Episode 3: "It's not just me"

In our third interview for the Kinship Together podcast, we speak to Marisa. Along with her mum, Marisa has been a kinship carer to her niece for seven years. She describes how they take on roles to provide a loving home environment, as well as the experience of running and finding companionship through a peer support group.

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In this episode, we talked to Marisa. Along with her mum, Marisa has been a kinship carer to her niece for seven years. Though they work as a close-knit team, it’s her mum who has the special guardianship order, often referred to as an SGO. That means she has a long-term legal responsibility for the child they care for. Marisa also runs a kinship peer support group, which has given both her and her mum great companionship and support while they provide a safe, loving home environment.

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The text below is a direct transcription of this episode of the Kinship Together podcast.

Welcome to Kinship Together, a podcast that shares stories, experiences, and advice for kinship carers. Brought to you by Kinship, the charity for kinship carers in England and Wales.  

In this series, you’ll find out what it means to be a kinship carer from people who are going through the experience. This includes the highs and lows, and the everyday challenges. All the kinship carers in this series have found that meeting other kinship carers has brought them connection, friendships and emotional support.   

We’ll hear why peer support and volunteering have brought such meaning and sense of belonging to our guests. Whether that be attending local groups, talking together on the phone or connecting online, there is great power in facing challenges together. And that’s one of the most important things that kinship carers tell us they need – emotional support and the feeling that you’re not alone. We’ll also ask every guest to share their moments of joy as a kinship carer, those things that make it all worthwhile. Hopefully you’ll pick out some useful advice along the way too.  

In this episode, we talked to Marissa who along with her mum has been a kinship carer for seven years. Though they work as a close-knit team, it’s her mum who has the special guardianship order, often referred to as an SGO. That means she has a long-term legal responsibility for the child they care for. Marissa also runs a kinship peer support group, which has given both her and her mum great companionship and support while they provide a safe, loving home environment. You can learn more about Kinship’s support groups at compass.kinship.org.uk.  

Right. Here’s Marisa’s story and her mum’s too.  

Iain Broome: I think to start off with, it would be great to hear a bit about your background. So how you became a kinship carer, how long ago it was, and that kind of thing. 

Marisa: Okay, well, it’s actually my mum that’s got the SGO. We share a house, so, and I was actively involved at every stage. So, it’s one of these things, and I think a lot of kinship carers find themselves in this position because they haven’t got a title, they don’t know or they don’t consider themselves to be a kinship carer. So, as I say, my mum’s an SGO, I’m her support. There’s a story as to why I’m not, I didn’t go for the SGO and I’m sure it’s one that a lot of people could relate to because of the application process or the assessment process was just a bit too arduous really for me to go through with me and my partner. So, it’s me and my mum working together to bring up my niece. So, she’s my brother’s daughter. She is 11 years old. She was 11 last week and we’ve had her since she was four so seven years now. Seven amazing years of learning so much. I haven’t actually got children of my own. It was never part of my plan but I wouldn’t swap our experiences for the world. She’s been amazing. Yeah, as I say, it’s not part of a plan. I don’t think it probably is for most people who end up in this position, it’s part of their plan, but you just adapt and you welcome every day. 

Iain Broome: How does that work in practice, sort of co-parenting, that kind of generational, sort of combination, if you will. How does that work, I suppose, and have you noticed any differences between kind of your mum’s parenting style with you maybe and like what’s that been like? 

Marisa: So, so different. My niece quite regularly gets told, “Oh, she wasn’t like that with me”, “Oh, you’re so lucky” because she’s, I mean, she’s a grandmother. She’s, I mean, she also plays the role of the, let’s call it the mother role. I say, she’s the one that does the school runs and the plaits, I’m the one that does the administration and the phone calls and deals with all the sort of official stuff. And then on a day-to-day basis, I guess occasionally we play good cop, bad cop when necessary. My niece knows that she has two people that love her dearly and are here for her. So whatever roles we play, it’s all for her benefit and I have to say, I look at the way she’s brought up sometimes and I think, “Wow, wasn’t quite like that for me, was it mum?”. 

Iain Broome: It’s quite a common thing, isn’t it? In all families that kind of, “Hey, what’s going on here? That’s not fair”, that kind of thing. 

Marisa: I didn’t get that. 

Iain Broome: Exactly. Yeah. So, your niece has just turned 11. What is she like?  

Marisa: She’s amazing. We’ve just received actually today her placement at secondary school. She’s very excited about going to secondary school. She’s got into the school that she wanted. She’s a very, very focused young lady. She’s incredibly bright. And one of the things that she told us when she first came to live with us is that she wanted to go to ballet lessons. So, she, we got her into ballet lessons straight away. That has developed. She spends, oh, hours and hours a week in her dancing lessons and I think that’s been so important for her. That’s really helped her confidence. I mean, it’s obviously helped her physically, but in terms of her confidence, her social confidence. And, I think being part of something. She’s been with the same dance school for six years now. So, I mean, we live in a village and they say it takes a village to raise a child, and in our village it really is like that. You know, she knows she’s got a different background to her friends but she also knows that she’s got an awful lot of people that care about her, that are rooting for her, that are there for her, that she can speak to. She knows there are adults that she can trust other than us two. She tells people when we’re not doing the job well enough. When we weren’t doing Elf on the Shelf, we got told off. 

Iain Broome: Of course. 

Marisa: So, oh, she’s amazing and she’s so confident. I mean, from the child, just a bit about the background, we’d actually been estranged from my niece for three years before she went, well, before she was taken away from her mother. So, she didn’t really, at four years old, she didn’t even know us. She didn’t remember us from not having seen us since she was 18 months old and not being told about us. So, she really was coming to strangers virtually. So, we’ve had to build a relationship from scratch. And you know, obviously it’s taken patience on everybody’s part. She’s had therapy. She has ongoing therapy that we, we’re people that believe in therapy. We’re lucky. That’s something that I fought for with the local authority and we’ve been able to provide that and it’s just made her very, I would say very resilient. She is confident. She knows her situation is different but she accepts her situation. And as I say, she’s got, she knows she’s got people that care about her. And that’s, to her, that’s the most important thing. 

Iain Broome: And how about you? So, in terms of, peer support, you’re quite heavily involved with peer support, I understand. How are you involved in peer support groups and how did you get involved in the first place, I suppose? 

Marisa: So, I run a peer support group. I started one up here in Norfolk. There’s very few services for kinship in Norfolk. I actually came to the Kinship charity for help when we’d had a court application from birth mother and I spoke to a number of solicitors, nobody was saying what I wanted to hear and perhaps that’s because what I wanted to hear didn’t exist but I just needed to speak to somebody that would listen to how I felt. So, I spoke to somebody at Kinship for support initially. They were wonderful. They were helpful. I just said it’s something that I’d really like to do, that I’d like to help other people in the way that I’d been helped. I’ve worked with groups of people before so I felt quite confident about leading a group. So, it just happened to be at the time, Kinship are having a big push on starting the support groups. So, we were straight in, straight into the training, which was excellent. I have the most adorable volunteer support coordinator in Monica. She’s amazing. She supports me. In fact, she pushed me to put my first date in the calendar. And I now run this wonderful group of people that we get together, and the thing that we all say that we get from a support group is, “It’s not just me, it’s not just me, I thought I was the only one”. And to me, that’s what peer support is. We are in an unusual situation. As I say, people don’t even know about the term kinship. So, we’re dealing with our, with the challenges that we have and we don’t know that there’s anybody else out there that’s, you know, going through something similar or worse in lots of cases. 

Iain Broome: And how did that feel when you first realised? Because I imagine when you first found yourself in this role, it can be quite daunting I suppose, there’s all this, it’s like an entire new world I suppose. How did it feel when you first discovered there were other kinship carers out there and there were groups that you could attend? 

Marisa: The way that I felt after our first group is the way that I feel after every group. Every single time we get together, it’s just, it feels like a huge weight off your shoulders. You feel like you’ve built another family of people that totally understand, that totally accept, that allow you to rant and rave if you need to. We, you know, we share advice, support, experiences, and that is, oh, it’s everything. I can’t even, I don’t know what I would do without it now. We’ve got a WhatsApp group, so even, you know, between sessions, we keep in touch if there’s anything going on. If we just need a place to let off a bit of steam, we know we’ve got each other. And it’s, as I say, from the first session to the last, it’s been fantastic. 

Iain Broome: Does every session take a similar kind of format and routine, or is it different every time? 

Marisa: Oh, interesting. I guess the idea is that initially we would start off just going around the group introducing, as obviously as we were growing and new members were coming along, we were just sort of introducing ourselves and giving some background. Now, as the group has got to know each other. It tends to be, we know what’s going on for each other in the month, and we’ll ask, “Oh, how did that thing go? How, how, what happened?”. And there are meetings where one person will, practically, you know, speak the whole way through for two hours and we’ll all sort of give our thoughts on that. And other times, and we talk about anything, I mean, we are not only kinship carers are we, we’re people. So, we talk about all sorts of other stuff that’s going on in our lives as well. So, there isn’t a set format. I’ve had a guest speaker in before who came up with some fantastic information and advice. But I think really it’s the being together and just knowing that you can say anything to people that will understand without having to explain the whole background. And, so yeah, I’d say different every time, but every time there’s something that makes you smile. 

Iain Broome: And what’s your role as a group leader like? Is this something that you enjoy? What’s it like on a kind, on a day-to-day practical level? What kind of things do you have to do, I suppose, as well? 

Marisa: It’s not too arduous. There’s not too much administration so that’s really good. I go through, you know, it’s life, I go through peaks and troughs of how much advertising I do and really a lot of what we do has been through social media, just putting posts out to let people know that we’re there. I joined the campaign hub last night and I’m hoping to get more involved with speaking to more people, more influencers who may be able to signpost people in our direction. Because I’m conscious that, perhaps we’ve sort of reached our limit of what we’re going to get on social media. We need to speak to more people and kinship carers are hiding in plain sight, aren’t they? They’re everywhere but they don’t have a big sign above their heads. So really, I realised that I just need to speak to as many people as possible and tell them that we are there and that we, you know, we’d love to meet more people. 

Iain Broome: Does your mum go? 

Marisa: Yes, absolutely. She’s the star of the show. 

Iain Broome: That feels like it needs some elaboration. 

Marisa: Oh, I just tell everyone she is the star of the show. My mum is 77 years old, not that you’d know from looking at her. And she’s bringing up an 11-year-old and she’s been doing that for six years, seven years. And I guess it’s given her a whole new lease of life. It’s not the retirement she’d planned for herself. It’s the retirement that she’s applied herself to, and she does it incredibly well. And I just could not be more proud. She’s amazing so everyone gets told about how wonderful she is. I mean, she’s quite quiet at the meetings, probably, well I’m definitely, definitely the more talkative one but she’s got, she’s definitely got pearls of wisdom that she brings to us.  

Iain Broome: How has being involved in the peer support group, and perhaps even doing it with your mum as well being there, how has that changed your view of being a kinship carer? If you think back to when you first found yourself in the role compared to perhaps even now, like, how do you think that kind of support from other kinship carers has affected you? 

Marisa: I think, this is going to sound quite negative, I think at the beginning I felt perhaps a bit of a victim or imposed upon, this situation was imposed upon us. Obviously you go into it with love, but there is, it quite often feels like emotional blackmail. So as much as you love the child and you don’t begrudge anything that you do, obviously your life changes and your priorities change. And I just think hearing other people’s stories, not only do they understand what these sacrifices that you’ve made, or the changes that you’ve made, some of the stories you hear are, you can’t help but think, “Wow, you know, I’m so lucky. I’m so lucky not to be in that situation”. And so, I think it certainly helped bring perspective to the situation. Things that felt like the end of the world to me at the time, they really bring perspective to the situation. And I think now being in this community of kinship carers, I just feel lucky to be part of this wonderful group of people that are so loving and so giving and, but so lucky as well to know that we support each other and not be alone. We’re not alone. 

Iain Broome: Is there anything that you wish that you’d known before you became a kinship carer? 

Marisa: Oh, how long have we got? And this is what I say. One of our regular attendees joined, was actually signposted to us by her social worker at the very beginning of the process. And I think for the first couple of meetings that she came to, I think we felt like we overwhelmed her with information and advice, or our experiences, because I don’t think anyone can, anyone has any idea of actually what it means. I’m thinking particularly in terms of SGO. But obviously it’s different for different kinship carers, but certainly with the SGO is, basically the day that you walk out of court with that SGO, which it feels like a huge achievement, you realise that you are entirely on your own, having had so much involvement from guardians and social workers and all these different meetings and everybody’s sort of co-ordinating and almost running your life for, in our case, a number of years. All of a sudden you’re on your own and when things are difficult or challenging or confusing, there’s no one to turn to. The child isn’t in need, the child is being cared for perfectly well so, and I appreciate social services have plenty to do. So, there’s, I couldn’t even begin to tell you how much I wish I’d known before. And I mean, fortunately, in a way, our process was very long and that was due to having lots of different social workers. They change every few months and they, you’re starting again and they lose paperwork. But in a way, it gave me time to educate myself and I became quite, they probably thought I was quite difficult. And I started asking for things, realising that, things might not be quite as they were being painted. So, I started to sort of demand and ask for more support. 

Iain Broome: And perhaps this is where the peer support comes in handy because you get, there are other people who have been through a similar experience. 

Marisa: Oh, absolutely. As I say, this particular member, she was, I mean, she was lucky, the local authority that she was working with seemed very fair, but, you know, we were saying things, the kind of things to look out for in your support plan. As I say, we all go into it with so much love, and I think we have rose tinted glasses. And one of the things that you hope for the best for is contact and you believe, you know, everyone’s going into it with goodwill and with love and then when you’re on your own and it’s between you and a birth parent it can be quite different. And so, you want to be giving and you think it’s a good idea for the child to have lots of contact and it’s all going to be okay and you’re going to have this civilised relationship with each other and everyone’s going to work together in the benefit, for the benefit of the child. It is quite good to be prepared that that may not be the case and just to prepare yourself for, perhaps not giving as much as you would like to at the beginning and realising that people need to earn your trust and earn the sort of development and the improvements in relationships. 

Iain Broome: The educating yourself, that’s something that comes up quite a lot in these conversations with kinship carers. What’s the best thing about being a kinship carer? 

Marisa: Just seeing her smile in the morning, just seeing her, when she wins her dance prizes or her medals. Just knowing that she’s a happy little girl. She’s so happy and she knows she’s so loved. As I say, I don’t, I didn’t have children and that was, that was a choice, but all of a sudden I’ve been given this gift of this wonderful relationship. 

Iain Broome: And on the same theme, we’ve been asking each person we’ve spoken to in these interviews, what their moments of joy are. So, it could be like something big, or it could be just like an everyday moment, a bit like you’ve just described. But that idea of a moment of joy, I wonder if you could share any of those with us. 

Marisa: I think just when they reach out for a hug, when she reaches out for a hug, just and, she knows, she’s got her people, and she knows that we’re there and she loves us for it.   

So that was Marissa’s experience of being a kinship carer. A huge, thank you to her for sharing her kinship story with us. If you’re a kinship carer, or you know a kinship carer and want to learn more about the support we offer at Kinship, visit our website at compass.kinship.org.uk.  

Our free phone advice line is for kinship carers living in England or Wales. You can call us, book an appointment or search online for information tailored to your situation. You can attend free workshops on specific topics related to kinship care. You can also get emotional support by finding a peer support group near you using our postcode finder. We also have a range of online support groups, including some for kinship carers who want to talk to others that they have specific things in common with. Maybe you’d like to start a group of your own. You could become a volunteer, like many of our guests on this podcast, and use your experience to help other kinship carers by offering them a listening ear and sharing your experiences with them. Thank you for listening to Kinship Together. Join us for our next episode, where another kinship carer shares their unique story.