Every individual bases his or her sense of legitimacy on the certainty of having been loved. We cannot generalize about the impact of separation on a child due to a parent’s imprisonment; it is contingent upon the child’s age, the length of the prison sentence, the family dynamic and other key variables. However, a child who perceives this separation as abandonment risks seeing him or herself as being unworthy of being loved.

What’s more, children often feel responsible for the parent’s departure. This can lead to feelings of guilt, as children – particularly young children – naturally tend to see themselves as the center of the world. They are reassured when told where the parent is – they realize that the parent is alive – and when told of why the parent is in prison, as this exonerates the child of guilt.

As noted French child psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto asserted during her conversations with imprisoned mothers at Fleury-Mérogis Prison outside Paris:

“Words humanize experience; what is traumatic for a child’s future is what goes unsaid.” Parents must be allowed to display their affection for the child. Children must know that the imprisonment of a parent is not synonymous with abandonment; children must know that they are still loved.


excerpts from Françoise Dolto’s conversations* with imprisoned mothers at Fleury-Mérogis just outside Paris, in March 1987

Françoise Dolto – …This is the first time I have ever visited what can be called a prison. I hadn’t really imagined Fleury-Mérogis to be like this, and I must say that I find the set-up to be quite good, although it is small of course.

The area reserved for the mothers, those living here with their children, is organized very well and fosters the child-mother relationship, and the socialization of the infants, in a place where they are separated from the rest of their family for long periods of time. I think that children, who are raised like this, with their mothers, will have a degree of intimacy that is almost greater than many children living in their own homes.

Here the Mother truly has the time to devote to her child, and she is not isolated either during difficult moments since there is staff to help her.

In a family setting, a mother may have a good relationship with her baby, but there is no assistance in terms of addressing problems and issues, with someone else who is aware of the situation, who can help her and help the child. This is difficult and that’s why here it is good…So, now I am at your disposal to answer whatever you wish.

A woman – I think I’ll be brave and ask something. You said that mothers were probably sometimes better off here than outside because they are much more available.

Same woman – Don’t you think as well that the baby is aware of the prison world?

F.D. – Surely he or she is, and this needs to be explained to the child. You must always talk to an infant to humanize the situation. You know, everything that is voiced becomes humanized. It is what goes unsaid that is bad, even if we think that it is not painful, given that it has not been voiced. When we don’t tell a child something, it means we want to hide it from them, that it is not good…So, just the opposite, the particular situation that you are in and that he or she is in as well must be explained to the child.

A woman – But I’m talking about infants, very young infants.

Another woman – Exactly. How do you communicate with an infant who has not learned to draw yet, or write, or…

F.D. – You must speak to him. He/she understands language just as you and I do. You’ll be surprised when you do this, when you try to do this for the first time even though you’re saying they told me this and it’s crazy—you’ll try and you will see that your child has understood you and responds to you. It’s amazing. As soon as the infant is born.

At 18 months of age, no, indeed: if no one has spoken to them before the age of 18 months, at 18 months, they won’t understand people are speaking about the real world around them; you have to speak to them as you would a child. If you speak to an infant in the same way you would speak to an equal, however, then the infant becomes an equal.

An infant’s intelligence is extraordinary. I’m not talking about the capacity for logic that will develop as they get older, but an infant has the intelligence with respect to the human relationship from birth.

A woman – But I’m talking about understanding what a child is trying to say.

F.D. – Yes, this is more difficult. It’s a question of maternal intuition. Many mothers would understand if someone said to them: ‘Pay attention, listen and you’ll have the response of your child.’

A woman – What if the mother does not speak to the infant soon after its birth.

F.D. – You know, some mothers speak to their child in silence; there is a kind of communication with the child.

A woman – But doesn’t the child risk having problems later on?

F.D. – And others talk, yet their discourse is devoid of any meaning.

A woman – For example, take a child born in prison. If the mother does not talk to the child at birth, doesn’t explain anything, doesn’t he risk having problems later on?

F.D. – Perhaps if he is not spoken to he may have problems, yet there are staff members around the child who speak to him.

A woman – What about the separation?

F.D. – We must remember that separation also occurs with children living with their parents. I don’t know if it takes place here towards the age of 17-18 months, but it must be prepared in advance. If the separation is prepared in advance, it’s not the same as if it happens overnight without the mother’s participation.

A woman – Do you think that a mother who is incarcerated is able to prepare her child sufficiently?

F.D. – Perhaps not all by herself, but assisted by people whom the child knows…

A woman – It’s very important that this occur between the mother and her child.

F.D. – Preparation to live in Society always takes place when there are at least three people involved. You need a triangular configuration, which is fosters and is formative during childhood in human beings, not a configuration with only two people.

A woman – At one point the mother is going to have a hard time dealing with this separation, and the child will pick up on this.

F.D. – He/she will pick up on it and he/she will be told about what is going on. When a mother takes her child to a day-care center and she suffers when doing this, her baby suffers too. The mother and child must be prepared weeks prior to the separation, and must be told: ‘You both are going to suffer from being separated. You are going to the day-care center, your mother is going back to work. She must go, for this or that reason.’

Either because there is a need for money. Or because she has to so she doesn’t get depressed, because certain mothers get depressed when they are with their baby; they need to see other adults.

They could probably do without the money they’d be earning, since they’re going to have to spend it on childcare anyway, but they couldn’t with respect to mental stability. This must be explained to the child and that occurs…

They suffer anyhow, but their experience is humanized given that the words are attached to it A Child needs to hear about what he or she is experiencing and needs to be aware through spoken words of what he or she willl be experiencing in the future.

*Publication authorized by Catherine Dolto Tolitch. From “Une journée particulière à Fleury-Mérogis,” Transitions 31: Enfants – Parents – Lieux, L’ASEPSI, Paris.

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