My first close mom friend was Sarah. We met at the Y, and I loved her at first sight because she was wearing flip-flops in 50-degree weather, her toenails painted metallic blue. Our daughters have similar names and were wearing the same floral romper, and unlike many of the other moms who were in their 30s and on maternity leave from high-powered careers, Sarah and I were both in our 20s, and joked that we felt like teen mom interlopers.
After flirting in the new moms group for weeks, on our first official date we took a stroll down Third Avenue together, lamenting our babies' short naps and our feelings of isolation. We come from similar families, our favorite food is pasta, and we had even attended the same summer camp; our paths now crossing, when we were both so craving connection, felt like fate.
While waiting at the crosswalk for the light to change, she turned to me and said, "I'm so happy to have finally met a mom like me," a sentiment I shared wholeheartedly. For a moment I let myself forget all the ways I was not, in fact, like her.
That night, she texted me: "I tried to find you on Facebook, but instead found a headline about you being some kind of junkie terrorist?! WTF. Who are you???"
I'm a mom in Manhattan. I'm also a felon and former addict, with a horrific Google trail and a raging rap sheet. Making mom friends can be awkward for any new parent, but for me, typical playground small talk — "what does your husband do," "did you have an easy pregnancy," "what was your life like before you had kids" — is like navigating quicksand, constantly trying to balance my desire to be transparent about my life with my dread of people judging my child for my past.
My 3-year-old daughter, "Lily," and I live in the East Village, where the average family doesn't look much like the Leave It to Beaver prototype. But even the parents with colorful histories don't have histories quite so colorful as mine, or so public: Three years ago, Lily's dad and I were dramatically arrested on weapons charges. We had long struggled with heroin addiction, and I was pregnant at the time of our arrest, making our case a tabloid writer's dream.
I gave birth to Lily while in police custody, via emergency C-section on New Year's Eve, and the newspapers named me "Bomb Mom," the fact of there being no actual bomb irrelevant to the sensationalist saga. For better or worse (mostly better), the arrest marked the definitive turning point in my life, and forced me to quit heroin for good and become a law-abiding citizen.
"I tried to find you on Facebook, but instead found a headline about you being some kind of junkie terrorist?! WTF. Who are you???"
Aside from her father's incarceration (he's been in since the day we were arrested, with three more years to go), my daily life with Lily now is fairly typical: Goldfish crackers, Raffi tunes on repeat, pleas for one more round of Goodnight Moon at bedtime. But the first year of her life was a strange straddling of two worlds. I alternated between going to new mommy groups at the Y with going to Centre Street for court appearances.
It was a condition of my bail that I wear an electronic ankle monitor, which needed to be plugged in frequently to charge or it would vibrate and a red light would flash. I wore baggy pants to hide it, but I remember sitting in a playgroup worrying that my ankle monitor battery would die the way other people worry about their iPhone battery dying. My saving grace during this time was that most new parents were too preoccupied with their own tribulations to notice mine.
During those first few months, having babies the same age was often enough to strike up an initial conversation: "Your kid was born in December? Mine too; let's exchange numbers." And while I amassed dozens of new contacts during this period — moms in the elevator, moms at the pediatrician's office, moms in line at Starbucks — I rarely followed up. I was scared of getting close to anyone, terrified of having to reveal my "true identity" to them. As lonely as it was to have no parent friends, the real trouble started for me when I did start to make friends.
When is the right time to tell someone about the skeletons in your closet: the first date? The third date? Never? Old friends reassure me that "anyone who knows you knows you're no terrorist, and while you made mistakes in the past you're a great mother now."
But the pickle of the open secret of my past is if I don't let a new friend in on it from the get-go, then they feel deceived when they find out later, as Sarah, my first mom friend, did. Yet if I were to show a casual acquaintance all my dirty laundry right at the beginning, they likely would not want to get to know me, or Lily, any further.
As stressful as it was to be confronted by Sarah (and I fully acknowledge she had every right to be alarmed by what she'd uncovered — who wouldn't be?), it ultimately strengthened, rather than ended, our relationship. Today she is one of my best friends, mom or not. But most of our pals from our original new moms posse still don't know about my past, and my "don't ask, don't tell" policy has had the effect of keeping them at arm's length, marking these relationships with a veil of dishonesty created by my constant lies of omission.
Many of these friends have since had their second babies and moved to the suburbs; anytime one of them has invited Lily and me on an overnight visit to their house, I come up with a lame excuse to decline the invitation. How would you feel if you found out that the mom sleeping in your guest room was actually a felon?
For the first year, while I was out on bail but before I had accepted a plea deal in court, the disturbing tidbits about my life could be dismissed as baseless accusation and tabloid innuendo, and my motto was "innocent until proven guilty." When the prosecutor offered me a jail-free deal in return for my pleading guilty to two nonviolent felonies, my family was ecstatic, and encouraged me to accept it immediately. But I remember sitting in my attorney's office, sobbing that I needed to go to trial. I had a strong defense against the weapons charges, and might have even won, if going to trial had been financially feasible. I was afraid that if I pleaded guilty, the scandal and the stigma of being a felon would follow me and my daughter around forever.
When I eventually accepted the deal, the question that kept me up at night was not, "How will a felony affect my employment options?" but "How will a felony affect my child's play date options?"
I felt that there was nothing more unseemly, more frightening, than a woman, especially a mother to a young child, being a felon. I've heard the term "ex-felon" tossed around, but unless your conviction is overturned or you receive a pardon from the highest levels of government, there is nothing "ex" about a felony — the label remains for life. I was recently released early from probation due to good behavior, but I am still, and will always be, a felon in the eyes of the law.
Compared to the hurdles faced by other women in the criminal justice system, my worries of societal acceptance were a luxury problem. The elephant in any room while talking about my experiences is that my privileges of demographics put me at a clear advantage: I'm a white, college-educated woman. If I had been a person of color, or had I not had parents with a retirement fund they could cash out to retain my renowned defense attorney, I likely would have been sentenced to prison.
I was afraid that if I pleaded guilty, the scandal and the stigma of being a felon would follow me and my daughter around forever
As of 2013 there were more than 1.25 million American women involved in the criminal justice system: incarcerated in jails or prisons, or under probation or parole supervision. While women account for just 18 percent of the total correctional population, the rate of incarcerated mothers of minor children increased by 122 percent between 1991 and 2007, with the incarceration rate of black women being nearly three times higher than that of white women.
Seventy percent of female offenders in the correctional system are mothers, and the impact on their 1.3 million children is devastating: Incarcerated mothers are five times more likely than incarcerated fathers to have their children placed in foster care, with termination of parental rights and adoption becoming possible when a child has spent 15 of the prior 22 months in foster care.
For the mothers who manage to avoid jail time, there are still significant hurdles to successfully caring for themselves and their children. Depending on which state she lives in, someone convicted of a felony drug offense can be ineligible to receive federal food stamp or cash assistance benefits. Section 8 subsidized housing is difficult if not impossible to obtain with a felony, and conviction on even a misdemeanor drug offense typically renders a would-be college student ineligible to receive federal student aid.
It can be nearly impossible for a felon to receive a professional license in fields such as teaching, banking, law, and medicine, not to mention the problem of passing a potential employer's background check for even an unlicensed position. For me, trying to find a job with a criminal record has been nearly as challenging, defeating, and frustrating as kicking my heroin addiction.
I am immeasurably lucky to be here living life with my child rather than serving time in prison, and my gratitude for this trumps my fears of fitting in. Still, I struggle to reconcile who I am on paper with the person I see in the mirror. Which of these selves is my true identity: the felon addict or the fresh-faced young mother?
Increasingly I am realizing that when I see myself as a scarlet-lettered outsider, I cause others to treat me that way. I've also realized that in my perpetual fear of other parents' judgment, I am in turn judging them as being not open-minded enough to take a tabloid saga with a grain of salt, or to know that people can and do change, as I have. If I want people to go out on a limb and accept me, I need to go out on a limb and give them the chance to do so.
When Lily started preschool this year, I vowed to be upfront with new friends about my past. As Lily gets older she becomes more aware of our situation, and I don't want to give her the impression that she needs to be ashamed of or lie about her family.
When the father of Lily's classmate recently asked me where Lily's dad is, I fought the urge to deliver my usual cryptic response of, "I'm a single mother." I took a deep breath and told him that Lily's dad in in prison — it is still easier for me to tell people where he is than what I am.
Then I also told him, against every instinct of self-protection I've developed over the past three years, that I was arrested too, that I'm a felon, and that before Lily was born I was hopelessly strung out on heroin.
"Whoa," he said, shifting nervously. And then: "I have a lot of friends who have struggled with addiction, and I'm sorry for what you guys have been through. Having a dad in prison must suck for Lily. We live a block away from you — want to have a play date sometime?"
Morgan Gliedman lives with her daughter in New York City. She has written for the Fix and is currently working on a memoir.