Mother’s Day as a mom with incarcerated adult sons

Mother’s Day has been a difficult holiday for more years than I care to admit. In an effort to ease myself through yet another year of advertisements showing happy families as well as the flood of social media cheer that pushes me offline for several days in May–I am trying something new. So this post is more for my own healing, self-love, self-care and growth than it is for others. If it brings someone else comfort that’s good too, but right now I’m taking Mother’s Day to quite literally mean to be a day for me as a mother.

Full-disclosure–I hate writing these days. Something about having to write a long ass dissertation drained any ounce of joy that I used to get from this process, and my own internal critic (another consequence of grad school) spends entirely too much time worrying about how things fit together rather than just allowing the feelings to flow from my brain and through my fingers onto the page/screen. Yet here I am. Trying and this year that’s where I am. Trying.

More disclosure–writing about things that expose the pain of my life (both past and present) and that may have an impact on the people that I love is difficult. However, I’ve also come to a place in life where my thinking is informed by a generous dose of love-wisdom from women that have taught me that sharing my ups as well as my downs is not only empowering, but a necessary part of the healing process.

I am the mother of two adult incarcerated men, and the pain of that reality squeezes my heart every day, but seems to squeeze harder on Mother’s Day. The babies I carried, gave birth to and raised were not supposed to end up in prison. This was not the plan or the vision, but it is the reality.

Incarceration damages people, and we can all use a little bit more understanding, love and compassion because the current arrangement isn’t working. The isolation and removal of loved ones from family life is painful every day of the year, but holidays are a reminder of what isn’t, what should have been, what won’t be, and your entire heart hurts and breaks into a thousand little pieces until you’re able to regain the strength to gather them back up and press on because that’s what you have to do.

In a country that incarcerates more people than any other industrialized nation, the United States has a problem that extends beyond the physical confines of prisons and reaches into our homes and our lives. I can trace the trajectory from carceral classrooms to prison so clearly that if I wasn’t talking about my own sons it would be easier to discuss as a textbook case or statistic. Fact is it’s all of these things and with my academic background focusing on the subject of mass incarceration in communities it makes it all the more surreal.

I can cite statistics until the cows come home, but right now this is about the stuff we tend to leave out of policy discussions. I hate that my sons are in prison. I hate why they are there. I hate that there is so little that I can do about it and for them except to make their situation a bit more comfortable through commissary payments and letters.

Incarceration imprisons everyone involved, and our current approaches don’t work to address the needs of those inside or of those outside. Even in spaces (activists spaces included) that claim to be supportive of the needs of those with incarcerated loved ones there is a great deal of finger wagging and moralizing that is unhelpful and works to alienate and damage more than it works to heal and strengthen.

Within our own families we may find little comfort or support because everyone has their own baggage to deal with. In families where relationships are already tenuous–incarceration of loved ones only makes bridge building that much more difficult, and in some cases impossible. In this context, holidays are just a pain in the ass and it’s easier to minimize their importance than it is to acknowledge the pain, the rifts, the sorrow of missing those who aren’t there than it is to address these things. It’s also difficult to come together with others who want to blame and treat your incarcerated loved ones as outcasts.

Visiting prison on holidays is no less fraught with emotional baggage. The guilt felt by everyone is palpable, and the rituals associated with prison visits serve as a reminder that you and your loved ones are less than human. But within those booths and over the half-walls of the visiting rooms there is also a great deal of love and joy shared between loved ones. Catching up on each others lives and trading inside jokes for 50 minutes all seems so normal, and for those brief moments when the C.O. isn’t within earshot things are normal–or as normal as they could be given the circumstances.

Not wanting to engage on holidays isn’t weird when you have loved ones in prison–it’s often self-preservation. Because when engaging means subjecting yourself and your incarcerated loved ones to a range of indignities and insults it makes more sense to retreat and chill.

I’m lucky because I have people that love me unconditionally and that understand why brunches, parties, and a great deal of hoopla will not erase the pain, and that pretending that things aren’t the way they are is just an awful way to move through life (albeit an option if it brings you comfort).  I’m lucky as hell to have people who know me well enough to also know that I love celebrations and observing milestones and important events, but not always. Acknowledging the pain, loss and grief is just as important to the healing process as enjoying holidays and celebrations.

Healing is resistance and it’s also a rejection of the death that is incarceration. While nothing will ever be like it was–what will emerge from this thing has to be better. It has to be more loving, more compassionate, more life-giving and affirming. Holidays can be hell, and we need to create space for and accept that for those of us with incarcerated loved ones celebratory moods come and go, but are always difficult. The best we can sometimes do is try. This year I am trying.









  1. Thank you for sharing. I, too, have a son in prison. It does feel like the inmate and family are less than human when visiting. It never gets easier and the shame that goes with having a child in prison is debilitating.

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