A recent Dear Amy advice column was a heartbreaker. A sad grandmother wrote:
My son and daughter-in-law are separated. My son is in county jail awaiting sentencing.
His wife has moved on and is in a relationship with someone else. She is currently living a great distance from us. There is a child. I love this child dearly, but now cannot see her due to the distance (and other considerations)
The mom has served my son with papers for full custody. I am so sad. How do I deal with my profound disappointment at not having this child in my life?Amy's advice was good, though incomplete.
Dear Sad: Given that your son is in jail, the mother should have full custody of the child, and as the child’s grandparents, you should embrace whatever living situation is best for the girl.I do not know enough about the situation to know if the mother should have full custody or not. Being in prison is no reason to assume that the dad should lose legal custody, though. Plenty of people in prison were good parents before they went to prison, will be good parents when they are released, and will try their best to be good parents while in prison.
You don’t mention having any relationship with the child’s mother, but you should make a heroic effort to stay in touch with her. Tell the mother that you respect her choice and that you all want whatever is best for your grandchild. Ask her to email photos and videos from time to time and do your best to be supportive, long-distance grandparents to this child.This is excellent. The mother, even if she has "moved on", surely needs loving support. Having a spouse in prison is incredibly stressful, even after choosing to leave the marriage. Leaving the marriage is one thing, leaving the father of your child is quite another. He will always be her father.
The child’s mother has an ethical obligation to try to honor your relationship with her child, but she has no legal obligation to do so. Given the extreme circumstances, she may blame you for some of your son’s choices. If your son’s crime is a violent one, then divorcing him and moving away might be best. You need to own and understand this, and always hold this child in your heart — even if she isn’t in your daily life.Ah...extreme circumstances. Yes, families have a difficult time when someone goes to prison. The muck of blame and shame is stirred up and it takes time before love and forgiveness rises to the top.
The granddaughter has lost her dad, though, and Amy's advice misses a big opportunity to suggest a way to help the little girl. She will need to know that she has not been forgotten by those she loved before her life was turned inside out and that includes her dad.
The grandparents and the mother should be encouraged to make every effort to take the little girl to visit her dad. It may be an especially difficult task for the mother, since she is now in another relationship, but good mothers will recognize that the child needs her father. The whole family needs to remember this. The child needs her father. Perhaps the grandparents can take the granddaughter to visit him. I hope the grandparents will visit their son as often as their circumstances will allow.
It is easy to think that it is best for the child to move on as the mother did but it isn't that easy. Kids interpret events differently from adults. Adults can use logic and experience to understand. Children don't have the experience that helps to make sense of what happened, though that does not mean they stop trying to find an explanation. If they are not given one that makes sense, they will create their own. It can take years for kids to finally understand what happened and what role they played, if any.
Kids might blame themselves for what happened. They might understand the crime incorrectly and think it was worse than what really happened. Having heard all their short lives that they are just like their dad, they might think they will end up in prison, too. There is no way to predict their understanding; cutting off the relationship with the father cuts short the child's chance to work things out.
No matter what the father did, he is still the child's father. No matter what the father did, he can still be a good father--or a better father--when he is released.
The dad in prison, barring an exceptionally long sentence, will be released at some point. He will benefit from family relationships that have been nurtured while he was away. Support from family and friends, along with employment and a place to live, are essential for a former inmate who wants to be successful on the outside.
Acting as if it is acceptable to separate children from parents in prison can do great damage to the child we think we are protecting.