My son and I keep in regular contact. As I've stated, he has finished school. He has a job. He does not have a criminal record. He's not a gang member or hoodlum, nor does he hang with that crowd. Considering all the statistics against him he is on a relatively good track, which makes me proud. But he still hasn't been able to completely escape the collateral consequences of my incarceration and physical absence from his life. He has anger management issues, and got in quite a few fights when he was in school. He has a rebellious attitude toward authority figures, including his mother. He started smoking marijuana when he was 16 years old and continues to smoke regularly, and he has been sexually active since he was 14. Because of my incarceration, I take no credit for his accomplishments (how could I?). But also because of my incarceration, I take all the blame for his shortcomings (how couldn't I?). There's a noticeable strain in our relationship, though we both try. Deep down, he resents me for being absent most of his life due to my dumb decision to break the law. When we talk, I often find myself desperately wanting to give him fatherly advice and guidance; but knowing that I'm a deadbeat, I feel unqualified. I feel as if I have no right to parent my own son. Whenever I do try, my words come out unconvincing and lacking conviction. I don't have confidence that he'll listen to me anyway, so usually I don't even bother. Simply put, our relationship is awkward. It's as if these concrete walls and barbed-wire fences that are physical barriers between us have become barriers between our communication as well.
For me, being an incarcerated parent means constantly struggling to reconcile the memories of my son as that jovial six year old kid who followed me around, idolized me, and wanted nothing more than to be just like me when he grew up, with the reality that that kid is now a grown man who has spent most of his life without me. It's the inability to forgive myself for being absent when he needed me the most. It's the burden of knowing I'm responsible for mistakes he'll inevitably make due to my lack of guidance. It's the constant fear that his increased risk of being incarcerated will come to fruition and that one day we'll both be behind bars. It's living with never-ending regrets and sorrows, always wondering how my son would've turned out had I never been incarcerated. This is a taboo subject not openly discussed in prison. To let down one's guard and express such emotions is considered "weak," although this is an anguishing existence that 5.1 million other incarcerated parents relate to and struggle with daily. But maybe there's someone out there who needs to read this. Maybe me speaking of my feelings of failure as an incarcerated father will inspire others to express their feelings instead of continuing to suppress them for the sake of maintaining the image of "prison toughness." Maybe our collective voice needs to be heard in order to raise awareness of this issue and bring about some sort of policy change so that this experience isn't so damaging to the parent(s) and child(ren) involved. We are not "weak"; we're human.