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Navigating the Season During Your First Holiday Home 

Holidays Family Free Cost Library Bank Account Incarceration
My son and I with big smiles sipping hot chocolate after bringing home a haul of holiday books from our local library.

Twinkling lights sparkled in my periphery, my favorite holiday playlist crooned in the other room, but in the midst of all the sensory signs of the season, it was jail that I held in the back of my mind.

The malls were filled with laughing families, and the grocery stores were cluttered with spouses that were surely going to pick up the wrong type of cheese for the pre-Christmas dinner. Cars are parked at a stop light with cheering children that are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to decorate the tree that is tied tightly to the roof of their vehicle. These moments make most of our hearts flutter. 

It’s the  holiday season, and it’s typically filled with cheer and celebration for most of us. 

For others, it is a maze of challenges and pressures for parents returning home from incarceration. The weight of financial burdens feels heavy as we try to create magic with limited resources. Our children look at us with eyes full of expectation. We dreamt about this moment with our families, so why do we feel this level of anxiety as the days get nearer to our celebratory moments?

 With everything seeming “merry and bright” around us, it’s easy to feel that everything has to be just perfect for our families.  But what happens when you feel like you don't have the resources to create that perfect holiday you’ve dreamed of?

Planning Our Perfect Holiday

When I came home, I definitely felt that I needed to compensate for the time I had missed with my son. I already felt deep guilt for the months I had spent away from him, and regret and shame for the months he had to spend away from me. My son was the reason I got up every morning and the sunshine of my every day. I still tell him, “my favorite thing in the world to be is your mama.” But, I couldn’t escape that feeling that I had let him down.

This concept of making up for lost time was so real for me, and I put the pressure on myself to create the most meaningful Christmas possible. And yes; I still feel the pressure as I write this today. I was determined that every moment of our lives were going to count!

Synchronized lights free family holidays
A free local light show in our new MD hometown.

But, creating the perfect holiday isn’t as easy as it sounds, and a lack of resources amplified this struggle for my family and I. We had my husband’s income, but after applying for many different roles and positions, my background wouldn’t allow me to secure the income we needed. I was grateful for the minimum wage job I had in the local area, but I was only scheduled a certain amount of hours, making extra cash impossible. And I was one of the lucky few–I had actually found employment! As many of us know, the reality is that there is a difference between finding employment and being able to adequately support a family. 

I saw friends and other parents taking picture-perfect family photos at the tree farm with a photographer and wrapping dozens of presents to go under the tree. They were taking special holiday vacations or hanging perfectly matched stockings above ski-lodge fireplaces. These were the moments I envisioned of the Christmas holiday after release, but it was not the current reality of the season.

My Reality Check 

Baking holiday cookies at home was a fun and free afternoon for us to get creative together.

I knew there was no way I could create these experiences for my son. I interpreted their joy and blessings as a flawless Christmas experience that I couldn’t provide, and that’s when I realized that I was starting to see these pressures affect my mental health. I grappled with the fear of letting my son down in the face of all the holiday glitter and glow, and the pain that I once knew while I sat in a cell fell upon my body and mind again.

But then, I had to take a hard pause. I purposely began to find quiet moments to remember the brilliant and beautiful women I had met while serving my time, and how unfair it was that they were still behind bars. I had to chase away the screaming voices of failure in my head. I could wake up in my bed, next to my husband, and smile as I walked down the hall to see my son smiling back at me, simply because the sun was shining that day. 

I had made it home. I got to hold  my little boy every day as he snuggled next to me on the couch. I could smile at my husband across the dinner table. I was home. Everything didn’t need to be perfect. I was lucky and grateful to be with my precious family. When I read letters from friends still behind the wall, I was reminded of how desperately they wished they could be home with their children as well. And that was my sincere wish for them as well.

I had developed an inner strength unseen by those outside the wall while I was gone, and this inner resilience held the key to steering through an “unpolished”  holiday season. 

Our Holidays…Together

That first holiday season home became about building connections with my loved ones rooted in authenticity rather than perfection. My son didn’t care if our Christmas didn’t look glamorous and shiny, he was just glad we were together.  

Free Family Holidays
A family photo op at the local mall after a visit to Santa.

We found ways to make the holidays special without hurting our bank account. We baked and decorated cookies at home. I savored each small moment. We utilized the local library to check out dozens of holiday and winter books that we read under blankets each night. In our pajamas, we took Christmas light tours in the car and drank hot chocolate, exploring our new city.  We attended Christmas parades and free synchronized light shows at the park and even organized our neighbors to go caroling together. 

We traded the flashy, sparkly moments for quiet, precious moments, and several years later, it’s my favorite Christmas I can remember. 

For those of us returning home from incarceration, the holiday season isn’t about perfect decorations or lavish gifts. It’s about weaving threads of love, understanding, and resilience into the rhythms of family life. It’s about cherishing the moments, imperfect as they may be, and recognizing that the journey home is a testament to unwavering strength, and more importantly, to the people you love.


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