Babies Born Behind Bars


I was born into uncertainty. Subsequently, I’m kind of a pro at it. My first step into the landscape of uncertainty began with the day I was born in a prison hospital. My birthmother, a heroin addict, was pregnant when she was sentenced for drug-related crimes, and I lived with her in prison for my first year, along with two hundred or so other inmates, the guards and a warden. It was an entire universe of uncertainty.

I was an ambiguously multiracial child, a blend from both genetic sides of Greek, Taiwanese, Latina, and from a prison file reference, a question raised whether my birth father was biracial white/African American. I’m still in the process of DNA testing to find out more.

A baby can’t grow up in prison and no one knew what to do with me—whether to put me into foster care in West Virginia where the prison was, or in Seattle, where my birthmother was from.

After a year living inside, a federal marshal was sent to remove me from the prison and I was placed in a Seattle foster family, maybe more than one, I don’t know. A white Jewish family adopted me around age four, my parents both English professors. They wanted an “at-risk special needs child,” which is what I was categorized as, because of the heroin exposure before birth, and because I was multiracial.

Me as a toddler.

Me as a toddler.

 Even though it was a stable family, I took a dive into a lifetime of confusion about where I belonged and when the ground under my feet would shift again. And I was always afraid — of people, new places, and myself.

The deepest track carved into my soul came from the trauma of leaving the prison after a year of bonding with my birthmother, which was difficult enough, but then being passed from family to family, mother to mother — by the time I landed in my permanent adoptive family, I was a gaping raw wound of self-doubt and distrust of everyone around me. I went mute for days on end. It was the only way I knew to feel safe then.

While I don’t remember the actual moment of separation from my birthmother, and because I was of course preverbal at the time, all I hold with me is the emotional memory. My skin stings when I think of our separation. My body knows the leaving. It’s taken my whole life to heal the emotional pain and deep sense of uncertainty I internalized from that night.

Today the narrative of my story includes much more than my prison-foster care-adoption experience. While uncertainty can shake us in our shoes and make us feel unsafe and exposed, often it immobilizes us and the only comfort is to hide or flee.

In my late teen years, when I was committing crimes and running drugs up and down the West coast, I moved from Seattle to California because I had been uncertain of an outcome about something — probably some drug deal gone wrong, I don’t even remember now. As an adult, whenever something feels uncertain, I fight to rein in my instinct to bolt. Hit the road, I hear myself say. Just move—to a different state, even another country: Let’s get outta here! But I know this instinct is part of a defense mechanism developed to navigate circumstances I no longer need to navigate. I can know this and still thrive.

Uncertainty, even if risky, can set the stage for new beginnings. There are no guarantees when we step into the unknown, but a new relationship, a new job change, a move to a new city, divorce, death, unemployment, all bring varying degrees of wonder along with their inherent uncertainty. To thrive, you have to trust  — in others, and in yourself. Because wading through the discomfort of uncertainty can propel us into growth.

For me, before I can allow uncertainty to morph into something bearable, I have to still myself, and just notice. I pay attention to what I know makes me feel better, and what doesn’t. If I don’t stop myself into a moment of stillness whenever I’m faced with an unknown that makes me nervous, then I get cranky. I’ll snap at my children, or withdraw into my default mode of isolation.

One time just a few years ago, I was in the midst of a business deal about to go wrong and under huge stress and uncertain of the outcome. My then two pre-teen age daughters were squabbling about sharing their computer room and I flipped out and said: “I know how to solve this!” I whipped out a hammer, tapped out the hinges of their computer room door, and removed the door in a matter of a few minutes. I’d never unhinged a door before but the stress of navigating the unknowns of this business deal shot some fierce adrenaline into me and somehow I know how to do this.

Today, my kids and I laugh about it but back then, it was quite an ordeal.

I’ve also discovered that exercise, a little humor and sound sleep help to calm me down and clear my perspective. Clarity has a way of changing the terror of uncertainty into an adventure of the unknown. As Gilda Radner said: “Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”

Finally, I keep a short list of friends to call in an urgent uncertain circumstance, because I know when I’m in the midst of this, panic and fear set in, and then I’m in a spin and can’t think of where to turn. So my list, which I have posted on a bulletin board at home, always reminds me I’m not alone.

From day one of my life, I was forced to reconcile with the out of control feeling of uncertainty. I have come to realize that the notion of being “in control” is an illusion, and that uncertainty is an essential part of living in the beautiful and sometimes dangerous adventure of life.

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This post originally appeared on xoJane. Republished with permission

{Top photo credit: Justin McGee for Mail & Guardian’s “Babies Behind Bars” special report.]

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I was totally unaware this occurs in prison. Uncertainty is a key symptom in a family pegged with addiction. I think this needs to be spoken about more in our society. So, thank you…

    And what a quote to remember “the notion of being “in control” is an illusion, and that uncertainty is an essential part of living in the beautiful and sometimes dangerous adventure of life”.

  2. No one realizes that right now in this country in all states, black babies are being taken from their mother especially biracial babies. There is a high demand of white families wanting to adopt children and there are not many white children available to adopt. So to help with this Children and Youth Workers and judges are ripping babies and children from their families. They are holding the children hostage for false accusations of neglect, minor mistakes that parents make daily, to other offense that should not separate the families. And when other responsible care family members of these children are willing to step up and take the children in either to adopt or to foster the courts are saying no. I thought the goal was to try and keep these families together while also taking the children s best interest in to factor. Families of black children are being told they are not qualified to take care of their family members children and it would be best served if they were adopted by white families. When did this become okay? This nothing more than another form of slavery. Yes there are homes that children are in danger and should be removed, but in the the town I am from there a numerous cases where children are being taking for no reason, there rights terminated and they are placed in white homes without given good reasons or a chance to get them back. Knowing alot of these families can not afford lawyers their children taken and the families, both parents, aunts or whomever the biological baby relatives are left heart broken. CYS/legal system has become a racket to fill the homes of white families who desire children and are being accommodated. It is happening more to biracial children because they are considered more appealing. Are children are being taken from the arms of mothers and fathers and no one is standing up….this is reminiscent of the slave era. A great deal of these judges have their own vocal voices about black/biracial children and believe for them to have a great future they need to be raised in a white environment. Who is fighting to end this…no one because the families

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