What’s a Mother to Do?

In exactly 60 days, my son Nicholas will be released from prison. He’ll be coming home after serving 5 1/2 years in a state prison in Minnesota. I would be lying if I didn’t say this prospect raises more than a little (okay, a lot) anxiety in me, a roller coaster of emotions I’ll ride for the rest of the summer. Hope, worry, anticipation, resentment, joy , relief— you name it, I feel it, sometimes all at once, as each day brings us closer to the reality of what Nick will face when he gets out, and I grapple with what it means for me and those who love him.

We’ve had a trial run at this once before, albeit an unsuccessful one. A few years ago, after serving about a third of his original sentence, Nick was released from prison after completing an intensive early release program. I wrote then of my worry about the challenges he’d face, my fears that he wasn’t prepared for the hardships he’d encounter as an ex-offender, newly sober and with little practical experience or education to rely on, and about my hope that this might be the time he’d find his way out of the maze of addiction, risky behavior, and escalating criminal activity that had tangled and twisted his life since early adolescence.

Sadly, those hopes were short-lived. Barely three months after his release, he was using again, and racked up parole violations that fired his instincts to flee. And one spring day, barely 3 months out of prison, my 20-year old son became came a fugitive. During his weeks on the run, his brothers and I speculated he’d likely go as fast and far as he possibly could, and we tried to come to grips with the possibility we might not see him again soon, if ever. But the inevitability of fate and the law caught up with him, and a few weeks later he was arrested, just a few miles from our family home and even closer to his dealer of choice. Within days he was sent back to prison to serve out the remainder of his original sentence.

While it’s hard to be objective, I must say truthfully that I don’t believe the past 5-plus years have served Nick, or our community, well. Understand that I’ve never argued that he shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions or for the hurt he caused others. But I also believe we’re better served as a society by thinking and planning for what happens after the offender’s sentence is served. Rather than preparing him for a life post-prison, Nick’s years behind bars have made him harder, and arguably less equipped to function on the outside. Barely an adult when he entered the system, he was at once streetwise and still impressionable. His youth, combined with the need to survive and prove himself, made him gravitate to the most habituated offenders, from whom he learned lessons no mother wants her child to learn. A prison population bursting at the seams meant he was moved constantly from facility to facility — a total of 8 times — as the system struggled to deal with severe overcrowding. The frequency of these moves provided no consistency in the limited job training, treatment or educational opportunities afforded him and his fellow inmates. On several occasions he was able to secure various jobs — as a tutor, a library clerk, or spots in a job training class or the prison plant. But each time he was moved to a new facility, he had to leave those jobs behind, and start all over again at the bottom of the waiting list at whatever new place he landed in.

Two of his moves were to county jails that contract with the state to provide overflow housing for inmates, which for Nick was the worst of his time served by far. Offenders housed in county jails have no access to even the limited educational programming, job training or physical activity that is available in the mainstream system. During his last stay at a county jail he went more than a year without going outside or seeing the sun. The irony here is that men considered the best-behaved or lowest-risk are the ones sent to overflow jails, or at least that’s what one of Nick’s caseworkers told me when I asked how the assignments are made. That policy creates a perverse disincentive to good behavior, and like many of his fellow inmates, Nick figured that out fast. Once returned to the regular prison system, he started getting in trouble for fights and other infractions, thereby decreasing his chances of being sent back to county jail. And while he was always relieved to leave the jails behind for the relative improvement that conditions at the prisons offered, the truth is that “tough-on-crime” policies of the past two decades has left fewer resources in the mainstream system — resources that could provide meaningful education, job training, and transition supports — to help prepare offenders for life on the outside. These days, transition services consist of a few hours of classes that cover things like how to apply for food stamps and other social services.

As difficult as the 5 years have been for Nick, the challenges he’ll face in 60 days may be even harder. The hills he’ll need to climb will be steep and unforgiving, the barriers stubborn and unyielding. The attitudes he’ll face will range from dismissive to disdainful, maybe worse. Life on the outside will test him in ways I’m not certain he’s prepared for.

So what’s a mother to do?

One of the (hardest) things I plan on doing is to engage in some serious self-care. While there is truth to the saying that you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child, it is also true that life goes on, even in the midst of uncertainty, heartbreak and heartache. Happiness is a choice I’ve made in the last five years and will continue to make. I’ve figured out that fun is not a crime, and that sacrificing my needs on the altar of another human being, even one as dear as my own child, is a waste of the life I’ve been given. Walks in the park, a night out with girlfriends, long conversations and big laughs with loved ones will be priorities rather than something relegated to an afterthought.

Another “must” on this mother’s to-do list is to remain fiercely present for my other two sons, the brothers whose lives have been deeply impacted by the treacherous journey Nick has taken us on. Their lives have moved forward these last five years, with victories and setbacks, joys and heartaches, and they deserve a mother fully engaged, present, and attentive to them.

As for Nicholas, I plan to be more intentional in the way I support him. During his last release, still too close to the chaos and turmoil his actions had created in our lives, I said no when he asked if he could come home to live with me. Instead he went to a half-way house in which the residents were far older, and while well-intentioned, offered little in the way of practical support, while the physical distance made it hard for him to stay connected to family and friends who could offer positive encouragement and support. This time, I’m offering more concrete reinforcement, which includes inviting him to live with me for a while. To be honest, this is both unsettling and a little scary. But I’ve set firm, non-negotiable, and (I think) reasonable boundaries about my expectations while he’s here, and we both are clear about what that means, so for now I’m trusting that it’s the right thing to do for both of us.

I’m also ready this time to be fully present for Nick without trying to control him or the things which aren’t mine to control. It’s taken me a long time to realize the best way for me to mother him is to allow him to be a man. This time, he’ll own his own victories, as well as any setbacks or mistakes.

The poet Wallace Stevens said:

“After the final no there comes a yes. And on that yes, the future world depends.”

Nicholas is certain to encounter many “no’s” in the months and years ahead. But if he’s able to persevere, to believe, to just keep trying, there will come a day when he hears a resounding “YES!” that thrusts him into a new world in which he is not just defined by the mistakes of his past, but by the possibilities of his future.

After all this time, I think the best thing I can do for Nick is to continue holding on to hope. While it’s sometimes wavered, my hope that he will find his way has never been entirely extinguished. I still believe redemption is possible, and that no person’s entire life, least of all someone so young, should be judged by their worst moments or deeds.

I’ll do my damnedest to impart that hope to my son.