Maggie & Mike's Story
Fostering: “You can't change the whole world, but you can change the whole world for one person”
Maggie and Mike decided to start fostering Reading children some 14 years ago. Since then at least 50 children have been part of their lives – some for a few days, others for several years. For both of them, it’s a full time job that they describe as “often challenging… but always immensely satisfying”.
It’s feeding time for the baby in Maggie’s arms, a little boy aged just seven months and who has been with the couple since he left hospital.
“We do have a lot of babies with us,” she says, “and when we first applied, we did ask if we could just have the younger ones – but that’s not always possible as children of any age require looking after. And so we have children aged up to 11 staying– and every single one is precious.
“We also have the occasional parent and child placement. That can be demanding but very rewarding as you are potentially helping a mother, and sometimes the father, work through a tricky period in their life and keep their child.”
The couple’s story began some 14 years ago when redundancy loomed for Maggie after her employers decided to close their Reading base. “My cousin had been fostering for some time and I really liked the idea. As she put it: ‘You can't change the whole world, but you can change the whole world for one person’.
“We only had one son living with us by then, so we had room. Mike was very supportive – and that is essential. If you are a couple, fostering will only really work if both of you are committed. Mike continued to work full time initially and has, in recent years, taken early retirement, so he now plays a big part too… although if I’m honest I do seem to be the one to get up most often at night!”
Over the last 14 years a steady stream of young children have found a stable base at their home – some for just a day or two, some for a few months, while others have stayed for several years. “We have had quite a few siblings with us, and when that happens it’s really good having Mike around,” says Maggie.
“There will be occasions when you have to make compromises with your time and commitments – again, if those closest to you are supportive it’s a big advantage.
“What has been really wonderful is how well our children, and now our grandchildren, have made the children we foster part of their lives too. Our young granddaughters especially really love playing with the little ones!”
Like many foster carers, Maggie and Mike are “empty nesters” – people whose own children have left home. “We’re both in our early 60s now, and you do get people asking if we find it tiring,” says Maggie. “We’re lucky in that we are both fairly energetic, but because we’ve never stopped doing it, it doesn't seem too much.
“Mike does a lot of work helping to recruit new carers, giving talks and so on, and I have just been appointed to sit on a training panel. We're delighted to pass on what we’ve learned. And there really is a lot to learn, which is one of the great things about being a foster carer: you’re often dealing with delicate family matters for instance, which can open your eyes on the world, so you’re always adding to your experience and skills.
“The team at Reading Borough Council provides lots of support in this direction – training, mentoring and so on… and there is always someone to talk to.”
And the hardest part? “Saying goodbye to a child is never easy,” Maggie admits, “but if they are going to be adopted, you have the opportunity to work with the new family so that the child is happy to transition to them. And you always know that you've been an important stepping stone in that young person’s life.
“So yes, it can be enormously challenging sometimes…but it is always immensely satisfying. I’m delighted that we made the decision to foster.”
“When the time was right for my own children, I became a foster carer for Reading Borough Council”
When Reading Borough Council look to place a child in foster care, having other children in the house can often be a considerable advantage. But concern about how fostering might impact on their own children can sometimes hold people back from fostering. Speaking from her own experience, local mum Marion says, “If your own children are ready, go for it”.
Marion had long harboured the dream of being a foster carer, but in her own words “I had to wait until the right time”.
“That point,” she says, “was reached when I felt that my two daughters were old enough to have a proper say in the decision, fully able to understand what was involved, and ready to share their home – and to share me.
“When I did ask them, they were all for it… and it turned out to be one of the best things I have ever done - for them as well as myself.”
Marion’s fostering career began eight years ago, when her children were 13 and 19. “I had worked as a nursery nurse and had recently become a single parent. Becoming a foster carer allowed me to be at home for my daughters.
“My eldest daughter actually attended some of the courses with me when I applied, so she was very involved in the application and training process. Our first foster child was seven when she arrived, and originally it was only intended that she would stay for a week – but she was with us for over a year.
“It was quite a learning curve for us all, but my daughters adapted well – it actually helped my youngest to cope when her big sister left home as she had company. And while there were inevitably some up and down moments, my daughter could also see just what a positive experience it was for the girl we fostered.
“I learned a lot, especially as I attended quite a few courses to improve my understanding of children’s behaviours. One of the really important lessons early on was to recognize that if a child smiles at you when they’re being told off it isn’t necessarily them trying to wind you up… it’s simply their response to try and defuse a situation.”
The second child who came into Marion’s home was nine when she arrived five years ago. “She was a quiet little thing at first, and not always prepared to speak up for herself or share her views. That’s certainly all changed… which shows how far she has come! She even talks at training sessions for prospective foster carers, which is amazingly helpful for them – and for her.”
Now that her youngest daughter is at University, and there is another spare room, Marion is in a position to offer a home to an additional child aged five and over. “They’ll be coming into a busy house filled with other children, as my eldest girl’s two children are often here too!”
And Marion’s advice to prospective foster carers? “Do it! You may have some concerns about certain aspects and perhaps around how you will cope, but Reading provide lots of training courses to give you the tools you need to deal with the situations that crop up. You can reach out to your Supervising Social Worker, and there is a very good network of foster carers there to give you their advice too.
“It has been one of the best things I’ve ever done – my own daughters have been hugely supportive all the way through, it’s given them a sense of achievement… and I know that they are more understanding people as a result.
“On top of that you know you are making a huge difference to a young child’s life, and helping to equip them for what lies ahead.”
“You’re the best mum I’ve ever had”
One of the most rewarding yet challenging roles in fostering is caring for teenagers who have often come from really difficult circumstances, and which can show in the way they present themselves. This would ideally call for foster carers who have relevant experience – which may include working with this age group in a professional capacity or as a parent.
This is how one such Reading carer has used her experience to good use.
Naomi, a teacher by profession, was inspired to foster when she worked in a young offenders’ institute.
“I was working with children between the ages of 15 and 18, most of whom had been living in care for all or much of their lives. I could see that they were very bright, but unable to break out of the cycle they were in. They were stuck in the system and there was a strong chance they would stay that way.
“They just needed help – and I felt that I could give that.
“A friend of mine was a social worker who also provided respite care for children in this situation, so I had a good idea what was involved. I talked it through with my husband, who was 100% behind me doing it, and we applied to foster for Reading Borough Council.”
Since making that decision, some six years ago, Naomi has cared for a succession of children and fostering is now a full time role for her. “The longest stay was 16 months, but others have been shorter,” she says. While most of those have been teenagers, she has had one eight year old staying as an emergency placement.
“Some of what you are doing is teaching them boundaries, and that can sometimes be challenging as they might not have had those before. They are often coming from a difficult place – some have drug issues, or have been in trouble with the police. Others can go missing.
“My job is to try and show them what a stable, family life can be like. Something they might not have had before. And now and again you get a real breakthrough, and you do get some wonderful feedback.
“One girl told me that: ‘Well, if I’m going to have a place where I stay for ever, it will be here’.
“Another wrote to me after she left and said that I was ‘the best mum she’d ever had’.
“Some do keep in touch, so you see their progress, and several have actually kept in contact with my children.”
Naomi’s own children have all left home now, but her youngest was still there when the first foster child arrived. “They have all been very supportive,” she says.
And her advice for anyone thinking of becoming a foster carer? “Recognise that it can be tiring and even stressful at times, and always remember that your own wellbeing matters too, so make space for yourself!
“But you can make a difference – so if you think it might be for you, find out more.”