With two grown-up children and eight years as foster carers under their belt, there is not a lot Mark and Karen Stewart don’t know about parenting.
Now the couple have taken on a new role as mother-and-baby carers with Community Foster Care and have opened their home in Lydney to women who discover that motherhood doesn’t always come easily.
“We’re not here to take over from the mum – we can offer advice if we’re asked. Our main job is to make sure the child is safe and gets the best chance,” said Karen, cradling a bonny baby girl in her arms.
Parent and child placements are a special type of fostering where a young parent, usually a mother and baby, stays with foster carers at a time when they need extra support. The young mum might be having difficulties looking after a new baby, or need some extra help and advice so that she can do it well.
Being placed with foster carers means the mother and child can stay together at a difficult time in a homely environment, rather than in a residential unit.
“It can be a challenge – but in a good way,” said Karen. “It’s quite full on but between the two of us we manage. We’ve learnt so much and have become really tolerant!”
Mark and Karen met when they both worked in the insurance business. They now have two grown-up children, aged 20 and 22 – as well as four rabbits, four guinea pigs, two Labradors, two fish, two skinny pigs and a bearded dragon called Alfie at their home in Gloucestershire.
It was one of their daughter’s friends who set them thinking about fostering in 2010.
“She told us she’d been in care. Her story really affected us – she seemed to have been pushed from pillar to post,” said Karen.
“It was a light bulb moment. I thought she’d have been better off with us. We could be foster carers.”
As they entered the world of fostering, both Karen and Mark kept part-time jobs for a while (Karen at Royal Mail and Mark as a carer for autistic teenagers). They now foster full-time and have cared for a number of children.
Taking on 12-week mother-and-baby placements was a deliberate choice.
“Every baby has been as good as gold. The mums who come to us look after themselves and sometimes you see them turn a corner. When they leave, we hope things are going to work out for them,” said Karen.
Mark became a full-time foster carer in 2016. “I was made redundant in 2014 and, after pushing numbers around for 20 years, I decided to do something completely different,” he said.
“I was one of five children and love being in a busy household. I knew Karen and me could do it.
“We liked Community Foster Care because it’s got charitable status and seemed like a big family. There’s a lot of support and training and everyone made us feel at home.
“You need patience and resilience to be a foster carer. It’s a 24-hour job like no other. It’s great playing with the kids though – that’s what makes it.”