Experiences of Mental Health Related to Parenting or Not Parenting During Early Transition

Given that our data suggest a relationship between child custody and depression symptoms, we turned to the qualitative interviews that were conducted at the same time as the BDI assessments to illustrate how these differences in mental health outcomes unfold for corrections-involved women. Findings from the qualitative analyses largely supported the findings from the BDI analyses.

First, we describe the emotional and relational consequences of separation during incarceration for mothers and their kids, and how these facilitate whether to seek reunification with their children after reentry into the community. Next, we organize findings by mothers who were actively parenting their children and those who were not during the interview waves. Separating these groups illustrates the varying emotional experiences between these two groups of mothers. Resumption of custody following incarceration or staying separate from their children results in somewhat distinct stressors that appear to impact the emotional well-being of mothers reentering the community. Most mothers from the sample, whether they were actively parenting or not, reported that their children served as motivators for prosocial behavior, such as sustaining recovery from drugs and alcohol addiction. Custody of children, however, nearly always came with increased stress, including mending relationships with children following separation and financial strain. For non-ac-tively parenting mothers, there is some alleviation of stress in knowing that their children are being taken care of. Despite being mothers, those separated from their children more often reported that they can turn their attention to addressing other stressors of reentering the community with less familial strain.

Mental/Emotional Consequences of Separation and Motivation to Regain Custody

Decisions to seek custody (if possible) and reunification affect the mental well-being of mothers who have experienced incarceration and separation from their children. Here we present a brief discussion of how depression, and other aspects of mental health, are impacted over time as mothers leave incarceration and regain, or do not regain, custody of their children.

When asked about how she interacted with her daughter while incarcerated, Donita described how she tried to protect her daughter from further hurt and protect herself from guilt and shame.

DONITA: Well sometimes I had a hard time calling because my one daughter would cry or there was things going on that I couldn’t control and that would hurt me and it was just better that I didn’t know things because it was easier not to call sometimes. Because I could have called them a lot more, it was really cheap, but I felt so hopeless and powerless and a lot of shame and guilt that I wasn’t there. At least in the capacity that I am now, I’m doing the best I can now and I hope they would come live me with again but if they don’t, I’d like them stay where there are or come here.

Cherelle explains how “turning off” her emotions is necessary to protect herself from the guilt and shame she has from being separated from her child.

CHERELLE: And I, I’ve had to turn off my emotional button about this stuff because right now I’d probably be crying. And I feel it in there, but I just don’t want to do that right here. But this makes me very emotional. So I’m trying to turn it off like I did in prison. I know she’s in a safe place, but, nobody’s ever gonna take my place, as far as I’m concerned, I’m her mom.

Despite the known challenges, Cherelle did try to take steps to legally regain custody of her child. By the Wave 3 interview, she had not yet succeeded.

Mothers often sought to regain custody because they were concerned about the consequences of a broken/strained maternal/child bond. Often this concern was particularly heartfelt due to respondent’s own personal experience with strained or broken ties with their own mothers. Miranda, for example, made a point of highlighting how she wanted to maintain the bond with her children that had been absent in her own childhood with her biological mother. When asked if she was worried about her children becoming attached to someone else while she was incarcerated, she explained,

MIRANDA: Mm hmm. My mother [referring to stepmother who raised her children], They did become attached to her, they are. I mean I expect it. I don’t trip off that. I used to at first but, I mean, it’s a natural. It’s just like me and my [biological] mother. She don’t, she’s really, I mean she’s my mom, but I don’t acknowledge her as that.. .And I really don’t have that kind of a bond with her anyway. I’ve forgiven her, you know, for the resentments that I have and stuff and I know she was also an addict and she did the best she could back then, being young and having me ... And been stuck ever since. So I don’t really have that. And my mom, she didn’t really ever come back for me. That’s the different part about me and her. I stayed in my kid’s life. She didn’t, she just kinda said, ‘well her father has her, she’s ok’, but I wasn’t ok, so, uhh, I don’t know, I just don’t have that kind of bond with her.

Mothers who sought to resume custody of their children after spells of incarceration were motivated by their belief that getting children back was pivotal to their own—and their children’s—well-being.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I can imagine being thrown back with four kids, having to rebuild a relationship...

KIMBERLY: Well and I fought the system to have my kids. They said I wasn’t ready and I knew that it was very important that my kids were back with me within a timely manner. Not only for my own recovery but for their own transition. Like, so I didn’t have to hear that, ‘Why isn’t mom getting us back?’ Mom is getting us back...I just have to continue to remind them that I’m here now, that I'm not going anywhere.

Barbara, when asked how she will manage regaining custody of her child with her other obligations, explains,

BARBARA: When she’s here, I’ll be happier... I’m more or less different. If you have a kid, you’re happier, so. Just daycare is the only thing, when I’m in school. But school isn’t even that many hours a day. It’s not all day. And if you’re doing homework the only thing you are doing is sitting there.

For mothers who otherwise indicate acceptance of loss of custody and distant or no relationships with their children, this acceptance does not mean that there are not negative consequences of this separation. Jackie, for example, who otherwise reported that giving up custody was the right thing to do because she “didn’t want my boys growing up” in the abusive environment she was living in, nevertheless reports grief and loss coming with this separation.

JACKIE: I wish I had my kids. I think life would be different if I had my kids.

I think it, I don’t know if it would be easier, but, yeah I just, if I had my kids, I think things would be different.

Later, Jackie expands on this thought: Can you give me an easy road? Even now I’m doin’ the right thing (laughing), it’s just the one thing after another, it seems like it’s starting to look good and then, boom, a hurdle in my way. But, I’m used to it now (laughing). I do my little cry thing, depress thing, whatever, for a couple days and then I’m alright.

In contrast, Marissa, who was happy to be living with one of her sons, also had mixed feelings about the fact that, by living with her, her son had been exposed to an abusive interpersonal relationship.

INTERVIEWER: Do you want your son to be living with you right now? [the one who does, not the one who lives with his father]

MARISSA: Yes and no. I just don’t want him to be going through this [an abusive situation]. It’s nice that he with me, but.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think being away from your son [during Marissa’s incarceration] changed your relationship with him at all?

MARISSA: It just made him more attached to me.

Separation during incarceration not only affected mothers’ well-being, but it also had effects on their children as well. Teresa, for example, explained that her incarceration affected her kids’ behavior, including her kids being angry, rebelling, running away from school, ending up in the psych ward, wrist-cutting, and suicide attempts:

TERESA: They were angry. ...My son tried to hang himself several times. Their behavior was crazy. My son would go on a bus and go.. .downtown, would make my sister [their caregiver] call the police, would just, I mean, they were emotional, it was really hard.

INTERVIEWER: So these behaviors didn’t happen before your incarceration?

TERESA: No. Oh my gosh, they were kids that, which was perfectly understandable because they didn’t have me, my husband got arrested a month after I did, they had no mom no dad, they had an aunt that was thoroughly, mentally abusive. Not physically, but mostly mental.

These changes in the behaviors of her children affected Teresa during her time in prison and helped motivate her to regain custody as soon as possible after her reentry into the community.

TERESA: My kids are not like that right now. I got out of prison, that day, within the hour I had my kids. And we came a long way. They were still in counseling, they just got, they counselors released them, they were doing so good. But, you know, it was horrible. I think my son suffered more. My daughter would cry every day... She’s never been without her father or her mom so it destroyed her I think even a thousand times worse not having both of her parents. And not seeing me. She would cry to me every day on the phone. Umm, they would yell at me on the phone. They would say things to me that helped me be who I want to be now. ‘Mommy you did this, mommy you did that, do you remember?’ And I’m like oh my gosh, I’ve been on drugs so many years that I allowed this to happen and I did this to my kids, you know? Like, I appreciate being in jail, whether it was that time or if it was more. Because if I didn’t I would never have opened my eyes to how beautiful it was to be a mom and not mess it up by doing drugs and it hurt, but it was good. Everything was horrible. But I think more the way they acted, how kids act like that you know?

To better understand how parenting children (or not) can impact mental health of mothers during reentry, we contrast the experiences of actively parenting mothers with mothers not actively parenting their children in relation to their mental health.

Actively Parenting Mothers

Children as Supports

In some cases, children effectively serve as motivators for their mothers to change their behavior, which can indirectly lead to improved emotional outcomes. Shawna, who had been incarcerated most of her adult life, explains how having her first child in her 30s changed her perspective and subsequently her behavior while she was serving her third prison sentence. Her child reduced her feelings of anger and disappointment after nearly a lifetime of violence, trauma, and subsequent incarceration.

SHAWNA: I never thought I’d ever change. I never thought I would ever get over being angry or hating the world and understanding that corrections officers are only there to do their job instead of making my life living hell. They’re not making my life a living hell if I’m doing what I’m sposed to. And I never put that together until I had my son. That’s what happened, I think my son just helped me heal. (Wave 1)

This sentiment toward her son sustained during all three waves, and Shawna makes a clear connection between her relationship with her son and her mental health.

SHAWNA: My son, in a lot of aspects, helped me heal. I call my son my little lifesaver. Because when I had him, the anger in me totally just went away. All I had was this flowing, unconditional love. I wasn’t angry anymore. I wasn’t hateful anymore. I mean, for most of my life, I’ve always hated myself. Creating him, and all the good parts of him, and how I had control over how it’s gonna happen, it was a blessing for me. Because in reality, he did save my life. He did. Because my dream death was gonna have a shootout with the police. That was my dream. Now I have kids, and it’s like I can never even think like that, ever. It doesn’t even cross my brain, you know what I mean? I haven’t been on ADHD medications, I haven’t been on depression medication. I haven’t been on anything. It’s like an endorphin got released. I’m never depressed. (Wave 3)

Notably, Shawna’s son was able to enroll in a preschool that she could participate in while incarcerated that led them to grow their relationship during that period, and she was able to attain custody of him almost immediately after her release. She cites that having custody of her son requires her to manage her anger more often, and practicing this with her son has spilled over to her relationships with her partner and in her work environment.

Kimberly, a single mother who managed to regain custody of all four of her minor children, explained that she felt she had to get her children back in order to make a full recovery from addiction and to minimize her children’s anxiety during the separation. For Kimberly, having custody of her children reduced her anxiety and worry about being separated from her children, particularly with her concerns about what her children were experiencing while separated from her. According to her account, reunification was a crucial component of her overall recovery and reintegration into the community. She adds that she is learning how to better take care of herself emotionally and that allows her to better care for her children.

KIMBERLY: Like I really believe I'm learning how to love myself, but to do that every day. To take care of myself first, so I’m able to take care of my children. And I became really cold-hearted over the years of not being hugged and not being loved.. .but something changed inside of me where I got out and I got my kids, it was really hard for me to hug my children, like I’d get shaky with, especially with the [oldest]. And I couldn’t figure out why I was like that but eventually I realized it’s because I didn’t know how to love my own self. (Wave 2)

For some mothers, their children helped them avoid certain risk factors for criminal behavior and depressive symptoms, such as abusive relationships. Patricia, for instance, explained that having her daughter live with her helped her avoid violent relationships (which had sometimes led to criminal behavior) because she did not want her daughter to have the same experiences. Being able to avoid abusive relationships was central to Patricia’s emotional health, and having her daughter in her home supported her in doing so.

PATRICIA: Every relationship has gotten better, but still looking back, every one was abusive, just in different ways. But I learned from each one. But still. Now I know, hey, I’m not gonna let somebody treat me how I wouldn’t want my daughter to be treated. Because obviously she’ll follow in my footsteps. (Wave 1)

Children play a complex role in the lives of reentering mothers. These data show that children can play a positive and supporting role by providing motivation to engage in positive behavior that is emotionally beneficial, but we also learned that parenting during this time can present substantial obstacles during an already difficult transition period and this has effects on emotional well-being.

Parenting is Difficult During Reentry

Parenting following separation was universally difficult for women who regained custody of their children, and women had to manage competing priorities, such as maintaining sobriety, with taking care of their children. When asked what challenges she was facing after being released, Marissa explained,

MARISSA: Umm, just being a big girl I guess. I’m used to drugs and selling drugs and I didn't have any responsibility, you know. And I love my life now but sometimes it’s really overwhelming, it’s stressful. And I’m like, wow, I have responsibilities now. Am I going to make it? Am I going to fail? Can I go to school and be a single mom? Can I be a single mom? Just those types of things. Doing it all on my own with a child. (Wave 1)

Supporting herself previously was premised on selling drugs, and Marissa now experiences anxiety about not being able to make it in a drug-free environment, particularly as a single mother. This includes finding legal employment that is less lucrative than selling drugs, with the added strain of a child to care for.

Miranda explained that having custody of her son is compromising her ability to succeed now that she is out of prison, and that she is considering sending him to live back with her parents, where he lived during her incarceration.

MIRANDA: So I’m thinking I’m gonna make him go back to my mom and dad’s cuz I can’t, you know, I gotta do my own stuff too. He’s 15. I can’t hold his hand. He knows he’s supposed to go to school. I don’t know what he’s thinking.... I’m here, I’ve been here. I’m consistent. I’m clean and sober. I ain’t been back to jail. I’m working. So, I can’t do any more than I’m doing and I’m not gonna put my recovery in jeopardy being all stressed out and behind. Family will get you every time. If you don’t be careful, you’ll fall back into those same old dysfunctional thinking traps and I’m not doing that to myself. (Wave 1)

She goes on later to explain her complex feelings about having her son live with her, and having to consider sending him back to her parents:

MIRANDA: So right now, I’m kinda sad because I’ve gotten used to him being there and stuff and, you know, I center my day around me and him. And if he’s not there, I know I’m probably gonna get a little depressed and stuff but I ain’t going to let it stop me, I gotta go to school and I gotta go to work. (Wave 1)

Outside of her parents, little social support was available for Miranda as a single mom to meet her needs for a successful integration while parenting. While she finds comfort in having her son live with her, she recognizes that he requires more parenting than she can currently offer when she is trying to keep herself on track with school, work, and maintaining sobriety. For Miranda, making the difficult choice to send her son back to her parents means prioritizing her own mental health outcome (sobriety), despite feelings of sadness of not being able to care for her son.

For Kimberly, who previously reported that regaining custody of her children was crucial to her recovery, there were struggles to manage guilt and to be present for her four children.

KIMBERLY: I struggle with [parenting] every day. I struggle with guilt. That’s where a lot of my stuff comes with [my daughter]. I know what she’s been through. I know I’ve put her through so much hurt. Both me and her dad have put her through so much that I feel like I owe her the whole world. ... Prison has nothing on what I go through on a daily basis to just be there for my kids. And, that was the one thing that when it came out of my mouth for the first time, like, ‘Prison has nothing on this.’ Because you would think prison is the hardest thing you’ll ever face in your life and it’s not. (Wave 1)

Parenting children who have experienced a separation from parent, usually under stressful circumstances, requires mending the relationship and addressing behavioral issues related to the separation. Shawna explains that her son sometimes initiates trouble at school in order to spend more time with her.

SHAWNA: Everything that he does to people, it’s because of the fact that he wants me home, consistently. He wants me all to himself. He wants me, I mean, half the time he gets in trouble at school because he wants me to come pick him up, cuz I told him, ‘You get in trouble at school, I’m having your school call me’ ...but he wants that because it’s more time with me. You know what I mean, so, nine times out of ten, the reason why he’s acting out is because he wants my time. (Wave 2)

Many actively parenting mothers explained that due to guilt about their past behavior, disciplining children is exceedingly difficult. Providing a structured environment that involves rules is challenging to maintain when also trying to address the hurt and anger the children feel due to the separation and its causes. Kimberly explains that this has been a process with her children.

KIMBERLY: My kids are very smart. When they’re mad at me, they’re throw out there, ‘You’re just gonna go back to jail mom.’ (laughs) They want to hurt my feelings...if they disagree with something, they’ll be like, well I’m gonna tell on you. Or I’m gonna tell my teacher. And that’s where it’s setting the boundary, where my kids, I know it will come, to where they respect me as their mother. (Wave 2)

Reuniting with children following incarceration brings a level of comfort for some of the mothers in this study. Children can provide motivation to improve the mother’s own well-being (in the case of Kimberly) and the impetus to change situations that potentially lead to poor emotional outcomes, such as relationships with abusive partners. The benefits of reunification, though, do not come without the cost of increased stressors. While all parents experience stress, single, corrections-involved mothers with very limited resources and social supports experience stressors of a higher severity—that likely have a negative impact on mental health.

Esmerelda, who was not actively parenting her son during Wave 1 but had regained custody by the Wave 3 interview, demonstrates the complexity of this challenging period while parenting. Her son’s behavior is frustrating to her and makes her want to leave, yet she also cites her relationship with him as motivating her to stay clean and sober.

ESMERELDA: Like with [son], sometimes I just can’t take it with him, and I feel like just walkin’ out sometimes, half the time, and just leaving and not cornin’ back, but I can’t do that. I get to a point to where, with him, he just does not listen to me. (Wave 3)

And later when asked what has helped her stay clean and sober:

ESMERELDA: Him. Being a mom. Even though I say I wanna’ walk out, or I just wanna’ up and leave, or whatever. I know I can’t do that, because he’s mine, he’s mine and I can’t do that. I really like being a parent, having him here with me, taking care of him, even though it’s stressful sometimes. I think he’s the one that keeps me sober. (Wave 3)

Mothers Not Currently Parenting

Children as Supports

Mothers who did not have active custody of their children shared some of the experiences that their actively parenting counterparts reported, including children serving as a motivator for positive changes. Even though Nicki was not currently living with her son, his feelings about her being incarcerated motivated her to deal with the considerable obstacles that she faced. She expects that becoming more stable will enable her to live with her children again.

NICKI: I appreciate his presence in my life a lot more. Because, like, my kids are a lot of my reasons for wanting to get it together and wanting to press forward and dealing with my housing situation and all these hassles. You know, because, I don’t want to go back to jail and I know that my son doesn’t and he worries about it. He voices his concerns, 'Are you coming back tomorrow? You’re not going back to jail, please, don’t hit nobody...’ You know what I’m saying? So, it’s just, I don’t know, that’s my big thing. Everything that I’m doing is for my kids so that they can be stable so that I can be with them. (Wave 1)

Most of the non-actively parents in the sample either maintained a relationship with their children or hoped to in the future. For these mothers, children served as similar motivation for sustaining prosocial behavior that the actively parenting mothers described.

Rebuilding Relationships With Children Is Challenging

Also similar to actively parenting mothers, non-parenting mothers reported strain associated with the need to rebuild damaged relationships with their children following separation. When asked how the separation during incarceration affected her son’s behavior, Tiana explains,

TIANA: It made him more attached to me and made him, he like, he’s angry, and you know that he’s angry, he just feels unsafe, unsecure, he doesn’t know what the next day will bring. So I think that, if he’s anything like me, and he sure does act like it, I think that he’s just hurt and scared, and the only way to deal with being hurt and scared is to be angry because it’s easy to be angry, than it is to be hurt and scared. (Wave 1)

Nicki who had full custody of her children before being incarcerated found that once released her child could not understand why she could not live with him.

NICKI: I mean the whole situation, especially coming from being with my kids 24/7 to coming home and... My son, he’s like, ‘That’s my mom. I don’t understand why my mom can’t live with me.’ So, that’s the biggest obstacle to him. Every time I visit him and have to leave I have to like put 20 minutes aside to tell him 1’11 be back, I'm not going to jail again. (Wave 1)

Despite these common experiences, the emotional strain related to reuniting with children was reported as considerably less acute with non-parenting mothers compared to parenting ones. Non-parenting mothers were able to physically separate themselves from their children more often than their parenting counterparts, tempering the burden. Mothers who were not actively parenting their children most often identified their current priorities within the context of personal stability and growth, sometimes with the goal of living with their children again, and sometimes not.

Sarah sees reuniting with her daughters as possible, but only after following a specific sequence of events, including maintaining her faith, finding work, establishing housing, maintaining sobriety, and working through lingering legal issues.

SARAH: I’m gonna continue living in my faith-based home. Putting God, I think, first, and giving myself a religious line helps keep me to walk in my every day, do what I need to do, it keeps me proactively looking for a job. And then the steps to recovery are going to reflect in the juvenile case that I have in court and the girls will come home with me, but I have to have stable housing first. But that’s all gonna happen, you know. (Wave 1)

Even though Kendra misses her children, and they miss her, she feels that she needs to have her life in order before taking the children back from her mother.

KENDRA: I know they miss me. And they like to hear from me. They get all excited and happy when they hear from me, so. I could say, yeah, they miss me. I miss them a lot too. But I want to be ready to be able to take care of them when I do get them. I don’t want to leave the burden with my mom forever, but, I want to be ready. (Wave 1)

Sarah and Kendra are prioritizing stabilizing their own lives, including mental health aspects, sobriety, and spirituality, as they recognize that this is necessary before even considering living with their children.

Non-parenting mothers often reported experiences of relief or peace when they know their children are in good homes, or at least better placements than they believe they personally could provide. Coming to this conclusion was usually reported as an ongoing process, but the further they were along in this process, the less strain they experienced related to their relationships with their children. When Marcella was asked if she had concerns about her children becoming connected to other caregivers, she explained that she was concerned but had to eventually acknowledge that would occur.

MARCELLA: I was concerned. And then I finally accepted it. Because, I mean, she’s doing what I can’t. I was in prison for a good chunk of his life and she’s raising him, she’s there to make sure he goes to school, make sure he has clean clothes, make sure he eats. I mean, I can’t be mad for her taking care of my son when I couldn’t. (Wave 1)

Marcella’s biggest challenge was maintaining sobriety, and she was able to better achieve this without the strain of parenting.

Callie’s anxiety regarding her children’s living experiences was alleviated when she learned that her daughter became attached to her foster parents and was pleased that she was with loving caregivers since she was unable to play that role.

CALLIE: I’m glad that my baby, she’s attached to her foster parents. Which is really good, you know, I want her to have somebody that, you know, my whole thing was, if they’re not with me, I hope that who they’re with, they can attach with. Because that’s something that I believe that they need. You know, because if I’m locked up and I can’t be with them, like right now I’m not with them, but I want them to have somebody that they can attach to. Somebody that is kind and caring and that they care about. (Wave 1)

Donita, who was described earlier as experiencing guilt and shame during her incarceration, also experienced shame and guilt about losing custody of her children. But over time she made some peace with that outcome.

DONITA: But I’ve come to the realization that I’m not a bad person because I lost custody of my kids. I’m to blame for that, but it doesn’t make me a bad mom. (Wave 1)

It is important to note that coming to the conclusion that their children were okay, or even better off, in other placements was not easy to achieve for non-parenting mothers. Reconciling guilt and shame of not living with their children was difficult but sometimes paid off for these mothers in greater emotional freedom that allowed them to focus on overcoming personal, rather than parental, challenges.

A prominent theme that emerged for women choosing not to live with their children was an honest assessment of their situation. For example, some did not trust that they could maintain sobriety or refrain from criminal behavior. Protecting their children and themselves from the emotional fallout that would occur if they relapsed was the priority for some mothers, and this seemed to lead to reduced anxiety overall. When asked if she expects to live with her children again, Marcella explains that she wants to, and her son also wants to be able to stay with her now. She acknowledges, though, that relapse is not impossible for her and she does not want her son to experience the outcomes that follow, such as another separation.

MARCELLA: I hope to live with him one day. He says all the time he wants to live with me, he doesn’t want to be with his dad. He’s like, ‘Mom, when are you going to get your own place? Let me come stay with you.’ I don’t know son, cuz I don’t. He’s like, ‘Well, I hope you do, so that I can come and stay with you.’ And I don’t know even if that time when I do would be a good time for me. Because, I can’t say that once I move out of here, once I get my own place, I’m not gonna relapse. 1 pray to God I don’t, but I don’t know what the future is going to bring, you know. And I wouldn’t want to lose him all over and put him through that. (Wave 1)

Similar to parenting mothers, non-parenting mothers in the sample received some of the benefits of having children as a motivating social bond in their life. Non-parenting mothers also benefited from reduced burdens related to parenting, such as providing care and finances. Nearly all of the non-parenting mothers, though, reported having to work through the shame associated with mothers who choose not to, or are not allowed to, parent their children.

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