WHITNEY'S STORY - THE IMPORTANCE OF FATHERHOOD
We Got Us Now| Guest Contributor: Whitney Hollins
Father’s Day is a day to appreciate the men in our lives who provide guidance, love and support. Because of this it was never a joyful time for me. Since I was young, I chose to ignore Father’s Day because my father was not physically present in the household. His incarceration was simultaneously one of the most prominent yet neglected issues in my life during my adolescence. It was something I was accustomed to because it first occurred when I was in elementary school. By the time I reached intermediate school, he had received his longest sentence, 22 years, which would ensure his absence throughout most of the most important events in my life to date. It also ensured that I would come to believe that Father’s Day was not a day that included me.
When I was in elementary school, my father was in state prison, which in the state where I grew up, Maryland, meant that he was relatively close. Therefore, my grandmother would pack all of us (my aunt and my siblings) in the car regularly and take us on visits. I don’t remember much about much about the visits when I was this age. I have seen pictures, but besides being extremely obvious that is was the 1990s, I can’t ascertain if I was happy or sad. When my dad received 22 years, there would be no state prison and no close visits. He was incarcerated in a federal prison and this brought changes. We no longer had to accept collect calls; his were prepaid. Looking back obviously someone had to pay for them, most likely my grandma. That seemed like a good change. However, there would be no more close visits where we could visit in the morning and be home by afternoon. Now going to visit would require drives that totaled 5, 8 or even 10 hours depending on placement. Pre-teen me and eventually teenage me, had no desire to spend my weekends in a car with my siblings, driving hours on end to visit with a man who was slowly becoming a stranger. Our separation became greater as time passed. My dad used to call me before school started. Eventually I stopped taking the calls; unwilling to start my day with the onslaught of emotions those calls brought. As the years went by we knew each other less and less. The only time I would take the calls was when I happened to be with my grandmother and I only did it to make her happy. To me, my dad left me and I didn’t see the point of trying to connect with someone who left their kids. I thought to myself, what kind of person leaves their kids? So I rarely talked about it, determined that it’s absence from my conversations would eventually ensure its erasure from my mind and heart.
Twenty years after he received his 22-year sentence, my father was released. I was filled with a complex set of emotions. I was happy because when he was incarcerated I not only worried about his physical and mental health, but also the health of my grandmother. We had all been through a lot, my father included, when he was incarcerated. I grew up. I graduated multiple times without my father present. I gave birth to my first child. My father had lost some members of his family psychically and others emotionally. Since his release, we are working on repairing our relationship and I am open to giving him opportunities to bond with his grandson. However, I still can’t deny that most days he feels more like a stranger than a parent.
As Father’s Day approaches, I am very aware of how the holiday will be different for me this year. I have no conscious memory of being able to celebrate this day with my father present. I never made him a card at school that I could give to him when I got home. I never bought him a cheap trinket from the school shop that he would pretend to love in order to make me happy. I never woke him up with breakfast in bed that he would eat just to please me as we often see in movies or on television. There were many years where I didn’t consider him worthy of celebration and while it would be disingenuous to act like there aren’t still feelings of resentment, this year will be different. This year I will have the option to call my dad and even see him if I’d like. This year, we can have Father’s Day on our terms, and for us that’s something to celebrate.
Whitney Hollins is an Advocate, Researcher, Educator, Daughter impacted by parental incarceration who advocates for children who have a parent involved in the justice system. As a researcher and educator, she believes that teachers play a vital role in supporting children with a justice involved parent.
Hollins currently works as a research assistant at We Got Us Now, an elementary school special education teacher and an adjunct instructor at various CUNY colleges, where she instructs graduate level students who plan to work with children.
She is currently a doctoral candidate in the Urban Education program at the CUNY Graduate Center with a focus on children who have justice involved parents.