Coparenting with Your Incarcerated Partner
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Strategies for when there are no easy answers or perfect scenarios
Coparenting while your partner is incarcerated can seem insurmountable and a task only few would consider. Although little might be comforting when you lose your partner for an indeterminate amount of time—from grieving the loss to figuring out next steps for you and your children—there are a few ways to keep your partner engaged in parental decisions. I spoke with some members of the Radical Social Work Group on Facebook, who work with children and families of those who are incarcerated, to get their thoughts on the challenges this type of situation poses to the familial structure. According to the group, more time to adjust emotionally to the loss of their loved one was a recurring concern, since many family decisions often depend on the length of the sentence and, possibly, the reason for incarceration. There are no easy answers or perfect scenarios, but below are some strategies to consider as you navigate through the initial weeks or months.
Communication should be a priority. If possible, schedule regular calls and correspondence. If there is an opportunity, talk with the child in an age-appropriate manner and with the parent, before he or she leaves, about the child’s strengths and anything you have been working on as a family. Some children might completely shut down and not want to talk to the parent. Allow the child to express her feelings, and have both parents stress that the lines of communication are always open. The challenge for the at-home parent will be to maintain connection with the incarcerated parent.
Use phone calls for sharing highlights of that day. For example, if the child started to eat a new food or had a positive experience at school, let your partner know. Also, ask for your partner’s thoughts on one or two small things that will give your partner a sense of participation even though he or she is not there. Since your call time might be limited, try not to overwhelm your partner.
Ask for your partner’s thoughts and opinions about a matter before sharing yours. Doing so will aid in the involvement and discussion with your partner. It will also lessen the notion that you, at home, have already made up your mind about the subject.
Try to keep any decision that you had already made together. You might have rules for the children, such as no television or video games before homework, no name-calling or using “time out” as a discipline strategy. With this change, maintaining established routines and being consistent with discipline is important. You might also have had expectations or future plans as a couple, some of which might have to be put on hold, renegotiated, or jettisoned completely. Be realistic. You might not be able to discuss those matters, but if you choose to broach these conversations, do so gently and with questions that can encourage dialogue.
Seek services. The prison and judicial system is sometimes difficult to navigate. Most people wouldn’t consider bringing in a third party to aid in staying connected, but many organizations help families in this situation. Whether it is assisting with transportation to visit your loved one, parental support, referrals for education, or support for when your partner is released, connecting with other families who are in the same predicament could be helpful to you, your partner, and your children. Prison Fellowship shares that 1 in 28 children have an incarcerated parent. You, Solo Mom, are not alone. Though people often may feel uncomfortable sharing things about their personal lives, being part of a community where others are going through a similar situation sometimes can be the best resource.
Write letters, and send pictures and/or drawings. Yes, you are going to be busy at home, but taking the time to share your feelings or begin a challenging discussion in the form of a letter can be therapeutic and will allow you to distill your thoughts. Also, having your child send a drawing or having an older child write a letter about a big event or a problem that he or she might need advice about can be a way to extend communication. The reality is that there might be pressures for your partner, so it’s best not to expect a letter in return.
Be flexible. Parenting is challenging even in the best-case scenarios. There will be a period of adjustment for everyone. Go slow. Try out one or two things at a time, and be prepared for your partner to be shell-shocked and defer to you more often than not. Give your partner this time, accept his or her limitation, and accept your own process for adjustment.
Express thanks and love for any and all support given. With the stress of incarceration and the life changes that come along with it, we often forget to say I love you. Say it to yourself and to your partner. It is mutual empathy and compassion that will pull you through.
Tanisha Christie is an interdisciplinary performing artist and filmmaker. After years of working at the nexus of arts, media, social justice, and healing, she is currently finishing her master of social work (clinical specialization) at Hunter College in New York City. A child of a Solo Mom, she loves to ride her bike to the beach.
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