The following article originally appears in the Summer 2018 Women's edition of Inside Journal®, a quarterly newspaper printed and distributed by Prison Fellowship® to correctional facilities across the country.
HOW TO COPE WHEN YOU CAN'T CONNECT
A Resource for Incarcerated Parents
Plenty of resources talk about how to best connect with your children while behind bars. But what about when you can't connect at all, even if you desperately want to?
No matter what parenting mistakes you made before going to prison, you probably love your children deeply, so being separated from them is traumatic.
"These women are dealing with such a huge loss of their nurturing, maternal instinct, and this leads to sadness, guilt, emptiness, desperation, helplessness, even rage," says Liz Stanosheck, Prison Fellowship® area director.
The guilt of feeling like a failed mother can add to an underlying lack of self-esteem. "I feel like as women, we have all these insecurities, especially if we've lost our kids," says Kellie, a mother and a former prisoner from Colorado. "We feel like, 'I could never be forgiven for that.'"
ADDRESSING THE PAIN
Many situations can lead to incarcerated moms being disconnected from their kids. Sometimes the caregiver finds contact too logistically difficult, or the courts have forbidden contact. Perhaps the children are living with relatives who haven't revealed all the facts about their mom's situation. Or maybe the children feel too hurt or resentful to speak with their mom.
For mothers who deliver their babies while incarcerated, able to hold them for only a few hours, the separation can be especially abrupt and traumatic. "One of my sons I had my second time in prison," remembers Roxanne, a mother from Arizona. "I had six kids in total … I never had my kids for long."
Regardless of the reason, separation from a child can be overwhelming, leading to a downward spiral of negativity. If incarcerated moms don't find ways to address the pain, they may have trouble sleeping or problems with prison staff, or even act out until they're put into segregation.
If you aren't able to contact your children, there are some ways to gain peace and improve your outlook.
FOCUS ON IMPROVING THE PRESENT—NOT RELIVING THE PAST
Start making healthy decisions, and remember that whatever choices you make now will directly impact your future. "Tell yourself, 'I am going to avail myself as much as possible to improve me, so that if my child ever does reach out to me, I'm a better person,'" Stanosheck says.
WRITE LETTERS TO YOUR CHILDREN—EVEN IF YOU CAN'T SEND THEM
Don't be afraid to be vulnerable. Tell them how much you love and miss them. And avoid blaming others for your incarceration or speaking negatively about the custodial caregiver. If you don't even know where to start, Stanosheck suggests reaching out to your mental health counselor to ask for help with what to write. Hold on to the letters; just putting your feelings in writing can be very healing. If you ever reestablish contact down the road, you can decide if you want to mail them.
CONNECT WITH OTHER CHILDREN, IF POSSIBLE
If your facility has parent-child reconciliation programs, you can aid other families by volunteering to help with set-up. You might not be able to participate, but you'd be helping children indirectly. Some facilities have a nursery program where prisoners in good standing can volunteer in day care.
CONNECT WITH OTHER WOMEN
Start a book club, peer support group, or Bible study. Forming a sense of community is important, especially when you find other women who understand your situation. You might be able to serve as a mentor to another woman who is struggling.
Find books on anger management, mindfulness, trauma healing, and holistic healing. The Bible is also a great source of wisdom and comfort. On days when you don't have the strength to dive into challenging nonfiction self-help books, even reading novels can take your mind off things.
PRAY AND MEDITATE
Yoga and meditation in your cell can help you heal. Bedtime relaxation exercises can help improve your sleep. And prayer can be very healing and calming. Pray for your children, using specific requests, and thank God for any blessings you do have.
TALK TO A PROFESSIONAL
Speak to a counselor, medical staff, or chaplain about any troubling feelings you may be having. Speaking to someone who isn’t incarcerated can give you a different perspective.
Do whatever you can to improve yourself while behind bars. Volunteer for as many programs as you can, and work on healing yourself and growing as a person.
ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR VALUE
You might think you've ruined your children's lives and don't deserve forgiveness, but that's the negativity talking. You have value, and you deserve to heal. Besides, you never know when you might be reunited with your estranged children—imagine the look on their face when they see how far you've come.