On the way home from a California prison, a boy wearing a royal purple t-shirt stares out the bus window at a barren landscape. He’s one of a few dozen children who are being transported to visit their mothers in prison, as captured in Elizabeth Lo’s modest documentary, Mother’s Day. In a moment of somber reflection, the nine-year-old boy explains that the death and desertion of his childhood have him trying to accept that life is suffering.
I carry that Buddhist truth within me, a mortal orientation embodied by losing my own mother to lung cancer when I was just 30. It is not a sentiment of existential despair, but one of compassion and connectivity. An understanding that no matter the injury — be it maternal death, estrangement, imprisonment, deportation, or migration—the profundity of loss can have the effect of generating political empathy. By seeing parts of our reflection in each other’s pain, we gain a visceral understanding of the connections among different forms of grief that can compel us to hold space for one another and move toward remedy.
A nine-year-old child should not have to carry the weight of a nation’s trauma, and lifting this burden is a shared responsibility. Right now in the United States, there are more than 215,000 women in jails and prisons, most of them are women of color, and nearly 80% are mothers. More than 2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent. Due to remote prison locations that are difficult to access, especially for low-income families, many children cannot visit their mothers — save for special occasions like Mother’s Day.
“While many are aware of the staggering problems resulting from the nation’s incarceration rate,” Lo told NBC News, “Few consider the impact it has on the children.”
The first time I visited someone in jail, I was 17. I remember the fear I felt and the indignity of the security screening. The guard almost denied me entry because of the tank top I was wearing, but the friend I was with gave me a hoodie to hide my body. Every moment of the visit was monitored. Every action was under scrutiny. As I watched the documentary, I recalled the shock of that memory and considered how much more shocking it must have been for the children on the screen.
The chalk drawings and love notes the kids left on the prison’s concrete walls reminded me of the ones my niece and nephew used to scrawl all over my mom’s driveway. A few months before she died, she threw a huge party and danced on those chalk drawings. Then she made my sisters and me promise not to hold a funeral once she was gone.
“I don’t want to be remembered that way,” my mother insisted, but I think she partly wanted to spare her daughters an unnecessary expense. A lifetime of forced frugality and working class anxieties followed my mother to her symbolic grave. My sisters and I honored her wish. There was no memorial, no ash scattering, no collective healing. We ate lunch at her favorite Mexican restaurant and went our separate ways, promising to come back together on Mother’s Day.
I knew the first Mother’s Day without my mom was bound to be challenging, but I didn’t realize it would manifest as bitter animosity. The postcards announcing flash sales were torn to pieces. Subway advertisements made me irate. Everything seemed to make assumptions about the uniformity of families. All I wanted was for the void I was living with to be seen, but everything about my difference seemed imperceptibly erased—until I stumbled upon Mama’s Day.
Launched in 2011, Mama’s Day is an annual initiative of Forward Together where artists are commissioned to create artwork for cards that reflect the various types of mothers and mothering that exists in our communities. “Mamahood is not one size fits all,” the project exclaims. Seeing this step toward broadening the meaning of mothering helped expand my understanding of grief as more discreet than someone dying. And I began to embrace healing that was more proactive than reactionary.
I began writing about my grieving process with the belief that telling my story would support my healing. What I didn’t know is that it would also bring people to me whose loss mirrors mine. A friend who is a writer. A woman I met briefly at a party. The wife of my partner’s colleague. People I’ve never met see themselves in me, mutual vulnerability transcending circumstance. We are the silenced majority—but we don’t have to be.
At a Southerners on New Ground (SONG) gathering I attended in New York City, co-director Mary Hooks shared the group’s intention for a Mother’s Day campaign rooted in Black people’s liberation from slavery: pool funds and purchase Black mamas’ freedom. SONG raised more than $42,000 in just one day to reunite Black mothers with their families. Quickly, organizations across the country joined in solidarity to create the National Mama’s Bail Out Day, a campaign to bail out as many mothers as possible by Mother’s Day.
I consider it an obligation to the values my mother taught me to do what I can to ensure no one is motherless on Mother’s Day because they didn’t have the financial means to buy their way out of jail. It’s unconscionable that Americans live in a country where 700,000 people every day carry the heartache of needless separation from their families.
“We need our sisters back,” said Mary. “We believe in each other. We can and we will.”
As Mother’s Day nears the end, a toddler with a painted-face begins to fall asleep on the bus while standing; she holds the armrest of an empty seat to remain upright. I saw this a metaphor for the struggle of grieving and how some things can’t be mended in isolation. Life may be suffering, but we all have the ability to show up for one another—on Mother’s Day and every day.