The following article was originally published in Spring 2017 edition of Inside Journal. Inside Journal is a quarterly newspaper published by Prison Fellowship® just for prisoners.
Prison? I never thought I would end up there, especially 11 years into sobriety. But an out-of-character, impulsive reaction to life's circumstances landed me in the unfamiliar legal system.
The sound of the judge's gavel rang through the silent courtroom just moments before I was handcuffed and escorted through the doorway leading to the county jail. I was staring at five years with a concurrent eight-year suspended sentence.
I dreaded the time away, but it was worse for my children. To them, I had vanished. Disappeared. Gone.
My strong, courageous wife endured a lot of heartache. She had to navigate the difficulties of being a "single" mother under the shadow of my mistakes.
How does a wife who is left behind explain to her two young children that Daddy had to go away, unsure of when he would return? How does a wife answer their daily questions of why they can’t call Daddy? Why did he have to leave? Mommy, why are you crying?
As for me, I had to face being uprooted from my family and transported 282 miles, or five hours, away with limited contact. Due to distance and funds, I only saw my children and wife for six out of 324 days in a strange, unwelcoming environment. To stay connected to them, I had to get creative. My children (ages 3 and 5 at the time) were unable to understand exactly why I disappeared from their lives, and needed to know I still loved them and cared for them.
Here are some creative, meaningful ways I managed to be there for my children even when I couldn't be there physically You can use them to be intentional with your own children, too. (Some programs may not be available at all facilities.)
READ BOOKS TO YOUR CHILD
Choose a book from the library, record yourself reading the book, and then mail a copy of the recording to your child. He or she can play the recording repeatedly just to hear your voice. My kids enjoyed this so much and said it made them feel connected to me while I was gone. Check to see if your facility has a program to help you do this.
BE ACTIVE IN YOUR CHILD'S EDUCATION
Contact their school (you might need to ask someone on the outside to do this for you) and ask them to send you their schoolwork a few weeks in advance so you can do their homework with them over the telephone. My son was so elated that he and I were looking at the exact same homework sheet at the same time.
MAKE CARDS FOR YOUR CHILDREN
Make personalized cards and letters for your child to simply remind them that you love them and miss them. Use encouraging words and even Scripture to inspire them to be the best they can be.
CONGRATULATE YOUR CHILDREN
Create a certificate congratulating them on school graduations or special accomplishments in their life. They will hang them with pride knowing you cared enough to do something a little extra!
PLAY GAMES WITH YOUR CHILDREN
Develop crosswords, word searches, or mazes using words or silly phrases your family often used when you were all together. Children have fun filling these out and it helps keep your family identity alive. (Hint: Make sure to put the answers on a separate piece of paper!)
ASK FOR DRAWINGS
Encourage your children to mail you drawings and pictures that you can hang up in your cell or dorm room.
WRITE A BOOK
Write an adventure book with your child's favorite characters (maybe a stuffed animal they love or a mutual family member you both love) that you can read together over the phone. It does not have to be anything fancy or elaborate. Keep it simple. The point is that you took the time to write a book just for them.
Try to make holidays and birthdays extra special for them. If available in your facility, try to get connected through Angel Tree, which helps you provide Christmas gifts for your children through a local church or organization. You could also ask a friend on the outside to get involved to help make this special. For instance, I asked some friends to go buy a puzzle, put it together, write a special message with Scripture on the back, break down the puzzle and send to my children for Christmas. My children were totally surprised and loved their gift.
CALL, CALL, CALL!
Call as often as you can to keep the sound of your voice alive in their minds.
Rob Lohman is an author, documentarian, and the founder of Lifted from the Rut, a ministry for people struggling with addiction.