Recent research suggests that “Over half of all women in U.S. prisons – and 80% of women in jails – are mothers, most of them primary caretakers of their children. An estimated 9,000 women are pregnant upon arrival to prison or jail each year.” (Wagner, and Rabuy, 2016) There are several consequences of maternal incarceration, including the negative recourse that it has on the children left behind. Repercussions of such incidents are apparent by the disturbing feeling of loss, marked with humiliation, shame and trauma-induced stress. Children may have heightened symptoms of anxiety, insecurities, loneliness, depression and anger as a result of a less than stable living environment and greater probability of being parceled out to their eligible, extended family members or worse, become wards of the foster care system.
Women now represent the fastest-growing segment of the imprisoned population. Since the majority of female prisoners are mothers, the steep rise in the incarceration of women has been estimated to impact more than a million American children. Female prisoners not only are more likely than men to report having multiple children but also are more likely to report having resided with their children prior to arrest and subsequent incarceration. These facts pose unique and profound difficulties not only for children of incarcerated mothers but also for the mothers themselves in terms of adaptation to prison life and social reintegration upon release. (Arditti 2012, p. 33)
Incarceration effects more than just the individual; families endure the effects long after the time spent in prison ends.
Children Without A Mom
Attachment Theory applied
“According to Attachment Theory, a separation for as long as a week can result in distress for a young child who lacks the cognitive abilities to understand the continuity of maternal availability despite physical unavailability.” (Bowlby, 1969/1982) Bowlby argues that early experiences in childhood are important for influencing development and behavior later in life. I will examine the effects of an absent mother and lack of healthy attachment with my 15-year-old son Joseph. “Early attachment experience influences the way children develop later relationships and how they learn to rely on others for help and support.
This in turn influences the way that children develop belief and a sense of efficacy in themselves, and how they learn to rely on others. A secure attachment therefore promotes both dependence (the ability to use others for support) and independence (the ability to rely on self).” (Golding, 2013) The absence of having a mother to form a healthy secure attachment with, affected Joseph’s ability to feel safe and confident. Joseph’s earlier years were barren of the nurturing, motherly love past year 2. He lived with his paternal grandmother who would cook for him and wash his clothes, but he grew up with a sister who was only three years older than him who substituted for a mom.
If he was scared or felt sick, he went to her because he was unsure if his dad was emotionally available for him. His father struggled with his own sobriety and symptoms of untreated bi-polar disorder which left Joseph and Sophia “walking on eggshells,” unsure of the mood their father would be in. Joseph began to withdraw from asking for help unless it was his sister. He often played in his room with Legos and army men alone. “Children with insecure avoidant patterns can appear withdrawn and quiet or more self-reliant than expected for their age.
They are more focused on ‘doing’ than people. They do not like to be dependent upon others and are therefore less likely to turn to adults to seek help.” (Golding, 2013) Although avoidant attachment patterns seemed regular Joseph began to act up in school with his teachers and at home with his grandma. Joseph had trouble getting along with children his own age. He often acted obnoxious and other children did not want to play with him. He sought attention even if the attention was negative and according to Attachment Theory “an insecure ambivalent pattern of attachment develops out of a relationship with a caregiver who will sometimes meet the child’s needs, but this is more dependent on his or her mood than the child’s need.” (Golding, 2013)
Joseph soon realized that the negative attention seeking behavior that he projected got the attention of adults, but it was usually in the form of punishment by the teachers, school district, grandma and worst of all his father. Joseph’s inability to trust, interact positively with other children and form healthy attachments with adults in my absence strongly affected his social relationships later in his life as an adolescent.
According to Pediatrics & Health Journal, “Parental unavailability and harsh rejection is associated with insecure anxious-avoidant attachment. These children view themselves as unlovable and unable to attract care from their parents, and they view others as punitive and disinterested in them.” At a time when Joseph was changing from a child into adolescence is the period when I was attempting to re-introduce myself into his life. When we were reintroduced, I asked him if I could hug him and he let me, but he was so stiff as if I were a stranger, which I was.
Our journey has been long and difficult. He feels most comfortable when he is alone, and he does not like to be directed. He is offended very easily and hyper-sensitive. The slightest corrective action that I make to address behavior will cause him to tear up. He maintains a victim mentality and has a habit of throwing his siblings under the bus when he receives consequences. Therapy helped for awhile but my parenting out of guilt initially set us back because my interventions were inconsistent, and I allowed myself to be manipulated.
Vygotsky’s Theory Applied
The emphasis Vygotsky places on parents as partners in their child’s life is crucial as he believed that everything a child learns is through the interactions with “knowledgeable partners” (Brooks, 2011). Vygotsky’s theory includes an important theory called the “zone of proximal development” which looks at the actions a child can perform alone and how a person with a better understanding of the world such as a parent or teacher, can guide and prompt what the child already knows; helping the child to learn more about the world around himself/herself (Brooks, 2011).
I will argue that Vygotsky’s theory can backfire and have an adverse effect on how a child develops when the “More Knowledgeable other” is an unhealthy role model. Vygotsky theorizes that “children’s cultural and social contexts influences their development.” (Pound, 2005)
Vygotsky believed that talking is necessary to clarify important points but also that talking with others helps us to learn more about communication. Children solve practical tasks with the help of speech, as well as with their eyes and hands. The idea that children observe conversation and that it is the unity of perception, speech and action which leads them to make sense of situations was important in Vygotsky’s thinking. Children do not simply react to the words that are used but interpret the context, facial expression, and body language to understand meaning. (Pound, 2005)
Vygotsky states that learning was not based solely on the child’s existing knowledge but rather on a theory he called “the more knowledgeable other,” where the child would learn through the help of watching others. One can conclude that if the mentor or model for the child(ren) is unhealthy then the level of negative behaviors, language and things that they may witness or be exposed to can have a paradoxical effect and influence the child to pick up on unhealthy, destructive patterns. I theorize that an unhealthy father within Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development,” with Sophia and Joseph left a lasting impression on how my children viewed the world.
Their father struggled with mental illness and had a skewed idea that the world always owed him something and that to feel good about himself he needed to be respected even if he needed to bully his way to get it. He often swore and yelled and put people down to get what he wanted. He did not finish school himself and placed very little value in his children’s education. This was the person that was closest to my children that informed how they developed socially and how they learned how to do things and who shaped their young minds. Sophia and Joseph grew up seeing the world and the people in it through the eyes of a man that was dependent on his mother for survival and was angry most of the time about his life.
This situation has affected the way that my daughter Sophia thinks about law enforcement and how she fights any authority that tries to impose any rules on her. For Joseph I have had to work very diligently trying to undo years of offensive language, behavior patterns, negativity and bad manners. With my assistance my two older children have worked to increase their awareness of alternative behavior but much of that has to do with maturity. Now that they are older, they can see how their father still behaves to this day and they are so put off by his behavior and rudeness that they have figured out for themselves that this is not how they want to conduct themselves today.
Modeling for my children how people have the power to change if they truly want to and showing them that bad choices do not have to be final have been the best motivators for them. They feel that they are not being labeled as “bad” kids and that they are empowered to choose for themselves how attitude can alter a person’s life for the better. They have come so far and continue to amaze me every day with the growth that they gain.
Resiliency Theory Applied
“Resiliency emphasizes the use of strengths to cope with adversity and survive, despite difficulties.” (Zastrow p. 18) I will examine the risk and protective factors that contributed to the resiliency of my third child, Christopher. “Children who are exposed to extreme stress, violence or neglect are children at risk.” (Ayalon, & Lahad, 2013) Christopher was exposed to domestic violence during the first year of his life which was very traumatizing for a baby to be surrounded by so much chaos, negative emotion and for his mother to be experiencing extreme amounts of fear and stress during a period where she was also attempting to nurture and provide for him. The protective factors that assisted Christopher were mainly his maternal grandparents who loved him as the son that they never had.
Christopher was in a loving home with a nurturing substitute for a mother yet even with all that protection the trauma that he witnessed and experienced had a delayed consequence to his development and how he adapted socially. Other protective factors are that he was evaluated early enough to seek medical attention from a pediatrician and therapist. For Christopher as he aged, he did not remember the violence only that he was very angry all the time which he was able to work through in therapy and signing him up for a team sport rechanneling that energy and aggression towards something constructive made him feel good about himself.
Sports gave him an outlet and has been the greatest protective factor that has also given him purpose and motivation. I have witnessed Christopher bounce back and grow into a healthy young man. I call him my “Ferdinand the Bull,” because although he is 13 years old, 185 pounds and 5’11 he has a big heart and loving spirit about him which defies what should have been due to the violence he was exposed to.
Reunification and Maternal Parenting Behaviors
The impact of mother-child separation on both maternal parenting and child development can cause mal-adaptive patterns in behavior for both mom and child. I will demonstrate how long-term separation with my two older children affected the way I had to approach parenting with my two older children and how parenting out of guilt affected the behaviors of my younger children. I will examine helicopter parenting and its smothering effects on creating dependent children.
Due to the years of separation with my older children and the guilt and shame that I felt as a neglectful parent I did not know what to do to parent them. I could not approach them as a traditional mother could because I had not earned that respect even if my maternal instincts picked up where I left off. I quickly tried to gain favor with them by buying them everything that they needed and trying to have fun with them. At first it felt like it was working but I soon realized that it did not gain me respect it only further complicated our situation. I had to stop approaching parenting like I was the mother who had always been there, and I had to allow myself time to grieve the children I lost when they were babies and re-introduce myself and build a new relationship with them. Being consistent was the key to building trust and eventually they realized that I was here to stay and that they could begin to trust me and feel for me again.
My two younger children have always felt a connection for me however Christopher has a loyalty to his grandma that is undeniable. Both Christopher and Natalie grew up with everything that they ever needed and wanted. My need to do for them largely contributed to handicapping them and making them dependent on me and their grandma to do everything for them what they should have been able to start learning how to do for themselves. I was more present in their lives and I was able to contribute to their lives being a soccer mom or volunteering at their schools.
I made it a point to overly protect them and hover over their every need because I did not want them to ever feel how Sophia and Joseph felt. Unfortunately, it did cause animosity between the children and I have had to go to therapy with my oldest daughter to help her alleviate her resentments and anger towards me and learn that it is not Natalie’s fault that she was able to have a mother to share all the experiences that Sophia missed out on. My family has had to do a tremendous amount of healing over the years, but it has helped us to become closer and learn to trust and rely on one another, each contributing something to the family system.
The Absent -Mother Reintegration theory is really a concept that explains that mother -child separation not only affects the way in which children develop without the earlier presence of their mother but also the affects that it has on how a mother adapts, reacts and feels about herself when reintegrating back into her children’s life. Theory helps us to impart meaning to how we develop as people, how to correct our behavior and how we make the most of terrible circumstances and find new ways of coping, adapting, loving and living through the curve balls that life throws at us sometimes.
- Moretti, M. M., & Peled, M. (2004). Adolescent-parent attachment: Bonds that support healthy development. Pediatrics & child health, 9(8), 551-555.
- Golding, K. S. (2013). Observing Children with Attachment Difficulties in Preschool Settings: A Tool for Identifying and Supporting Emotional and Social Difficulties. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Baker, L. A., Silverstein, M., & Putney, N. M. (2008). Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in the United States: Changing Family Forms, Stagnant Social Policies. Journal of societal & social policy, 7, 53-69.
- Arditti, J. A. (2012). Parental Incarceration and the Family: Psychological and Social Effects of Imprisonment on Children, Parents, and Caregivers. New York: NYU Press. Retrieved
- Brooks, J. (2011) The Process of Parenting (8th ed.). Toronto, ON: McGraw-Hill.
- Wagner, Peter, and Bernadette Rabuy. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016 | Prison Policy Initiative. Prison Policy Initiative, 14 Mar. 2017. Web. 30 Apr. 2017. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2016.html>
- Pound, L. (2005). How Children Learn: From Montessori to Vygotsky – Educational Theories and Approaches Made Easy. Leamington Spa: Andrews UK. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.whittier.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=463587&site=ehost-live
- Ayalon, O., Shacham, M., & Lahad, M. (2013). The “BASIC Ph” Model of Coping and Resiliency: Theory, Research and Cross-Cultural Application. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.