Since I've been involved in fostering and adoption, I've found that I'm never short of conversation with strangers. As soon as I mention what I'm doing, most people either start asking me lots of questions, fascinated by the whole thing, or start telling me about their friend/aunty/second-cousin-twice-removed who is also a foster carer or adopter.
I like this. I'm not great at chit chat so having a ready topic of conversation always at hand relieves me of the need to create conversation around whatever's in the charts (I don't know), what I'm doing this weekend (the same as every other weekend - nothing!) or what's happening in the latest soap, reality show or other TV fad (struggling to care at the best of times).
On the other hand, it does mean that I get to listen to a lot of, often ill-informed, opinions about fostering and adoption, mostly fed by some of the dreadful reporting we see in the news media. Most of the time I hem and haw and try to avoid getting into a heated political debate - not that I mind such conversations, but there really is a time and a place!
A couple of weeks ago I heard a great one. I had been bought a voucher for a local beautician's as a gift. Never having really been into such a place before, it was with some trepidation that I turned up for my hot parrafin wax hand treatment and manicure. Just at the point at which my hands were immobilised and there was no possibility of escape, the beautician informed me that she thought it was awful that foster carers get paid so much money and she thought it was much better in [unspecified foreign country] where apparently everyone only gets the bare minimum of expenses and is really doing it for the love of the children, and not as a job.
Of course I didn't say that as I felt rather at the mercy of the woman with a vat of hot wax and several sharp and pointy implements with which she was preparing to attack my cuticles.
I won't deny that, as a Level 3 carer fostering two children, we live comfortably on the expenses we receive. And that's a relief as I'm not allowed to have any other job, not even part time, so we completely rely on what the LA provide for us.
And that's as it should be. These children need me all of the time, not just when I'm home from work in the evening. Their lives are disrupted enough without the added stress of spending time in daycare and being passed around from one sitter to another. And why shouldn't they have everything that other children have? They've been denied enough already, so why should they have to scrimp on clothes, treats and activities?
We don't live an extravagant life by any means, but both my boys have their feet measured at Clarks every three months, and shoes bought for them if they have grown half a size. Sometimes we get lucky and hit the sales, but if we don't, then I'm spending upwards of £60 on two pairs of shoes. I know that cheaper shoes are available elsewhere, but I want my boys to have properly-fitting shoes that are going to support their growing feet properly. I won't take any chances, especially not with NB who needs supportive boots and orthotic inserts.
Once a week, we go to a gymnastics class for toddlers. Last week I had to renew our membership and it was over £80 for the next three months. Soon, NB will start swimming class and my first payment will be nearly £50. We do these activities because NB needs to strengthen his muscles and improve his balance and co-ordination in order to cope with a medical condition.
And that's not to mention the clothes, food, mortgage and other costs of maintaining a home and looking after a family. My gas and electricity bill is nearly 3 times what it used to be before I had children in my home. I didn't need the heating on so much when I was out at work all day, but now the boiler (not to mention the washing machine and tumble dryer!) gets a real work out most days.
Of course, most of this is only what all families have to deal with, but it does all need to be paid for. If fostering didn't enable me to bring home the bacon, then I wouldn't be able to do it - simple as. And a lot of other people would be in the same boat as I am - cue endless news stories about looked-after children languishing in inappropriate care settings because there aren't enough foster carers.
As for foster caring not being viewed as a job, well, I'm sorry, but it is a job. I fill in paperwork, attend meetings, receive training and have goals to achieve. I take my professional development extremely seriously, and seek to employ best practice in a range of challenging and varied situations. Anyone thinking that foster caring is basically babysitting needs to get a reality check.
And it's a job with very few of the traditional benefits. I'm not actually employed by the LA, so there are no pension provisions, and not even any NI contributions - I have to sort that myself, like any other self-employed person.
Oh, and did I mention the working hours? It would be interesting to deduct all the childcare-related expenses from the payments I receive and then divide the remainder by the number of hours I work each week (168, if you were wondering), and see what I'm actually making!
Please don't think I'm complaining. As I said earlier, we get along fine with the money we have. I can go to the supermarket and not worry about buying plenty of fresh meat, fruit and vegetables, I can get the boys new clothes and shoes and pay for their activities without worrying, and I don't need to go into a financial panic if something breaks down in the house and needs repairing.
This means that I can focus all of my attention on the boys, who, by the way, I love very much indeed!