Life doesn’t come with a manual on how to parent from prison, let alone provide instructions for the spouse and family left behind.  Children, in particular, are hugely affected as their sense of security comes undone in an instant. And, while there’s obviously many obstacles and limitations, there are still many things parents can do to maintain the family unit until this sad time comes to an end.

As an inmate, you need to explore all the resources you have available and make the most of them.  I made sure to write my children every week. There’s just something about receiving a letter that can be felt and touched, that’s so much more special than any email or phone call.  My three children ranged in ages from 2 to 8 to 15, at the time, so I had to deal with each of them on their own terms and at their own level. The two youngest, for example, had no email and I had to ration my limited phone minutes to mostly serve as support for my wife.  The letter was therefore my key lifeline to most of the family. I sent things that were age appropriate, learning how to draw and do origami, in the process. This, of course, evolved with every passing year. I felt more connected each time I sat down to do a project or put words to paper, just as they did in receiving them.  I also made sure to include my wife. As an inmate, we must remember that our spouse feels abandoned as well. Sometimes it isn’t easy, especially as time apart puts a strain on the relationship. Writing, however, can serve as a glue to keep you together, or at least help you be solid co-parents going forward.

It’s also important to marshal your email and phone minutes wisely.  You may even be fortunate enough to be in a place that allows video calls.  They are all valuable assets. You’re best advised to use them to maximize communication with your family.  Sure, you can set some time aside for friends, but since calls and emails are limited by both cost and time restrictions, you prioritize keeping in touch with the people most important to you.  Your family relationships are invaluable for the rest of your life! Hearing their voices and sharing their daily events will help see you to the other side. Plus, they all still need help from you and solid advice.  

Topics of conversation for all types of communication can run from the everyday, mundane things in your life, special thoughts you come across and memories of past events.  Your loved ones will especially relish those fond memories. Kids love to hear stories of how they were as a baby and growing up, the ballgames and plays you attended and family trips.  It helps with their yearning to have the family back together again, or simply to have you back in their lives. Your spouse wants to remember the good old times too, which is basically what gets us through all this.  Never forget a special event. Whether it’s a birthday, anniversary or holiday, they are now more important than ever.  

One other thing we need to be mindful of, is to let our spouse do the driving, so to speak.  You can no longer expect to run things as you may have before. You need to relinquish all day-to-day authority, for the plain and simple fact that you are not there.  It will only make you crazy and drive your loved ones away. Don’t worry, your spouse has it covered, with some soft counsel and guidance from you. It will all work out okay.  In fact, your family still desperately needs you more than you know. To be honest, I thought that my predicament would cause me to lose all moral authority as a parent and husband.  Why would they listen to me now? You’d be surprised. My wife still needed constant emotional support as did my kids. They even needed to hear the words, “no” and “not now”, on occasion.  They accepted them and respected them when raised in a thoughtful manner.       

As the spouse of an inmate, you have your hands full, now expected to play the roles of both mommy and daddy.  Making ends meet, paying bills, setting up doctors’ appointments, buying clothes and school supplies and getting kids off to special events and play dates, all now fall on your shoulders.  Alone. And that’s how you are going to feel more than you like. This whole situation breeds resentment, there’s no two ways about it. You will need to work through that separately, though, and on your own terms, in order to maintain your sanity.  In the meanwhile, there’s the kids to think about. Keep pictures of your spouse around the house or at least in the children’s bedrooms. Remind them that daddy (or mommy) loves them and can’t wait to come back into their lives. At each birthday or holiday, sign the card from both mommy and daddy and explain that the gifts are from you both.  Lastly, try your best not to speak badly about your spouse in front of the kids. This will undo all of the good will you are putting forth and may even undermine the kids’ feelings for you as well. Remember, the goal is to get our kids through this trying time in the best shape possible.  

Visits are vital.  Yes, there is no joy in driving hours back and forth to prison for only a few hour visit.  The prison environment is demeaning on many levels. Some guards can even make you feel as if you’re inmates yourselves, as they screen and treat you with a bad attitude.  Ignore their nonsense, because the hugs, kisses and time together are irreplaceable. I also made sure to buy picture tickets every now and then to mark the time together. We may not get to make the memories we want, but it’s critical to make the most of the ones we get – and cherish them.  The bonding that occurs at visits reaches deep into our subconscious, seeding the beautiful relationships that await us on the other side. The visits are huge source of happiness, tinged with sadness, that sustains us all.

There’s no perfect formula for parenting from prison.  We must play with the hand we’ve been dealt and make the best of it.  Properly managed, though, we can minimize the detrimental impact that the experience has upon us.  That all begins and ends with making our children the priority. By doing so, we can set the stage for a bright and loving future in which we more greatly appreciate the simple things like just being together.