I live with three boys all under the age of 10 and one teenage girl. Every day I listen to them say, "Look at me," "Watch me," "Watch this," "Are you watching?"
I put up with eye-rolling and short shorts. I nag about homework. I go to school plays, swimming lessons and the principal's office.
I am 57 years old and no, I'm not a late bloomer or a grandma. I foster.
They come and they go. Sometimes they come in the middle of the night. Sometimes I am given notice they are on their way, sometimes not.
They can act tough or they can be crying but they all come with the same expression - confused and scared.
If they come in the night I stay up and play Monopoly or Sorry! with them until the sun comes up. You would be surprised how much some kids have to say after a glass of milk and a snack, and I can still be surprised how long some go saying nothing.
Over the six years I've been fostering I've had about 20 children, some for a few months, some for years. We usually have three to four kids at a time.
They go to supervised visits with their families and often come back so sad it would break your heart. On occasion they come back happy to be with me again, and that's an even bigger heartbreaker.
To say fostering is different than raising your own kids is an understatement.
I don't know who their friends are, who has had chicken pox, who has had vaccinations.
I do know it is now my responsibility to get them to the dentist and doctor, to buy new clothes and shoes, all without making things scary or overwhelming for them.
It's my responsibility to figure out who wants a goodnight hug and who doesn't, who wants to be rocked and who is scared for me to go near them.
I have learned not to sweat the small stuff. Once in a while the kids eat sugary cereal or hot dogs - food I was reluctant to give my own daughters. These children have more important things on their plate than arguing with me about what is a healthy food choice. If they arrived wearing a raggedy shirt, I wash it and let them wear it every day for a week if they want. As long as it's clean, it's fine.
I am filling a need in our society that I truly wish didn't exist. I often find myself trying to understand how it can be that I'm up in the night with a child who isn't my own who is missing his mother or father or guardian.
They come with so much baggage. Most of it I will never know. Why does someone cry in the middle of the night? Why is someone terrified of the dishwasher? Why does someone hide food under the bed? Most of the time only the family knows and they aren't likely to tell anyone.
People say, "You're a saint for doing what you do," or "You took another kid?" The truth is that I like kids. I'm not a saint, nor is there something wrong with me for wanting to help out.
Our friends are well past the age of having to find a babysitter, so at times we are left out of social groups. A few of our friends have drifted away completely. They are uncomfortable with this job of mine and think we are leaving ourselves open to lawsuits. They question what motivates my desire to foster children.
It might be easy to throw up my hands and get out of fostering, but then I would miss taking a group of kids to the fair or watching the excitement on their faces when we go to the drive-in for the first time.
This "job" lets me indulge my inner kid while being a responsible grown-up at the same time.
It has also taught me a lot. One day a few years ago, the saddest face I had ever seen was dropped off at my door. She was only 3. On the third night she was here, still with her sad, scared face, I said to her, "Honey, what is it you're afraid of?"
She looked at me with the most forlorn expression and pointed her finger right at me. She was way more afraid of me, this stranger she didn't know, than her familiar but abusive home.
That's been the biggest lesson - when you are little, family is love and comfort, no matter what. Everyone just wants to be with their family, to be home.
I am lucky to have a husband who understands and is willing to help me make good citizens of kids who otherwise might be in the system forever. My family is compassionate and caring, but we were raised with opportunities that are often lacking for these children.
They need this system that will help them get home. A system that, while certainly not perfect, helps their families learn a few lessons while they've been away. Lessons such as how to feed them, send them to school, stop hitting them, stop doing drugs.
Fostering is tough and sometimes I can't remember why I do it. Then I experience a day that reminds me. Coming home from the beach this summer, we were all eating ice cream, tired and excited.
"Life is good, isn't it boys?" I said.
Looking up at me with his big, brown eyes, the five-year-old said, "No Cindy, life is good with you."
Sydnie Crockett lives in Woodstock, Ont.