If you were to see me and my 3-year-old daughter, Melly, on the street this morning, there are some things you might be able to guess from looking at us: You might see her lollygagging on the sidewalk, singing “The Wheels on the Bus,” me spilling my coffee as I usher her up the block, and guess that I’m late to work. You might see her waving half a banana in one hand and a waffle in the other and guess that, like many toddlers, she is a picky eater and it’s a struggle to get her to eat anything, let alone anything healthy, before going off to preschool. Something you probably would not guess, though, is that Melly’s father is in prison. There are more than 2.7 million children in America with an incarcerated parent. My child is one of them.
Melly’s father has been in prison since right before her birth — and will be for another three years. He is currently housed at a maximum-security facility in Upstate New York, a five-hour trip from our home in Manhattan. I try to be optimistic about our situation and count her among the lucky: She did not suffer the trauma of having a parent suddenly arrested and removed from her life — she has only suffered the trauma of him never being here.
When I tell people that her father is in prison, their next question is often, “What is he in for?” He pleaded guilty to one count of weapons possession, but the story of me and her father is not a simple story of a good girl and a bad boy: He and I were drug addicts together, and our arrest was a tabloid sensation, the headlines about “millionaire terrorists” making us infamous. While it is true that my father is a physician, he is no millionaire (in millions of dollars of debt, more accurately), and I financed my college and graduate school educations with student loans I will be paying off for the rest of my life. While it is true that Melly’s father had a disturbing weapons fascination, we weren’t terrorists (pathetically, our only ambition together was to get high).
But this is not an essay about us, about whether her father deserves to be in prison, about what led him there or mandatory minimums or addiction. This is just about a 3-year-old kid, growing up with an incarcerated parent, who takes trips every other month to a correctional facility the way her friends take trips to the zoo. The tragedy of our daughter’s circumstances is a tragedy of our own making.
On a daily basis, for me and Melly, what it means to have a loved one in prison is that we check our mailbox compulsively, hoping to receive the letters and drawings her father sends her to maintain contact between visits. I send him a photo of her on the jungle gym; he sends her a note of congratulations for making it to the top. At the tender age of 3, she already has the utmost respect for the U.S. Postal Service and greets mail carriers on the street as if they are superheroes.
What it means for her to have a father in prison is that she is the only kid who doesn’t have “Pat the Bunny.” It’s a book I loved as a child and had nostalgically purchased for her when she was a baby. But the first time I read it to her — “Judy can feel Daddy’s scratchy face … now you feel Daddy’s scratchy face” — and she waved her little fingers over the pages, I felt so acutely the hole in her life from her father’s incarceration that had come to feel normal. She was younger then and didn’t quite understand that all dads aren’t away the way her dad is. Desperate to shield her from this realization, I gave the book to Goodwill with the onesies she’d outgrown.
His absence is hard for me, too. When Melly had a stomach virus and I was schlepping linens to the laundromat with a crying child, I would have done anything to have another grown-up on hand. On typical days, though, I try to glean whatever positives are to be found in our situation: While it is isolating to live alone with a small child, I also talk to her more and give her opinions more weight than I probably would if I had another adult here. “What should we make for dinner?” I ask her, and at night we lie in bed discussing our day. I fought hard for the privilege of raising her, and I am grateful for this blessing always.
Perhaps the biggest impact that the incarceration of Melly’s father has had on her life is that she has never, not once, been in a room with both her parents together. While I managed to avoid jail time from our arrest, I pleaded guilty to two nonviolent felonies, rendering me ineligible to visit a prison. When Melly goes to visit her dad, she goes with his parents, her grandparents. When she returns home from these trips, she comes bearing Polaroids of her with her father in the prison visiting room and excitedly tells me about the ice cream he got her from the vending machine. “When I’m 6,” she tells me, eyes sparkling, “Daddy is gonna get me a real dog and I’m gonna walk her all around the neighborhood on a pink leash.”
For the first year of her life, I fought vigorously against these visits ever occurring, hoping to spare her the pain, stigma and shame of growing up with an incarcerated parent, wishing I could keep this innocent little girl free of any guilt by association. I wanted to run fast away from my former life, and that attitude extended to my feelings about her father. In court, we argued over “the best interests of the child,” and when a judge ordered visitation, I was distraught. But now that he is in her life and she is attached to him, I believe, despite all the challenges of bonding with a parent behind bars, that their relationship is beneficial for her and she deserves to know that she has two parents who love her. To her, he is not a criminal; to her, he is just her dad.
Like all moms, there are so many moments when I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing: Am I too strict? Not strict enough? Do I tell her too much, or am I not telling enough? What mistakes am I making as a mother now that could cause her to make the same mistakes I did in my youth? I had two present parents, educational opportunities I’ll never be able to give my daughter, and yet I grew up with an intrinsic lack of self-esteem or self-worth. I think it’s my primary job as her mother to always make her feel loved and respected. While I don’t have the power to change her father’s incarceration, I do have the power to support her through it and acknowledge her feelings. “Mommy and Daddy were sick and made bad choices before you were born,” I explain, “but we both love you so much. No matter what, we will always love you so much. I miss Daddy, too, and it’s okay to feel mad that he isn’t here.”
A few months ago, we were eating lunch with Melly’s best friend and her friend’s parents — the mother heavily pregnant, the doting father cutting the toddler’s chicken into bite-size pieces. “Where is Melly’s dad?” her friend suddenly asked.
This was a moment I’d been dreading: It is hard enough for me to discuss his incarceration with parents but heartbreaking to think of my child having to answer for our mistakes.
“Melly’s dad is on a business trip,” her friend’s father began.
“No –” I interrupted. If I don’t want Melly to feel shame about our situation, then I can’t treat it like a secret. “Melly’s dad is Upstate, having a timeout. When Melly is 6, his timeout will be over, then we can see him every day.”
Later that night, as I was tucking her in, Melly jumped up in bed. “I’m 6 right now!” And I realized, for the first time, that this was the thing I had been fighting most against — not the shame of having an incarcerated parent, but the sadness of a child missing a parent who is not here.
Morgan Gliedman lives with her daughter in New York City. Her writing has appeared on Vox and The Fix, and she is currently working on a memoir.
You might also be interested in: