Contributor: Sorley McDale
Presumably thousands of fostering households around the UK held New Year parties. When you think about New Year parties you think about lots of people, noise, revelry, blaring music, buffet meals and overly enthusiastic felicitations to each other and maybe people who we would either chose to ignore at any other time, or who we don’t like. Sound familiar? Is that a common New Year theme?
Dare we suggest that perhaps some young people stayed up for the ringing in of the New Year bells? Do children and young people really grasp the concept of New Year? Do they share many adults’ optimism for the New Year and set ambition and aspiration in line with adult hopefulness? Can we fathom what goes on in children’s and young people’s minds when the bells ring out, fire works go off and the shouts of “Happy New Year” are shouted roundly? Are they buying into the experience and vision, or do most children and young people simply react to the general party occasion?
In the same vein, do adults actually celebrate New Year as an occasion to inspire and set hopes and aspirations, or do we actually just celebrate a party? It raises an interesting cultural question about who we are, and how we relate to each other and our lives… this question is brought more sharply into focus when we consider New year in the context of looked-after children’s circumstances. How has New year been experienced in the context of the child’s life previously? What impact does being separated from your family and loved ones at Christmas have, when Christmas and New Year have such an association with family bonds and family closeness? What if, in the case of some children, that they are actually happier and feel more settled in their substitute family, does New year pass without emotional pain and suffering, or can the intensity of New Year still hurt even though the family of origin is not the place the child wants to be living with?
All of these questions should be borne in mind when substitute carers help and support children and young people in care celebrate and experience Christmas and New Year. It is easy to assume that children are positively affected by adults’ positivity, and that because the foster family marks and celebrates such a universal festival as New Year, that this rubs off on the child.
Consider this conversation will a young man, Daniel,14, who was taken into care for the first time just before Christmas in 2012.
“My family were falling apart. My Dad had left us, and my mum just didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t like it hadn’t happened before, it had happened loads before. But this time my dad had left Mum and actually gone to love with a different woman. It’s the only time I have ever seen my Mum cry, and I mean properly cry… she just threw herself in the corner and didn’t move. I didn’t know what to do. My big sister has learning difficulties, and I didn’t know who needed me first. And all I could hear was my little brother screaming in the background. When I phoned my gran, she was shouting and swearing on the phone about my Dad – she never really liked him, and it was almost like she was enjoying it. So the next morning, after I went to school I just went and spoke to my form tutor and told him everything. I didn’t go home that day – a social worker came and collected me from school and I came to Anita’s house.
My sister went to another place – a home for people with learning difficulties, and my younger brother went to live with my gran. She couldn’t handle both of us. It was nice having my own bedroom – I kind of liked it. Anita was nice, and she had two sons younger than me. I was left alone a lot of the time. Her two sons started getting on my nerves. They were all excited about Christmas, talking about Santa Claus, and going on and on about presents. I knew I wasn’t at home, and I was worried about my sister and my brother. My mum asked me to sort their presents, and that’s all I could think about. They were under my bed, and I was looking after them.
Anita kept asking me what I wanted for Christmas, and what I wanted to do. What I wanted was to make sure they were OK and had got their presents. My phone was phoning every couple of days, but she wasn’t feeling so good. I think she was drinking again. Our social worker was putting her under pressure to get help, and that’s what she was talking about.
Finishing school a couple of days before Christmas I was not looking forward to that. My mate from school was going on holiday to Egypt. I was jealous. I wanted to go with him, I was asking his Mum and Dad – I told them about me being in care and what happened at home. They felt so sorry for me, and his mum was nearly crying. I don’t think my mate was impressed with me asking to go on holiday.
I hated Christmas. I can’t even talk about it. I don’t want to think about it. But I got it over with. I thought I was going to see a lot of my sister and my brother. But my gran decided she was taking my brother to stay with family. And because Anita had Josh and Connor, she couldn’t take me to see my mum.
By New Year I just felt so angry. Some of Anita’s family came round for a New Year party. They were all happy and excited. Josh and Connor had made all the party decorations, and they had even made me an invitation to the party, all nice and sweet. When it was getting to Midnight, Anita’s friend was asking me what I wanted for the New Year, and I couldn’t keep it in anymore, it was like all the angry feelings inside me came out. They were all talking about the New Year like it was brilliant, and to me it was horrible. Nothing was good, so I told her friend, and I told Anita and I told anyone else who was going to listen. Everybody there wanted it to be all happy and nice, and to me how could it be nice? How could I think about. Happy New Year when my dad had left, my mum was drunk and I wasn’t able to look after my sister and brother.
Anita started to find me difficult after that. It wasn’t so much that anything bad happened, it was just a feeling I had. When I was in the room Josh and Connor would go quiet, or she always sat in between me and them like it was a problem. Not sure what it was, but it was like all the happy stuff had gone – I think it was because I didn’t want to say Happy New Year, and I didn’t want to think about big plans for the new Year. “
Daniel’s story is not uncommon. Looked-after children and young people, whilst many people remark on the apparent resilience of children, maybe mistake children’s short-term ability to adjust and cope. Maybe foster care should be as much about recognising the pressures children and young people endure through normal life, as it is about recognising the pain and horror of neglect and abuse. Daniel, whilst his life circumstances at home were not advantageous, had an established pattern of care. The disruption of his care, and his ability to care for his siblings at a time of year when everyone else was focused on revelry and ambition clearly was not an experience that he enjoyed or shared the joy. One could argue that disrupting family life at a time of year which stresses family perhaps even causes more extreme feelings than it does normally.
So Christmas and New Year for children and young people on foster care… do we ever really know how our fostered children and young people feel? If they are not as articulate or communicative as Daniel, do they themselves know? Or do we just assume that because we as adults, families or communities feel celebratory, hopeful and optimistic, that children and young people in care feel the same way too. It is an interesting, poignant and potentially painful question to ponder.
Fostering is about promoting the best outcomes for children and young people, through the dedication and hard work of foster carers.