I wrote out a big long whiny post about why I’m sad and angry that, for my children, Father’s Day is just another reminder of the dad they don’t currently have. My ex husband, the father of my 5 children, is in prison, where he has been for the majority of my kids’ lives.
Father’s Day is particularly unpleasant for the fatherless, and although my children DO have a father, my youngest (2 years old) has only met him once (when I took her to visit him in prison last year), and he was in prison for the first 5 years of my oldest’s (11 years old) life and then returned there for another 5 year stay about 2 1/2 years ago, so fatherless is still a mostly applicable description.
But, as I was furiously scribbling my angry, bitter thoughts about my poor kids and their lack of a father figure, I started to recall some instances where the prison experience has blessed my life with humor, and I decided to focus on that instead. So, without further ado, here are a few of the life lessons my kids were taught by having an incarcerated father.
1. When your father is incarcerated, and you’re learning your colors:
The first time my ex husband went to prison, he was housed in Utah and I lived in Texas with our oldest son. We visited as often as we could, but due to the distance, I was only able to take my son to see his dad a few times a year. His dad, of course, was always dressed in the same bright orange prison-issued jumpsuit when we arrived to see him. One day when my mom picked my son up from school, she asked him what he had learned that day. My son proudly proclaimed, “I learned the color orange! And guess what? I told everyone that my dad wears orange pants every day!” So, yeah…a little tmi about our home life for the preschool teacher, but my son knew orange before he learned any other color!
2. When your father is incarcerated, and you’re learning to spell:
Visiting an inmate in prison can mean several different things. Sometimes it means sitting down, looking into a computer screen with an old school telephone to your ear, and basically skyping with the inmate while he is housed in a separate part of the prison facility. Sometimes it means looking at each other through a thick panel of bulletproof glass and, again, speaking through the mouthpiece of an old school telephone to engage in conversation. These are the two most common visit experiences we have had, as my ex husband was held in maximum security for much of his prison stay, so person-to-person contact was forbidden. Occasionally, though, we got contact visits, and we had one just after my son began learning to string letters together to make words.
On this occasion, my son looked down as he sat on his dad’s lap, saw my ex husband’s clothes, and realized that there were words on them! He pointed to the letters and excitedly declared, “Dad! I know what your pants say! I-N-M-A-T-E. That spells JAIL!” Oopsy…not quite, son, but I like where your head’s at. Way to use your context clues. Hahaha.
3. When your father is incarcerated, and you’re learning to make good choices:
My youngest child is two, and her nickname is The Boss. She is the enforcer and rules our little roost with a tiny iron fist. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I heard my twins (who are a year older than my baby) whisper in hushed tones as they strategized about retrieving a coveted toy that The Boss had taken from them:
Twin A: Um…can you get the bunny back from [The Boss] for us?
Twin B: Um, well…but she’s kinda the best fighter. And…I’m not. Plus, she scratches.
Twin A: Oh. Yeah…let’s just go play with Barbies.
The Boss is not above using threats and intimidation to get what she wants, and the other day, when trying to convince her sisters to do things her way, I heard her say, “But is that a good choice? Do you want to go sleep with Daddy in prison??!!” That’s right, folks, my two year old is teaching her sisters the consequences of making bad choices by threatening them with prison time. It is what it is.
4. When your father is incarcerated, and you’re learning to use your imagination:
My second son was just shy of 2 years old when his daddy went away. Of all of us, I think he was the closest to his dad, and had the hardest time adjusting to his absence. And because he does miss his daddy, this little guy has learned to use his imagination in an interesting way.
Son #2 looked up at me one day, and, smiling excitedly, announced, “Today my dad is taking me to the zoo!” A bit taken aback, I asked him, “Are you sure, buddy? Because I’m not sure your daddy is going to be able to take you to the zoo today.” With a knowing twinkle in his eye, he confidently said, “Oh, not my ‘real’ daddy. I’m talking about my dad named The Hulk.” Hahaha…the name changes depending upon which super hero he’s into (it’s usually The Hulk or Thor), but my second runt has learned to be innovative in creating imaginary dads to take his father’s place in his life.
5. When your father is incarcerated, and you’re learning the importance of using details when you draw:
My son’s pre-k teacher was exceptional. One of the things she really focused on teaching her students is the importance of details in their work. “Oh! I see your self portrait has a nice big smile, but where is your nose??” or “Ooh, your flower looks lovely! Maybe we should add some leaves?” One day my son came home from school feeling particularly proud that he had paid special attention to the details of his work that day. The assignment, a family portrait, looked much like any other student’s drawing, but for the details. My son puffed up his chest, held up his family portrait, and stated with unmistakable pride, “Look, Mom! I remembered my details: I drew Daddy’s special bracelets on his hands and his feet!” Yup…shackles. And handcuffs. My son drew SHACKLES AND HANDCUFFS on his family portrait. Awesome.
I hope these little anecdotes made you smile. If you can relate from personal experience, I’m truly sorry, and I hope my stories made you feel less alone. It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to be angry. And it’s also ok to laugh and find humor when it peeks through the darkness to shine a little light on your life. Happy Father’s Day to all the surrogate dads who help raise and nurture the fatherless. Happy Father’s Day to the mothers who have to do both jobs. Happy Father’s Day to the dads who can’t be the kind of father their kids need. I hope one day you have that opportunity and you make the most of it. You’re missing out on the good stuff.