This Is What Having An Incarcerated Mother Can Rob You Of

Intense isolation — compounded with trust issues — prevented Ariana Steen from forming healthy bonds with other Black women.
“In a way, I had to serve time as well, [but] the prison wasn’t necessarily physical like it was for her,” said Ariana Steen, whose mother spent 10 years in prison.
“In a way, I had to serve time as well, [but] the prison wasn’t necessarily physical like it was for her,” said Ariana Steen, whose mother spent 10 years in prison.
Angelica Alzona for Huffpost

Until she was 21, Ariana Steen cried herself to sleep every night, terrorized by the thought of her mom being killed in prison. It’s a fear that permeated her psyche throughout her young adulthood; her mother was incarcerated when Steen was just 13.

Steen, now a 24-year-old living in Seattle, was primarily raised by her father and grandmother in Florida even before the arrest, in part because of her mother’s persisting mental health struggles. Despite the distance between the two, she describes her relationship with her mom prior to incarceration as sometimes distant but still beautiful. “We weren’t super close because she wasn’t really around too heavy. She was always kind of just doing her own thing,” Steen said. “But I remember one thing that I loved about my mom was she always seemed to be open to doing really adventurous stuff.”

The day Steen found out her mom had been sentenced for a hit-and-run was devastating and confusing. She’s still learning to process the trauma of that day, when a woman was speeding on a motorcycle and her mother ended up hitting her. “I think she panicked and got nervous since she had my two younger brothers with her,” Steen told me. “She went to a hotel and tried to make sure that her kids were looked after … I think she just had her fight-or-flight set in really quick for her and I feel like, at that moment, it wasn’t a malicious thing. It was more so of an ‘oh man, something bad happened and how do I fix it?’”

That moment of flight for Steen’s mom would quickly change her trajectory — and that of her children’s lives as well. Steen now knows that the road to healing from this trauma is long, but she continues to put in the work, not only for herself but for others who have similar lived experiences.

Despite Steen’s mother’s 12-year sentence being reduced for good behavior, the more than a decade of separation impacted not only their bond but also Steen’s outlook on relationships with other Black women in her life. Because of her more stable relationship with her father, she found it easier to connect to men than to women. “Even though I am close to my grandmother, it was awkward for me to be getting closer to Black women,” Steen said. “When I did feel like someone was showing me motherly love, I kind of stepped back and just fell off from really connecting with them.”

Steen’s story is just one example of the way our carceral system disrupts and degrades Black families, who suffer at much higher rates than their white counterparts because they are often imprisoned (for the same crimes) more frequently and for longer periods.

In 2020, the imprisonment rate for Black women was nearly twice the rate for white women, according to data from The Sentencing Project. And although the incarceration rate for Black women has decreased over the last 20 years, their absence from their communities is still felt by young and old, especially their children. Despite the term “daddy issues” being thrown around often, “mommy issues” largely impact adults as well and can manifest in children having trust issues with women, being clingy or hyper-reliant on a significant other and being a people pleaser.

Our parents and caregivers are our first introduction into the world and tend to dictate how much we can even trust the world, said Mychelle Williams, a therapist and national certified counselor based in Washington, D.C. For young Black girls in particular, she tells me, having an incarcerated mother can deeply affect the development of identity, since many daughters rely on their mother’s values and politics to shape their own. Williams’ first experiences as a counselor was at an alcohol and drug rehab center where many adults began using substances to cope with traumatic experiences from their childhoods.

The mother is the earliest model of behavior for most children. “The way she speaks, dresses, interacts with the world, cares for the home, even the type of music she likes or the hobbies she participates in becomes an entry for what’s possible for young girls,” Williams said. “Even if the child doesn’t take to the things that the mother displays, having room to explore what feels good to them and having the love and support from their mother is critical for identity and self-esteem.” This complicated relationship profoundly impacts a person’s ability to form relationships with other people.

During her adolescence, music was Steen’s coping mechanism when she had no one else to turn to and when she felt too scared to share this part of her life with her friends. It wasn’t until the last two years that she sought professional help. Although talk therapy has become destigmatized in recent years, conversations about mental health in Black communities have historically been a taboo topic, leaving many children and adults with unresolved trauma and no effective strategies to deal with it.

Ultimately, Steen started processing all the different types of loss that come along with having an incarcerated parent. “In a way, I had to serve time as well, [but] the prison wasn’t necessarily physical like it was for her,” she said. “It was a mental prison for me, not just because of my mom, but because of the way the world viewed me from the outside in.” This type of perceived isolation — compounded with trust issues — prevented Steen from forming healthy bonds with other Black women.

While the justice system at large needs a lot of fixing, Williams believes it’s very much the responsibility of the community to pour into the child of an incarcerated mother, since she’s managing a complicated type of grief. This can be an opportunity for other Black women such as aunts, religious leaders, grandmothers and teachers to ensure that the young girl’s perception of Black women isn’t tainted because of her experience with her mother.

And it may take persistent outreach from a community member, she said. “If not reached out to directly and actively sought after and nurtured, [a young woman] may find themselves turning inward and may struggle to create relationships with other women,” Williams said.

Although Steen was permitted to write to her mom during her entire sentence, she could only bring herself to do so about four times. When she’d become overwhelmed with grief and the words couldn’t find her, Steen’s grandmother encouraged her to put the pen down until she was ready. For Steen’s family, healing was seen as an individualized process, rather than deadline-driven.

Because of this, Steen’s journey has included both pain and progress. In 2022, she began writing a book about her experience growing up with an imprisoned mom and shining a light on just how dark the penal system is for the entire family. She wants everyone to know that there is more to her story than the cards she was dealt growing up and wants to create space for other Black women with similar stories. The project is an example of what Williams has described as a creating community — which is a healthy way of moving forward.

When her mother was released from prison in 2021, Steen said she was like a completely different person that was hard to recognize. The mental toll incarceration had on her mother was substantial, and Steen needed space and time for their relationship to heal. And while that bond will continue to evolve, Steen is intentionally working on connections with other Black women through avenues that feel safe and encouraging.

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