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It's not all dumping grounds and bog-offs: an insight into being part of a fostering family

'So you're financially stable and happily married, with four lovely daughters and a beautiful home... why on earth would you want to foster?'

These words were actually said to my parents thirteen years ago when they decided to dedicate part of their lives to caring for vulnerable children. I'm not sure if this person was genuinely curious, or if they just didn't understand, but having a stable and secure family actually gave us every reason to be foster carers. They seemed to think that inviting a potentially emotionally unstable child into our home would upset the family dynamic and ruin something great, but I'm here to tell you that the opposite was true.

My family fostered children for around eight years, and throughout that time seven different foster children joined us (not all at once, but sometimes overlapping), so it's safe to say that I am a family-oriented person. We looked after children ranging from babies to 13-year-olds and discovered a lot about how lucky anyone should feel to have a stable family, considering what can go on behind closed doors.

A shout-out to Jacqueline Wilson

One of the biggest things I've noticed as I've grown up is that a surprising amount of people have very limited knowledge about the care system in the UK. Since coming to university and needing to find anything remotely interesting I can say about myself, I've discovered that whenever I mention fostering I tend to get the same response from whoever I'm speaking to: 'oh yeah, like in Tracy Beaker'.

While it can be frustrating having to explain how this is a bit of a misrepresentation and fostering can actually be very different from the whole 'dumping ground' care home system, there's something to be said for the fact that if the character of Tracy Beaker didn't exist, I doubt that many young people would even be aware of what fostering was.

It's important to be conscious of the fact that a comfortable life and a secure family are not to be taken for granted. 'The Story of Tracy Beaker', alongside many of Jacqueline Wilson's other books, has done an amazing job of reminding young people of that fact.

However, everyone's experience as a foster child or carer is completely different, and in most cases nothing like the life of Tracy Beaker.

Our experience with each foster child was totally unique, and year to year our family could differ from itself as much as it does from any other family in the world. The challenges we faced ranged from caring for babies with withdrawal symptoms to teaching a child how to send himself to sleep, and I quickly found myself adjusting to the fact that every time we took a foster child into our home it would be a completely new and different experience.

We never had a child for more than two years, as we were generally the carers that looked after them until a legal decision was made about their long-term guardianship, but the one challenge that was the same every time was the process of saying goodbye.

It was always the hardest part, as such strong bonds are formed when you treat someone like family, but it helped to know that every time we handed them over they were going to a loving home. We have stayed in touch with many of our foster children's new parents/carers, as is recommended, and we have been able to watch them grow into stronger and happier individuals.

Our family was constantly changing —every year it was different, but every year it felt as wholesome and complete as the last.

This is something that a lot of people don't understand—when you have a foster child, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is treating them as an addition to the family, rather than a part of it. Most of these children and babies haven't been part of a secure and loving home, and so what is vital is that they know they are wanted and are fully embraced into the family.

What fostering has done for us

It can't be denied that fostering does good in so many children's lives, and it affects the carers almost as much as the children themselves. Not only is it rewarding knowing and seeing the difference we have made, but being foster carers has done a world of good for us as individuals and as a family.

We are an extroverted family—which I feel is a direct result from the need for us to be open and welcoming to any child that entered our home. We get our energy from being around each other and our friends, and because of this my sisters and I have grown to be sociable, outgoing people. Of course, there are drawbacks; we are all very talkative and dinner table conversations can often escalate in both volume and intensity to a terrifying extent. However, our openness and honesty as a result of years of trying to help children open up have given us all a strong support network in each other—there aren't many problems I have which don't result in me somehow leaning on a sister or parent.

The biggest thing, however, is empathy—a quality that I feel is underestimated in importance. I found it frustrating as a child when I was upset with someone at school and my mum would somehow make me feel sorry for them, but the truth is most people's problems are minuscule in comparison to the rest of the world, and there's often another side to the story. Finding out that two sisters had tried to run away from their home on the same Christmas day that I was sat opening presents and eating food really put things in perspective for me. I probably complained about something minor that day and really I had no idea of how lucky I was.

Since finding that out, I have spent a lot of my time trying my hardest to understand the other side of the story and help others where I can. Granted, I am not perfect, but there is something to be said about the way in which fostering can change your perspective on things. I will definitely be fostering at some point in my adult life—it has its challenges, but the good it does for these children really is incalculable, and it's an experience that I will keep with me forever.