I recently read an article about parenting post-incarceration. The author of the piece made a profound statement that I have come to believe in my own heart.
“Even when a parent has been part of a child’s pain, that parent’s love can still be the antidote.” Eric M. Ramos, “After Prison, I Became A Better Dad.”, Marshall Project. June 3, 2019.
In his article Eric talks about the challenges of bonding with his children during his incarceration and the immense pain he felt. I can identify with Eric, as a returning citizen who was separated from my own child for 14 years. In the quiet moments when you allow for yourself to feel the weight of your deeds, the shame of causing your children pain is almost unbearable.
Eric allowed for his pain to become a motivating factor for him, like so many other incarcerated parents. He became involved in a program entitled Parenting From The Inside Out™, an evidence-based curriculum by Daniel J. Siegel. Though I am not familiar with this particular curriculum, Eric mentions components which are integral to the healing and emotional development of incarcerated fathers, such as addressing trauma, communication and parenting skill development.
During my time in prison I had to address the same inner-personal issues. You can not heal what you do not acknowledge. It was during deeply personal group sessions that I began to shed some of my own pain due to past traumas. Only then was I able to prepare myself to become the man that my child needed me to be. This was not an overnight process!
Like Eric, upon release I met many life challenges from finding gainful employment, to dealing with my own shame and most importantly building a relationship with my son Ahmarr, who was 16 years old. After the initial shock of being home I had to regroup. I fell back on the parenting skills that I learned inside and I also began to talk to my own parents about building a relationship with him. I remember once having a conversation with my mother and she gave me some of the soundest advice, advice which I carry with me today. My mother said “all children want to love their parents, we just have to give them the space to do so.” In my case this meant being a solid, steadfast and open father. I had to create a space for Ahmarr to be able to communicate with me and say some things that I knew would hurt, however things he needed to give voice to facilitate his own healing process.
As both of our lives changed he and I began to realize we needed to do a lot more work, so we created a walking ritual. Every Sunday for at least 2 hours we walk in a park, and we just talk. We talk about whatever is on our minds. Some days we have left that park in tears from all of the laughter and some days we have left the park with tears due to all of the pain. But no matter what we keep walking.
These walks were the impetus and foundation for Out of the Ashes, our drama-therapy presentation. Over time we began to realize that our relationship was getting better and unfortunately many of our friends’ in similar situations were not having the same results. We decided to share our story through art in order to foster the conversation about parenting and incarceration.
Since 2015 we have shared Out of the Ashes with thousands of individuals across the United States. Every time we share our story it is a fresh reminder of the journey that we have taken to healing. This has been a most rewarding journey. Like Eric, I have learned the value of continuing the journey of teaching other fathers how to parent after being in prison. It is a truly unique and nuances experience. I guess in some ways I have melded my mother’s advice and Eric’s statement into one action. Through Out of the Ashes and our walking ritual Ahmarr and I are increasing our good days and putting distance between our bad ones.
Coley Harris is the co-founder of Out of the Ashes,LLC a family restoration company headquartered in Newark, DE. Out of the Ashes provides workshops and trainings for individuals, families and organizations who work with parents impacted by incarceration.