Incarceration affects millions of families—including some who become single-parent households overnight.
Sunday, March 21, is National Single Parents Day, a day that honors the mothers and fathers holding down the fort with all the hard work, devotion, and sacrifices involved in raising children alone. Prison Fellowship® wants to especially recognize those parents who carry added responsibilities after their partner's arrest.
Grace* remembers clearly the day, shortly after her husband Donald's arrest, she sat in an eye doctor's waiting room, hoping the receptionist wouldn't say her name loudly enough for others to hear.
The crime had been splashed across television screens and news headlines. Everyone knows, Grace thought.
She tried to disappear into a corner, hoping not to cry. She dreaded the whispers and the sideways glances that might follow if others in the small room recognized her unusual surname. She would have canceled the appointment, but soon she would be uninsured—yet another consequence of her husband's choices—so she stayed.
Grace, a social worker, never thought she would raise kids alone.
"We had pretty much a completely normal life," she says.
She and Donald had been together for 20 years and had two sons: Derek, 13, and Danny, 7. But then came Donald's gambling addiction, mental health issues, and a deepening spiral of arguments, deception, and erratic behavior.
Finally, Grace took the kids and went to her parents' home across town. But Donald was still in the picture, attending events like Derek's sports games, and she hoped and believed things would work out in the end.
Instead, one day she got a call on her cell phone urging her to rush home. To her horror, Grace learned a detective was at the house waiting to talk to her, and Donald was in jail for the death of a family friend.
THE WEIGHT OF AN UNEXPECTED BURDEN
Every prisoner's family is unique. Children of incarcerated parents live in many different situations. Some are with grandparents, aunts and uncles, stepparents, or other relatives. Some go into foster care. Many, like Grace's, live with only their mother or father, while the parent behind bars may remain deeply involved or be totally absent from the children's lives.
From the day of Donald's arrest, Grace found herself effectively a single parent. Donald faced a lengthy sentence; even the possibility of parole was decades away.
"It just flipped our world upside down," she recalls.
Grace (who is now divorced from Donald) had help, for which she is grateful. She had family members to lean on, a caring church congregation, an understanding counselor, and friends from a support group for family members of addicts.
But still, facing each day of her "new normal" took courage. She remembers being afraid even to go to the grocery store in those early days, worried about the judgment or pity she might face. One friend severed ties over Grace's decision to stay in contact with Donald. One family wouldn't let their children play with Grace's sons.
TRAUMATIZED BY LOSS
Each boy, traumatized by the loss, dealt in his own way.
First-grader Danny lived in a "fantasy world," insistent that his dad would somehow come home. But deep down, he worried more than any little boy should have to. He began washing his hands compulsively, over and over again. He brought home a coupon book from a school fundraiser, proudly explaining to Grace how much money it would save them.
"I've got it all figured out, Mom," he assured her. "I know how we're going to make it."
Derek, a middle schooler, buried his emotions, striving for normalcy. But he fretted about when the detectives would bring back his football and his shoes (the same size as his father's), items they had taken during their search. He wondered if someday he would make the same bad choices as his dad.
Grace tried to meet their complex needs while working full-time, cooking the meals, and watching their tightened budget. Life's daily demands didn't leave much time for taking care of herself.
"I didn't feel like there was anything to look forward to," she admits. She went to outpatient group therapy. Once she was hospitalized for an episode she calls a "mental breakdown."
CONNECTION INSTEAD OF JUDGMENT
Amid all the challenges they have weathered together, Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree® program has been a consistent bright spot for Grace and her sons. Each year until they turn 18, Donald has signed up the boys to receive a gift and a personal message from him.
Since 1982, Angel Tree has given parents behind bars a pathway to strengthen and restore relationships with their children. Thousands of local churches and community organizations nationwide volunteer to buy gifts for children and present them in the name of the incarcerated parents during Christmas parties or home deliveries.
At first, Grace had misgivings about being the recipient of "charity" from a local Angel Tree church that offered to serve them. With her many years of social work, she was more used to giving help than getting it.
"I was hesitant the first year to attend [the Angel Tree Christmas party]," she admits, "thinking we would be judged in some way. The complete opposite occurred! We were greeted and made to feel so welcome and special."
Danny especially enjoyed the party, and Grace was glad the boys could have a sense of normalcy and continued connection to their father. After Christmas, when they went to visit Donald, Danny would wear a shirt his dad gave him through Angel Tree. "Look, Dad!" he would say with pride. "You gave me this!"
Danny, now 17, received a gift every year for a decade. The Angel Tree gift he received in Christmas 2020 meant a lot to him; because of the pandemic, he hadn't been able to visit Donald for months.
REMEMBERING SINGLE PARENTS
A lot has changed in the last 10 years. Donald is still in prison, but Grace's sons are now young men. Grace says that her sons have taken the good they can learn from their father—both the boys and their father are skilled at fixings things—but that they have learned from his mistakes, too, and how to make better choices.
Derek, 23, is a firefighter. Danny is finishing up high school. He is a peer mentor to students with special needs at his school—an opportunity he is excited about.
Though she sometimes worries about the long-term impacts of what her boys have been through, Grace is proud of her family and how far they have come. They no longer need financial assistance from relatives, and there's even room for extras like eating out more than once a month.
Having made it through so much, Grace, who does case management for her state's social services department, is looking for ways to give back. By sharing her story, she wants to assist others who unexpectedly face the task of parenting alone.
Grace encourages other parents affected by a loved one's incarceration to accept help, even if it feels uncomfortable at first.
"I think anybody caring for the children and themselves needs support, too," she says. "Everybody needs self-care, and everybody needs help sometimes."
For Grace, Angel Tree and other services were a tangible reminder that help was out there, and she and her family would make it.
*At the family's request, names in this story have been changed to protect privacy.
DID YOU ENJOY THIS ARTICLE?
Make sure you don' t miss out on any of our helpful articles and incredible transformation stories! Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter, and you' ll get great content delivered directly to your inbox.
Your privacy is safe with us. We will never sell, trade, or share your personal information.