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"LEADER" On-line: Vol. 10, No. 1

Parenting with a Husband in Prison

by Ann Edenfield Sweet
Parenting is difficult enough these days without the extra burden of incarceration. But that is exactly what is happening in America today. Children are being raised without fathers or mothers because they are in prison. A Department of Justice report reveals that one in 40 children in America has a parent in prison. A staggering 76% of inmates report having had a relative in prison. This generational pattern of incarceration has to stop!

Twenty years ago, my husband was given a 15-year prison sentence. I was then a stay-at-home mother of four young boys. The baby was on oxygen with “failure to thrive.” I had an IRS lien of over $3.5 million. The IRS also told me I couldn’t make over $30,000 per year or they’d garnish my wages. The picture was not pretty! On top of that, I had to be mother, father, breadwinner and comforter for my boys.

As I laughingly say, I didn’t have to die to find out that some people came to my “funeral.” I quickly learned that I had few friends left. The rest of my acquaintances treated me like a leper. But as hard as it was on me, we can’t forget that often our children are treated that same way. Therefore, we must do everything we can to build our self-esteem as well as our children’s self esteem.

These are some other things I learned about parenting while my husband was in prison:

  1. I had to take care of myself. This meant maintaining a positive attitude, staying well groomed, and getting adequate sleep to maintain my health and energy.
  2. I had to get very organized. I found ways for the boys to help me maintain the house and yard. Although I had little money, the incentive of Friday-night pizza and a rented movie after cleaning was completed worked beautifully. The clean house on Friday night prevented me from being a “nag” all weekend, and we all felt better in a clean home. Treating us all to pizza and a movie was a small price to pay.
  3. I really couldn’t afford it, but I found that allowances actually saved me money in the long run. More importantly, allowances taught my children to budget their money wisely. They learned that spending all their money on candy meant they might not have money for fun weekend events. Learning this lesson at an early age is invaluable, and giving an allowance also removed me from being “mean mom.” They chose how they wanted to spend their money and could get mad only at themselves for poor choices.
  4. I feel it is important to share your situation about a spouse in prison with the principal, teachers, counselors, coaches, and friends and neighbors you can trust. The key word here is TRUST. Hopefully, they will become your ally at school and help to keep you informed about your child’s well-being and attitude. When my oldest son was 24 and I was ready to publish my book, he told me about his first day as a 6th grader in his new middle school. He walked into the cafeteria for his first lunch and a kid yelled across the room, “Aren’t you the kid whose dad’s in prison?” What a terrible way to start school, and he didn’t tell me for 13 years!
  5. I believe in the African proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child. That is certainly true when a parent is in prison. I encourage the parent at home to get their child involved in as many sports and activities as possible. Coaches, teachers, and congregational leaders can become role models and/or mentors for your child. Boys with fathers in prison especially need strong, positive role models.
  6. Through the incarceration, learn to turn to family and friends for help. Don’t try to do it all yourself.
  7. It is also important to remember the parent in prison. He or she is still a parent. Try to find ways to include them in their children’s lives. Send copies of report cards and school papers. Encourage your children to write. Share parenting issues and try to discuss possible solutions. Remember also that it always seems easier to find a solution away from the heat of the moment and after the fact. Learn from your decisions—right or wrong.
  8. 98% of all inmates are released from prison, so your spouse may soon be home. Maintain open, honest lines of communication with your spouse.

Ann Edenfield Sweet is the author of Family Arrested: How to Survive the Incarceration of a Loved One and the founder of Wings Ministry, an outreach organization based in Albuquerque, NM. For information, go to WingsMinistry.org.

Click for Active Parenting books and videos for families with a parent in jail.

Reprinted from Leader magazine.
Copyright 2005 by Active Parenting Publishers, Inc.