Picky eaters, sleepless nights and teenage tantrums are not the hardest part of fostering 144 children, according to Mandy Bright. It is saying so many goodbyes.
Warmly professional and selfless, she puts on a brave face for the child and assures them moving back with their family or in with another carer is exciting. Privately, she sheds a quiet tear.
Mandy explains: “By the time we move a child on, I’ve spent a long time reassuring them that they will have a wonderful life ahead.
“Sometimes, we’ve had a little party with their school friends and teachers so they have photos for their memory box. As we say goodbye, I wear a happy front and never let on I’m sad.
“Then I drive down the road, park up and have a damn good cry.”
Mandy is consoled by the stringent efforts made to ensure families and foster children are a good match. Then there is the fact her foster children rarely leave her life.
She says: “I was the first person, after the doctors, to hold my foster daughter Natalie’s baby Maisie. Isn’t that a privilege? My husband Joe and I consider her our granddaughter because we have such a big bond with her and she lives less than a mile away.
“We always tell our foster children they can keep in touch. They are a huge part of our lives.”
Mandy, 62, and Joe, 67, have turned their home in Liverpool into a cosy refuge for a steady stream of children, from newborns to teenagers, since they began fostering in 2000.
Their house is rarely quiet, and that’s just the way third generation foster carer Mandy likes it.
She says: “In the 1930s, my nan took in a neighbour’s child called Phyllis when her stepmother died in childbirth. When her father died, her two elder brothers asked if nan would take her permanently. Phyllis and her children were always a part of our family.
“When I was small, my mum helped look after children for a few years. So I grew up with three birth siblings, foster siblings and children from the residential home. Now we’re no longer multi-generational families living next door to aunties and grandmas, which is why foster care has evolved.”
Mandy volunteered at a children’s home between the ages of 16 and 18. And after marrying Joe in 1986, she factored foster kids into their married life.
She says: “We talked about having children, and because Joe’s from a big family of 10 he always wanted to have a large family. His own football team. Typical Scouser.
“We had our son Sean 34 years ago and decided to foster. But we were told it was better for foster families to look after children younger than their own. And because we had a two-bedroom bungalow, we needed to have a bigger home so foster kids could have a bedroom for themselves.
“So we built a loft extension and for a few years I was a magistrate. Then we went back to the local authority to ask to foster again and we were delighted to be accepted in 2000.” As with any vocation, there are obstacles.
Mandy says: “Sean was a bit wary in the beginning because our first foster child wanted us all to himself.
“But as time went on, the two boys developed a good bond. Sean loved the little kids and has gone on to be a wonderful father.”
Providing emergency care means children may arrive in the night and Mandy suddenly faces having to cope with complex needs and emotions. But her empathetic nature and positive outlook means the children soon feel at home.
She admits: “I like having a busy home and lots of people around. The things kids come out with can be hilarious.
“There is never a dull moment. And there are so many rewards. The child who proudly does a drawing of me and Joe. A little one who asks to have the bedroom light turned off because they are not scared of the dark anymore. It is wonderful.
“Sometimes their families, for good reasons and through no fault of their own, can’t manage.
“They might be a single parent with no family and they are juggling everything but becoming overwhelmed.”
Caring for scores of children has given Mandy a unique insight that would rival any parenting book.
When it comes to teenage tantrums, she says: “Firstly, pick your battles. Let it wash over you, particularly if they start getting verbally abusive.
“Don’t take it personally, which I know is easier said than done. We were all teenagers with raging hormones and feelings of righteous indignation.
“Since the rational part of the brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25, teens will make statements or demands that are totally illogical. That means whatever you say, whatever answer you give, it’ll never be right.
“So give them space to calm down. Later, sit and explain that sometimes things don’t seem fair and carers have to make hard decisions because we care about them. If we didn’t care, it would be a lot easier to say, ‘Yeah, you can do that’. But we do care.
“Giving them structure often helps reduce tantrums because they know what’s going to be happening. It should not come as a shock when they have to go to bed at a certain time.” A different tactic is used when toddlers misbehave. Mandy explains: “Some children can’t regulate, so to calm themselves down you have to stay calm. Hopefully, you’ll project your calm on to them.
“Get down to their level, even on the floor, and speak in a soothing tone. But be firm. Tell them you can wait as long as it takes. I did that with one youngster and spent two and a half hours in Tesco.
“But again, pick your battles. If you’re out and the tantrum is not going to subside, make a quick exit.”
Choosing the right words can help a child enormously, with Mandy saying: “I’m really against the word ‘naughty’. I say, ‘That’s a silly thing to do’. Naughty has connotations of bad that can impact on behaviour.
“We deal with conflicting situations, but we always help youngsters understand they’re not to blame. We help their self esteem by showing them they are wonderful. Children are never to blame, regardless of what they’ve been told.”
Babies who don’t sleep need a calm bedtime routine, perhaps with dim lights and white noise in the background, reassurance and then gradually stepping away from a cot.
Mandy has a few techniques for fussy eaters, saying: “I find out what children like and work that into a healthy version. So if a child likes McDonald’s, we make our own burgers.
“I give picky eaters food trays with a snakes and ladders pattern on it. I put small food on different squares and it becomes an interactive game.
“Make sandwiches interesting by cutting them into shapes. Ask a child to help you make a pizza.
“And to get veg into children, puree carrots, tomatoes and mushrooms and put them in gravy. The texture is exactly the same as the normal sauce but you’ve boosted it with all the vitamins from the veg without the child realising.”
If Mandy sounds like the patron saint of parenting, she insists otherwise. “Foster carers aren’t saints. Anyone can do it – as long as they have patience, understanding and lots of love to give.”