February 24th, 2014 by Dan Branigan.
With the next Fathers Inside training at Newbold approaching in March and with an increasingly aware two year old daughter at home, I have started to feel guilty about leaving her for the five days (four nights) I will be away from home. When I first started delivering the training when I returned from maternity leave she was too young to know, or perhaps to young to express that I was missing. Now, even though I can try and explain I will see her in five days time she is far too young to understand that concept. She doesn’t understand whether a goodbye is for a quick trip to the shops or a few days away. Will she wonder where I have gone? Worse still will she feel abandoned or sad?
Aside from the guilt that my absence might upset my daughter, I also feel guilty that part of me actually enjoys the break. Saying goodbye is always hard, however, once I’ve left, in many ways it is easy to just immerse myself in campus life and the non-stop training, devoid of the responsibly of every day life and parenting. It was somewhat of a shock to me to find out how easily you can adapt. I’m sure the experience is actually much harder for my partner who is left to cope with juggling work and childcare alone.
Of course this is only a very short separation; however the comparisons here with the families we work with are obvious, even if the time scales of separation are different. For a young child a parent has suddenly gone from the family home. As a child gets older it is of course easier to explain Mummy/Daddy is working away for a few days. However, explaining the parent is in prison is a little different, coupled with the stigma a family must face.
It is estimated that there are over 200,000 children in the UK with a parent in prison. This group is often invisible as there is no joined up approach for recording these individuals. Parents are often reluctant to let a school or other ‘authorities’ know a parent is in prison for fear they will be judged or deemed inadequate due to the very real stigma that surrounds imprisonment.
At the launch of Barnardos and Pops, I-HOP resource (a national one-stop information and advice service to support all professionals in working with children and families of offenders) in September 2013, the recurrent theme of the day was the stigma associated with imprisonment. I recently experienced the stigma first hand.
I was at a drop in playgroup with my daughter and had got chatting to a local child-minder. She was telling me how she had worked as a classroom assistant before becoming a child-minder as it fitted in better with her responsibilities to her own teenage children. She seemed extremely friendly and approachable. She then asked what I did for work. ‘Oh I work for a charity which develops educational courses for offenders and their families’. I said, this is my stock reply when people ask me in a ‘non work’ context and only if they show genuine interest do I go into more detail about the organisation/programmes. I was a little taken aback when she said, ‘Oh Nice!’ in a slightly disapproving/sarcastic tone, followed almost immediately by asking if I had seen a programme about ‘children that kill their parents’ the previous night. I found myself battling to get the conversation back to the merits of supporting families and those in prison to minimalize the negative impact on all involved, rather than being drawn into a discussion about the sensationalist television programme the night before. I soon realised our conversation had attracted the attention of several other parents nearby. Then just as abruptly as the discussion started it was cut short as the leader of the playgroup started singing ‘the wheels on the bus’ and we all sang along shaking our tambourines.
A week or two before the incident described above, still in mum mode, I went to a children’s centre I hadn’t visited before. I was asked to fill in a registration form which asked questions about our family situation such as. Are you on benefits? Are you a single parent? I noticed there was no question related to imprisonment. Would this not be an ideal opportunity to identify these parents? I don’t recall ever being asked the question. But, if I were in that situation would I want tick the box? Would I feel judged or that I was being put into a certain category of service user? Would I think it was relevant for a play group to know this information about my family or would I prefer remain anonymous and just enjoy the group alongside everyone else?
I know from my experience of working with prisoners’ families both revising the Family Man programme and in my role the FM coordinator that the family members often don’t realise what services are there to support them. They may not for instance consider themselves a single parent when their partner is in prison and therefore not eligible or in need of help or in fact in need of any help or support.
The experience of parenting is guilt ridden enough, particularly with the often self-inflicted guilt that you are not doing the best for your child. For a parent to feel their actions or their partners actions have had a negative impact on their child or has put them at a disadvantage is a hard pill to swallow. Couple this with the stigma they might face from others if affected by imprisonment makes for an extremely painful experience. So how do we tackle the stigma that adds to this guilt? Of course we must work in partnership with other organisations and reach out to schools and other professionals, but it is also the conversations we have in the pub, on the bus, in the park or at playgroups. When most people only hear about prisons via the media is it any wonder they have a certain view. When my daughter is older I hope understands why I work for part of the week and why occasionally have to go away. I also hope I bump into the child-minder again, as it’s a conversation I would like to continue.