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What It’s Like to Parent From Behind Bars

I met Lisa at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility on an unseasonably warm, sunny November day. The first thing I noticed about the cement building was the vibe. The guard who checked me in seemed genuinely happy to be there.


Stacy, the prison librarian and my host for the morning, led me through a maze of locked hallways to meet Lisa, stopping intermittently to chat with colleagues and wave at inmates. Stacy later told me the facility prides itself on creating genuine opportunities for vocational training and rehabilitation.

I’m ashamed to admit that when Stacy left and shut the door behind her, I took a deep breath and tried to stop thinking about the possibility that Lisa was hiding a sharp object in her baggy prison uniform. I’d seen a few prison movies, after all.

Given the way Hollywood portrays sex, love, childbirth, and practically everything else, I should not have been surprised when Lisa bore little resemblance to the inmates in the movies.

Here’s what she had to say:

On ending up in prison

My mom passed away from lung cancer, and that was what brought me to a very dark place in my life. I was 16 at the time and had just given birth to my son, Michael. After that, I moved to Denver for a guy, who I had two kids with. It turned out to be a very bad, abusive relationship.

I came home from work early one day and found him cheating on me. I scooped up the kids, left the house, and stayed with friends. All the bank accounts were in his name. I had to literally start from scratch. After about four months couch surfing and hotel hopping, knowing that the kids could be home with Johnny, I was like, “I can’t do this to the kids anymore. I have to make a choice.”

I sent the kids back to stay with their father and stole a vehicle so I could sleep in it, which was a really hard decision. But when you’re homeless and dragging your kids around on the streets, you have to make that decision. A shelter wasn’t an option because I was employed at the time, and most shelters won’t take you if you’re employed. I was charged with aggravated motor vehicle theft.

Once I got to prison, Johnny (not being Michael’s dad) decided he didn’t want to be responsible for Michael. There was no family to take him, so I got charged with child abuse and neglect due to incarceration. I had no control over the situation, but that’s what DHS charged me with. They ended up sending him to a group home, which is typically a punishment.

On motherhood

I have a journal I plan to give each child that I write in every single day so that they’ll know they were in my heart every single day. I write how I feel, what I’m doing, what I wish I was doing with them at that moment. Maybe I had a dream about them. It’s always something positive.

I got approval from the courts to see my kids, but I haven’t seen them once. I thought the case manager or someone from the group home would bring Michael, but they won’t. I’ve heard a thousand excuses. And Johnny hasn’t answered a single call from me.

It’s really hard to parent from prison. You can say everything on the phone, but how do you enforce anything? My son Michael got in trouble. He threw a plastic stopwatch at a vehicle. It’s not appropriate and needs to be addressed, but it’s typical 13-year-old behavior.

In the group home, they came and they arrested him. They charged him with destruction of property, and he’s going to court for it. I didn’t find out about this until three weeks later. No case manager notified me. They don’t tell you anything.

I get a 15-minute phone call twice a week. That’s the maximum amount of time I’m allowed to be on the phone with my son. Pretty much on the phone, it’s just, “I love you,” or “Oh my gosh, I’m so glad I get to hear your voice today,” or “How was your day?” That kind of stuff.

But he’ll share absolutely everything with me. We have a really amazing relationship. That’s one thing that makes the case managers really want to return custody to me.

On counseling

I’m all about counseling. A lot of people are like, “Ugh, I don’t want to go to counseling.” But there’s a counselor for everybody. I’m not saying every single counselor is right for every single person. You have to take the time to go through the process.

When my mom died, I smothered my son so badly because I was so worried about losing anyone else close to me. I really had a hard time letting him out of my sight. Slowly, after going through parenting programs and going to counseling, I realized he needs some room to breathe. I also realized I had a lot of grief I needed to address.

On addiction

After I left my kids with Johnny, I dove into methamphetamines. I never used heroin or any opiates, and I’m very thankful for that. But I struggled with meth really hard. I wasn’t an IV user. I smoked. And I turned to alcoholism. Then I beat the alcoholism but only by increasing my meth use.

I would not be high around my children. So when I came to visit my kids, I’d have to spend a week completely sobering up, and as soon as that visit with my kids was over, I’d get back to using again as quick as I could because that pain of not being able to take care of my kids…I just wanted to make that pain go away. It was really hard.

Now I know, I can go to AA or NA, and there’s no harm in saying, “Hi, I’m Lisa, I have these issues. It’s very nice to meet you. Let’s talk about our issues together.”

On the next leg of her journey

I just found out I’m getting out on parole five days before Christmas. I will have been here one-and-a-half years of my three-year sentence.

Initially, I didn’t know where I’d go when I got out because I’d lost touch with my family. After my mom died, one of my brothers committed suicide, and I just ran away.

But I got in touch with one of my brothers, and he said, “This is crazy, but Dad’s staying by himself because his wife just passed away, and he needs someone there to take care of him. I think that would be a great place for you to parole to.”

So he gets me Dad’s phone number, and I get a hold of dad, and he’s like, “Of course you can parole up here. You can still cook, right?” and we cracked up.

I could see myself volunteering in the correctional system. In five years, hopefully, I’ll be getting a masters degree and living in the country, off the grid. I’d like to see my son in college at that point.

On staying positive

You can either choose to change or you can choose to stay the same. But the choice is yours. My belief is perception equals projection. What you perceive around you is what you’re going to project outside of you. If you think, “This is a horrible place and I hate it,” that is what you’re going to project. But I don’t see it that way.

My mom taught me that everybody around you is impacted by everything you do. If you sit in the middle of a field cross-legged and you think about happy things and put love out into the world, that is going to impact the next person around you. That is going to impact the next tree around you. That is going to impact absolutely everything around you.

If I smile at a stranger, it’s going to brighten up their day. They’re more likely to pass that smile on to the next person. If I walk around with a scowl on my face and slam the door, that’s more likely to have a negative impact on the next person, and they’re gonna pass that on as well.

* * *

It’s not every day you get to enter a prison and leave an hour later with an inmate’s story imprinted on your heart. I’m grateful to Lisa for the candor with which she shared her journey and to Denver Women’s Correctional Facility for granting me an interview with her.

This interview was edited for clarity and length. Names have been changed due to privacy concerns.

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Unstructured play is play without predetermined rules of the game. There are no organized teams, uniforms, coaches or trainers. It is spontaneous, often made-up on the spot, and changeable as the day goes on. It is the kind of play you see when puppies chase each other around a yard in endless circles or a group of kids play for hours in a fort they created out of old packing boxes.

Unstructured play is fun—no question about it—but research also tells us that it is critically important for the development of children's bodies and brains.

One of the best ways to encourage unstructured play in young children is by providing open-ended toys, or toys that can be used multiple ways. People Toy Company knows all about that. Since 1977, they've created toys and products designed to naturally encourage developmental milestones—but to kids, it all just feels like play.

Here are five reasons why unstructured play is crucial for your children—

1. It changes brain structure in important ways

In a recent interview on NPR's Morning Edition, Sergio Pellis, Ph.D., an expert on the neuroscience of play noted that play actually changes the structure of the developing brain in important ways, strengthening the connections of the neurons (nerve cells) in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain considered to be the executive control center responsible for solving problems, making plans and regulating emotions.

Because unstructured play involves trying out different strategies without particular goals or serious consequences, children and other animals get to practice different activities during play and see what happens. When Dr. Pellis compared rats who played as pups with rats that did not, he found that although the play-deprived rats could perform the same actions, the play-experienced rats were able to react to their circumstances in a more flexible, fluid and swift fashion.

Their brains seemed more "plastic" and better able to rewire as they encountered new experiences.

Hod Lipson, a computer scientist at Cornell sums it up by saying the gift of play is that it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected—a critically important skill in today's uncertain world.

2. Play activates the entire neocortex

We now know that gene expression (whether a gene is active or not) is affected by many different things in our lives, including our environment and the activities we participate in. Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a Professor at the University of Washington studied play in rats earning him the nickname of the "rat tickler."

He found that even a half hour of play affected the activity of many different genes and activated the outer part of the rats' brains known as the neocortex, the area of the brain used in higher functions such as thinking, language and spatial reasoning. We don't know for sure that this happens in humans, but some researchers believe that it probably does.

3. It teaches children to have positive interaction with others

It used to be thought that animal play was simply practice so that they could become more effective hunters. However, Dr. Panksepp's study of play in rats led him to the conclusion that play served an entirely different function: teaching young animals how to interact with others in positive ways. He believed that play helps build pro-social brains.

4. Children who play are often better students

The social skills acquired through play may help children become better students. Research has found that the best predictor of academic performance in the eighth grade was a child's social skills in the third grade. Dr. Pellis notes that "countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."

5. Unstructured play gets kids moving

We all worry that our kids are getting too little physical activity as they spend large chunks of their time glued to their electronic devices with only their thumbs getting any exercise. Unstructured play, whether running around in the yard, climbing trees or playing on commercial play structures in schools or public parks, means moving the whole body around.

Physical activity helps children maintain a healthy weight and combats the development of Type 2 diabetes—a condition all too common in American children—by increasing the body's sensitivity to the hormone insulin.

It is tempting in today's busy world for parents and kids to fill every minute of their day with structured activities—ranging from Spanish classes before school to soccer and basketball practice after and a full range of special classes and camps on the weekends and summer vacation. We don't remember to carve out time for unstructured play, time for kids to get together with absolutely nothing planned and no particular goals in mind except having fun.

The growing body of research on the benefits of unstructured play suggests that perhaps we should rethink our priorities.

Not sure where to get started? Here are four People Toy Company products that encourage hours of unstructured play.

1. People Blocks Zoo Animals

These colorful, magnetic building blocks are perfect for encouraging unstructured play in children one year and beyond. The small pieces fit easily in the hands of smaller children, and older children will love creating their own shapes and designs with the magnetic pieces.

People Blocks Zoo Animals 17 Piece Set, People Toy Company, $34.99

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This article was sponsored by People Toy Company. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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Dana Dewedoff-Carney has a beautiful family. On paper, she's a mom of three. But in her heart, she has five children. She's had two miscarriages, one last year at five weeks, and another this past summer.

"I lost our son in June. I was 14 weeks pregnant, but he had passed away at 12," she tells Motherly, explaining that she and her husband had already named their boy Benjamin.

He never got a chance to live in this world, but he is changing it. His mama is the force behind Project Benjamin, a photo series that is going viral and changing the way people talk about pregnancy and infant loss.


Dewedoff-Carney started Rise for Women, a New Jersey-based organization dedicated to empowering women and connecting them with the resources they need to thrive. Rise for Women was born out of a painful time for Dewedoff-Carney. She was a single mom of three, and she was struggling, although from the outside she looked fine.

After launching Rise for Women Dewedoff-Carney created the hashtag #StruggleDoesNotHaveALook, which took on a whole new meaning this year after she and her now husband lost their babies. She came up with another hashtag, #TheyMatterToo, to remember them, and invited other moms to join in a photo session.

Each mother had her portrait taken with a chalkboard bearing a phase that someone told her after her miscarriage.

In Dewedoff-Carney's case, a doctor who perhaps meant to be kind told her the baby she lost "was the wrong baby." Other women in the photo series were told they could always adopt, or that they should be happy with the children they already have. Dewedoff-Carney says sometimes people don't realize how much their words cut those suffering a loss.

"I know people are not saying these things to be malicious and hurt us, but if they could just be a support and say, 'I am so sorry for your loss, I'm here for you,' that is so helpful," she explains.

Experts agree. Jessica McCormack is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice at The Self Care Path in Burr Ridge, Illinois. She says parents who've suffered a pregnancy loss don't need people to try to offer solutions or minimize their grief, but just to validate it.

"You aren't trying to fix their emotions, you are simply stating, 'I hear you, that was so hard for you, this really sucks right now.' No need to fix, no need to tell someone it will be okay. It's a time to just give a hug and tell them it's okay to feel how they feel. This often creates comfort just by knowing someone is there for you," she tells Motherly, adding that it is totally normal for parents to struggle after a loss.

"It's a completely normal experience to have a bunch of grief, sadness, depression, anxiety, shame, guilt and jealousy of others with healthy successful pregnancies," McCormack explains.


For Dewedoff-Carney, that's exactly what Project Benjamin is all about. She says too often conversations about the feelings one has after a miscarriage or infant death are happening behind closed doors or in private Facebook groups. She hopes her photo series will help people realize they're not alone, and that the woman down the street (or on Instagram) who seems to have it all may be suffering herself.

By having a very public conversation about pregnancy loss, Dewedoff-Carney and her fellow moms are hoping more people will understand what they're going through, and not try to minimize it.

Ashlyn Biedebach is a Registered Nurse and founder of By The Brook Birth Doula. She says "when a woman suffers a loss, at any gestational age, it is truly a loss, not just of a baby, but of hope and an idea of the future."

Biedebach suggests if parents who've suffered a loss encounter loved ones who don't seem to be recognizing their baby, they try to give them some grace, but that doesn't mean you have to pretend it didn't happen.

"Well-meaning family members may intentionally choose to move past painful experiences, even if you are still deep in the grief of the loss of your baby. Bringing up your loss in a gentle way, or having an intentional conversation with those who are moving on can help, but also talking with a counselor, too."

As a therapist, McCormack agrees. "Since it's roughly 1 in 4 women that have a pregnancy that ends in miscarriage, women need support," she tells Motherly, recommending that women who've had a loss talk to their OB-GYN or family physician and ask if there are any support groups in their community.

If your doctor doesn't refer you to a support group you can find a therapist yourself. McCormack suggests women simply search the psychologytoday.com therapist directory by entering their zip code along with the keywords "miscarriage" and "fertility." The therapy doesn't have to be just for mom, either. Sometimes dads need to talk, too.

"I also encourage couples to go to therapy after something like this, as men tend to feel lost and uncertain as to how to process their own feelings while supporting their partner," says McCormack.

Both McCormack and Biedebach agree that talking about this kind of loss, whether in person or over social media, is important. Biedebach says, for some parents, honoring their baby through a social media post is their way of remembering and recognizing their importance. McCormack notes that a social media post can also be a good way to invite a larger quantity of people to support you in your time of need.

"It also reduces the stigma by bringing to light that it is completely normal for women to experience something like this," she explains.

That's Dewedoff-Carney's goal, and while she can't travel the county photographing mothers herself, she's inviting anyone to join the conversation by taking their own photo, sharing their story and using the hashtags #StruggleDoesNotHaveALook and #TheyMatterToo. Since her photos went viral, women have been commenting and sharing their stories publicly, and it's brought Dewedoff-Carney to tears.

"They're naming the children that they lost," she explains. "They're doing that, they're speaking their truth, and they're letting it out."

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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The other morning, I took my clothes off before stepping into the shower. In my little bathroom, I stopped to check out my mom-of-two body in the mirror. My breasts drooped. My stomach stretched flat until below my navel. There, protruded my kangaroo pouch where my uterus stretched twice for two healthy babies.

Then, my eyes glanced lower to the scar from my first birth—my C-section. The swooping line had faded. The right side seemed darker, but the left side turned light. The scar almost smirks at me now.

While in the shower, I cleansed my scar gently with a lavender loofah. Although the cesarean occurred over six years ago, I always wash it softly. A sense of sadness washed over me—I don't want my scar to fade. My scar reminds me of determination, redemption, and love.

Yes, it was years ago when the doctor took his utensils and sliced me open, but for some reason, I felt like the scar would always look like it was painted on.

My C-section story mimics one of far too many women. I felt like I was bullied into it. I had only labored for 18 hours and was dilated to a seven. "Trust me," my obstetrician said, "I've delivered hundreds of babies. You're not built to have this baby naturally." True, I'm only five feet tall, but I didn't really buy into the lie he was trying to to get me to believe. "Just give me one more hour," I begged, "I'll progress."

"I have eight other babies to deliver tonight," he said.

He wasn't lying.

"A C-section is a routine surgery," he continued.

After more pleading on his part, I finally gave in. The nurse wheeled me into the OR and I delivered my first baby at 9:33 pm on June 12, 2012. The recovery, the breastfeeding—everything about early motherhood—pushed me inches close to depression.

When I went back to see my obstetrician for my six-week check-up my doctor looked at my incision to make sure I was healing okay. "Wow," he said, applauding himself, "who stitched you up? That is one clean incision." From those arrogant words, I made up my mind: My next birth will be a VBAC.

And almost two years later (and working with a new provider), I gave birth to my daughter. I had her vaginally. My strong-willed daughter decided to thunder into this world five days late. And her birth was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.

From start to finish, her labor lasted 50 hours. It was two days of agony, doubt, and full-blooded grit. After pushing for over two hours, I remember looking up at the white clock. I wanted to give up. At that point, I had labored for 49 hours. There is no way I'll be able to mentally recover from another C-section, I thought. Sorrow filled me. I didn't have any will left within me—I didn't think I could push anymore.

I was wrong.

I thought of the arrogance I encountered with my first obstetrician. He took my will away from me. He took my right to a natural childbirth. He even took some of my joy.

But I also felt like I let him.

So, the second time around, I made the decision to push—harder. In a way, that doctor empowered me to speak up for myself and believe in my determination. After another hour—three hours total of pushing—the time had come. At 3:54 on June 25, 2014, my daughter was born via VBAC. Her ferocious cry woke my spirit. As her black hair laid on my chest, we sobbed together—a determined mother and daughter.

So, now that my scar is starting to fade, I feel sad. This scar represents my own grit. My own tenacity. My own stubbornness. Things I now pass down to my daughter. I was not going to allow someone else tell me how my next baby was going to be born. My joy belongs to me. I took control of it, as much as I could.

I used to feel a little ashamed of my scar. To me, it represented my inability to speak up for myself. It represented my weakness. But now, my scar represents strength. So, now that I notice it is starting to fade, I feel like I want to tattoo it on permanently.

I look forward to the day when I'm changing my clothes in front of my daughter and she asks, "Mom, what's on your belly?" I'll tell her, "This scar is where your brother came from—and where our unified courage was birthed."

I hope this scar stays dark just a few years longer. Because it means that I can tell my daughter about her birth story—one where we defied the odds together—as a team.

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On a typical day, my 18-month-old daughter will ingratiate herself with the kids whose mothers thought to bring brightly-colored shovels and Fisher Price dump trucks to the park. I will inevitably come over and make sure to ask if it's okay that my daughter is playing with their toys. The mother will chirp, “Of course!" She will then turn to her brood. “We're sharing our toys with the baby!"

I will retreat to my post. I will watch vigilantly for signs that my daughter may be about to put a pile of gravel into her mouth or launch a handful of the tiny rocks in the air. I will watch as she explores the playground. I will also watch her take a tumble, the other mother jumping to her rescue before she's even landed.

“Oh, honey. It's okay. Your mama's right here." she'll croon, her eyes searching desperately for the child's mother, for me. My daughter, now hysterical, will be in this woman's tentative arms.

I will walk over and take my red-faced child, who will wrap her legs around my waist and bury her face in my shoulder.

“Thank you so much." I will say.

“Oh, it's no problem. I didn't see exactly what happened, but luckily I was right here."

I will return to my perch. My gaze will be fixed on my child but my mind will be fixated on the scene that has just played out.

In the small act of responding to my daughter's fall, this other mother has undermined me—which likely wasn't what she was intending to do, but still, is exactly how it made me feel. She's assumed that the right action was to go with her instinct, to rescue my daughter. Wrapped up in this assumption is the idea that I would've rescued her myself if I had been paying attention—that I would have prevented the fall in the first place if I cared.

I want to tell this woman that I do care, that my aloof exterior belies an infinite reservoir of caring. I want to defend myself and explain what kind of mother I am. I want to tell her that I am a wonderful mother, too.

I'm not the mother who brings a sippy cup of fresh juice and a Tupperware full of cheese cubes and sliced grapes to the park. Random fruit squeeze pouches from our last plane trip litter the bottom of my diaper bag, but this does not make me a bad mother. Of course it doesn't. And it doesn't make Tupperware-Mom the World's Best Mother. We're equal, but different.

I'm not the mother who rushes in when my daughter falls. I rarely get into a child-sized playground structure with her. This does not make me a bad mother. From a distance, I'm vigilant. Could her head fit through the slats in that fence? If she fell, how far would the drop be? How soft would the landing be? Is that structure designed for a toddler or a bigger kid? If I don't need to be next to her, I observe from afar.

It would be so much easier to be by my daughter's side at all times, holding her hand, spotting her as she climbs her way through the park. Though I ache to protect her from every danger, I force myself to hang back. How will she learn what's safe if I'm always protecting her? How will she know how far she can jump if she never falls short?

I want my daughter to love to play for its own sake. I may stand quietly off to the side, but as she zooms down the slide, her mouth open wide in a jubilant smile, my heart rejoices.

This is the kind of mother I am.

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