That can rob you of an incarcerated mother

Until you was At 21, Ariana Steen cried herself to sleep every night, terrorized by the thought that her mother was killed in prison. It’s a fear that permeated her psyche throughout her young adulthood; Her mother was imprisoned when Steen was just 13 years old.

Steen, who is now 24 and lives in Seattle, was raised in Florida primarily with her father and grandmother prior to the arrest, in part because of her mother’s ongoing mental health issues. Despite the distance between the two, she describes her relationship with her mother prior to imprisonment as sometimes distant but still beautiful. “We weren’t very close because it wasn’t really too heavy. She’s always been doing her own thing,” Steen said. “But I remember one thing I loved about my mom: She always seemed open to really adventurous things.”

The day Steen found out her mother had been convicted of hit and run was devastating and confusing. She’s still learning to process the trauma of the day a woman was speeding on a motorcycle and her mother ended up hitting her. “I think she was panicking and nervous since she had my two younger brothers with her,” Steen told me. “She went to a hotel and tried to make sure her kids were being taken care of … I think she had stopped fighting or fleeing for them very quickly, and I have a feeling it wasn’t a malicious thing at that moment.” It was more like, ‘Oh man, something bad happened and how do I fix it?’”

That moment of escape for Steen’s mother would quickly change her trajectory — and that of her children’s lives, too. Steen now knows the road to healing from this trauma is long, but she continues to work, not only for herself but for others who have had similar experiences.

Although Steen’s mother’s 12-year sentence was reduced for good behavior, the 10-plus year separation affected not only their bond but also Steen’s attitude towards relationships with other black women in her life. Because of her more stable In her relationship with her father, she found it easier to connect with men than with women. “Even though I’m close to my grandmother, I was uncomfortable getting close to black women,” Steen said. “If I felt like someone was showing me motherly love, I kind of backed off and just lost touch with them.”

Steen’s story is just one example of how our prison system is being disrupted and degraded black familieswho suffer greatly higher rates than their white counterparts because they are often imprisoned (for the same crimes) more frequently and longer.

In 2020, the incarceration rate for black women was nearly double that for white women Data by The Sentencing Project. And although the incarceration rate for black women has declined over the past 20 years, young and old, especially their children, still feel their absence from their communities. Although the term “dad problems” is often thrown around, “mom problems” are mostly A hit adults as well and can manifest in children who have trust issues with women, are clingy or overly dependent on a significant other, and please people.

Our parents and caregivers are our first encounters with the world and tend to dictate how much we can trust the world in the first place, said Mychelle Williams, a therapist and nationally certified counselor based in Washington, DC. For young Black girls in particular, she tells me: Having an incarcerated mother can profoundly affect the development of identity, as many daughters rely on their mother’s values ​​and politics to shape their own. Williams’ first experience as a counselor was at an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center, where many adults began using substances to cope with traumatic childhood experiences.

The mother is the earliest model of behavior for most children. “The way she speaks, dresses, interacts with the world, takes care of her home, even the type of music she likes or the hobbies she pursues become an entry for what for young girls is possible,” Williams said. “Even if the child doesn’t like the things the mother shows, having space to explore what feels good for them and having their mother’s love and support is crucial to identity and self-esteem.” This complicated relationship profoundly affects a person’s ability to form relationships with other people.

Throughout her youth, music was Steen’s coping mechanism when she had no one to turn to and when she was too scared to share this part of her life with her friends. It was only in the last two years that she sought professional help. although talk Therapy has been destigmatized in recent years, as has conversations about mental health in black communities historically a taboo subjectleaving many children and adults with unresolved trauma and without effective coping strategies.

Ultimately, Steen began to process all of the different types of losses that come with an incarcerated parent. “In a way, I also had to serve time [but] Prison wasn’t necessarily as physical as it was for her,” she said. “It was a mental prison for me, not only because of my mother, but also because of the way the world looks at me from the outside.” That kind of perceived isolation — coupled with trust issues — prevented Steen from forming healthy bonds with others build black women.

While the justice system as a whole needs a lot of repairs, Williams believes flowing into an incarcerated mother’s child is very much the community’s responsibility as it deals with a complicated type of grief. This can be an opportunity for other Black women, such as aunts, religious leaders, grandmothers, and teachers, to ensure that the young girl’s perception of Black women is not marred by her experiences with her mother.

And it may require ongoing outreach from a community member, she said. “Unless they are directly and actively sought and nurtured, [a young woman] might turn inward and have trouble forming relationships with other women,” Williams said.

Although Steen was allowed to write to her mother throughout her sentence, she was only able to bring herself to write about four times. When she was overcome with grief and unable to find words, Steen’s grandmother encouraged her to put down her penI was ready. For Steen’s family, healing was viewed as an individual process rather than a timely one.

Because of this, Steen’s journey has included both pain and progress. In 2022, she began writing a book about her experiences with an incarcerated mother and shedding light on how dark prison life is for the whole family. She wants everyone to know that there is more to her story than the cards she was dealt as a child and wants to make space for other black women with similar stories. The project is an example of what Williams has described as a creative community — which is a healthy way to move forward.

When her mother was released from prison last year, Steen said she was like a completely different person who was difficult to recognise. Her mother’s psychological distress was significant, and Steen needed space and time for their relationship to heal. And while that bond will continue to develop, Steen intentionally works to connect with other Black women through ways that feel safe and empowering.

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