By Deborah “Jax” Franks
As incarcerated mothers, few of us wish to face our inabilities as parents. We rail against the perceived injustices of our experiences; we rejoice over religious or metaphysical revelations—but we rarely choose to address how our choices may have damaged our children and subsequent generations.
It is only half-jokingly that I say I am not the mother of my children. I am more like their “Crazy Aunt Edna,” a woman with whom they share their lives, emotional stressors, and recreational drug use. Trusted with secrets, my role is counter to the traditional disciplinary parental guise of judge and arbitrator of correction; I enjoy little-to-no hands-on involvement, whether kind or tender or fair and firm. That is not my job. It is impossible to parent from behind razor wire. They know this, and so do I.
Recently, the Department of Justice acknowledged the cyclical reality of intergenerational incarceration. The federal government has made a lot of information available regarding this issue. Grandparents raising their grandchildren has reached astounding proportions due greatly to incarceration and parental unavailability, especially those suffering from substance abuse issues.
Rather than endure and inflict frustrations upon my kids and their guardians, I humble myself and step back to a more reserved role. Some believe I am forced to do this because of my Life sentence, as if I came to terms with the reality that I would ever be the absent parent and adjusted my involvement accordingly. That might have been the case if I’d given up hope of the sentence being changed. I have fought my conviction from the moment it was handed down, always believing that “soon” my nightmare will be over. “Soon” is an untenable and nebulous lie to foist upon children, though.
There are tangential issues that impact parenting: prison telephone charges are frequently prohibitive. Department of Corrections visitation procedures are confusing and off-putting. Local staff can make family feel unwanted and unwelcome—hours are spent waiting in line only to have visitors turned away at the last moment. Often there is no real reason for the refusal, arbitrary decisions are the result of inconsistently applied policies. Families get the message: they are better off staying away.
My youngest child was an infant when I came to prison; she is now in her early twenties and had her first child last year. It was no easier for my son and older daughter, who had spent only a few years in a home with me before our world was destroyed. Through the years, despite my physical distance, I’ve remembered to be an open vessel for my childrens’ hopes and fears, dreams and worries. I took advantage of every opportunity to make my children feel wanted, needed, and loved. I played “Secret Squirrel” for my parents, providing them necessary information to keep my children safe. It is still occasionally necessary to intervene and play mediator—or sometimes simply moderator—to a small crisis, but their adult concerns are generally more manageable.
Some incarcerated persons mistakenly believe they can parent while they are absent and locked up. Or they make empty threats over the telephone and vomit their frustrations to the guardians. Others fail to discern the difficulties they will face if they assume that they will get out of prison and immediately pick up their parenting role without any emotional repercussions. I listen to them speak on the phone about what they will do when they “get home”—to the kids or their caregivers. There is often very little respect for the hardships endured by those who have seconded their own needs to the requirements of raising others’ children.
In my case, the couple providing a home for my three children through most of their childhoods hated me—hate me. They even attempted to have my parental rights terminated or, at the very least, have contact with me declared “detrimental” to the kids’ development. Failing in their efforts to get the courts to sever all contact with me, they unfortunately made decisions that limited my communication outlets. They misdirected, lost, or withheld cards, letters, and gifts. In time, I learned to send such items to my own parents’ home; they retained grandparents’ rights and had visitation with the children throughout the year. It was left to my family to relay my offerings.
It was devastating to be cut off from my children. It was such torture, in fact, that I vacillated back and forth from frustrated anger to self-destructive despair. I felt despondent, helpless, and hopeless; I contemplated suicide.
There is no need to remind me, however, that these custodians are entitled to their own sense of safety and security, including protection from my interference. They assumed I would try to impose myself negatively into their family unit. Like as not, I would have made the same supposition had the roles been reversed. They are wrong about me, but they have the right to be wrong.
What I challenge is the practice of vilifying me and then, when the children acted out, comparing them to me. Nursing that type of anger toward me, and then using it as a weapon against the children themselves. It has led to long-lasting negative effects.
Some incarcerated parents lie to their kids about where they are living. A frequent falsehood revolves around the myth of being “away at school”. Worse is when a family member pretends to be the parent or that the parent has died. These fail every time. If the kids do not find out the truth themselves, often a peer will hear of the true story and spill the beans. Tech-savvy kids discover everything, but many here refuse to live lives of authenticity.
There is a lot of unnecessary stress in the multitude of relationships between my children, their guardians and their family, my parents, my victim’s immediate family, and me. It is a crazy-quilt of complex emotional and relational issues, both past and present.
Because anger and bitterness and hate persist, so does the sorrow and hardship and guilt we all feel for not doing better for the children, even though they are now grown with families of their own. Have we unwittingly added another generation to this dysfunction? Have we perpetuated a poisonous cycle? It sometimes seems impossible for those of us in our various parental roles to remove the destructive feelings we have toward each other, but can we really afford to continue this way?
I’ve learned that the adage is true, it does take a village to raise a child—especially from afar. While there are many systems in place to maintain that distance, there are few to close the gap. I hope one day to see better relationships across the razor wire, for my own family as well as for others. I want all of this for the benefit of the kids who bear a disproportionate share of the burden of our adult decisions.