I recently graduated with distinction from an elite university. I’m fit, tall, white and blonde. I grew up in a safe neighborhood, and I have great friends. I don’t have to worry about money, I was recognized for my service work, I’m privileged and still, my mother missed more moments than I can keep track of spanning from my childhood to the present day. She missed all these moments because she was, and still is, incarcerated.
My mother has been incarcerated, on and off, for nearly a decade now. Seeing as I am only 22, her incarceration has spanned a little less than half of my life. She was around during my formative years, but by no means was it the type of development and learning that I wanted.
My childhood was full of arguments between my mother and father, a man desperate to save his marriage and wife. It was full of disappointment, silence, tears and questions. Why was my mother an alcoholic? When will this chaos stop? Does my mother love me enough to quit drinking? My mother uses alcohol to numb the trauma she feels from her childhood; the chaos has not stopped, and my mother does love me, but that has nothing to do with whether or not she can maintain sobriety.
Logically, these answers make complete sense; emotionally, I’m a tangled mess of loss, grief, anger and sadness. Yet I’m resilient, and I keep going and searching for emotional clarity and strength.
My mother missed every single softball game I ever played, both junior and senior prom, my first kiss, my first love and my first heartbreak. She missed all of my college improv comedy shows, my college graduation, every birthday from ages 8 to 22 and my development into the young woman I am today. I can’t remember the last time I celebrated her birthday with her (or at all), the last time I hugged her or what her voice sounds like on the phone or in person.
“I can’t remember the last time I celebrated her birthday with her (or at all), the last time I hugged her or what her voice sounds like on the phone or in person.”
Losing a parent to incarceration is similar to them dying, yet you know the way to heaven and how to get to them, hold them and connect with them but the road is under construction, and it won’t be finished for years.
You live with the pain of knowing that you could have them in your life, but can’t or at the least, are unable to have them in your life in the way you want. You reach for their hand, but they are too far, so your hand grows cold; they are out of your grasp.
When you do have them in your reach, when you can visit them, you still wish they were out of your grasp or at the very least, that the circumstances were different. I have visited my mother at both a jail and a prison, and both were surreal experiences. As a child, it is hard to wrap your head around that this is where your parent lives. That for hours a day they are confined to a single room, that when they need something they must ask, or that they don’t receive some of the basic dignities and privacies both you and I take for granted.
The first jail I ever visited my mom in was straight out of a movie. A clear wall divided us with a small hole about face-level for the sound of our voices to travel through. The visiting area held two families at once, and my dad and I raised our voices to try and be heard over the voices of the family next to us. Needless to say, my younger self left that encounter feeling frustrated, and confused. Why didn’t we get privacy? Why couldn’t I touch my mom? Why didn’t anyone get that she had a disease, one that almost entirely ruined her life?
Her addiction, as well as her incarceration, complicates our relationship. She called from jail one day when I was in middle school; the conversation was the same “I am so sorry. I’m sorry. Is your dad seeing someone new? I heard he was,” I had enough and hung up. I did not speak to her for most of middle and high school. Her every letter unanswered, and every phone call picked up by my father.
“My relationship with her will never stop being complicated, and her incarceration -- the stigma surrounding it and its lack of rehabilitative measures -- will only complicate things further.”
I am sure it must have been painful for her, as it was for me, but I felt it was best for me. I needed time to process who she was, where she was, how I wanted her in my life (if I did) and how my childhood and how her incarceration and addiction have impacted me. I still do not have the answers to all of those questions, and I am sure I will be thinking about them for years to come. Mulling them over in my head, wincing as I remember all the moments my mom drunkenly fought with me.
The moment I opened up to my sixth-grade class about my mom’s addiction and a boy made fun of me, and the time during my first year of college when I thought we would finally celebrate Christmas as a family and when my dad and I got to her house she was drunk. My relationship with her will never stop being complicated, and her incarceration ― the stigma surrounding it and its lack of rehabilitative measures ― will only complicate things further.
I am one of 2.7 million, and although I am a part of this unfortunate club, I refuse to be defined by it. My mother is incarcerated, and assumptions have been made about my character and my future because of it, but I am so much more. What I listed at the beginning of this article is a testament to the different facets of who I am and how I have overcome.
No child deserves to go through the pain of having a parent incarcerated. No child deserves to feel that their future is made up for them due to the presumptions people have about their character or the mistakes of their parent. No child deserves to feel that they are not worthy. I, along with the other 2.7 million, am much more than the incarceration of my parent.
To my mom,
We can’t go back and change time. Try as we might, we can’t rewind. You will never be at my high school and college graduations, console me when I experienced my first heartbreak, guide me as I became a young woman, or cheer me on at my softball games. All we can focus on now is the future. As we both step into the future, and whatever it may hold, a single question remains…how much more will you miss?