When a Father Is Incarcerated
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Helping your children stay connected
When a father is incarcerated, he often leaves behind a family led by a Solo Mom. This changes the dynamic of a family in important ways. The burden of finances, together with the day-to-day-management of home and children, falls solidly to the mother’s care.
Recognizing and responding to the sea change in family dynamics is the first challenge facing this new family unit. Maintaining contact between an incarcerated father and his children is next—and often beneficial if circumstances permit such contact. This article assumes that the crimes for which the father was incarcerated did not involve the child(ren) in question. If the crimes involved the child(ren), it is highly recommended to consult with a qualified social worker and other child advocates to assess the readiness of the child(ren) to see or have contact with the parent.
For a newly Solo Mom facing the traumatic circumstances of parenting during a partner’s incarceration, several emotions may present themselves. She may be overwhelmed and responding to the financial and emotional needs of her children. She may feel ashamed or embarrassed about the incarceration of her husband. She may feel angry at a lack of material or emotional support. All those responses are normal and completely understandable.
Nonetheless, it is a good idea to consider whether and how to create opportunities for children to remain connected to their incarcerated father. Setting aside all judgment as to the crime itself, there are compelling reasons to try to promote continued contact.
Any solo mother would do well to consider statistics no matter how grim they may be. Knowledge is power and gives one the opportunity to change the future. The Solo Mom should recognize that she is not alone—there are millions of children whose fathers are incarcerated. That being said, having an incarcerated parent seems to be the greatest predictor of future delinquency or future adult criminal activity.
Says Jaime Inclan of the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in New York City, “When children are not in contact with their parents, it is a breeding ground for idealization and when the parent is a big-time criminal, they can turn them into legend.”
That is the bad news.
The good news is that this knowledge may enable an understandably overwhelmed Solo Mom, who may have some resentment toward the incarcerated parent, to set it aside in the interest of her children.
To do so, she will do well to establish healthy rules and boundaries. She might discuss her expectations with the incarcerated partner. If he feels ashamed and hesitates to have a child see him in a prison setting, she might explain the importance of his continued involvement. He has been accused of committing a crime, but this does not mean he does not love his children. These facts are wholly separate. This is a challenging type of coparenting, but it is a good effort to undertake together.
According to academic and social worker Creasie Finney Hairston, “There is a growing body of research that shows that maintaining family ties while in prison leads to lower rates of re-arrest for the father and makes a difference in the lives of their kids.”
There are important issues to consider in arranging positive contact. It is necessary to be sure that children do not romanticize prison along with their incarcerated father. Teenagers may be prone to this sort of idealization more than younger children. Finding ways to have meaningful discussions around this will be useful and can yield positive results in the future.
A Solo Mom and the incarcerated father should be on the same page about the information they are conveying to the child(ren). Prisons increasingly offer parenting classes for incarcerated fathers. This is an advisable class to take, and many fathers report positive growth and net benefit to their families both during and following the term of their incarceration.
When planning contact:
- Use mail regularly. Children can be pen pals with their fathers. Children love to get mail, and they love to send letters. Send short notes and letters, and ask your incarcerated partner to respond.
- Prepare your children. Assuming in-person visits are advisable, Solo Moms should prepare children about what to expect. Depending on the age of the children, they should be gently prepared for the reality of a prison visit. Some prisons have family rooms that may be available in certain circumstances. This is certainly worth exploring.
- Bring something to do. Depending on the proximity of your home to the prison, you may want to bring things for the kids to do en route or while waiting. You may want to provide distraction from the various obstacles and impediments to actually seeing the father—transportation, sign-in—etc. Solo Moms are called on to make the best of a challenging situation in many ways, and here is yet another example.
- Bring schoolwork and books to share. Children are not always skilled conversationalists—so try bringing relevant prompts. Incarcerated fathers can read a book, practice math facts, look at drawings. They can talk about school and encourage kids to do the best they can in that environment.
- Use the phone. Phone calls allow you to share reciprocal knowledge about events and help promote a sense of love, and might give your incarcerated partner hope for and evidence of a connected and positive future.
There are a million reasons why staying in touch with an incarcerated father is difficult. If it is possible to do, however, there can be substantial long-term benefits for the child(ren) involved. Under the right circumstances, these benefits can also extend to your family as a whole.
This is a difficult needle to thread: you’re trying to foster communication between loving members of a family in less than ideal circumstances. As you care for your family in this way, know that you are selflessly doing right by them in the long run. It is yet another heroic act of love and courage on your part.
Join our confidential community of Sisters to connect with other Solo Moms who understand the challenges of a partner’s incarceration.
Tara Shafer is the cofounder of Reconceiving Loss, an online resource center for families coping with pregnancy and infant loss. She is a contributing blogger to the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and BabyCenter. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. You can follow her on Twitter at @reconceivinglos.
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