When my ex-husband was arrested and put in jail, it was a relief. We met more than a decade ago, but during our first few years together, he was in and out of institutions, rehab and halfway houses in part because of his drug addiction. I spent a lot of time fighting to show him how much better life could be if only he could sober up. There were sleepless nights when I would sit frozen, waiting for the phone to ring with someone calling to let me know he was dead. I would drive alone to dangerous parts of Chicago looking for him in the middle of the night because I knew if I could just find him, I could bring him home. Those weren’t easy years, but I was in love. The first time he told me he loved me was in a letter delivered from the state penitentiary. But then he got clean and we had almost eight years of what I would consider “normal” lives. We got married, had kids, bought a house. I thought our troubled years were behind us.
When it came out that he was using again, I immediately knew my marriage was over. I couldn’t do any of that again. I remember telling him, “I will not bring my children to visit you in jail!” Maybe not the most empathetic of comments, but I was desperately trying to shake some sense into someone who had fallen down a deep, dark hole and was vehemently denying the problem.
Fast-forward two years from that day and he was, in fact, in jail. Despite my threats to never put my children through the anxiety and frightening experience of a jailhouse visit, my perspective changed when they asked me if they could see their dad.
It had been six months since they had spoken to him and even longer since he had visited. He had been avoiding them because seeing them was a reminder that he wasn’t the dad they had grown to respect, the dad they deserved. He knew he couldn’t be there for them in the way they needed.
My oldest son, Tommy*, was desperately trying to hold on to the rapidly fading bond the two of them had shared. Ever since Tommy started talking, he and his dad referred to each other as “best buds.” They played silly, made-up games whose rules no one else understood, and they went to arcades together. They had a relationship I found myself jealous of at times because my son looked at his father as if there were no other person in the world. My ex had been more of a friend than a parent. A best friend. He was a fun dad.
After our divorce, things took a drastic change. My son would win a baseball game, score well on a test or meet a new friend and he would want nothing more than to call his dad. For Christmas last year, he asked Santa for the gift of seeing his dad on Christmas Day. He would try to keep his dad informed on his siblings’ events as well to make sure his dad was still there, even if his body was absent. He protected him in a way a child shouldn’t have to look out for their parent. And every time he would try to call, text or FaceTime his dad, the response would be excuses about why the phone wasn’t working or the connection was terrible. Even so, Tommy defended him to the death. But after some time, requests to call or reach out dwindled, and Tommy stopped crying over missing him.
When Tommy asked me if I would take him and his siblings to visit their dad in jail, my immediate reaction was NO. Of course not. Jail is no place for kids.
My two youngest children have lived most of their lives separate from their dad, so their memories had started to fade. They were only three and four years old when he was arrested, and I felt it would be more disruptive than helpful to visit him.
My younger kids didn’t understand their dad’s situation, and I worried that seeing him in that environment would raise questions and cause additional heartache and fear. My preschooler once told a teacher at school that her dad had died—an attempt to make sense of his absence. My middle child would sometimes question where he might be living, if he still loved them or if he thought of them, but those questions came infrequently and usually only after Tommy had said something about missing his dad.
But with Tommy, I felt differently. He was eight, and he and his dad had a bond. Tommy was resilient. And from our conversations I had learned that he was surprisingly logical and reasonable. I felt like he could handle this.
He explained that he badly wanted the opportunity to confront his dad. He wanted to let him know that he was angry. He was hurt. He felt betrayed, sad, lost and abandoned. He explained that he craved the opportunity to look his dad in the eyes and tell him how he had disappointed him and how he’d broken promises. He wanted him to know that he hadn’t forgotten.
So we went.
As we waited, I sat in fear. I was terrified my ex would see my name on the visitor list and refuse to see me. After all, we hadn’t exactly been amicable in our battle over the kids and his current situation. I practically begged the officers to somehow pass along a message that I had brought Tommy with me, so my fragile child wouldn’t be let down any more than he already had been.
Tommy, too, was a ball of nerves. The tension had been building for weeks, and now the day had arrived.
When I saw his dad walking up to the glass window, I felt a flood of relief. He smiled, and Tommy crumbled. He was like a toddler again seeing his “best bud.” I could see that he had been yearning for any indication that his dad missed him too, that he was also struggling to be apart, and that he still loved him. And as much as that smile made my skin crawl, it reassured Tommy that he hadn’t been forgotten.
They talked for 20 minutes about little things: baseball, school. Tommy told him about his siblings. The words might have been casual and lighthearted, but the strong emotions on both sides of the glass were obvious. When the visit ended and they said their goodbyes, Tommy was beaming from ear to ear.
Tommy talked about that visit for months after. He doesn’t seem to remember any of the parts of the jail: the waiting room, the security guards, walking through a metal detector or taking a sterile-looking elevator to a holding area filled with steel stools and glass windows. He only remembers that his dad’s hair had gotten long, that he was happy he came, and that he got to talk to him for a whole 20 minutes, uninterrupted and intimately.
That was the last time Tommy saw or spoke to his dad, and that was almost seven months ago. A few months after our visit, his dad was released.
It wasn’t long before I realized my ex wasn’t going to make the effort to see his kids when he got out. I couldn’t have been more disappointed. I had hoped that his arrest and incarceration would have opened his eyes and made him want to work on being a parent again. The parent he was before. Or at least take baby steps on the path to getting there.
He did ask (once) to see the kids shortly after his release, but after years of lying, fighting and hiding, I needed reassurance. I wanted proof that he was sober and that he was getting the help he needed to stay that way. It was important to me that he went through the correct legal channels to reunite with the kids. And when he realized that this was a very real expectation, and that involved work on his part, he stopped trying.
It cost me a lot of time, energy, heartache and money to go back to court and fight for full custody of my three kids. I wasn’t about to jeopardize that. Bringing him back into their lives without being certain he was sober and ready to be a responsible parent felt like cycling back around again when my children had worked so hard to be happy.
One night, Tommy came to me and told me he had made peace with only having one parent he could rely on. I think he understands that even if his dad did come back into their lives, it wouldn’t be the same. The dad he once knew and loved so much was gone.
I was worried that seeing his dad behind bars would cripple Tommy, but it actually made him stronger and helped bring him peace. The dad Tommy had known before his visit was skinny, sickly looking, a shell of a man reeking of cigarettes and making outlandish promises he wasn’t able to keep. In jail, Tommy saw a healthier man who despite the orange jumpsuit and having to speak through a phone, was sober. He wasn’t numb, as he had once been.
Despite what happened after his dad was released, I am thankful I put my feelings and fears aside for that day and allowed Tommy the chance to heal and be heard. Even if it didn’t have a fairy-tale finish.
As for my other two children, I don’t regret not including them in this visit. I don’t think their minds and their emotional states were developed enough to properly comprehend the magnitude of this experience. For them, this experience would have been a setback, but for Tommy, it was the only way for him to move on.
*Some names have been changed
This article was originally published online in January 2019.