Ellie: 'My daughter was my purpose'

Madeline Petrillo
Friday, 8 July 2016

Through the publication of short articles, we are providing a space for women's voices to be heard.

Madeline Petrillo, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, will tell their stories. She will use their own words where possible as recorded in a series of interviews for a project examining women’s pathways to desistance from crime. All names and other identifying information have been changed.

Motherhood confers status on women. Becoming a mother continues, for many, to be the epitome of female achievement. For women in the criminal justice system, to whom other routes to conformity are closed, motherhood presents opportunities to change harmful behaviours and redefine themselves. This, however, hides the complex nature of their experiences and expectations of motherhood. Their identities as mothers are fragile, unsafe, and ambiguous whilst at the same time a source of hope, pride and purpose.

Ellie’s experience reveals the challenges posed when being a good mother involves overcoming substance misuse and mental health problems. Ellie was sexually abused as a child and fell into alcohol and drug use as a coping mechanism. 

Most of my drug taking has stemmed from when I was abused as a child and I always drank and took cannabis when I was a kid to shield the pain. Or if I ever had a problem or feelings of depression I take drugs so I’d feel better. I thought it made me feel good and that I couldn’t feel the pain that I was feeling and the hurt…I was taking drugs to mask it instead of fronting it and dealing it.

Her pregnancy was a catalyst for her to terminate her substance use. However, without the numbing effects of the alcohol and drugs, she became clinically depressed. An accidental overdose when her daughter was three years old resulted in social services placing her daughter in the care of her grandparents.

Idealised notions of motherhood depict it as a very personal, natural experience. For Ellie, her experience of motherhood felt intruded on and hijacked by others leaving her powerless and silenced.

I was very down, I was very depressed. Basically the social services got involved because I had an overdose but it wasn’t intentional. Social services put my daughter in my mum and dad’s care just so I could sort myself out.  I just said to them it wasn’t intentional, but they have to get involved so I had to abide by their rules and regulations.  After that my depression got worse because even though she lived with my mum I got really depressed because every day I was waking up without her. 

When she was with me it was...she was my life, I woke up to her and I was a mum you know what I mean and not just a mum but she was my best friend as well and it just felt like I was grieving in a certain way.  Not being able to go there when I want to go there, all my rights were took away from me basically. Like it was up to my parents when I could go and see her, how many times I could go and see her. It was hard, really hard. And I didn't have many friends and then the friends that I did have were from years before because I’d been concentrating on being a mum.

Because I didn't have my daughter I started hanging around people that were taking heroin and crack cocaine and that’s when I started dabbling into drugs, crack and heroin. I suddenly realised that I had a habit, that I had to feed this habit. And I couldn’t function without it, I was ill and I was physically sick and your whole body hurts and you just want that next fix.  I basically started thieving from shops…

Ellie’s transition to motherhood had opened up an alternative way of life, one she embraced. Motherhood for Ellie was a cherished distraction from her own emotional pain, but it was no panacea. Simple exposure to a given stimulus is often not a sufficient conduit to sustained behaviour change. Already fragile, the loss of her daughter was devastating. Whilst motherhood offers the opportunity for women to redefine their roles and priorities, it also raises the stakes of failure. As Ellie explained:

My daughter was my purpose she kept me strong but when she was taken from me at that occasion I just was like what do I do?  What do I do?  I can't...I haven’t got to get up in the morning and do school run and all of that. I ain’t busying myself and then when you lose that it is like a loss, it’s like oh...your total control’s gone of your life, it’s gone.  And you feel like...when it happened to me I felt so low, I swear I was...really upset, I couldn’t even describe it, it really destroyed me at first and that’s why I ended up on heroin and ended up breaking the law. 

Idealised constructions of motherhood leave no room for the mothers’ experiences to impact on their ability to be good mothers. Good motherhood is constructed as innate, intuitive and instinctive. However, women are not born good mothers. Social learning and support networks teach women how to be mothers. These experiences are missing from the lives of many of the women in prison. Ellie explained that her parents were alcoholics and her mother had not supported her when she disclosed that she had been abused.

I thought I wanted attention, like affection because my mum never gave me cuddles and she didn't praise me or anything and that’s what I always wanted, that attention…If she’d been more of an approachable mum maybe I could have told her how I feel sometimes instead...because every time I told my mum she wouldn't want to hear it. I suppose she’s one of these people that she... that deals with emotions in her own way. She doesn’t know any different, she doesn’t know how to express it, maybe it’s something to do with her childhood, I don't know. It could be… I don't want to be like that. I smother Katie with kisses and cuddles I did, god yeah. My mum says ‘put her down because’ I just couldn’t stop cuddling and kissing her because she’s so gorgeous you know, I’m so proud to have a daughter like her. She’s so strong as well, she’s nothing like me when I was a kid.

The joy of motherhood is presented as being sufficient to overcome any past adversity. Women in prison internalise the assumptions that they somehow instinctively understand how to be good mothers regardless of their experiences. Feelings of failure and guilt inevitably result when the women’s problems collide with their roles as mothers.

I’ve got to do this for me and Katie not just for myself for my daughter as well, because she deserves a mother that don't take drugs or doesn’t just drink to a fucking her a point where she’s laying on the floor unconscious where she’s drank too much. Because my daughter’s seen me drunk as well, my daughter’s... I’ve gone round my mum and dad’s drunk she’s been there when I’ve shouted a load of abuse at my mum and dad.  And she said to me which really upset me she said, mum I don't like you when you drink. And that really hit home to me and then she started saying as well, mum why don't you come round a lot?  Why can't I come home? And I was so distraught and I thought this is destroying my child just as much as it’s destroying me.

If you’ve got problems and you’re not dealing with them how can you be there for your child…If you can’t look after yourself mentally and physically how can you expect to look after your child? You can love a child all you like but I could have been neglecting her in other ways like emotionally neglecting her or not being there for her because I am so in my own problems.

There is an uncertainty in Ellie’s tone here. She can see why she could be deemed to have been a bad mother, but also knows all the ways in which she succeeded at motherhood.  When so many other people make decisions about the care of their children, the hardest decision of all for many women in the criminal justice system is whether being part of their children’s lives will help or harm them.There is little more incongruous to being a good mother than being a prisoner. But the hope Ellie expressed in her commitment to Katie indicated that motherhood held the key to her overcoming the difficulties of her own childhood.

I don't want her to go down the road that I did. I want to show her that...although kids make their own ways when they get older, they get influences at school and things like that but I just...I want her to know that I’m there for her emotionally as well for her to cuddle when she needs one, whereas my mum wasn’t. That’s all I want really…I always wanted a child and for selfish reasons as well because I never felt loved by anyone because I was never shown it, but at the same time with Katie, when I had Katie I thought this will be someone that’s going to love me for who I am and that I can love back, give that love back that I want so badly. So, yeah, that’s how things are, it’s like, yeah, I’m kind of a mum that my mum should have been and she’s me as a child. 

Madeline Petrillo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth where she teaches on gender and crime and is Course Leader for the Probation Qualification Framework. She previously worked as a probation officer, specialising in work with women in the criminal justice system. Madeline is currently undertaking research examining women's pathways to desistance. This is a longitudinal study with a cohort of women leaving custody exploring the factors they perceive as important to their desistance and factors they experience as presenting obstacles to change. 

Read the stories of other women in criminal justice from the Breaking the silence comment series here.