Twenty Years After: Forgiveness

To all of my fellow GEMS, this submission is for you.  Being a “good enough mom” (GEM) takes the pressures off of having to get everything right.  When I came home from prison, I was on a quest to gain some semblance of “normalcy” – find a job and make a home for me and my children. To accomplish this, I didn’t search within myself. I sought external activities; I became involved with various groups, community organizations, churches and colleges.

While on my “normalcy” quest, I became friends with a wonderful woman, Mildred. She got to know me quickly and could see that I struggled with trusting others, feeling safe and maintaining a sense of hope.  Mildred wisely told me that these characteristics did not come from my experience in prison, but rather they are deeply rooted in my past life experiences. Therefore, on my quest for “normalcy” after prison, along with my involvement in advocacy efforts, I began to unearth, understand and heal from my childhood trauma.

As a child, I witnessed and experienced domestic violence, abandonment, incest, alcoholism, physical abuse and emotional abuse, and I internalized these traumatic events.  As part of peeling my onion of emotions – there were many layers – I became aware that these traumatic experiences were not my fault.  Furthermore, with my educational background in psychology, I came to truly understand the devastating impact trauma can have on us as human beings.    The National Center for Trauma Informed Care reports that, “Traumatic experiences can be dehumanizing, shocking or terrifying, singular or multiple compounding events over time, and often include betrayal of a trusted person or institution and a loss of safety. Trauma can result from experiences of violence. Trauma included physical, sexual and institutional abuse, neglect, intergenerational trauma, and disasters that induce powerlessness, fear, recurrent hopelessness, and a constant state of alert. Trauma impacts one’s spirituality and relationships with self, others, communities and environment, often resulting in recurring feelings of shame, guilt, rage, isolation, and disconnection.”

My relationship with my children is the most challenging and rewarding. Through the love for my children, I have been pushed to change my past; first through acceptance of all the experiences that have come along in life.  My acceptance of these experiences does not in any way mean that I agree with what happened.  Where in the beginning all I wanted to do was to lessen the guilt and shame, in the end, I found a peace and understanding that continues to feed me spiritually. Shame and guilt are often part and parcel of the prison experience.  I’ve come to understand that although some situations were somewhat beyond my sphere of control, I realize now that I still had power to deal with these situations. My second attempt at resolving my past experiences was through FORGIVENESS.  Through our past experiences we sometimes tend to think we are less than and undeserving. Forgiveness is so important and will free us to see and deal with our society and its people as they truly are – that is “fallible”. Just look at our everyday situations when dealing with others and the various systems we interact with.   Our primary goal should be to give our children a better opportunity to see us as human beings striving to be our best selves. Forgiveness helps us do that.

Forgiveness allows us to have a more nuanced understanding of the situations we encounter everyday. The shroud of the prison experience never seems to stay off once removed.    The media, social policies, and laws bombard us with negative labels about serving time. When we are released these labels and negative definitions continue with fervor, “once a convict always a convict”. We are identified as convicts, ‘those women’ and “Other”. Labeling is further extended to our children as children of convicts and to our communities. We are “Othered”, outcast and invisible. As one member of WORTH (Women on the Rise Telling Herstory) stated, “It’s as if our children are seen as co-conspirators to our crime”.   We can come to believe these labels, internalizing the trauma and oppression; however, to forgive ourselves for believing the hype is freedom.  A friend of mine who attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings always shared “Freedom ain’t free, but slavery is NOT an option”.  We have to heal ourselves to be released from the self imposed bonds.    Sometimes I hear women talk about being rescued by the prison - “If it wasn’t for jail or prison, I don’t know what I would have done to get off of those drugs.”  We don’t really see the forest for the trees.  Jail or prison does not rescue anyone; it places invisible bonds reminiscent of slavery on those who have lived within those walls.  Once released, every decision and behavior is scrutinized by the department of parole and probation to the point of it being a cycle that some can not comply with.  Let’s say you have children in foster care.  Children’s services states you have to first get an apartment, then get a job, and, finally, petition the courts to have your children returned.  If you’ve committed a felony, no one is going to hire you for a meaningful position, and if you are seeking housing, a background check may result in a denial of housing because of the label of former prisoner.  The label of convict can create insurmountable obstacles. How do you make sense of your reentry when it seems like it is a false invitation?  Race and class is paramount to our understanding of an oppressive system that does not offer an instant of safe space, opportunity or human kindness.   We may walk away with our heads hung low, full of shame, believing these definitions and internalizing them too.  This is not how we are meant to live or parent our children.   

Being a GEM, takes knowing and getting to know self,  forgiving yourself for all that you did  or didn’t do that didn’t quite measure up.  Forgiveness is a hard process, but without forgiveness what I know from experience is that we will never be our true selves.  Forgiveness allows us to be human, not expect unrealistic outcomes and/or be so hard on our selves when we have to rethink or do something over.  It also allows us to see beyond our immediate surroundings, to question why situations are the way they are and begin to think of ways to change them.

Peace and Blessings GEMS

Tina Reynolds

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