40 years of fostering and still holding the babies

John, 78, and Mary, 74, work as specialist foster parents to babies awaiting adoption. The couple tell Kate Hilpern that they have no plans to retire, even after 40 years of caring for children – and why night-time feeds are 'the very best thing in the world'

The prospect of taking in young babies with attachment problems for up to a year at a time is not something that most people approaching 80 would get too excited about. But for John, a 78-year-old foster carer, there is no better feeling than waking up at 3am to do a night feed.

"The very best thing in the world is when the baby is a day or two old and we take it in turns to feed them through the night," he says. "I just love holding that precious little thing and giving them a bottle."

Neither John nor his wife Mary, 74, gets tired. "We don't have time," he says with a laugh, while Mary explains that she has always felt young: "My energy levels are high. I go to the gym three times a week and run a toddler club at church. I'm as fit and active as ever."

In fact, the last few months have been even busier than usual for the couple, who have fostered more than 100 children in the past 40 years. Camera crews have been in and out of their home in Surrey. Indeed, Lucas, the baby who has been with them for the last 11 months, is the subject of the first episode of a new four-part ITV series that goes behind the scenes of the adoption process.

Lucas's mother has serious long-term mental-health issues and after making no attachment with him, she agreed to adoption. It is Mary and John's job to prepare him for his new family – a job that is easier said than done. "Lucas was just nine days old when we were asked to collect him from the hospital and I was immediately concerned by how quiet he was," says John. "He didn't even cry. Babies are supposed to cry, but he just lay there with clenched fists."

As a result of the specialist care that John and Mary have been trained to provide – including massaging his hands, singing to him, cradling him for long periods and helping him gently but purposefully through all his milestones – Lucas is now thriving. "He's a very special little boy, full of bounce, very verbal, happy and smiley," says Mary. "We hope he's adopted soon."

John can't remember a time that he didn't want to care for children. "My earliest memories are of my dad – this amazing, caring father who I wanted to emulate. Even when he went off to be a soldier in the Second World War, he would make these wonderful toys that he'd send me, all flat-packed."

When John was evacuated, he was devastated. "I was sent to a lovely, elderly couple, but they were not my family and that affected my whole life, making me insecure. But it also taught me how it feels not to be able to live with your family. Both experiences drew me to fostering."

Mary believes that her passion for fostering originates from having very little attachment with her own mother. "I was the eldest of five and she didn't relate to me like the others, so I essentially became a mum at nine years old."

Not that the couple, who grew up in the same village, decided to foster when they were first married in their early twenties. John became a motor mechanic, while Mary was a stay-at-home mother to their four children, now aged between 41 and 52. But just after their youngest was born, they went for it.

John was worried that they would be turned down because their eldest child had been born seriously disabled with cerebral palsy. "But we were told that the experience would go in our favour, and it's true that our children were already used to having to wait for our time and we were well used to having to plan everything."

The first child they fostered was a little boy, who they ended up adopting. "When we collected him from the children's home, he was quite disturbed and he continued to have issues," says John. "But he is now a fantastic father with four kids and the eldest girl has just produced our first great-grandchild."

After that, more children followed – some for a few nights, others for years – until eventually John and Mary had a constant stream of three or four at a time, in addition to their own five. John remembers many funny moments, including the time a little girl turned up on the front doorstep with two policemen and a large bunch of balloons. "When I asked her where she got them from, she said they had nicked them for her, and they really had taken them off a local gate when they saw how much she wanted them," he says, chuckling.

There are plenty of sad stories, too, of course. "One boy who was brought in by the NSPCC freaked out at bedtime," Mary recalls. "He'd only ever slept on the floor with an old coat and a dog. So we put his mattress on the floor with his coat and a big teddy. It was a week before he was able to sleep in a bed. Most children who came to us were not used to eating a meal at a table."

Not surprisingly, their four-bedroomed home started to feel stretched. Unable to afford a bigger house, it was then, in the late 1970s, that something extraordinary happened. "Our solicitor said that someone who wished to remain anonymous wanted to provide the funds for us to move into a six-bedroom Edwardian house," says John. "We could pay the money back if we wanted, but it wasn't necessary. In fact, with bits of inheritance and other money, we were able to, but it still amazes us." It wasn't just the anonymous benefactor who helped out, he says. "Someone else provided furniture, while the local sea scouts raised the money for a fire escape. One woman came to do ironing for free every Thursday and friends from church helped out in all sorts of practical ways, including cooking food."

Not satisfied with merely having a home full of children, John left his job as a mechanic to work in a children's home. "I loved it, but was soon pressurised to take a promotion in an office, which I hated. So that's when we did something outrageous. We both became full-time foster carers, a role which, back then, wasn't paid."

Soon, their house was filled with up to 12 children at a time. "Our own children still laugh that they grew up having a ready-made football team on tap," says Mary. "They were so accommodating. One time, my daughter gave her best party frock to another little girl who didn't have one to wear. It still chokes me up. There were struggles though, too, and I definitely wish I hadn't fostered teens when my own daughter was a teenager. Taking on children anywhere near your eldest child's age upsets the natural balance in a family."

Over the years, they adopted two more children, now in their thirties. Of the others, some stay in touch; some don't. "It's right for foster children to build their own lives and so we leave it up to them," Mary explains.

In 1999, when three youngsters moved on to independent living, John and Mary suffered from empty-house syndrome. "We didn't want any more children, but we didn't want to retire. So we downsized and started to specialise in pre-adoption babies," Mary says.

The ideal stay is six months. "Anything less and they might not fully attach and therefore not be able to re-attach to the adoptive family. Anything more and they can attach too much, like Lucas, who is coming up for 11 months and has identified with me as his mother," she says.

As for having to part with the babies, the couple are surprisingly positive. "This sounds an upside down thing to say, but my joy comes from being able to hand them over with the words, 'You go to your mum and have a lovely life'," says Mary. But she admits: "We have a really good cry, then we put all the equipment away, go on a cruise and live like an ordinary elderly couple, coming home to an ordinary adult house."

They only ever last like this for a couple of months though, she admits. "Of course, if there were medical issues, we wouldn't push it, but for now I expect there'll be another baby, and another and quite possibly another."

Some names have been changed. 'Wanted: A Family Of My Own' screens on ITV at 9pm on Thursday

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