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Since the passing of my mom, this past year has left me feeling directionless, like a piece of driftwood floating at sea. I am still unhinged by the idea I am no longer the center of anyone’s world. I also know I am not the only one going through these emotions. 

I am not alone. 

This Mother’s Day, rather than feeling sorry for myself, steeped in regret, I am choosing to honor my mother by offering others the opportunity to talk about theirs.

While our circumstances as inmates may be unique, as humans and daughters, we each suffer the same feelings of loneliness and loss. Our mothers engineer some of the strongest emotions we have, from unconditional love to resentment, even an inability to forgive them for past mistakes. 

Some mothers are our best friends; others, co-defendants in crime. Still, others are not there at all. No matter their status in our lives, they play an integral role in us becoming who we are. 

Inside these walls, it is not often we open the vault and discuss our family relationships. For this reason, I was careful in my approach when asking the women around me if they would like to talk. 

Some women were eager to share, as though they had been yearning for someone to listen to their story. Others, out of habit and possibly self-preservation, initially hid behind the façade of having a close and stable relationship. There was a sense that it would be a betrayal to speak the truth. 

As they became more comfortable, they began sharing the bad and the good. It seemed like they finally realized that being honest about their experience did not mean they were disloyal. It might even be an opening to begin healing. 

These are excerpts from the very personal accounts of the women who were brave enough to share. 

All interviews were conducted one-on-one; with their full consent and knowledge, they may be published online. For anonymity I have used initials. 

Q: What does Mother’s Day bring to mind for you?

DT: The loss of my mom, sadness I can’t be with her. (DT is 39 years old and she is serving a three-year sentence. She was raised by her mother, who struggled with alcoholism and passed away in 2014).

WB: Sadness for not being there when I was out there. I am there for her more now. (WB is 45 years old serving a 20-year sentence. She was raised by two parents. Her mother is 69 years old.) 

MK: Nothing good, childhood not good. (MK is 58 years old and is serving a life sentence for killing her biological mother.)

SC: Being a kid, making stuff with her. Now with her lung cancer, it gets harder every year. (SC is 54 years old, serving a 24-year sentence. She was raised by her mother, who is now 74 years old and has cancer.)

KH: Flowers and making her meals as a kid on Mother’s Day. (KH is 56 years old and serving a 15-year sentence. She was raised by a mother and father, and her mother is now 84-years old, struggling with alcoholism.)

AP: Disappointment at not having mom here. (AP is 36 years old and serving a two-year sentence. She was raised by her grandparents. Her mother is 54 years old, struggles with addiction and has been in and out of her life.)

AC: Gratitude for the mother I have, even more so after being incarcerated (AC is 50 years old and serving a 10-year sentence. She was raised by two parents, and her mother passed away in 2014 at age 82.)

JS: Anger and resentment at not having any contact. (JS is 40 years old and serving a two-year sentence. She was raised by her grandmother after her mother left her when she was 2 months old. They did not meet until she was 12 years old. Her mother is now 54 years old. She is currently sober but struggles with addiction.) 

JC: Appreciation for the mother I have (JC is 29 years old and serving a five-year sentence. She was raised by her grandparents. Her mother is 47 years old and struggles with addiction.)

Q: How would you describe your mother? Do you see things others may not?

DT: She was a caretaker. My dad committed suicide, so she had to be mom and dad. 

MK: She was not a good mother. She said I was ugly and that she wishes she had broken my neck as a baby.

SC: She is prideful, showed love by taking care of other’s needs, not through emotion.

KH: She is optimistic, even in addiction. I can see her physical and emotional fragility others don’t.

AP: She was an addict and judgmental. She had a lot of mental health issues.

AC: Behind closed doors, she likes to be funny.

JS: She is selfish but full of life. She paid for my abortion when I was 13.

JC: She is funny and outgoing. I can see the hurt from what she has been through that others don’t because she is always smiling.

Q: How is your relationship now since you have become incarcerated? 

WB: Better than ever. She is more accepting now. Little things don’t bother her as much.

SC: She has ridden it out with me. We’ve both grown. I’m not on drugs.

KH: Very good. She was ashamed for a long time after I was locked up. In the past five years, she is beginning to open up. 

AP: I’m not talking to her right now because of an argument. 

AC: She passed before prison. It would have done her in.

JS: Non-existent. 

JC: Not as close. We grew apart. I think she cares more about the wrong things than her kids.

Q: Are you a mother? Is your own mother involved? 

WB: I have two young adult children. She took care of them when I became incarcerated.

MK: I have a daughter. We talk daily. She was 8 years old when I got locked up.

SC: I have two adult sons. She works to take care of them. I went to jail because of her negativity, the boys are not close to her anymore. 

AP: She tried to be a mom to my daughter to make up for not being there for me. They do not have a relationship now. 

AC: I have two young adult children. She became my friend, but she is still my mom.

JS: I have one teenage daughter. She has never met her. I wanted to protect her.

Q: What is the most memorable thing you learned from your mom? 

MK: She never protected me. She treated me like I was nothing. She let men molest me. 

SC: To be respectful and honest. Now that I am clean and sober, I can reflect back to all the important things she instilled in me. 

KH: Independence. She made me make my own choices so I could learn.

AP: No matter how hard life gets, pick up and keep going. Never depend on anyone else. 

JS: Making lasagna. 

JC: She taught me my reputation was like glass, and once cracked can never be fixed. This was after I found out she slept with my boyfriend. I was 12, he was 19.

Q: What was a challenging part of her? 

SC: She was very controlling. It’s why I became wild. If I would have been allowed to make mistakes, I would have learned. 

AP: Her addictions. The negativity. Having to pick her up off the floor. I’m raising my daughter completely differently.

Q: What is the hardest part of this for you?

MK: I was born in prison. I was never loved. My life is not what it should have been. I regret that my daughter has to grow up without me. 

Q: Living or not, what is the one thing you wish she knew? 

DT: That I am sorry for all the hurt I put on her. (Follow up question: Were you able to have that conversation before she passed? DT: No, it was unexpected.)

WB: That I love her and want to have a normal life before she dies. 

MK: I wish I could ask, “Why didn’t you love me?”

SC: I always worry about her salvation, especially now that she is sick.

KH: I don’t forgive her for having sex with my boyfriend. I was 15, he was 18.

AP: I know she tried to be a good mom. I love her and I’m proud of her.

AC: Thank you for being a role model and allowing us the freedom to be who we are.

JS: I love her and would like to mend our relationship now that I am clean and sober.

JC: That I love her and forgive her for all the hurt she has put on us.

Q: What are some of the fears about the future of your relationship with her?

SC: Not knowing if there is one, that she won’t get to say the things she needs to and I won’t get to respond.

AP: I’m afraid something will happen, an O.D. (overdose). Her depression is so bad I don’t think she wants to be around anymore.

JS: That I will continue to be nonexistent. That she will die without knowing I love her, without me knowing if she loves me.

JC: If she doesn’t get her life right, we’ll never be right. The drugs will completely take over. 

Q: What is the one thing you would like everyone to know about your mom? 

DT: How great she was, what her unconditional love meant to me. 

WB: Her lovingness, how much she cares.

MK: I thought a mom was always supposed to protect you. But I have learned I was worth something. 

SC: She could do anything. She has a lot of strength. 

KH: My mom is awesome! Even as crazy as she makes me.

AP: Mom is a great person but sick. She is my best friend, but I love from a distance. 

AC: She is loyal, someone to get advice from. She liked to spend time joking around with us girls in the kitchen. 

JS: If you’ve not been shown love, you don’t know how to give it. She loved me enough to know she couldn’t take care of me. 

JC: She tried. I love her.

Mother’s Day is thought to be a day of celebration and remembrance, but for many, it is a challenging time with conflicting emotions. One thing consistently illustrated is our desire for love and forgiveness — both given and received. My wish on this day is to be grateful for what we have, but to also realize no matter our individual circumstances, we do not struggle alone.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

K.C. Johnson is a writer incarcerated in North Carolina.