My mum is a foster mum, whose registration was approved just after my eldest was born. Almost straight away, she got a placement, and on her second visit to see the baby, she was accompanied by a 14 year old girl.
Shortly after that, her second placement arrived: a four year old girl, who was not toilet trained and refused to eat, drink or speak. In the nearly five years that have elapsed since then, the 14 year old has moved on, a 12 year old has come and gone and then a 17 month old baby arrived in the middle of the night on an emergency court order, with a sodden nappy, louse-infested head and one dirty nightie.
Flash forward to today, and the four year old girl is now a strapping eight year old, who eats, drinks and speaks like there's no tomorrow, and the baby is a robust and talkative three year old, with an irresistibly cheeky face. In the meantime, I have also been raising my young family.
My mum is in her 60s, and I think that this track that she has taken in her life has been enormously difficult and fantastically rewarding in equal measures, although there are times when I'm sure it seems skewed one way or the other. I'm immensely proud of her and can't stop telling everyone about what she does. What I hadn't anticipated, though, was what it's like to parent alongside your mum.
It's not uncommon for us to be on the phone to one another, and for one of us to have to stop the call because a child has been to the potty and needs a bottom wiped. Either one of us is likely to break off in the middle of a sentence and say, 'Yes you can have a biscuit. Just ONE though' or 'Oh yes I can see you've got dolly, isn't she lovely?' or 'No, don't go outside in those shoes, put your wellies on ok?' - often followed by, once again, 'I'm going to have to go'. Having children of similar ages, we both understand what life is like as a parent.
Sometimes I'll be in Sainsburys and see that they're doing a cute little ballet dress for Mouse, and call mum to ask her if I should grab one for her little girl too, who has also started ballet. Sometimes, the thought of my 60-something year old mum holding her toddler's hand and taking her to ballet class alongside the mums in their 20s and 30s makes me want to burst with pride.
I think it also makes my mum understand my life as a new generation of parent in a way that many older parents don't. I remember her being a bit disappointed when I was pregnant as I said I wasn't going to use reusable nappies, and since then I have heard her gleefully talking about the convenience of disposables whilst doing a swift nappy change on her own wriggly toddler.
She'll quite often phone me to ask my advice on what I'd do about a persistent cradle cap, or whether Moshi Monsters is a good computer game for an eight year old, or what age I think a little one should move from a cot to a bed. More often than not, it's me phoning her for advice, knowing that I may be more in touch with modern parenting, but she's tried and tested her parenting skills on three grown up children already - not to mention the cooking and household questions I bother her with, too!
There are difficulties too. As childish as it sounds, sometimes I just want my mum to myself - but she's always being a mother to two small and particularly needy children. Sometimes I want her just to be a granny to my children, but there are always two other voices shouting them down and demanding attention. You know that feeling when you just want to sit down with a cup of tea and talk to your mum, and confide in her and have her listen totally to you with no distractions? That just can't happen right now. You can guarantee that as soon as you open your mouth, a small girl will come twirling in in a ballet costume, looking for admiration, or a larger girl will come in and drape herself over the sofa, wanting to be part of things. My mum bought Arran a new scooter for his birthday, but just as he was testing it out, a big grin spreading across his face, mum's little girl fell over and she had to turn away and scoop her up. Mum came to visit me with my new baby girl and ended up spending most of the time dealing with some pretty difficult incidents from the older child, who - understandably - has some behavioural problems stemming from her past. I get it, though: she has to be their mum first and foremost because they have no-one else. I can't be selfish, and she spreads herself that bit thinner to be as supportive of me (and my siblings) as she can be, meanwhile. I'm content to know that if I ever asked her to drop everything and be there for me, she would.
On the flip side of this, my children have grown up with them, and they are as much a part of the family as any other member. My children can't remember a Granny that didn't involve these two particular little girls, and Arran and the older girl run around together very happily, while Mouse and the three year old are like two little peas in a pod at times. They may not get individual Granny time, but who else's granny comes with ready-made friends, and a house full of toys?
Someone I know once said that when you're a parent, its easier to be in the company of other parents because they understand what it's like. Normally people don't include their own parents in that, as they have grown up children and may even have romanticised the past (my mum herself looks at her screaming toddler and swears blind that none of her kids ever had a tantrum!) I think that although there are some niggles, some small moments of wishing I could have 100% of my mum's focus, I am in such a privileged position to parent alongside my mum.
Not only do I get to watch her transform the lives of needy and vulnerable young children, sharing with them the greatest gift that I ever got - a loving and stable childhood - I get to share this funny, muddly, potty training, night waking, tiring, hilarious, busy and totally wonderful time with someone who is not only my mum and one of my very best friends, but who truly understands.