people when they're down? She didn't even get to say goodbye to people who'd become her sole social network. Lonliness takes many guises, hers was a big one.

They met on the internet.

How do I now all this? Because Blue Sky got me to go into their office to meet her with the child to check out if the respite placement would work ok. How that for leaving no stone unturned?

She and I had coffee and while the child was causing mayhem around the office we talked about everything.

The child, Craig, was ten years old and sturdy. His dad, she told me, was six foot eight and treated with respect by the four cops it usually took to go and deal with him when he got lit up.

Blimey.

Craig was, shall we say, hyper-energetic. But I took a shine to him because his mischief was harmless and he had a twinkle in his eyes that often betrays a sense of humour; and laughing at the same thing is the equivilant to the hug you often want to give a child in care but can't, especially during a pandemic.

Long story short; I agreed to take Craig for five days and four nights. When Craig discovered I had met him and liked him enough to want him in our home for nearly a week he felt wanted, and that cut a lot of ice. That said; he was hard work; never rested, hardly slept, always on the go. He'd go through drawers, pull things out of cupboards, chase a fly round the house…you had to have eyes in the back of your head and endless energy. We watched a DVD of Home Alone one evening, it's a good one with foster kids, it's got the lot, even Christmas, which they love. He watched it about ten times before they came to take him back to his foster home.

As he left I said two things to myself;

1) "Go well young fella, and best of luck to your fantastic foster mum and dad"

and

2) "Phew!"

Job well done. Spare bedroom spare again.

C'mon Blue Sky ring again with;

"Would you be willing to take a child who…"


Saturday, June 19, 2021

EVER BEEN STOOD UP?

The last couple of weeks we've had two calls asking us if we'd be willing to take a new child.

The spare bedroom is ready, spring-cleaned and with fresh neutral coloured bed linen. A bowl is ready for fruit. I always provide a bowl with an apple, bananas and an orange. The orange is decorative, It rarely gets eaten - peeling it is a faff - but I think the colour is warm and friendly.

Both times we said yes we would and both times we got a phone call after a few hours from Blue Sky's placement team to say the child was going elsewhere.

It's worth talking a bit about how the "Thanks but no thanks"  call impacts us fostering folk.

Blue Sky do it well. They usually cite a practical reason such as another home had better proximity to the child's school, or that they felt the child needed a bit more distance from the real home. Or maybe that the child needed one-on-one care, or a less busy home than ours.

But no matter how gently the message is delivered I'm always taken back to the time I was stood up on a first date. We'd agreed to meet outside the cinema at 7.00pm, the film started at 7.25. I got there early and stood in a shop doorway opposite to see if my date was lurking, I must have wanted a chance to gird myself. It got to 6.55pm and no sign. At exactly 7.00pm I crossed the road and started looking both ways. I think I realised the writing was on the wall somewhere between 5 and 10 past the hour.

Then the anxiety kicked in. I got nervous not just because I was being dissed, but because other cinema goers might realise I was being passed over.

I remember trying to look as if I wasn't waiting for a date that wasn't showing up.

I get reminded of this injury by lots of triggers. Sometimes standing still outside a cinema does it for me. I was watching Big Brother one time when Dustin Hoffman appeared, and that did it for me because the film we had planned to see was a Dustin Hoffman film.

And I get the same fleeting feeling of rejection or abandonment when we're passed over for fostering. I've talked to other foster parents who agree. They're often keen to talk to me about it because, like me, they try to put on a brave face at the news. They say they get all sorts of emotions such as "Maybe Blue Sky will get fed up putting me up for placements and being told no thanks". Crazy thought but we're only human.

Then there's the straightforward disappointment of never even getting to meet a child who you've got to know in your mind from the notes you are sent.

Whenever it happens our Blue Sky Social Worker is on the phone in a flash to re-enforce the message that we are great foster parents and the reasons for the 'no thanks' were practical and genuine.

So maybe I should just face the facts, get a grip. Or 'man up' as my other half puts it.

Right. I'm going to watch Meet The Fokkers one night this week and get over the Dustin Hoffman thing once and for all.




Friday, June 11, 2021

WAITING FOR YOUR NEXT CHILD

 People who are considering fostering, or perhaps just starting in fostering, could maybe use some idea of the situation I'm in right now, because you will be in the same boat one day, perhaps you're in it right now.

You've got a spare bedroom, it's available for a child.

You're waiting for the phone to ring…

Perhaps different authorities and agencies contact provisional foster homes using text or email, but Blue Sky has always phoned me person-to-person, I think that's because speed is of the essence. Everybody wants to get the child settled somewhere asap, but the process has to be got right; the right child in the right home. 

I keep my phone to hand all the time. If I'm driving and it rings I pull over somewhere safe as quick as I can. You get asked;

"Would you be willing to take a child who…"

What follows is a brief verbal outline of the child, in my experience paragraph, maybe two. I have always said yes (so far), but if the placement appears in any way especially tricky I call my other half, who also has always said yes (so far).

Then an email appears in your inbox from Blue Sky with more information. It's always a hugely eye-opening read. Your eyes are opened time and time again to the sad world many children have to endure.

The Social Workers and Blue Sky Placement Team work hard and fast to sift their options. Generally there's more than one foster home available and they have to weigh up which is best. That must be no easy task, what a responsibility.

Then your phone goes again, and it's either;

"Thank you so much for offering to help, but they were able to find a home nearer to the child's school (the reasons obviously vary). You're let down gently and take heart from the fact that your home will have another evening without the demands a new child naturally briings in.

Or;

"We'd like to take you up on your offer, the child can be brought to you this afternoon at four o'clock if that's convenient, and your Social Worker is aiming to get to your house for three o'clock to support the hand-over." Obviously the specifics vary from child to child, but that's the gist.

For me, and many Carers I've talked with, the next few hours are amazing, you feel so alive. I usually go back to the email with the child's notes because they sometimes contain clues to the child which will help. I think this is done deliberately to help ease things for the child. Things such as their favourite foods, fads, general likes and dislikes. If they've got a favourite band you can clue up on. I once was able to get a CD playing in the kitchen and the girl's face just lit up like I can't describe. Stuff like that. If I haven't got their favourite food in the larder and there's time I always make a dart to the supermarket….

…I'm getting excited thinking about it.

They say if a job's worth doing it's worth doing well. In my book there are very few jobs worth doing above fostering, and therefore fostering is worth doing to the very best of one's ability and then some more.

Of course, it helps if you love it.


Monday, June 07, 2021

SWEET SORROWS IN FOSTERING

 Here in our house we're heading towards that day in fostering which is simultaneously heart-wrenching and heart-raising.

Our little one is being lined up to go home.

If ever there was an experience that fits the phrase 'bitter sweet' this is it.

It's happened in our house plenty of times, you'd think we'd have got used to it, but no chance.

First, there's the child's emotions to help and support. As their foster mum, my thing begins after the news is broken to them. It's always been the child's Social Worker who explains what's going to happen and answer any questions. Usually the child accepts the news unemotionally then potters off to brood.

What a maelstrom of emotions for them...

Deep down they long to go home, always. But the fears - sometimes real, sometimes unfounded - are swirling around in their mind. Fear of recrimination, fears that the unhappinesses they remember in full technicolour awaits them.

And always they carry the  sadness that their life up to this point has been so rotten that they feel marked for misery, so why bother to try?

It's normal for the child who has learned that they are headed home to kick off once the social worker says goodbye and drives away.

This is what happened yesterday, a Sunday.

The child had got the news on Friday and had seemed unmoved. Saturday came and went. I didn't raise the subject except to say a couple of times cheerily "We'll really miss you." 

It's a treading on eggshells thing. You'd like to sit down with the child and talk endlessly, but that's only do-able with the older ones. Little ones don't really do conversation, and don't grasp the multi-layered thing of their internalised emotions. So they can boil up a bit.

Sunday morning we were woken early by the TV downstairs. It was blaring. Sounded like a raucous cartoon with yelling and violence. I guessed straight away that little one was making several statements. 

I put on my dressing gown and went downstairs quietly so as to assess, hopefully get a glimpse of the scene in the living room before deciding how to play it.

Maybe the act of moving slowly and methodically gave me a chance to think. First off I realised I was annoyed for being woken at dawn on a Sunday, so the job there was to throw that feeling out, it would only make matters worse.

By the time I got down into the hallway I'd got my act together and pitched in with a watered down version of a technique I learned in a training session about self-harming. We were taught not to get angsty. Be matter of fact. You peer into a child's bedroom and there they are with a pair of sissors and blood streaming from a forearm (shocking image, never happened to me yet, touch wood). The advice was you should say - gently - "Oh dear, poor you. Stay there and I'll get some paper towels and help you clean up." The amazing bit; you DON'T snatch the sissors away. You show them you trust them.

So. I put my head around the door. Child was expecting me and was rolling around, squirming in front of the big TV which had that mad Spongebob doing their thing.

And I said something like;

"Oooh! Spongebob! Love it! I'm going to get a cuppa tea and watch with you. Want breakfast yet? Bit early for a bacon sandwich but it's never too early for Weetabix."

Child stopped writhing around. There was a moment of still. Then child said "Can I have sugar on it?"

I went:

"I'm gonna have a cheeky spoon of honey in my tea, so yeah you can have sugar on it and it'll be our little secret."

He went; "Yea!"

I went into the kitchen and a thought occurred to me, one I've had before many times, it won't go away.

It's a stupid thought, it goes like this;

"Should the foster mum or dad start to distance themselves from the child who is due to leave in order to help the child with the transfer to a home which might have a bit less warmth and emotional comfort than we try to offer in our foster home?"

I always shoo the thought out, noble as its intent might be. It would be plain wrong, not sure I've got it in me anyway. 

You look out for them with as much affection and kindness as you can, from the moment they come through the front door to the moment you watch them lug their bags up the garden path and into the car. A child you've grown close to, almost as close as your own children, is going, and you wll probably never see them again, never know how they go in life.

So you fill up a bit, part sorrow, part hapiness for them and yourself - a job done. 

Then you go upstairs, strip their bed and get it ready and waiting.

And begin hoping that next time your phone goes the words on the screen are;

"Blue Sky"

And a voice says;

"Would you be willing to take a child who…?"


Saturday, May 29, 2021

LIFE/WORK BALANCE

It's nearly June right now. Anyone who visits our house around this time of year could be forgiven for thinking I'm the lousiest homemaker in the world (I'm down there with the worst of them, but June is standout unkempt in our house). The hedge needs trimming, the grass is up past the ankles. The windows are foggy, the larder is half-empty, the shower head needs de-limescaling.

It was a lad called Sacha taught me the value of letting the house to go to seed at the right time.

Sacha had been with us for six or seven weeks when his school broke up for the summer holiday. A few days earlier Sacha had announced his intention to become a tennis pro and wanted to get going fast, no time to lose. 

It seemed like a healthy way to spend a summer so I bought him the racquet he wanted, the right trainers and a tube of new balls. I booked him a lesson from a tennis teacher.

Sacha literally ran out of the school building and hassled me all the way to the park.

I sat on the grass and watched him get more and more frustrated. He was no Roger Federer. That evening he anounced he was through with tennis, he was going to become a pro gamer, so he needed a pro headset.

I explained he'd done his holiday money on the racquet, he'd have to save his pocket money, we calculated it would take to the end of the summer holiday.

The next day he was in a mood.

I told him how great it was to have him home, how much fun it is when he's around (foster children need to hear that and often).

Meanwhile I was trying to come up with a scheme to occupy him. See, in my book, schools don't prepare kids for a sudden and dramatic change in their lives which is extended holidays. Week after week, month after month they sit where they are told, listen and look at whatever they're told to, told where to go, what to do and at what time. Then suddenly…they have to make up their own day, their own week - for six weeks on end. With no training or pre-preparation.

Sacha was so fuddled by being in charge of his own days he'd gone at it with too much enthusiasm. But now he was starting to cool it.

I stocked the fridge with Fanta, the larder with crisps and told him to help himself, don't overdo it please. I put him in charge of the TV remote.

I told him again and again how nice it was to have him around all day, and he relaxed. But I guessed his state of peace wouldn't last.

About 72 hours later the wail went up;

"I'm bored!"

I replied;

"You know that new headset you want for your games…"

"Yes…"

"You remember it'll take to the end of the summer holiday to save enough pocket money for it?"

"Yes…"

"How'd you like to earn enough to buy it by the end of..this week!"

Put like that, it was a no-brainer.

I'd drawn up a list of jobs which included how much he'd earn for each one.

I'd had to rustle up quite a few jobs that didn't really need doing to get him up to the savings he needed for that headset.

Sacha got his headset. I had got to help him stagger the jobs and have free time in between.

Sacha stayed for nearly three years. He never noticed the onset of household degredation that set in in the weeks before he broke up for summer, but I'd learned. I needed enough things that needed doing for him to learn that crucial lesson; how to structure life between work and play, and earn what he needed.

Better than learning to play the tuba or climb plastic rock faces.

Cheaper for me too.





Saturday, May 22, 2021

A THOUSAND AND ONE REASONS TO FOSTER

 Our Blue Sky social worker has been extra-brilliant recently. At the time of writing the world is still reeling under the pandemic. The media are chockfull of items about vaccines, social distancing, masks, fresh air, handwashing…I could go on but you know yourself. There's precius little time for anything else on the news and in the papers.

A lot of important things are not getting the attention they deserve.

And that includes fostering. So allow me 30 seconds to do my bit?

Fostering Fortnight is currently under way. It's a campaign to bring fostering to the front of people's thinking, especially people who would make great foster parents. Fostering Fortnight is run by the charity 'Fostering Network'. They are there for anyone with any dealings with fostering. Right now they are asking to get the right sort of people to consider entering fostering post-lockdown. According to the FN we need an extra 8,600 carers to cope with the needs of children who need care.

I've written before about the ins and outs of getting into fostering, in a nutshell you need to be old enough, have a spare room, and pass a thorough but curiously enjoyable approval process. Seriously, that's about it; if that profile fits you, Blue Sky is a good place to start. Have a look around the Blue Sky site you're on now. Or call them on 0800 035 6498; that's what I did. 

The pandemic has been a massive challenge, and at the time of writing we're not yet in the clear. Covid has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, innumerable crippling illnesses, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Lurking beneath the surface in ALL of us is the hidden mental toll of the fears and anxieties, the stir-crazy of lockdown, the lonliness, the boredom..I could go on. All of us need to keep an eye on our hearts and minds amid so much stress.

Getting into fostering has massive benefits. Obviously the first to benefit is the child. But those doing the fostering benefit too. I can honestly say it's far and away the best thing I've ever done. I only wish I'd done it sooner. The joy of watching a sad child grow cheery, the overwhelming pride when they ask if they can call you 'mum' (not all of them do, of course, but when it happens…boy what a day!). There are a thousand rewards and they're all I think, pretty obvious.

But there's one benefit that doesn't appear on most people's radar.

You can get your own social worker who cares..for YOU.

Yep. A trained, qualified, practising social worker whose job is to nurse you through all your fostering, even help and guide you in dealing with the strain of fostering during a pandemic.

Our Blue Sky social worker is marvellous, they all are. Ours is practically family. She has visited us, where possible, throughout the pandemic. Even if she couldn't come into our home we would go for a socially distanced walk or sit freezing in the garden with our masks on. She stays for 2 to 3 hours making sure WE are okay. Of course she cares about the child, but the way fostering works if you're with an agency is that the child is assigned a local authority social worker who prioritises the child. Leaving the way clear for your own social worker to focus mainly on you.

It's not just visits. We get regular phone calls, Whats App chats and emails. See, they know fostering can be tough at times.

And when the going gets tough, blimey do they don't half get going.

There are a thousand good reasons to start fostering.

A thousand and one if you count having your own social worker.









Wednesday, May 12, 2021

THE IMPORTANCE OF PESTLE AND MORTAR

 Food is always so important to looked-after kids. I always get around to asking them about their history of food and how it worked (or didn't) in the home they'd been removed from. But it's best to make these enquiries without them thinking you're prying.

Food is everything to them. One of my current lot goes furtively to the fridge after I've done a supermarket run to admire the full shelves. 

A girl who stayed with us way back told us that no food had ever been cooked in their house. Unbelievable as it sounds, their oven had never been used. She had sometimes, for breakfast, warmed up last night's leftover KFC, still in it's carton, in their microwave. That was the extent of their food preparation.

I remember winning that girl round one lunchtime by laying out a full kitchen table with food; bowls of hot beans, sausages, sandwiches, crisps, nuts, fruit, salad, breakfast cereal…just about everything from the larder. I'll never forget her face as she said; "I didn't know there was that much food in the world". It had been my way of telling her she would not want while she was in our home. I'm not saying it made her happier exactly, that would have run deeper. But she became a little less anxious.

I try to take care to make food some sort of celebration. We don't say grace, but I sometimes jazz the food up - one day I made fresh pasta sauce with cooked-down tomatoes and onion, but the verdict was that my 2 hour effort wasn't nearly as nice as Dolmio.

The kitchen is a special place in most homes, but definitely in a foster home, let me tell you something slightly interesting.

I own a pestle and mortar. 

(I did say "slightly interesting")

It's a big one, and rather fancy. You can't help but notice it. The reason it's slightly interesting is this: it's useful for fostering.

I've only used it for cooking once, when a peppered steak recipe I was doing as a special request called for so much cracked pepper I thought it would take all afternoon using the pepper mill.

It turned out the pestle and mortar was useless, or maybe I wasn't any good at it. Or maybe the batteries had run out. 

It now sits on the breakfast bar in the kitchen where it is a) an ornament b) a bowl for random things such as keys we don't know what to, paper clips, fuses etc.

It's third use is the big one. It's a conversation piece. See, new foster children always ask:

"Wassatt?"

I explain, and we get talking about food in their home, and they never realise I'm doing research.

I tell them I never use it and they ask why I've got one.

I tell them the story; some friends of ours were visiting and we started joking about posh TV chefs and their pestle and mortars. We ended up wondering which was which, whether the bit you bash with is the pestle or the mortar. The whole thing became a bit of a joke among us, such that for one wedding anniversary they bought us a really naff pestle and mortar.

Without them or us having the slightest inkling what a useful kitchen gadget it would turn out to be.

For fostering. 

Definitely not for cooking.



Friday, May 07, 2021

ALWAYS SOMETHING NEW AROUND THE CORNER

 When you begin in fostering, especially the first night of your first foster child in your home, it's a little piece of your life you never forget.

My first foster child was a respite case, he stayed two nights and was gone. Ran me ragged Tyrone did, but that was mainly because I hadn't any experience. It was all new and a bit hair-raising. No getting away from it; you only truly know what fostering is like once you're doing it. 

I learned more in that 48 hours than any other experience I've had.

Our second foster child was a longer stay; Stacey was due to be with us until his family were sorted and that was expected to be months rather than weeks. The second child was SO much easier than the first, because I'd learned so much from the first one.

First up; I'd learned fostering is no massive big deal. Meaning the responsibilities are real, but don't let them get out of hand in your head.

One does one's best for the child but one isn't a miracle worker, the very best you can do for many is help them feel safe and secure, feed them and try to help them feel their own bedroom is their own.

If you want to therapise them to feel happier or whatever, good luck. I've done a good lot of it in my time, I think with some success, but it has to be right for the child, and no-one has a magic wand that scares away terrible memories or eliminates fear and sadness.

As for anger, they sometimes boil over and when they do the only way to put out the fire is with patenience.

So, this second foster child, the one that nailed fostering for me:

Stacey was a nine year-old boy who looked about six. Shy, petrified and without an ounce of self-esteem. His parents were a mother who was his real mother and a real narcissist and a father who almost certainly wasn't his real father. The man seemed to believe the boy was some sort of insult to the image he had of himself as the only man the mother could ever have admired, so the child was on the recieving end of a harsh tongue and worse, treatment which the father used to feel made him the man of the house.

Stacey came down for our evening meal with everyone but on day two he began crying at the table and couldn't eat; I figured maybe family mealtime was a trigger, so day three I gave him his meal in the living room so he could eat alone and watch cartoons. He ate up, so that became the routine until he settled in.

It's not what we foster carers are advised to do, right there. Social Workers tell us the foster child should be at the table with the family, and that's the best thing ninety-nine times out of a hundred. But in fostering you have to be flexible and use your gut sometimes. 

The longer a child stays the better you get to know them, obviously.  And the better you know them the more they trust you and the more you can help them. Stacey, for example, saw himself as a loser in life. So I set out to teach him he could win. 

I played a card game with him called Palmonism. It's the one where you put out all the cards face down and players take it in turns to turn over two. If the cards match the player gets to keep them. 

It's a great game for letting the child win and experience success - and victory over an adult.

Bedtime was preceded by a "Stacey Story". This was a ten minute story which I made up as I went along in which the hero was Stacey. Stacey saved the day every time. Sometimes he climbed up a tree to rescue a kitten when the fire-fighters' ladder wouldn't reach. Another time he rescued a little girl whose airbed had been swept out on a river by emptying a wheelie bin and using it as a boat. Often the heroism was more low-key such as the time he volunteered to go without a sausage for tea because silly mum had dropped some on the floor and there weren't enough to go round. Stacey came to the rescue, agreeing to have a chocolate roll on the plate his chips and making everyone smile by pouring ketchup in it and pretending it was a sausage.

Sure, you grow into fostering. But you must never think you know all there is to know, because just when you think you've seen it all, along comes the next child...

Monday, April 26, 2021

IS THERE A HEAVEN?

 In all my years of fostering one particularly poignant moment was when a tiny child asked me:

"Will you come and find me in Heaven because obviously I won't know anyone there."

The child was parentless, family-less, unfriended. 

Child had nobody on planet earth, until enter foster mum.

That memory is not alone, I could offload hundreds of scintillatingly powerful flashbulb memories of fostering, never mind the memories yet to come.

Interesting question, though… is there a Heaven?

Yes. Well, maybe.

I'm sitting at our kitchen table tapping away at my laptop. It's 8.05am on a Monday morning. I'm still in my dressing gown, the house is empty, just me and the dog who is flat out, recovering from the maelstrom of getting everyone off to school and work. 

I have a mug of tea to the left of the laptop, and to the right a sausage and brown sauce sandwich. 

I earmarked the sausages when I did Sunday breakfast for a housefull 24 hours ago, and when I put the two spare bangers back in the fridge I thought to myself "Those are mine." And so they are.

I used to hate Monday mornings when I was at school.

And when I worked.

In fostering they are Heaven.

Fostering can be long days every day of the week. But Saturdays and Sundays are 48 hour days. 

From daybreak on a Saturday morning you're it; you have other people's children in your care, children who have weathered a week of school. A week of sitting still, being told what to do and being told to be quiet. 

Weekends are freedom for all children, but for looked after children weekends can be a right old high.

Yesterday our eldest foster child had a Sunday meltdown. 

Meltdowns happen. Don't go into fostering thinking it's a bed of roses, you have to have a bit of backbone at times to go along with a good heart and mind.

Eldest was triggered by nothing we could pinpoint, the likeliest cause being a build-up of awareness of all the injustices and bad luck that had come their way down the years through no fault of the child.

It would make me mad, you'd have to be on Seratonin not to get het up too. 

So the child let loose and aimed the frustration at us, because we are the only people the child trusts could take it and still be there for the child.

Child was furious, cantankerous - even threw something (a magazine, and not in anyone's direction).

It was a draining morning for us, and we felt bruised for the rest of the day. We soaked it all up, never confronted, maintained all the de-escalation techniques Blue Sky train us in.

For the child though the outlet was just what was needed.

Child finished the rant and galloped upstairs slamming the bedroom door behind.

An hour later the previously frantic child emerged, all smiles and cheer; brought down and washed up the plates that had gathered in the bedroom and…

…asked if there were any jobs needed doing.

Okay, the child, wanted paying, but no-one, not even Karl Marx himself would see the child's capitalism as anything but gilded. Child was back.

So. Where and what is Heaven?

Right here, right now. It doesn't get any better than this;

Here I sit with another day of jobs ahead but with a few moments to myself, moments to reflect and enjoy an important job done to the best of one's ability.

If anyone wants come and find me in Heaven, they can pull up a chair at my kitchen table right now and have half of my sausage and brown sauce sandwich. 

But be warned.

It has a splash of Tabasco to get one going...



Tuesday, April 20, 2021

THE INTERNET? IT'S FANTASTIC!

 Children coming into care nowadays come into a home which contains an additional unseen foster parent. If the foster parents are partners there are three foster parents in the home. If the carer is single there are two parents in the home.

The add-on parent figure is the internet. 

By 'parent figure' I mean influencer, a term that used to be 'role model' in the good old days.

The internet has become a surrogate adult role figure. Back when I was little the potential surrogate parent figure was our favourite teacher, or maybe a TV figure or a pop star.

Not long ago a child's underdstanding of adults other than their mum and dad was limited to a small group of grown-up outsiders, but now they can hand-pick from millions of potential role models. Or, if you're not careful, be hand-picked.

On the whole, although ocassional problems happen, it's a great thing.

They can watch and listen to adults from all walks of life and find out who they like. Perhaps more important they can choose friends from any number of people of their own age.

One of my current trio of foster kids is a very particular child, someone who would have struggled to find a friendship group if the child's choice had been confined to schoolmates, neighbouring children or children of family members. That algorhythm was the total extent of potential friends for all children until recently.

Now, they have a world-full, but how do they pick and choose?

Easy, the internet narrows it down for them, narrows it down for all of us, actually.

It brings people with similarites together. Some folk will rush to the negative there, and there are potentiual pitfalls. But the positives don't get enough reporting, maybe because the positives don't result in headline-grabbing misdemeanors such as the Washington riots, they result in happy contented young people, relieved that they aren't the only one with that viewpoint, those likes and dislikes or that problem, whatever it might be.

Five years ago, on this blog, I posted a piece entitled "The Noise of.." about how us foster parents have to be half awake through the night especially when a foster child is anxious.

In the post I mentioned that I had begun using honey instead of sugar in my early morning cup of tea.

Five years later - three hours ago - I got this response, proving that the internet's trawling of information and it's dedication to bring people with what it thinks is shared interest is alive and well, if sometimes off key.

Awaiting moderation

Agriculture commented on "THE NOISE OF FOSTERING"

3 hours ago
Beekeeping (or apiculture) is the maintenance of bee colonies, commonlyin man-made hives, by humans. Most such bees are honey bee hive in the genus Apis, but other honey-producing bees such as Melipona stingless bees are also kept.



Monday, April 12, 2021

THE FULL ENGLISH

 Middle child not feeling too well come mid-morning, or maybe just a case of needing a metaphorical hug, so I got child settled on the sofa, under a duvet, and watching cartoons. Child had only nibbled at a bit of toast for breakfast, so I offered a full English, child bit my hand off;

"Oooo pleeeeease!"

"Full English". Aka "A Fry Up". Not to be confused with the "Ulster Fry" which the Northern Irish consider superior, but which is in fact exactly the same, so it is indeed to be confused. A "Full English" consists of anything that can be fried in a frying pan (a skillet to Americans). So. It can be bacon and eggs, sausages, baked beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, fried bread. If you like your hash browns, which Americans do, go for 'em. Some like black pudding (blood pudding to Americans) that's ok too. 

Not all of the above items at once, just any four or five of them.

So. To work.

Anyone who's watched "Four In A Bed" - a UK TV competition show about bed and breakfast (B+B) businesses where they take it in turns to cook each other breakfast - anyone who's watched that show knows the palaver of cooking a full English, only for hyper-critical B+Bers to tear each other's plateloads apart.

Well the whinging criticism of those 'professional' moaners would not amount to a hill of beans compared to how much criticism you'll get from a looked after if it's less than absolutely yea. Every detail and intricacy goes into the cooking of a full English for a looked-after child if you care.

And care we do…and I love it.

Preparation; all the ingredients out of the fridge first. Oven turned on to warm, put a plate in.

First, the bacon: Two rashers of unsmoked back with every single tiny bit of white fat removed. It goes into a frying pan which has been glazed with as little vegetable oil as can be coaxed across the surface, on a moderate to low heat so that the bacon doesn't get ahead of the rest.

Second….aaaaggghhh! I go to the larder and remember that I used up our last tin of baked beans on the jacket potatoes two nights ago. Go to plan B…

Second becomes... chips! Fries to be precise. They're such a crowd pleaser the child might not notice the lack of beans. The joy and decadence of French fries of a mid-morning is up there with Barack Obama's secret morning cigarette in the White House. To tart them up to their very best I shallow fry them in vegetable oil to get them that bit crispy - you don't get crisp if you oven bake them, you get floppy.

Third, a small tomato cut in half across its equator and lowered flat side down onto the pan next to the bacon.

Fourth; the acid test. The fried egg. I saw on TV Raymond Blanc telling the camera that if he was auditioning chefs for one of his restaurants he'd ask them to fry an egg. Some did it with a cavalier flourish, y'know, breaking the egg with one hand, all that flashy stuff. Then swirling it out onto the plate. They didn't get hired. Raymond "Voila" Blanc hired the kid who inspected each egg in its shell, who tested the heat of the oil by holding his hand above it and so on.

Same care goes into frying an egg for a looked after.

I use a separate frying pan with vegetable oil about the depth of the thickness of two pound coins. Then add the egg from as low a height as possible. Next is the tricky bit; getting the yolk to set in the exact centre of the white, it means waiting 'til the white has begun to set and lifting the pan and angling it so the yolk moves where you want it but the white stays still.

Gentle heat for the egg too. The fries are done, out they come, pat the oil off with kitchen roll, wrap loosely in foil and into the warm oven.

The bacon is coming on. Flip and, using same sheet of kitchen roll to gently wipe off the unappetising white stuff. I'm told it's only water, but no self-respecting looked after child would do anything but turn up their nose, quite right too.

Flip the tomato halves.

The egg is done underneath, the yolk still uncooked. Spoon some hot oil that had fried the chips onto the yolk to speed it up.  Using spatula, trim off the thin egg white that always oozes outsideways making a funny shape. Fried egg now done and perfect shape.

Time to plate up. This bit is critical.

First the egg, carefully tranferred so it lies across one quarter of the warm plate. Then the fries so they lie parallel to each other and opposite the egg. The two rashers of bacon go on next, slightly overlapping at a corner like a pair of playing cards, then the tomato, flat sides up.

Seasoning. Vinegar first, on the fries. Then salt on the toms and the fries (it is a cardinal sin of sins to put the salt on chips first, the arrival of vinegar washes it off).

A clean and polished knife (one with serrations to make it easier to cut the bacon) and fork…and we're nearly there.

All but for the final, and really, really important bit.

A helping of tomato sauce. 

The reason it's so important is not it's brand, which helps, nor that the helping is the right size (about 3/4 of a tablespoon). No, the importance lies in finding the right…

…location on the plate.

Quick story; when the first computer was flown to the UK from the USA it jammed and they had to fly an expert over from New York to see what was wrong. He took a look at the computer, which was the size of a removal truck, and asked for a piece of chalk. He drew a cross on the side of the computer and said "That's where your problem is". They opened it up and he was right. As he headed back to the airport they reminded him to send them an invoice. When the invoice arrived it was for…$10,000 dollars! They deciced to ask him to itemise his bill and he sent them the following; "To drawing a cross on the side of the computer: $1. To knowing where to draw the cross: $9,999."

Well it's just as big a deal to get the placing of the dollop of ketchup in the right spot. Some use the intuition of the Force. Not me. The tomato sauce goes on the edge of the plate with the chips on one side and the bacon on the other. These are the two items on the plate that need ketchup. The egg has its own moisture in the runniness of the perfectly fried yolk. And tomatoes don't need tomato sauce, obviously.

This done I take it in, and over the din of Homer Simpson I get a genuine "Thanks".

Not only that, when I'm not looking, the child clears up the plate and cutlery and leaves them in the sink. Result!

And. Not only that, there's more. Later same day the child has a wobbly about a Microsoft Account disabling itself on his PC which affects his school work. I keep my cool and we work out a solution based on the fact it's a shared account with the school so the problem probably originates at their end.

I get a text from child about an hour later saying problem solved.

Also saying the most beautiful word I've ever, ever seen on a phone screen.

He ended the message with a word the child has never, never used before; One word;

"Sorry".

Did the sorry have anything to do with the meticulously cooked full English? I reckon maybe it was in there. But most of all, the child is heading in the right direction.

And that means the world in fostering.

That...and a meticulously fried fry-up.




Saturday, April 10, 2021

COKE ISN'T ALWAYS COKE...

 Kennard was eleven when he came to us. In fostering you normally don't know how long you'll have a child for, or what you're going to get in return for your efforts.

You try to give something to the children and somehow they give something back, however long or short their stay.

In our home we work on the basis the placement might be for a long time, but always we're working towards getting them ready to go home. It's a what they call a dichotomy right there I suppose, but in practical terms it goes like this;

The instant they walk through our door and into our home for the first time they are family.

And we care about them so much that we want to help them go away; to their real home.

Yeah, it's a weird one, but no-one in fostering will tell you fostering is a straightforward thing.

So; Kennard…

 Eleven years old. Mum white British, Dad second generation Caribbean. I'm quoting the information we got at the time, if in a hundred years from now someone reads this and thinks I'm somehow out of order even saying it, it's how it was back in 2021.

Kennard's dad is in prison. Kennard loves and worships his dad. Kennard's mum is a wreck. Kennard loves and worships his mum.

So you have a situation in your own home like this; it's teatime and you sit down with your partner and your own kids and a foster child. The foster child is shy and quiet at first but soon discovers that he has a credential; he's more world-wise than anyone else at the table. When I say 'world-wise' I guess I mean 'street-wise'.

The foster child's version of the "my dad is tougher than your dad" thing is more like "my dad knows more about crack than your dad".

Yet Kennard was never more buzzed up than by the fact we kept cans of fizzy drinks in the fridge that they had to ask for…but we usually said yes. Fanta was Kennard's big one, we also kept a few tins of Coca Cola.

So. You find yourself at your own dining table with your own children listening to an eleven year old who you have never heard of until a week ago explaining to everyone how you cook up a batch. Or something like that. I wasn't really listening I was wondering what effect Kennard's world weariness would have on our kids, my partner and me.

Make no mistake, this is what fostering sometimes brings into your home; the stark reality of an existence you've striven to protect yourself and your loved ones from.

But. Life is a two way street. Kennard left us after nine weeks. His mum had sobered up enough and the person in her life who was a danger to Kennard had got the message.

Kennard left us having learned how to bake brownies and loving Spongebob Squarepants more than .. oh I won't bother you with the TV he'd been milked on. 

Kennard left us having picked up some tinges of normalcy. I wouldn't claim he had a song in his heart, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he's behind bars or even underground. 

But Kennard asked if he could keep the Teddy Bear we gave him on his first night.

Well, to be precise, he nicked it.

And in return, my family all know where to go to score coke...and how to make a snowball.

Exchange is no robbery...