Sunday, January 17, 2016

Understanding the Lives of Mothers After Incarceration: Moving Beyond Socially Constructed Definitions of Motherhood

In the wake of mass incarceration, an increasing number of women are going through the penal system. A fair number of these women are mothers, yet the intersection of motherhood and prison may contradict conceptions of femininity and challenge traditional views of appropriate mothering. The contradiction between notions of criminality and femininity contributes to stigmatized perceptions of formerly incarcerated mothers, which drastically shapes their ability to reintegrate into society post-incarceration. While reentry efforts tackle gender differences through the implementation of gender-responsive programs that cater to women's needs, failure to adequately account for unique maternal experiences may hinder attempts to address obstacles faced by mothers in particular, such as regaining child custody and paying for day care. This article argues for special attention to the post-incarceration experiences of mothers without imposing socially constructed definitions of motherhood like having custody and living with children, which may not coincide with the realities mothers face after imprisonment. Ideas are also discussed for the inclusive consideration of formerly incarcerated mothers and their post-incarceration experiences...

Employment and financial challenges
Formerly incarcerated individuals often encounter obstacles to obtain and sustain employment, finding themselves with limited opportunities in the low-wage sector (Brown and Bloom 2009; Dodge and Pogrebin 2001; Hagan and Dinovitzer 1999). As a result, they are likely to seek financial assistance from family members to cover daily expenses and outstanding debts, such as court fines (Brown and Bloom 2009). While some receive financial assistance from relatives, this puts a strain on the finances of family members who are less fortunate or also caring for the mothers' children (Dodge and Pogrebin 2001). These employment and financial difficulties may further complicate the act of mothering post-incarceration. Specifically, unstable employment and income can trigger inconsistent routines, financial obstacles to provide for children, difficulties with affordable childcare arrangements, and associated stress that may influence parent–child relationships (Arditti and Few 2008; Brown and Bloom 2009; Edin and Lein 1997; Scott et al. 2004). As written by Brown and Bloom (2009, p. 332): “Reunion with children takes place in situations where the woman is dependent on others and is still not really in control of her own life.” Such financial obstacles can be particularly detrimental for formerly incarcerated mothers, aggravating attempts at reintegrating into society and navigating motherhood amidst desires and expectations to do so.

Living arrangements
Since mothers are likely to have lived with their children and served as primary caretakers pre-incarceration (Glaze and Maruschak 2008; Mumola 2000), they often expect and hope to live with their children upon their release (Baunach, 1985; Brown and Bloom 2009). Yet, mothers face difficulties in finding permanent housing post-incarceration and may encounter unstable housing including homelessness, which presents obstacles as they seek suitable housing for themselves and their children (Roman and Travis 2004). Since the children's fathers are seldom involved or financially stable, mothers are often unable to rely on the fathers and, instead, rely on other family members for the care of their children (Dodge and Pogrebin 2001). They may exhibit gratefulness for family serving as temporary caregivers, but they may also feel jealousy if unable to realistically provide for their children given common difficulties in finding stable, affordable housing post-incarceration (Arditti and Few 2008). Some mothers struggle with attempts to live with their children, yet others decide to leave their children in the care of family to maintain consistency with arrangements made in their physical absence (Michalsen 2011). Some formerly incarcerated mothers may also encounter hostility from their children because of these adjustments, forcing them to balance “their own process of reintegration and the transitions of their loved ones” (Brown and Bloom 2009, p. 325). Thus, changes in mother–child relationships and problems finding stable housing can negatively impact mothers' plans to reside with their children and contribute to preexisting stress after incarceration.

Mothering techniques
Mothers may also struggle to manage motherhood within a correctional system that stresses idealistic notions of femininity and mothering, while penalizing mothers whom diverge from these social constructions (Ferraro and Moe 2003; Haney 2010). For instance, maternal desires to provide for children during financial difficulties are often associated with violations of parole conditions given that mothers are “filled with expectations of caring for others while under the gaze of the state” (Ferraro and Moe 2003, p. 23). In her ethnographic study, Haney (2010) found that some mothers under correctional supervision were deemed “bad mothers” and scolded for treating their children with tough love. However, the mothers deemed tough love as a necessary parenting approach to teach their children survival techniques for the realities faced in their neighborhoods (Haney 2010). Moreover, mothers of color – fraught with racial inequalities in society – often engage in “motherwork” in which they empower children (both biological and non-biological) against the social and structural barriers they collectively confront as racial minorities (Collins 1994; see also O'Reilly 2014). Their tough love parenting serves to protect their children from the dangers in their community and the attention of the police, while the parenting of White middle-class mothers typically places emphasis on the proper education and employment for future success (Brown and Bloom 2009). Formerly incarcerated mothers may also employ discipline and tough love to prevent their children from following in their footsteps and making the same mistakes they made (Hayes 2009). Though mothers justify this parenting approach according to their life circumstances, this approach may not coincide with social constructions of what mothering entails, therefore, exposing them to further stigmatization (Haney 2010). These factors can be particularly problematic for mothers attempting to regain custody of their under-aged children.
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By:  Janet Garcia
Correspondence address: Janet Garcia, School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University, 123 Washington Street, CLJ 5th Floor, Newark, NJ 07102, USA. E-mail:

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