Feisty, Irish, foster care queen Sheila Patel who shares her experiences of love, loss, and a determination to be exactly who you are meant to be.
My journals are really the thing that has kept me going for many, many years. They are very precious to me. They cover everything; my thoughts, my feelings, my experiences and even the spiritual side of my life, which is very important. This is where I put everything that I wouldn't want anyone else to see or know at that particular time. So, my journals are my lifesavers, really. I've been keeping journals since I was 14. With a journal a year, gosh, I must have stacks of them! I love stationery. In a journal, I look for nice smooth paper and a good quality black medium-sized point pen. In fact, my kids tell me I could open up a shop with the amount of stationery I’ve got.
My name is Sheila Patel and I was born in the South West of Ireland. I was the youngest of 6 children and raised and educated as a Catholic. At a young age I always wanted to be “just as good if not better than the boys.” I played in every sport available, climbed hills and played in great rivers and beaches. Looking back, my childhood felt blissful and innocent. I was so protected.
As I got older it was difficult to “just be me”. There were certain expectations from home, school and church. Being “obedient” was an expectation. Not questioning and being compliant was seen as the way to progress and to not get caught in the crossfire. This was difficult for me as injustice was something that I struggled to tolerate. This often led to physical and verbal chastisement. Public humiliation was the norm to keep you in place. So as I grew up, I learned to manage the pain and looked forward to a time I could finally be me and be free.
You’d think I’d have learned to avoid conflict and not put my head above the parapet. But it didn’t stop me and throughout my life this has been the case. Being the voice of the vulnerable, abused, ignored and excluded has been my mission. This has come through in my work, church and personal life.
Perhaps because of my upbringing, showing vulnerability has been difficult for me throughout my life. Growing up, it was important not to cry and not show weakness. I look back on it now and even after my husband passed away, I think of all the times I should have been more vulnerable. I should not have been so stoic and strong. He would say that as well. The night before he passed away, we'd gone to a hotel and I ran out with my flip flops to go and get some food for us because he was unwell. I ran in a puddle and, as I came back in, I was trying to say “I need to clean my feet.” He said, “Well, let me do it,” and I said, “It's fine, you're not well, let me do it.” But he got the wet wipes, and he said, “Would you please let me do something for you?” So I said, “Okay then.” I've looked back and thought about how many times he was such a good man and how I should have been more vulnerable, allowing him to do what he wanted to do, in the way he cared for me. But because I always felt I had to be strong and never get anything wrong, I struggled with that.
A couple of years after I'd left school and was working, a friend of mine had asked me if I'd like to come to church with them. I said, “Oh what church is that?” And they said, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”. So I said, “Oh, it's a different religion. Okay I'll come along and see what's there.” My biggest worry, while I was there, was “Is this a different God? What's going to happen here? Are they weird and different?” Because, from a Catholic point of view, growing up, we were told that we should never step inside another church. But I took the chance. What really converted me was the power of prayer and understanding that prayer really is a conversation with my Heavenly Father, his son Jesus Christ and then afterwards feeling the Holy Ghost. Which I'd never had before. This was faith in action and not someone else dictating how to live it.
I was baptised at age 21 even though I’d been coming to church for two years beforehand. This caused a rift in my family but I knew I couldn’t deny the feelings I now had for my newfound faith.
Soon after my conversion, I started dating someone and within two years I found out I was pregnant. I didn't know anything about giving birth. I didn't tell anyone I was pregnant and left Ireland to come to England with my baby’s father for that reason. You know the expression “You made your bed; you lie in it?” I heard that often enough, so I decided that's what I would do. I just didn't feel I could stay around and bring more shame on my family. That was tough, especially when my baby's father went back to Ireland and I realised that I was going to do this on my own.
When I came close to having my baby, I had a dream where I’d been asked by one of my new community leaders in England if I would help a widower look after his two children. On that Sunday, that very same thing happened and I said yes. He was very supportive and very helpful and we became good friends. He helped me get my flat ready for the baby. He gave me a lovely cot and other items I needed. He was my rock during a lonely and scary time in my life, especially having my baby on my own in strange surroundings. He was a great cook and we had many nice meals together with his children.
I have to laugh now. I remember being devastated when I gave birth and looking at my body and stretch marks and my breasts that were huge and thinking, “Oh, my goodness,” because I was so physically fit beforehand and enjoyed being physically active. I was tiny before and just everything went out of proportion! I remember thinking, “Oh that's my life ended, nobody will ever find me attractive again.” I wish I had other people around me that would have said, “Oh you'll be fine. That's just normal, you’ll be okay,” you know, but I didn't.
After I had my baby, I wasn't sure what to do and my friend, the widower, said to me, “we can work this out together, stay here and I'll help you bring your child up and whatever you need, just ask.” And that's what I did. Over time, I felt happy again and secure too. We got engaged in April and married in July of the same year: 1980. So yeah, whirlwind romance is probably what they would say nowadays. We had two more children together as well with his two children aged 3 and 6–we became a blended family of 5. We were married for 31 years before he passed.
I'm very grateful to the people that cared for me and helped me get on my feet again in England. My decision to eventually foster was a way I could give back. That, and the physical as well as emotional abuse I experienced as a child, was a huge reason why I got into fostering. I wanted to give vulnerable children and young people a voice. For 21 years we fostered so that no other child in my care would ever feel how I felt: unimportant and a nuisance.
I was introduced to fostering after a friend of ours, who was a social worker, turned up really late to a social gathering because she had been caught up trying to sort out a place for a child to stay that night. That really bothered me. On the way home in the car, I said to my husband, “Look, I know we've got five children, but we have a bed free in one of the rooms...we can always put food in a child’s belly, clothes on its back and a roof over its head. The extra luxuries will take time, but for the moment it's better than a mattress on the floor,” and he agreed. It took us nearly a year to get approved because there are so many different things that have to happen. But after that, we had sibling groups and singles and mothers and babies. Over those 21 years, we fostered well over 100 young people. We always discussed it with our children and told them who might be joining our family, so that they had an opportunity to share their thoughts as well. We would also pray about it.
And all throughout this journey, I kept writing in those journals. Always. We had to keep journals on the foster children as well, so that was easy for me. I loved doing that. Sometimes I had three journals to do every Sunday night to cover the whole week, as well as doing my own. I’d put facts in there about the child but it was also about creating a story for that child of the things they would have missed out on otherwise. I still have loads of journals here if ever they want them. My journals are full of things that I experienced dealing with on a daily basis as well. They're full of my experiences as a girl, woman, wife, mother, grandmother and leader. Full of what it means to grow, love and thrive.
I've had two major tough times in my life. One is when I realised I was going to be on my own when my baby's father had gone back to Ireland. That was the loneliest, loneliest time of my life. And then the second time was when my husband passed away 10 years ago. That same feeling–that grief––that just changes you. That feeling of complete loneliness, even when love surrounds you and feeling “where do I go from here?” I poured my heart and soul out in those journals, big time. When my husband passed away it was hard to even pray, sing or laugh. I would write reams and reams about my feelings, about my past, my present, my future. About how much I love the Lord and love my family and love my life, but how lonely it was. How, even when people were around me, it was still lonely. There were even times, I have to say, when my husband passed, when I would wake up in the morning disappointed to realise: “I'm still here.” I would think it was a dream until the tsunami of grief would descend on me again.
It does get better over time, but it never goes away completely. Those two times were when I wrote my deepest. My journal was great because I was able to breathe while writing in them, and I was also able to record the grief in them. As time goes on, you can only cry so much and so you're able to deal with what's in front of you better because you've recorded it. Journaling is very therapeutic and helps with decision-making, too. I've always bought journals for my children, foster children and friends. I know that is something I will continue to do. My journals are my lifeline and I know they can be for others, too.
In one of my journals I’ve captured a quote by Maya Angelou that says “You did then what you knew best, now you know better, you will do better, you will do it differently.” That describes me well because I always thought I did everything the best way possible. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but so are lessons learned and the accounts of how we managed the hurdles of life. I wanted to keep journals the way that I did because I know that my children will one day read them, as well as my grandchildren. I wanted some of it to be a kind of written history of how I've gotten through things and how it might help them if they're faced with the same issues. That’s what I feel, at least. It's very hard to be perfect in love. You can be perfect at keeping your journal, you can be perfect at work, you can be perfect with your hair or your makeup or driving or anything in life. But the biggest challenge is perfectly loving the imperfections of ourselves and others. That is the greatest accomplishment for me.
Pre-production: Krischelle Joseph
Interview: Krischelle Joseph
Assistant interviewer: Emily Pauna
Transcription: Emily Pauna
Writing: Krischelle Joseph
Editing: Zinta Jauntis & Amy Epps
Audio: Emma Reyelts
Photography: Lara Moody