You don't love these foster children when they arrive. Of course you love them in the abstract in the way that you love kids or babies in general. You have something of a maternal instinct towards them. You care, of course, but there hasn't been that period of delicious anticipation, no scan pictures to pore over, no marvelling over their fluttering kicks deep inside your body.
Instead there are days and sometimes only hours of notice before a tiny stranger arrives in your home, to sleep in a cot that has been slept in so many times before. You make adjustments to your family life, rediscover the crushing tiredness, restock the nappy drawer and dig out the bottles and the tiny clothes.
And then you set out on the purposeful, mindful task of creating attachment where none exists. You remind yourself to gaze into this baby's face, stroke her skin, rock her, caress her, sing to her and talk to her. You keep at it every day because you know it'll make all the difference and, over time, it ceases to be conscious and becomes natural and instinctive. And the whole time you're doing it, you're thinking of her future, and those undiscovered people who will one day be her parents. You're doing it for her, and for them.
A few weeks in and some social worker makes a crack about whether you're going to keep this one like you did with the other one. Your resolve stiffens. You don't want to be the foster carer that can't stop adopting the babies. You remind yourself of the prospective adopters somewhere out there, anxiously working their way through approvals, hoping and dreaming.
But somewhere along the line, that slow-burning fuse bursts forth into an explosion of love so strong that it all but takes your breath. From then on you're looking for reasons not to keep her. It's the wrong time, so soon after adopting your son. There are financial considerations. You had said you would adopt an older child. It's not what you planned. It's not why you came into fostering. And always, always there are the adopters, like shadowy figures in an indistinct future.
You think about them all the time. You take photos of their future child and mount them into a growing scrapbook. You make note of baby's milestones and achievements and look forward to the day when you'll be able to proudly tell them that their little one was holding her head before two months, could sit sturdy at six months, attacked every meal with relish the moment weaning began.
You take your bright-burning love and bend it towards securing the future this child deserves. When the phone rings, you long for news of 'the ones'. You are thrilled when baby is mobbed at the activity day. You watch your emails obsessively for news.
But the weeks and months go by and nothing happens. It seems unthinkable that this wonderful gift of a child who has captured the hearts of all your family and friends has not been snatched up at the first opportunity. You let your mind wander.
And then one day, it wanders into a dangerous place. It might be a small thing. Maybe that gorgeous frock you saw in the sales that was only available a couple of sizes too big. Maybe the way she laughed so joyously when your son danced for her. Maybe one time too often that somebody in a supermarket assumed she was yours. Whatever. For one dangerous moment you allow yourself to think "What if . . . ?"
What if nobody wants her because she's supposed to stay here? What if you never love like this again? What if she's meant to be yours? Why don't you just ask . . . it couldn't hurt to ask.
And suddenly all your reasons for not keeping her blow away like so much dust. Images of a shared future flood in and consume all your good intentions. You want her and you don't care about anything else any more.
That's the day you find out that the social worker has done the shortlisting and has scheduled a visit to the top picks and you realise that your window of opportunity passed a long time ago when you didn't know how it would be. Now you do know, it's too late.
You've met the couple at the top of the list. Your shadowy adopters now have a face and a history and hopes and dreams and you're not going to trample all over that. You bathe baby, dry her and dress her and put her to bed and you know that you'll do what you have to do.
Sometimes they'll ask you how you can give them up. Sometimes it's only because you have no choice.