Prison is something you can’t truly understand until you live it. Our program participants have spent their pregnancy, childbirth, and often the first few years of their child’s life in prison. It’s so hard for us, me writing this post, and you reading it, to understand what that means. All I can do to communicate their struggles is share some of the struggles the women I work with have faced. They are so brave, but it isn’t easy and it isn’t pretty. That’s why Motherhood Beyond Bars exists.
They don’t get the chance to know their baby
I talked about how quickly our moms have to say goodbye to their babies in “She’s been with me for nine months.” This separation is hard for mothers in the moment, but it doesn’t get easier. Our program participants don’t get the chance to get to know their babies. They will never know firsthand that first smile, that first step, that first little peek over the crib. I know moms who have cried because they weren’t home for a milestone. Imagine missing all of them.
Motherhood Beyond Bars can never replace those precious moments, but we do help moms live vicariously through their baby’s caregivers. After learning about baby milestones, vaccines, and what to do if your child falls behind, we give each of our new moms a blank book. They write each milestone down and quiz their baby’s caregivers until they know when each developmental step happened. Through these books moms can feel more connected to their baby in the moment and have something to share when that child gets older.
Those books are always beautiful, chock-full of baby pictures and lovingly decorated, but they can never replace the real thing.
Their baby doesn’t get the chance to know them
Prisons are never in a central location. Prisons are usually tucked away out of sight and out of mind. Although the incarceration of women has grown exponentially, they are still the minority in state and federal prisons. Because of this there is usually only one or two women’s prisons per state. This means long travel times for the caregivers of incarcerated women’s children. For many families the time and money spent on taking children to visit their mothers isn’t feasible. The ACLU reports that a study by government officials found that more than half of incarcerated women nationwide have never had a visit from their children. The women that do get visits find that their children don’t know them. They cry if their mother picks them up. They run away from their mothers towards their caregiver.
They worry all the time
Most parents have taken a short trip without their children. Most parents know what it’s like to worry how their child will do at daycare, school, or grandma’s house. Now imagine extending that trip to a year or more. Imagine only getting to hear about your child through a once a week phone call (if that). Most of our new moms hear something about their children, but when they don’t hear anything, or when their baby is sick, or teething, or having trouble at school, that’s when the real worrying starts. The worst part for these moms is they can’t do anything to help. They can’t soothe their crying baby. They can’t fix chicken soup to warm away sniffles. All they can do is sit, and wait, and worry.
They have to rely completely on someone else
Many of our participants tell me how hard (an humiliating) it is to rely on someone else for everything. As mentioned above, one of the worst parts about being an incarcerated parent is not being able to do anything for your children. The flip side to this is also difficult-since they can’t carry out the daily routine of parenthood they have to rely on someone else to do it for them, if they are lucky enough to know someone who will. Of course our participants are grateful to their family members and friends who pick up where they left off, but they can’t help feeling a little jealous and a little guilty. Guilty that their loved ones have to spend so much time and energy to help them, and jealous that they don’t get that time with their children.
They have to fight to keep their children
After the all that waiting and worrying, not all incarcerated women have an easy time regaining custody of their children. Sometimes family members become attached and move to terminate parental rights. Sometimes no one can care for the children after birth, so they end up in foster care. Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act states can move to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care 15 of the past 22 months. Since many of our participant’s sentences are for more than 5 years, the termination of parental rights can become a bitter reality.
Being an incarcerated parent is not easy. Unfortunately whole families suffer due to one woman’s incarceration. Motherhood Beyond Bars continues to work to build stronger families for incarcerated pregnant and postpartum women. Consider donating to support our efforts.