Thursday, August 24, 2017

What about the kids?

When someone finds out that my husband is incarcerated there are usually several follow up questions; "how do you do it?, why wait for him?, where is he?, when does he get out?, what about the kids?"

The kids are OK, more than OK, great, thriving! One is now married and has her Master's Degree in Education. Another is starting her Senior year of High School, the other three are getting ready for the new school year as a Tenth grader, Third grader and Kindergartener. But it has NOT been easy for sure. I have had to dedicate myself to my family, putting myself second on a regular basis. There have been many sleepless nights, also days filled with conflicting schedules and commitments. Not to mention vacations and weekends spent visiting prison. It takes a lot of planning and sacrifice. We are fortunate though. The support that my family and friends have given us has facilitated our ability to manage (sometimes better than others). Help has come in the form of rides, babysitting, representation at events and even on a financial level.

My husband feels powerless and guilty of not being able to contribute to the family. He often doesn't realize that his contributions are of a different sort. He writes encouraging words even when the kids neglect to correspond, he speaks words of hard-earned wisdom and pride. He is like our own personal Jiminy Cricket; the conscience that keeps us going on tough days and makes us laugh on others. He has always made sure the kids are proud of themselves (their culture, skin color, language) and that they never feel shame regarding our family's situation. His participation in their upbringing has been more in line with being a mentor-ship, usually from a distance. He likes to recommend books we can read and whenever he's able to, will buy them for the kids. His presence is felt, though to the untrained eye and ear, he is absent.

My parenting style is more democratic than authoritarian in nature. I see our family as a team and we talk things through. I like for the kids to own up to their actions and choices. I also explain the reasons behind my own decisions concerning them. I don't simply say "yes or no," I believe in giving them supporting 'evidence' so they understand how I came to my decision. I hope to teach them the process; "HOW to think instead of WHAT to think," as my husband always says.

I see myself kind of like a coach. Helicopters are for transportation, not parenting ;) Failure teaches us resiliency! I would never want to raise an entitled, spoiled, disrespectful child; I work hard to teach my children humility and to appreciate what they have. They are also aware of how unfair life can be, and to take nothing for granted. As my husband likes to remind me; "they're (prison) not getting MY kids!!!!" We are doing everything we can to give them the best opportunities. And there it is, parenting 101 (my version anyways) in a nutshell!

Many children of incarcerated parents live a different reality. In New York State, there are not enough supports for these children. For families living closer to New York City, there are programs, some through the Osborne Association. We live upstate (in Western NY) and there is zero local support; I've looked. Some schools and churches take it upon themselves to provide resources but there are no coordinated efforts from the community or government to help these victims of incarceration.

With the surge of arrests and convictions as a result of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, an entire generation has grownup without (at least) one parent. Sentencing individuals to decades in prison has helped perpetuate the cycle of incarceration. Without a parent to help guide and nurture a child, his/her chances of succeeding are significantly lowered. I know of several young men who are doing time along with their fathers, brothers or other family members. That is heartbreaking! We need more support for the children of incarceration.

So, what can we do, as a society? The answer lies in each person's ability. I use my experiences to help other people navigate the complicated NYS prison system. As a teacher, I try to empower my students and their parents in the same way I do my own family. I have joined online groups that support spouses (loved ones) of incarceration. How I wish those groups had been available in 1994!

Raising my kids has taught me to treat each child with respect, dignity and compassion. Everyone has a story to tell, why not listen?