When my husband was convicted last year of crimes landing him a 14-year prison sentence, I was in shock. Sure, it was a rocky few months between the time he was initially arraigned on these charges until his conviction, but I believed in his innocence. It just couldn’t be true. We carried on with our normal lives before the conviction. We were an educated couple. We had both found success in our careers. We had purchased a house in a great school district to raise our son. Crime did not happen in our neighborhood, let alone in my own home. There was no way he could be guilty. I could not grasp that the loving husband and father I knew so well could have done anything wrong.
On the morning of his sentencing, we began our day just like any other. We had our coffee and assisted our son to get ready for school. We ate breakfast as a family and drove off to take our five-year-old to his kindergarten class. I have since captured and keep this morning securely protected in my memory. This was the last moment of that life. From that morning on, nothing about our lives will go unchanged.
I left the courtroom alone. I felt nothing. I was numb. There were no thoughts. There were no words. There were no feelings. There was nothing. I went into my office and muddled emotionlessly through what remained of my normal workday.
I made my first major mistake in co-parenting with an incarcerated father that day. When I returned home to my son that evening and my husband did not, my son questioned where he was. I looked away and proceeded to lie to him. I told him that daddy was traveling for work. I told him I was not sure when he would be back. I told him that we could not call daddy because he had forgotten his phone at home. I continued to repeat these same three lies to him over the course of the next week. After not getting any more information from asking seemingly endless questions, eventually he stopped asking. I had unintentionally silenced my son at a level I did not yet understand.
Sometime in the following week, the shock passed. I could feel. I felt too much. It hurt. I felt raw, pure disgust and anger. I hated this man for putting our family in this position. I refused to talk to him. I refused to acknowledge him. I committed myself to having no contact with him. I committed to preventing him from having any contact with our son. I removed his photos from our walls. I removed his belongings from our home. He was dead to me.
This was my second major mistake in co-parenting with an incarcerated father. I had stopped talking about him with my son at all. I didn’t speak his name. I carried on as if nothing had happened, as if he never existed. I had left my child with a void. I thought I was prepared to fill it. I thought I would be able to make myself the parent he needed. I was wrong.
In the following weeks, the anger passed and I became deeply saddened. I was grieving the loss of my family as I knew it. I was grieving for the losses that my child will experience in the future from his father’s absence. I was grieving the loss of being able to give my child the wonderful, two-parent household childhood he deserved.
I was embarrassed. Surely at this point, others in our small community had realized what was going on. What would they think? What will they tell their children about my child? I was overwhelmed, feeling alone with my thoughts. I felt as if myself and my son had become impure. As if there was something wrong with us and we were unwelcomed members of the community. For several weeks, I was driven by the urge to keep my son and myself isolated.
This was my third major mistake in parenting with an incarcerated spouse. I isolated myself with my child. We stopped going to the playground. We stopped going to swimming lessons and soccer practice. We made shopping trips in the middle of the night when I felt we were least likely to see anyone we knew. I redirected him from trying to talk to anyone in public places. I interrupted his ties to the community at a time when he needed them most.
Realizing all of this was more than I could handle, and starting to see that I was making egregious errors in parenting, I knew that I could not do this alone. I could not continue to isolate my family and I needed to have that hard conversation with my son. I needed to tell him the truth; he deserved that.
One piece at a time, I explained to him where his father had been. We talked about what a law is. We talked about what a crime is. We talked about what a prison is.
Slowly, we reconnected with my husband at a pace that was appropriate for my child. Although their relationship will never be the same, my son is adjusting to the new relationship he is able to have with his father. Today, just over a year later, my son receives and responds to his father’s letters six days a week. They are able to have 15-minute phone calls once a day. And for the past month, with plans to continue, he has been able to visit his father for one hour at a time, one day a week. These circumstances and restrictions are not ideal for a six-year-old; however, it is so important for the communication and visits to continue.
After having more and more contact with other parents who are also co-parenting with incarcerated parents, I have realized that my errors are all too common in this situation. I have witnessed many other families share very similar experiences with their children as I have with my child. Upon realizing this, I would like to share the most important things I have learned after one year of co-parenting with an incarcerated father:
Be open and honest with your children. Do not lie. This will only complicate their ability to trust you later. Share all that you can objectively and accurately at an age-appropriate level. Continue to review the facts with your child as he or she matures.
Be direct. Do not create false expectations or hopes for your child. It is important to inform them that their relationship with an incarcerated parent cannot continue as it may have existed prior to their parent’s imprisonment. Prepare them to accept only the realistic possibilities of maintaining a relationship with an inmate.
Encourage communication! Allow your child to communicate with their incarcerated parent on a regular, consistent schedule. Sit with them and write a letter at the same time on a certain day, or several days of the week. Allow them the freedom to express anything they wish to say. Allow them to check the mailbox with you at a certain time of day and read them any letters they may receive from their parent. If you can, make room in your budget for phone calls and allow your child to speak with their incarcerated parent as often as possible. Although this may not be able to happen at a consistent time every day, once an inmate knows their routine, it is possible to establish a general period of the day. For us, my son knows that his father usually calls after dinner but before bedtime, leaving us about a two- to three-hour window.
Keep the incarcerated parent involved in active parenting! Allow your child’s school to mail the same notices to the absent parent that you are getting. This will keep them up to date with events, grades and concerns. Inform them of achievements and accomplishments as they happen. Address behavioral and health concerns if the need arises. Keeping the other parent up to date allows their communication with the child to be as meaningful and effective as possible.
Allow your child to visit. Make sure the child understands the schedule for in-person visits you have planned for them. Show them a calendar and use a symbol or phrase as appropriate to communicate dates with your child.
Even in difficult circumstances, never speak negatively to your child about their incarcerated parent. Use only facts to relay information to the child. Do not add opinions. It is critical, even after a criminal conviction, to allow the child the freedom to formulate their own opinions and relationship with their parent.
At six years old, my son is not capable of fully understanding the lifelong price he will pay for his father’s mistakes. However, by keeping my husband involved, by being accurate, open and sharing information with my son objectively as it becomes age appropriate, we are making progress toward his healing. By addressing his emotions and concerns as they arise, he is learning expression and coping skills that will stay with him for life. He is learning to be human is to error. He is learning the value of honesty; to be honest with himself and others if ever he shall make a mistake. He is learning forgiveness and compassion. Most importantly, by keeping my husband involved, he is not left to wonder if he is loved as so many children are when an incarcerated parent gets shut out of their lives.