I’ve been threatening to resurrect my Extraordinary Lives series for some time now. But publishing deadlines kept getting in my way. I knew that one day the right person would come along, that I simply had to interview …
… and that person is Margaret Madden, who along with her charming husband Declan, are foster parents. In my opinion they are both perfect examples of ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. And with a little nudge of encouragement from me, Margaret agreed to share with us all, what it’s like to be a foster parent.
Hello Margaret, thank you so much for joining me on my virtual couch. Can you tell us a little bit about your family?
Myself, Declan and our four kids moved to Co. Louth approx. 10 years ago. We bought an old period house with the vision of restoring it to its former glory. We wanted a place with plenty of space for kids and pets, close enough to Dublin but yet in a country environment. Bleach House chose us, rather than us choosing it!
We have added to our family since, via fostering, and there is never a dull day here…
At the moment, we are a family of seven, with my eldest daughter moved out. So, four kids at home, three dogs and two goldfish. The dog number can also vary, as we have been known to foster for Drogheda Animal Rescue and are regular visitors to Collon Animal Santuary.
I started BleachHouseLibrary.ie about two years ago, more to share my book reviews with family and friends than anything. However, I was hit with the bug and now cannot imagine not reading and reviewing books, for both adults and kids. The children also review on the blog and there is something very special about reading their thoughts, as they are genuine, personal words, directly from the mouths of babes.
Your home is beautiful and I’m determined to get back to your library guest room one day soon! I didn’t realise you fostered animals too. Incredible. So, can you tell us when you and Declan decided to start fostering?
When I finished working and the house was renovated as much as possible, the kids were at an age where they were all in school and I found myself at a loss. I have been a Mum since I was 17 years old and suddenly there I was, on my own in this big house, with no kids around. It was surreal! I blissed out for a while; shopping, long coffees with friends, trips to the gym and some great TV box sets. This wore off very quickly and I revisited an idea we had had in the 1990s. Fostering. I knew there were kids out there who, for one reason or another, needed a bit of minding and a lot of love and respect. We had the space, we had the experience and now I had the time. Why not?
There are currently about 4,500 children in foster care in Ireland, so thank goodness for families like you, who all say why not? Out of interest, was there a defining moment, that nudged you into that decision?
I think it was when I was packing away the children’s picture books, and it dawned on me that we had done a damn good job teaching our kids to read, to write, to explore their surroundings and learn all about the past as well as the future. It hit me that I may never be a teacher, but I could teach. We could offer a child the opportunity to be part of a family, even if just for a short while, and hopefully build some amazing memories for their future.
I love that. Yes, I really believe that we are all teachers, if we choose to be. So how many children have you fostered?
We have had nine placements since we began, but some were on a short term basis.
When I did my research I was surprised at how many types of foster care there were – from day foster care, short-term foster care, long-term foster care to relative foster care. I know from watching you with the children, all of them, that you love being a mother. It’s joyous to watch. Can you pinpoint the most rewarding part of fostering though?
It’s weird, but you don’t think of it in those terms. I just see these children as little sponges, ready to soak up love, attention, care and respect. Every child that has left our care has left with a love of reading or of being read to. Each with armfuls (or cases full) of books. That is a memorable moment for me. The birthdays are also great. Some kids have never had a party, or a cake, while others get to have two parties, one with their mother and one with us. Christmas is actually awesome. For both the child and us. The extra stocking hanging, the new reindeer or Santa hats, gloves and scarves bought. The wrapping of presents and the obligatory trip to visit Santa, often for the first time. It is an emotional but magical time.
Open fires, twinkling lights, oh I can just imagine Christmas in your house. Lucky, lucky children, having you guys ensuring that they have the most magical of times. Of course it can’t all be Santa visits and we’ve spoken a few times about some of the difficult moments you’ve experienced. What is the hardest part of fostering?
Saying goodbye. For sure. But, some children are with their foster parents until they are adults. There are many deciding factors, but the foster parents rarely have a say. That can be difficult. However, TULSA or the Private Agencies, have the child’s best interest at heart and are bound by the legal system in Ireland. One of the hardest things for me, as the foster mum, is putting their stuff up in the attic when they have moved out. It is even harder when you know you may never see them again.
Thank you for your honesty, sharing that with us. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a foster parent when I wrote Every Time A Bell rings. I must admit that my storyline that explores Lauren, a foster child saying goodbye to Belle and Jim, made me do the boohoo cry. You’ve a large family, so what impact does fostering have on them?
Each child has a different need, so the social workers try to match the child to the ideal family. For example, a new baby is not ideal for a house full of teenagers sitting exams or a teenager may not be suitable for a newly wed couple in their twenties. We have a real hotch-potch of ages here, so are open to most situations. This year, we have no children sitting state exams, but I am a full time mature sudent who will have my own exams. This would mean we are less likely to be asked for emergency cases.
Our children were a little nervous at first, but now admit that they feel very proud to be foster siblings. They recently said that it has made them more appreciative of the life they have, and has made them a lot more tolerant then pre-fostering days. That’s good, right? Our current, long term, placement is just one of us. Simple as. They are treated no differently to any of my birth children. They are just one of my five kids.
Can you explain a little bit about the different types of placement?
This is hard one to explain. Each case is initially taken as short-term, with the goal being to return the child to their mum/dad ASAP. The agencies and courts do everything in their power to ensure that the child is reunited in the shortest possible time. For many reasons, this does not always happen. After a certain period of time, the courts decide where is the safest and most beneficial place for the child. Often that is with the foster parents, until the situation has improved. The case is then transferred to a long-term team, who continue to work on re-unification on a case to case basis.
Thank you for that Margaret. I appreciate that it’s difficult to explain in a few sentence. You know, I’ve asked ALL of my extraordinary lives interviewees, this next question. Brace yourself … If you could have an audience with Enda Kenny what would you ask him?
I may have to avoid this question, for fear I may say something I’ll regret…
I may have to ask you that question again, over a drink 😉 You’ve learnt a lot over your years fostering. Can you share some words of wisdom, to anyone who is contemplating it?
I would say to make the call. The phone call is just that. A phone call. The social workers then forward you an information pack and it’s up to you what you do after that. You can have a chat with them and fill out forms, you can even go as far as doing the training courses. You can also back out at anytime. No one is ever going to arrive at your door with a child, begging you to take them. You get to decide. Hundreds of people register their interest every year, yet not all follow through. There are also hundreds of children out there, who need a family. For a week, a month, a year, or a lifetime.
Good advice there Mrs Madden. Can you tell us about a typical day for you?
Basically, the only difference is the need to take the child to visits with their birth families. There are social work visits, but these are slotted into your own availability. When the child is originally pacled, there can be tears. They can be confused, emotional and very scared. Depending on the age group, and the circumstances. Some are seasoned foster kids and see it as a little holiday with the mad Maddens, with all the dogs! Basically, they are just kids. All we can do is welcome them, as we would like someone to welcome one of our own children.
I love that. Treat children as you would want someone to treat your own. Now theres a mantra for us all to live by. I’m sure that despite best intentions, there are times when people get it so wrong about the reality of life as a foster parent. Dispel the myths for us!
I think the biggest misconception is that the kids in care are troubled kids. Hard to handle. This could not be further from the truth. They are the most loving, caring and warm children. For one reason or another, they just can’t be with their mums. It is extremely rare that it is in anyway their doing. Mental health issues, addiction and parenting issues are the main reasons for placements. These are vulnerable minors, from newborn to 18 years old. They just need a home, a family and some security and stabililty. A family board game night may seem like a simple thing to us, but to them it is like heading off to Disneyland. A birthday party, dressing up at Halloween, learning to read and write. Owing their own toys and clothing. A chance to be a kid…
… a chance to be a kid, every child deserves that don’t they?
And isn’t that the perfect way to end my interview. I’d like to thank Margaret, for such honest and informative answers. I know that the Maddens don’t foster for any public accolades. I know that all that they do, they do quietly, sincerely and without any need for recognition. But I have to say, I think they are pretty damn wonderful.
If you would like some further information about fostering, you can take a look here.
Every Time A Bell Rings, my new novel, explores foster care, both from the perspective of the foster parent and child.
In my story, Belle Bailey and Jim Looney meet as children, while in foster care. Fast forward twenty years, they are now foster parents themselves. Of course, my story has been written for dramatic impact. But I worked really hard to make sure that my characters and story-lines are realistic. Margaret generously helped me with my research, in fact she was the first person I thought of when Belle’s character began to form in my head. The research I undertook over the past six months, really opened my eyes to the world of fostering. And my admiration and respect for the amazing men and women who open their homes to children worldwide, giving them safe haven, grew tenfold. I’m more than a little in awe of their generosity and passion for what they do.
So, that’s all from me for now. But I’ll be back with another interview soon, I promise.
Thank you for reading,
Margaret Bonass Madden Bio
Margaret is a Mum of five, who has fostered children since 2011. She is a full-time student, studying for BA Humanities in DKiT. Married to her Mr. Darcy, the family live in a renovated house in a quiet Co. Louth village. Margaret eats books on a daily basis and reviews both adult and children’s titles on http://www.bleachhouselibrary.ie/. She is also the brains behind #IrishFictionFortnight, which highlights the amazing literary talent that exists on our little island. She has been longlisted for the RTEGuide/Penguin short story award two years running but does not consider herself a writer. Yet.