Abstract Although Black mothers are disproportionately represented among formerly incarcerated mothers in the United States, existing research has largely neglected to document the challenges they face in resuming their parenting roles after prison or jail. This study addresses this gap using 18 months of participant observations with formerly incarcerated Black women to examine how state surveillance under post-release supervision and child welfare services shapes and constrains formerly incarcerated Black women’s mothering practices. The study develops a typology of three context-specific strategies these women employ to anticipate, react to, and cope with state interventions that threaten their mothering: collective motherwork, hypervigilant motherwork, and crisis motherwork. These findings suggest that contrary to popular constructions of formerly incarcerated Black women as negligent mothers, they navigate multiple, overlapping sources of violence to protect their children. Yet, the labor of navigating the state structures that put their children at risk often placed these women in conflict with the state. This paradox suggests the state criminalizes the maternal labor of formerly incarcerated Black women and that these state logics are used to justify state intervention in Black women’s post-incarceration parenting. mothering, race, gender, incarceration, reentry The hardest thing about being locked up is knowing you can’t be there for your kids when they need you … the hardest thing about getting out is knowing you still can’t be there for your kids when they need you … you can’t control if they take your kids away from you [… ] or if you’re taken away from your kids. – Angel, 40s Black1 mothers like Angel struggle to parent when released from prison and jail. They fear that the state will continue to interfere with their ability to mother, given that race, gender, and poverty intersect to make Black families generally vulnerable to both Child Protective Services (CPS) and the criminal justice system. For formerly incarcerated Black women, mothering difficulties are amplified by structural challenges, including: erosion of social support due to the disproportionate rates of Black women’s incarceration, the demands of post-release supervision, and resumption of parenting after a temporary loss of parental custody (Haney 2010; Roberts 2003; Simmons and Danker-Feldman 2010). This article examines how formerly incarcerated Black mothers develop parenting strategies in response to surveillance from post-release supervision and CPS. While not all formerly incarcerated women are prepared to resume parenting upon release, the assumption that these women are unfit parents elides their work as mothers and obscures the structural challenges they face in raising their children. Although other ethnic and racial groups experience structural challenges in parenting post-incarceration (e.g., Ross 1998; The Sentencing Project 2013), I focus on Black women because of their historical significance to the emergence of women’s prisons. Black feminist scholars demonstrated that the historical project of carceral gendering demanded a deviant female subject who was not simply at odds with social expectations, but also posed ideological and corporeal danger to the state’s moral order (Gross 2006; Haley 2016; Richie 2012; Roberts 1999). Because white femininity was defined by frail submissiveness and could not accomplish this threat, the construction of the Black female subject as dangerous, immoral, and physically strong justified the creation of women’s prisons (Gross 2006; Haley 2016). Therefore, I situate this study within scholarship that demonstrates a gender-racialized trajectory of U.S. carceral institutions—from slavery, Jim Crow, the War on Drugs, to contemporary carceral regimes—that required an imagining of Black female sexual and maternal deviance to justify women’s incarceration (Collins 1998; Davis 1972; Gross 2006; Gutman 1977; Haley 2016; Jones 2009). Patricia Hill Collins (1990) identifies archetypes of Black womanhood centered on sexuality, deviance, and motherhood as “controlling images” that emerge from gendered racism towards Black women. I examine how mothers experience these discursive forces in their daily post-incarceration lives. To what extent do formerly incarcerated Black mothers demonstrate awareness of these controlling images of Black womanhood? How does this awareness shape their mothering strategies while on probation or parole? I find that formerly incarcerated Black mothers respond to hegemonic ideologies of Black womanhood—informed by the doctrines of self-reliance, Black female pathology, and broken homes—in their navigation of state surveillance while parenting. At the same time, these mothers locate the state as a primary danger in their children’s lives. Given these conditions, I argue that formerly incarcerated Black mothers necessarily labor against the reduction of their maternal identities to their criminal histories to protect their children. I draw on theories of “motherwork” (Collins 1994; Reese and Newcombe 2003) to examine formerly incarcerated Black women’s raced, classed, and gendered parenting labor under the state. Using 18 months of ethnographic observations with formerly incarcerated Black women, I distinguish three fluid, context-specific motherwork strategies that these women employ to anticipate, react to, and cope with state interventions that threaten their mothering. In what follows, I demonstrate how women engage in (1) collective motherwork, a community-based negotiation of tenuous childcare conditions between formerly incarcerated women living in close proximity to one another, (2) hypervigilant motherwork, the anticipatory work of shielding children from the state and strangers, and (3) crisis motherwork, the labor of confronting immediate threats that would remove children from their custody or prevent reunification. These three motherwork strategies constitute decarceral motherwork. This concept captures how formerly incarcerated Black women labor to care for their children under the confines of state surveillance and bondage—a process that is often concealed by continued carceral logics and practices. I contend that decarceral motherwork ultimately works to counter the reduction of formerly incarcerated Black mothers to their criminal histories, though it also compels women to hide their personal struggles with drug addiction, mental illness, and other conditions to prevent state agents from taking away their children. This focus complicates narratives claiming that surveilling criminalized mothers of color makes their children safer. BACKGROUND: BLACK MOTHERS UNDER CARCERAL CONTROL Though not all formerly incarcerated women are willing or able to resume parenting their children upon release, scholarship on mothering after release indicates that these women rank parenting as one of the most important dimensions of their reentry experiences (Brown and Bloom 2009; Michalsen 2013; Solinger 2010). For Black women, their mothering experiences after incarceration emerges from the racialized and gendered contemporary state of mass incarceration. Nationally, women’s rates of incarceration rose by more than 700 percent from 1980 to 2014 (The Sentencing Project 2015). In California, Black women are 27 percent of incarcerated women, though Black women are about 6 percent of women in the state (Krimetz et al. 2011; U.S. Census Bureau 2010). While Black women’s rates of incarceration declined in recent years, they are still twice as likely to be incarcerated as white women (Carson et al. 2015; The Sentencing Project 2014, 2015). Black women’s carceral experiences are shaped by the overrepresentation of mothers in prison and jail. Among incarcerated women in the United States, mothers increased by 131% between 1991 and 2007 to 65,000 women, and 62 percent of women in state prisons and 56 percent of women in federal prisons report having minor children (Carson and Sabol 2012; Gilmore 2007; Richie 2012). The majority were sole caretakers of their children prior to incarceration (Ferraro and Moe 2003; Phillips and O’Brien 2012). Formerly incarcerated Black women who wish to resume their roles as mothers struggle with the state over child custody (Roberts 2011). Among incarcerated mothers, 45 percent had children living with grandparents, 37 percent said children lived with the other parent, and 11 percent had children in foster care (Nickel, Garland, and Kane 2009). Many of these mothers had their children removed from their care prior to incarceration and therefore came under state surveillance before incarceration (Bridges 2011; Nickel et al. 2009; Roberts 2011). Therefore, upon release, formerly incarcerated Black women who wish to be or are reunited with their children are not simply under the surveillance of post-release institutions, but also CPS (Roberts 2003). CONTROLLING IMAGES OF BLACK WOMANHOOD Formerly incarcerated Black mothers contend with many practical challenges in complying with post-release supervision after incarceration, which intertwine with a broader ideological context of controlling images of Black womanhood that negatively shape state actors’ compliance evaluations (Bridges 2011; Gross 2006). Collins (1990) developed the concept of the controlling image to characterize archetypes of Black womanhood as a series of contradicting, objectifying one-dimensional master stereotypes that make “forms of social injustice appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable parts of everyday life” (p. 69). These prevailing stereotypes serve as “othering” justification for the dominant group, as well as a reference point against which to define normative dominant group constructions (Collins 1990; Roberts 1999; Wingfield 2007). Other scholarship documents how the intertwining of controlling images and structural challenges force marginalized people to develop a set of strategies to navigate policing in their everyday lives (e.g., Bridges 2011; Collins 1994; Stuart 2016). Controlling images of Black women’s maternal inadequacy have persisted throughout history as part of a narrative that denies them autonomy in motherhood, often to justify state agendas that were more easily accomplished by disrupting Black families (Collins 1990; Jones 2009; Roberts 1999). While a comprehensive history of the state’s perversion of Black women’s motherhood is beyond the scope of this article, particular historical moments illuminate patterns in the state’s attempts to control Black motherhood. For instance, during Black women’s enslavement, whites rendered Black women unrapeable by developing the controlling image of the hyperbreeder, yet materially and ideologically denied Black women’s ties to their children to justify the use of children as profit (Gutman 1977; Jones 2009). Simultaneously, whites threatened violence against enslaved children to coerce their mothers into compliance (Roberts 1999). In the 1960s, the Moynihan Report and its supporters mobilized the controlling image of the Black matriarch and laid the blame of Black communities’ structural oppression with Black mothers (Jones 2009; Roberts 2003). The 1980s and 1990s saw another boost in Black mother-blaming through Welfare Reform and the War on Drugs through the construction of the Welfare Queen (McCorkel 2013; Richie 2012). Common among these controlling images of Black motherhood are simultaneous claims about Black women’s importance to the well-being of Black communities, paired with claims about Black maternal pathology. Given the state of Black women’s carceral crisis across prison and reentry spaces, I reveal how formerly incarcerated Black women respond to controlling images that portray them as a contemporary, perverse evolution of the Welfare Queen. The Welfare Queen controlling image purports that Black mothers are lazy, often drug-addicted, hypersexual, careless parents whose primary goal is to evade work and lead lavish lifestyles funded by state benefits (Collins 1990, 1994; Ferraro and Moe 2003; Fields 2005; McCorkel 2013; Roberts 1999). The formerly incarcerated Black mother is criminally punished for her perceived material and ideological violation of the state’s moral order, and her maternal status is reduced to a carceral identity. Her subjugation is formally marked by a felony. Her resulting legal branding frames the many dimensions of her immorality that emerge from the Welfare Queen: promiscuity, drug use, child endangerment, refusal to acknowledge and adequately care for her children’s needs, sneakiness, and moral irredeemability (Collins 1990; Roberts 1999). She merits watching, both for the safety of her children and the public (Roberts 2003). By locating the carceral in controlling images of Black womanhood and motherhood, I capture how formerly incarcerated Black mothers experience the “spillover” of carceral identity as part of the prison’s ability to reproduce criminality, even after incarceration, and consequentially shape mothering strategies in response (Lopez-Aguado 2016). Like other populations that navigate state policing in their everyday lives under carceral threat (Rios 2011; Stuart 2016; Wingfield 2007), these mothers are forced to respond to these forces as they craft their parenting strategies under the gaze of the state. BLACK MOTHERING ON THE MARGINS Because controlling images are relational, they require a normative group to be defined against. Controlling images of Black motherhood stand in opposition to normative white femininity’s “good mother,” who is defined by a practice of intensive mothering. Intensive mothering ideologies charge mothers with developing their children socially, intellectually, and physically, at any cost (Blum 2015; Hays 1998). These ideologies produce a good mother-bad mother binary; in either case, mothers are held responsible for their children’s life outcomes as part of normative intensive mothering, despite its emergence from white, middle and upper-class, heteronormative value systems (Banwell and Bammer 2006; Blum 2015; Collins 1990; Hays 1998). Formerly incarcerated women are especially branded as bad mothers; because they endure extensive separation from their children while serving their sentences, they necessarily parent their children outside of normative intensive mothering and struggle against perceptions that they abandoned their families (Bloom and Brown 2011; Brown and Bloom 2009; Haney 2010). Women with mental and physical illnesses, addiction, and trauma find their issues remain relatively untreated while behind bars, so the motherwork of reentry compounds with everyday and structural challenges of reentry (Bloom and Brown 2011; Doherty et al. 2014; O’Brien 2001). The practice of intensive mothering is complicated by race and class. Studies on the mothering of poor women and women of color—mothers on the margins—suggest that their intensive mothering practices respond to challenges and needs different from those of hegemonic mothering constructions (Blum 2015; Collins 1994; Hays 1998). Following Collins (1994), I use the term “motherwork” to theorize how mothers on the margins support their families under carceral infrastructures of control. Motherwork for drug-addicted women, formerly incarcerated women, and Black women may include teaching their children how to evade the police, engaging in civil disobedience to protest inequality, feeding a family on a severely restricted income, or protecting children while mothers are in violent relationships (Baker and Carson 1999; Edin and Kefalas 2011; Elliott, Powell, and Brenton 2015; Roberts 2003; Wingfield 2007). Black motherwork also centrally includes the labor of “othermothers”—alternative kinship networks between women who share motherwork among children in the community (Collins 1994). Black feminist scholars have also used the term “collective mothering,” referring to the shared raising of children among networks of women in the absence of state protection while faced with state–triggered violence (Gilmore 1999; McGadney-Douglass and Douglass 2008; Reynolds 2001). Collective mothering among Black women in the United States is centuries old, given the ways that racism, sexism, and white supremacy bear on and shape mothering practices (Collins 1994; Roberts 2003). Motherwork falls outside of conventional constructions of intensive mothering, and may not be recognized by the state, leading to state punishment (Bloom and Brown 2011; Bridges 2011; Ferraro and Moe 2003; Jones 2009; Roberts 1999, 2003). Scholars have documented how poor Black women are vulnerable to legalized punishment because of structural challenges that produce many avenues for state surveillance, including: intake interviews for nutritional assistance, policing in schools, the ubiquity of law enforcement in poor communities of color, and probation and parole officers’ surveillance of women with criminal records (Bridges 2011; Roberts 1999, 2011). Formerly incarcerated Black mothers who want contact with or custody of their underaged children must cooperate with surveilling institutions, or risk loss of parental rights (Bridges 2011; Opsal 2009; Roberts 2003; Simmons and Danker-Feldman 2010). Because formerly incarcerated Black women are disproportionately victims of assault, poor, and incarcerated on drug charges, their children often enter foster care and Family Court under charges of abuse or neglect prior to mothers’ incarceration (Ferraro and Moe 2003; Roberts 2003; Simmons and Danker-Feldman 2010). METHODS To understand how formerly incarcerated Black women experience the work of mothering, this article draws on 18 months of participant observations in the early 2010s with formerly incarcerated women. This study received IRB approval from my home institution. I began by recruiting participants from New Beginnings, an LA-based comprehensive women’s “reentry” organization that provides housing, case management, and rehabilitation services for formerly incarcerated women and their children. New Beginnings had a few housing sites across South Los Angeles.2 Most women shared bedrooms with one or two other women, though a few had their own bedrooms and some had children in residence. The living room, bathrooms, and kitchen were shared spaces. I also spoke with and shadowed a handful of formerly incarcerated women who invited me to document their experiences after attending New Beginnings-sponsored events and hearing about my project. Many of these women have minor children and seek to resume their roles and duties as mothers. I negotiated access by emailing the New Beginnings social worker, who designated me as a “social work intern” after meeting in person twice and hearing about my proposed project. She posted my information in the office and at the reentry homes along with the information that I was a researcher. I also regularly reminded women that I was collecting data and told them they could request to be excluded from my observations, and that this would not impact any assistance they might request from me. I drove them to medical appointments, schools, parole and probation offices, babysat their children, attended court appointments as an advocate, and helped with job applications. I spent time with women in their homes, met with them over meals, took walks with them in their neighborhoods, and had extensive conversations by phone, text, and email. I recorded observations while driving home and sometimes took notes on my laptop or in a notebook, then transcribed and wrote memos from my observations. The observational nature of my role at New Beginnings has particular implications for the data in this study; I waited for most women to provide information about themselves within the normal course of interaction to respect the ethos of New Beginnings, which stresses minimizing invasions of privacy since formerly incarcerated women are frequently denied that right. I also use pseudonyms when referring to all study participants and the organization. Not all women revealed their demographic information. As seen in Table 1, of the 35 women I observed, 21 self-reported as Black, African American, part Black, and an additional 3 women were referenced as Black by other women in the space. The remaining women self-reported as Latina, Hispanic, Mexican, white, or did not reveal their racial identities during conversations, and appeared racially ambiguous to me. Though New Beginnings is not the traditional context of a predominantly Black community and offers more transitional support than many reentry homes, the racial demographics of its population, and its location in a predominantly Black and Latino part of Los Angeles, replicates the reentry conditions that many Black mothers experience after returning home from prison or jail. Table 1. Characteristics of Sample Racial/Ethnic Characteristics Self-reported Convictions Characteristics of Mothers Black, African American 24 Drugs and/or sex work 14 Children while incarcerated 31 Latina, Hispanic, or Mexican 2 Homicide 4 Mothers with children in residence 6 White 3 Forgery 3 Mothers with children in foster care 4 Unknown 6 Assault 1 Non-report 10 Total 35 Total 35 Racial/Ethnic Characteristics Self-reported Convictions Characteristics of Mothers Black, African American 24 Drugs and/or sex work 14 Children while incarcerated 31 Latina, Hispanic, or Mexican 2 Homicide 4 Mothers with children in residence 6 White 3 Forgery 3 Mothers with children in foster care 4 Unknown 6 Assault 1 Non-report 10 Total 35 Total 35 Table 1. Characteristics of Sample Racial/Ethnic Characteristics Self-reported Convictions Characteristics of Mothers Black, African American 24 Drugs and/or sex work 14 Children while incarcerated 31 Latina, Hispanic, or Mexican 2 Homicide 4 Mothers with children in residence 6 White 3 Forgery 3 Mothers with children in foster care 4 Unknown 6 Assault 1 Non-report 10 Total 35 Total 35 Racial/Ethnic Characteristics Self-reported Convictions Characteristics of Mothers Black, African American 24 Drugs and/or sex work 14 Children while incarcerated 31 Latina, Hispanic, or Mexican 2 Homicide 4 Mothers with children in residence 6 White 3 Forgery 3 Mothers with children in foster care 4 Unknown 6 Assault 1 Non-report 10 Total 35 Total 35 Referring again to Table 1, although 25 women revealed information about their convictions, the predominant convictions were for drugs or sex work. Two of the women convicted for homicide said they acted in self-defense: one against a stranger and the other against her childhood molester. The woman convicted of assault said she was criminalized for defending her eldest daughter from the girl’s father. Sentences ranged from 8 months to 28 years, although 11 women reported serving more than one jail or prison sentence in their lives. In our interactions, 31 women acknowledged3 that they were mothers to minors at some point during their incarceration. Six women had one or two children living at New Beginnings with them, ranging in age from newborn to age seven; of these six, five mothers identified as Black or African American and one identified as white. To protect the privacy of these women and their children, I do not reveal the gender demographics of the children at New Beginnings during my observational period, and I sometimes change the gender of the children presented in data fragments. Most women at New Beginnings with minor and adult children made efforts to see their children after attending school, work, and/or on weekends, if their children lived locally. Eight women revealed their children are now adults, though these children were minors at the time of incarceration. Four women said their children were in foster care. Others referred to their children in vague terms and were reluctant to reveal details about them. I also did not observe any fathers coming to visit their children at New Beginnings or bringing children to visit their mothers, so I am unable to comment on fathers’ co-parenting. I supplemented ethnographic data with in-depth interviews, lasting from one to three hours, with 12 key informants, all of whom were Black. All agreed or requested to be interviewed. Interviews occurred at a place of the respondents’ choosing—most often in the respondents’ homes or in the car while I drove them to appointments. Though I initially conducted two interviews using a semi-structured interview guide, I found that a more effective method was to ask respondents to show me photos they took of their everyday lives, then ask follow-up questions about their responses; this allowed respondents to guide the interviews. Throughout data collection, I engaged in abductive analysis (Timmermans and Tavory 2012), moving between existing theoretical frameworks on race, gender, parenting, and surveillance with new, surprising data during throughout fieldwork. I used the qualitative coding software “NVivo” to thematically code field notes, interviews, and memos. FINDINGS Formerly incarcerated Black women contend with obstacles after incarceration that complicate mothering, including finding living arrangements that accommodate their children or are close by to children’s place of residence. However, one of the factors that most shaped these mothers’ approach to parenting is their need to prove to state agencies that they were fit to have custody of their children. These women knew that social workers and parole or probation officers controlled visitation and delivered family reunification recommendations to judges. Hence, the state had the power to effectively interrupt their roles as mothers, not only by taking children away, temporarily or permanently, but also by sending mothers back to prison or jail. As a result, the mothers in this study adapt to surveillance from the state by implementing three types of fluid and context-specific decarceral motherwork: (1) collective motherwork, (2) hypervigilant motherwork, and (3) crisis motherwork. Collective Motherwork Parole and probation is a period of intense adjustment for most formerly incarcerated individuals, and many transitional homes encourage camaraderie and informal mentorship between residents. “Collective motherwork” refers to the use of relationships between New Beginnings residents to gather information, resources, and labor required to protect children from state intervention. Because pervasive state surveillance gave the state many opportunities to interfere in their parenting, these women understood the importance of pooling their resources and labor in order to maximize limited resources in high-stakes custody circumstances. Collective motherwork emerged from the sharing of childcare responsibilities between mothers living together in the home. Many of the women who were without their children also devoted significant time and energy to the children who were in residence. For instance, two women who had custody of their children while living at New Beginnings would alternate preparing dinner and trading babysitting duties while the other mother was at job interviews or doctors’ appointments. I also saw how seven-year-old Kyla, 34-year-old Kira’s daughter, would run to get hugs and kisses from the residents who ushered her into their arms during house meetings. Additionally, some mothers were released immediately before they gave birth and became overwhelmed by the challenges they faced as new mothers also newly released from prison or jail. In these cases, other women living in the house helped with diaper changes and soothed fussy babies. For instance, Jonathan, 32-year-old Destiny’s infant son, spent the first eight months of his life at New Beginnings, and Destiny expressed that a few of the residents were his “aunties.” Such practices undermine controlling images of Black motherhood by illustrating how women worked together for the well-being of children and one another by sharing mothering labor. Another aspect of collective motherwork was group strategizing about how to cope with the state surveillance of reentering Black women’s sexuality. In my observations, much of the discussion between women centered on best practices for navigating state agents, who scrutinize mothers’ sexuality and whose recommendations influence judges’ orders in child custody cases. For instance, I once observed Destiny telling an incoming resident of New Beginnings not to give the house address to men; she explained that only her child’s father knows where she lives. If a social worker or her parole officer dropped by unannounced, Destiny said if she “look[ed] loose,” it might put custody of her infant son at risk and that another resident gave her that tip when she moved in. During another one of my visits, I sat in on a discussion between six women talking about how the state might use same-sex relationships to justify custody denial. There was a consensus that poor Black mothers with histories of drug addiction would be under intense scrutiny, so it was important to prevent state actors from knowing details of their intimate lives. Though women in same-sex and heterosexual relationships experienced different forms of sexual policing, the women in this sample demonstrated awareness of the perceived hypersexuality of Black women as part of the controlling images of Black motherhood, and collectively strategized how to prevent the state from using their sexuality to justify state intervention in mothering. Although collective motherwork was often a critical source of support for women whose children lived with them and women who missed children they were waiting to reunite with, collective motherwork was also a source of conflict. Some mothers whose children were in residence expressed that other residents were trying to “take over” mothering their children. Some women expressed that women who missed their own children were sometimes invasive and would interfere with parenting decisions. The state’s imposed estrangement created anguish for mothers who were without their children, which also produced tension in collectivized parenting for mothers whose children lived at New Beginnings. Though some of these tensions may be particular to the site due to sharing small spaces, it also stands to reason that collectively taking responsibility for children inevitably produces some conflict. Some of these tensions likely unfold in informal arrangements of collective parenting within extended families and neighborhoods, though these observations reveal the multi-family stressors that can emerge from parental incarceration. While collective motherwork demonstrates the significance of shared labor between mothers and its possibilities in challenging the controlling images of Black motherhood, the mothers in this sample also navigated much of the post-incarceration terrain alone. In the subsections that follow, I illustrate how hypervigilant motherwork and crisis motherwork demonstrate that formerly incarcerated Black mothers must perform mothering labor with little assistance and high stakes for their children. Hypervigilant Motherwork After incarceration, many formerly incarcerated women return to neighborhoods with poor socioeconomic conditions, including violence and instability, as well as high levels of state surveillance. In an effort to protect their children from harm or incidents that might lead to state intervention, many of these women—most of whom had been victims of state and neighborhood violence—anticipate the many ways their children might be exposed to harm and/or intervention, and thus deploy a variety of strategies designed to prevent such an outcome. This labor, which I refer to as “hypervigilant motherwork,” is characterized by “hovering” and the desire to be in close physical proximity to children at all times. Hypervigilant motherwork reflects these mothers’ multiple marginal statuses and their need to balance competing priorities with few resources. These mothers simultaneously manage their children’s physical and emotional well-being, keep their children away from strangers (especially men), and protect their children from the state. These activities occur oftentimes at the expense of finding work, and even risk mothers’ reincarceration, because the actions that protect their children sometimes impede post-release supervision requirements. One type of hypervigilant motherwork is being forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, as demonstrated by Kira and her seven-year-old daughter, Kyla. One summer, I drove them to Kira’s weekly parole appointments because Kira worried about Kyla’s ability to withstand the Los Angeles heat during the two-hour bus ride and two-mile walk required to make it to her parole office, and she lacked reliable, affordable childcare. However, Kira’s parole officer told her that missing her appointments because she could not find childcare was unacceptable; Kira risked reincarceration if she missed future appointments. Kira felt her best option was to have a New Beginnings intern drive her to the appointment and babysit Kyla in the car; during the appointments, Kira told me to keep Kyla in the car, despite the stifling summer heat, because she was afraid of sex offenders seeing her daughter. While Kira’s resources were limited, she practiced hypervigilant motherwork to make sure that her daughter would not be exposed to environmental dangers, including the weather, extensive travel, and sexual predators. Because of post-release supervision requirements that did not accommodate her childcare needs, Kira felt forced to bring her daughter into a space where Kyla would be vulnerable to people convicted for child molestation. Kira’s fears reflect how the state produces multiple moments of danger for her child. When presented with difficult choices, like deciding whether a hot car or the potential of encountering predatory strangers posed a greater danger, Kira used her available means to consider how to best protect her daughter. Another type of hypervigilant motherwork is stranger danger, in which mothers develop multiple strategies to protect their children from potential molestation. For instance, 32-year-old Deanna came in with her four-year-old son, Mikey, to get bus tokens so she could take him to the doctor. As Mikey ran around the office, Deanna and I talked while the office social worker, Sandra, retrieved bus tokens. Deanna told me that she heard a story on the news about girls who had been found as sex slaves less than 100 yards from where they lived. She said hearing things like that made her nervous to send Mikey to school, daycare, and let him be out of her sight. She said, “They want us to think the foster system means our kids are better off with strangers … That’s why I always have him with me, and I’ll never go back to prison because who knows where they would send him.” As Sandra walked in, she told Mikey not to keep secrets, and Deanna said, “oh he knows that he will tell me everything.” Deanna practices stranger-danger hypervigilant motherwork by keeping Mikey in her sight at all times and minimizing opportunities for him to interact with strangers; even in the office, she kept her eyes trained on him and was quick to pause conversations to remind him to stay close to her side. For Deanna, the story of abuse is associated with her fear of her son’s vulnerability to the foster care system. These fears drive her to go to school with him and keep him with her throughout the day. She also cultivated a relationship with him in which there are “no secrets,” to protect him from abuse. While these practices protect Mikey, it leaves little time for Deanna to find work—which is already challenging for her because of her felony. Fear of the foster care system structured parenting for all the mothers I spoke with. For instance, one mother, Taylor, also engaged in stranger-danger hypervigilant motherwork because of her history of interactions with the foster care system. During an interview, she showed me photos of her two-year old daughter Lily and repeatedly emphasized how she made sure Lily would not be exposed to the foster care system or abusive caretakers, saying: Lily is the only baby I’ve ever been able to keep. I have seven other kids, and my mom kept getting social services to take them away. Since I was 14, all I ever wanted was to be a mom … I was so scared they would take Lily away, that right after I had her in the hospital, I wouldn’t let anybody hold her but me. Taylor told me she cycled through juvenile carceral facilities and foster care as a child and never felt safe with her own mother. Her seven other children were awarded to her mother through the foster care system and regularly reported to Taylor that they were abused by their grandmother. Consequentially, Taylor told me she took great pains to make sure that Lily was protected from foster care and knew that she was safe and loved. Taylor intentionally did not do paid work for the first year of Lily’s life and stayed home with her because she could not find childcare that was provided by an adult she trusted. She also avoids walking with Lily through her neighborhood because she believes it is an unsafe area for women and children. In the early stages of her pregnancy, Taylor took measures to secure financial stability in part by returning to New Beginnings to save money after successfully living in private housing and holding down a job for a couple of years. When pressing financial needs forced Taylor to return to the paid workforce, she took great pains to find a babysitter who would pick Lily up from home in her car at 4:30 am, which is when Taylor has to catch the bus for work. Taylor said that she spends all of the time she can with Lily, despite a demanding training schedule and using public transportation to get from South LA to Downtown LA. Though the circumstances of Taylor’s lost custody with seven of her children is unclear, the intentionality of her parenting approach with Lily reveals a constant process of assessing and intervening in Lily’s potential exposure to local dangers and adults who might subject her to abuse, with particular attentiveness to the dangers of foster care exposure. Some women felt compelled to hide their struggles with mental illness and addiction from state agents who might help them access resources, performing what I call covert hypervigilant motherwork. Destiny—who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar mania— said she was practicing caring for her health needs as part of caring for her son: I know now I’m supposed to tell somebody and go to the doctor when I start to hear voices and stuff so I can take care of my baby … before I used to keep it all in … that’s why I used drugs, to stop the voices … sometimes I still keep it in and don’t tell nobody when I’m having problems [… ] because my parole officer tells me all the time she can’t wait till I take a dirty test so she can take my son and keep him for herself … she’s like “I’m setting you up for reality, when you f*** up I’m taking your son.” Destiny told me she worried about seeking help for her addiction and mental health problems because of how it might impact her custody situation, particularly because her parole officer expressed the desire to raise Jonathan herself. Destiny’s experience reveals the paradox of self-care for formerly incarcerated Black mothers with significant issues that can be addressed with treatment, which can trigger custody intervention. Therefore, even though treatment may improve child welfare, covert hypervigilant motherwork also led mothers to debate whether concealing their problems was safer for their children. Kira, Deanna, Taylor, and Destiny demonstrate hypervigilant motherwork through strategic anticipation of and preemptive intervention in potential sources of violence or danger in their children’s lives, largely in response to concerns about CPS, predators, and probation/parole. While these mothers proactively responded to potential sources of danger, there were also significant costs; they struggled with job searches, finances, and appointments because their vision of intensive parenting, coupled with felony discrimination, complicated negotiating post-incarceration requirements. Taylor also moved back into the transitional home, and consequently into a neighborhood she felt was unsafe. Like Destiny, some of the mothers felt compelled to evade state agents because state surveillance is not accompanied by adequate state resources, and they worried that social workers might use their lack of material resources or struggles with addiction and mental illness as justification for custody removal. These mothers resorted to measures that compromised their material conditions to accommodate what they perceived they children needed. The controlling images of Black motherhood would have us believe that formerly incarcerated Black mothers use their children for personal gain and expose their children to violence, thus justifying state intervention. However, hypervigilant motherwork counters controlling images of Black motherhood; these women demonstrate incredible thoughtfulness and self-sacrifice in their everyday mothering labor to protect their children from violence, largely borne from fears of their children’s vulnerabilities under state surveillance and control. Yet, these same actions can look like non-compliance to the state and support controlling images of Black motherhood, especially when hypervigilant motherwork interferes with employability. Crisis Motherwork Despite practicing hypervigilant motherwork to protect their children, precarious circumstances and relationships with the state pushed some mothers into extreme crisis. Women enact crisis motherwork when hypervigilant motherwork no longer works; it is the labor of confronting immediate threats that would remove children from their custody or prevent reunification. Therefore, crisis motherwork is necessarily reactive and often requires temporarily abandoning all other obligations, including paid work. These women engage in problem solving not as a theoretical exercise of what may cause separation from their children, but instead face the real, near-term possibility of separation and must fight to keep their children away from the state. However, often these mothers have exhausted their options of preventing state intervention, so they must simply cope with their own anxiety as they wait for the cards to fall. Crisis motherwork involves assessing and coping with rapidly shifting circumstances. One dimension of this is resource management during a crisis, often with little assistance from the state, friends, or family. This type of motherwork was demonstrated by Danielle, in her early 30s, who I first saw engaged in hypervigilant motherwork for her son, Devon. Danielle took protective measures to make sure her son’s life would be stable and that he would remain in the care of people she trusted. Eight-year-old Devon lived with a close friend while Danielle was incarcerated, and she intended to keep him there until she could provide stable living conditions. I witnessed Danielle’s transition into crisis motherwork one evening as I was leaving New Beginnings. She told me that Devon witnessed the murder of another child while they were playing outside together; she and her son were devastated. She said, “I’m grieving for that poor baby. I’m grieving for my baby …” Because Devon was a witness in a gang violence case, the state became intimately involved in managing his custody. Less than a week after the shooting, the police and CPS said that Devon needed to move out of Danielle’s friend’s house for his protection. Danielle scrambled to identify feasible options. However, she did not have other family Devon could live with and the social worker on her son’s case said that Danielle needed to buy a car before Devon could with live her. Danielle engaged in crisis motherwork by searching for a car loan within three days to prevent Devon from going into foster care; she experienced sexual and physical abuse in foster care as a child, so she wanted to prevent Devon from living where he could be exposed to the same danger. While we spoke, she kept leaving the room to make phone calls about potential leads for a $3,000 loan in the next couple of days. In addition to gathering material resources, Danielle worked to support her son’s emotional needs by trying to identify professionals who could help him process the violent trauma he witnessed. Although Danielle lives with her son now, the combination of state surveillance and intervention, neighborhood violence, and lack of resources compounded Danielle’s stress. Given the financial and emotional costs of placing a child into foster care, the state’s readiness to put Devon in the care of strangers, rather than providing his mother with the resources necessary to care for him, underscores the logics of the carceral state. This further demonstrates how poor, Black mothers frequently encounter surveillance and interference from the state, and at the same time are deprived of the resources necessary to provide the safety and stability that children need. For other women, the threat of reincarceration produces emotional management as another kind of crisis motherwork that requires significant emotional labor on behalf of children, who experience distress both at the prospect of separation and the moments that trigger crisis motherwork. One such case was Loretta, a woman in her 30s with a ten-year-old daughter, Brittany. I accompanied Loretta to court on a Friday to respond to a warrant for an offense she allegedly committed prior to her incarceration. Like Danielle, Loretta was state approved to move in with her daughter, but engaged in hypervigilant motherwork when she delayed moving Brittany because she was afraid of being reincarcerated and forcing her daughter to adjust to new living circumstances. Instead, Loretta took her daughter to school daily and spent all of her time outside of work with her daughter. Because Loretta held two steady jobs, saw her daughter regularly, and attended recovery groups regularly, New Beginnings labeled her a model resident and said she was unlikely to be reincarcerated. Nonetheless, Loretta was deeply anxious and prepared herself for the possibility. Her primary concern was how Brittany might be impacted by her mother’s reincarceration. Loretta explained, “My daughter is always fussing over me … she’s so nervous I’ll go back to prison. This morning, she kept telling me not to leave …” Loretta assured her daughter that regardless of the outcome, Brittany would always know that Loretta loved her and would make sure she was cared for. In this instance, crisis motherwork was less about gathering resources or making plans, and more about the emotional work she needed to do to make sure Brittany did not feel abandoned or worried for her future. Loretta spent a great deal of time and energy trying to allay her daughter’s fear of losing her mother again. In court, I watched Loretta get arrested and taken into custody. She was released a week later after intervention from the New Beginnings attorneys, who cited Loretta’s motherwork towards her daughter when arguing for her release. These two cases illustrate how state surveillance, violence, and interference shape formerly incarcerated Black women’s mothering strategies. Although Danielle and Loretta were ultimately able to work through the crises that threatened their children, this work required significant compromises and did not fully protect their children from harm. Danielle and Loretta each demonstrate two types of crisis motherwork: resource management and emotional management. While the ultimate outcome in both cases preserved family reunification, temporary separation is sometimes unavoidable; these mothers did their best to hasten reunification or create conditions that would protect their children during their absence. They demonstrate that crisis motherwork may take multiple forms because these mothers creatively employ whatever material or personal resources they have at their disposal to minimize disruptions that threaten their children’s well-being. Crisis motherwork emerges as a consequence of the multilevel state surveillance and interference that circulates through and around the lives of formerly incarcerated Black mothers. Their mothering occurs under surveillance from post-release supervision and the foster care system, in addition to surveillance that pervades the lives of poor Black families because of their participation in social welfare programs. As a result of these converging systems of surveillance, there are many avenues for the state to separate formerly incarcerated Black mothers from their children. Crisis motherwork responds to these systems of interference. Given limited financial and social capital, these mothers compensated for their lack of material resources with other tactics. Rapidly gathering material resources in creative ways, such as trading food stamps for money or in exchange for rent, or spending time with men who might gift monetary or material goods, are some strategies that mothers use. They cite their children as the reason they endured such conditions. The emotional labor that mothers performed for their children under economic insecurity were critical, both because crises that involved their children were more frequent, severe, and emotionally exhausting, and also because love was one of the few guarantees they could give their children. The controlling images of Black motherhood represent Black mothers as irresponsible and bringing instability into their children’s lives; yet, Loretta and Danielle demonstrate that crisis motherwork bridges the instability their children face due to intersecting systems of carcerality, surveillance, and environmental violence. CRIMINALIZING MOTHERWORK: RACIALIZED, CLASSED, AND GENDERED STATE CONTROL In this article, I argue that decarceral motherwork is a creative and ingenious form of intensive mothering by formerly incarcerated Black women used to cultivate their children’s well-being under conditions of extreme precarity. Other scholarship illuminates how marginalized people navigate the convergence of controlling images and structural challenges that lead to hyperpolicing in their everyday lives (e.g., Bridges 2011; Collins 1994; Stuart 2016); decarceral motherwork emerges from this tradition as a set of survival and resistance strategies to the everyday policing of Black motherhood, in which carceral ties act as the state’s justification for pervasive surveillance and intervention. Therefore, when formerly incarcerated Black women engage in decarceral motherwork, they destabilize controlling images of Black motherhood as a form of gender-racialized anti-carceral labor. This work involved sacrificing opportunities for employment, negotiating conflicts with state agents, minimizing contact with strangers, and creatively identifying resources despite few financial means and little social capital. Mothers identified the state as the most pressing source of violence in their children’s lives because of foster care and their children’s consequent vulnerability to molestation. Many of the women in this sample, like Taylor, experienced the consequences of failing to meet state constructions of intensive mothering; they practiced decarceral motherwork precisely because they understood that they could permanently lose custody of their children. They expressed that the devastation of losing their children was not their greatest fear, but that they were afraid of what would happen if they could not protect their children from the state. The mothers identified foster care, police, and potential contact with strangers as sources of violence triggered by the state, in addition to environmental violence triggered by poverty, teachers, neighborhood violence, drugs, gangs, mental illness, and abusive fathers. Enacting decarceral motherwork often put these women at odds with the state because their strategies sometimes undermined opportunities for paid employment or were perceived as non-cooperative with social services; the act of protecting their children from the state sometimes triggered further state intervention in their children’s lives. Therefore, the paradox of intensive mothering for formerly incarcerated Black women reflects a structural bind in which they must be constantly present in their children’s everyday lives, yet also manage the time and resource-intensive work of finding employment, securing housing, recovering from trauma and addiction, and building financial resources. Consequently, their mothering and post-incarceration labor simultaneously support and undermine each other. Because women’s labor is shaped around protecting their children from the state, their actions are used by the state as justification for further scrutiny and punishment. While white and middle-class women can claim validation by staying home and caring for children, poor mothers of color are devalued and criminalized because they seek resources from the state to do the same thing (Roberts 2003). This study has implications for how we theorize about the impact of surveillance on mothering. At the empirical and policy levels, these findings complicate how we understand the ways multiply marginalized women resist invasive state practices. This study demonstrates that formerly incarcerated Black mothers are set up to fall short of their own visions of maternal success and in the state’s evaluations of maternal fitness. The state constructs impoverished Black women as unfit mothers by default, and formerly incarcerated Black women are additionally saddled with a legalized label of criminality. This research demonstrates that rather than acting as the criminal, negligent parents suggested by controlling images of Black motherhood, formerly incarcerated Black women embrace intensive mothering ideologies and become vulnerable to further criminalization through decarceral motherwork. By criminalizing the maternal labor of poor Black women, as a mechanism for them to formally enter the criminal justice system (Roberts 2003), and then again when they are released, the motherwork of formerly incarcerated Black women becomes a form of precarious labor. Understanding decarceral motherwork as precarious labor highlights how the state and other environmental factors threaten these women’s continued ability to perform essential mothering labor. While other scholarship finds that poor people of color navigate the post-carceral context and hypersurveillance in isolation (e.g., Edin and Kefalas 2011; Smith 2010), I demonstrate that collective labor between formerly incarcerated Black women is critical to their parenting process. Furthermore, while other work supports that hegemonic intensive mothering is a form of time and emotionally consuming work shaped by white, heteronormative, middle and upper class values (e.g., Blum 2015; Elliott et al. 2015), I find that poor Black women enact transformed ideologies of intensive mothering in ways that are not supported, and are sometimes punished, by the state (Bridges 2011; Collins 1994). Sinikka Elliott, Rachel Powell, and Joslyn Brenton (2015) find that poor Black mothers practice intensive mothering by highlighting the “importance of sacrifice, self-reliance, and protection” (p. 355), which captures the defining characteristics of decarceral motherwork within the context of state violence and intervention through carceral bondage. These women also demonstrate the perpetuity of labor under the carceral state; because formerly incarcerated Black mothers who want custody of their children must engage in decarceral motherwork to combat the controlling images of Black mothers, decarceral motherwork simultaneously undermines carceral bondage, yet reproduces the necessity for Black women to engage in unpaid, undervalued labor because of carceral structures. Furthermore, just as women’s prisons were justified by controlling images of Black womanhood (Gross 2006; Haley 2016; Jones 2009), the organization of maternal surveillance during reentry—which occurs without adequate support from the state (Jones 2009; Roberts 1999, 2003)—is justified by the gendered-racialized controlling images of Black motherhood. The theoretical implications of controlling images of Black motherhood then extend beyond Black women; though Black women are likely disproportionately subjected to punitive arrangements of maternal surveillance, formerly incarcerated mothers across racial categories who wish to regain child custody must do so under intersecting systems of surveillance. So even though all formerly incarcerated women may practice the strategies of decarceral motherwork, the penal regime’s reliance on constructing Black female deviance indicates that Black women’s decarceral motherwork is most effective in destabilizing controlling images of incarcerated mothers that justify punitive surveillance in reentry. This article also reveals the broader context of social problems produced from state surveillance and how individuals and families navigate their survival within this milieu. Although mothers with carceral histories are vulnerable to state intervention, economically poor mothers who have not been incarcerated also navigate similar challenges and custody threats; the process of juggling competing demands from the state, paid employment, job loss, childcare, and custody battles are common challenges for multiply marginalized parents (e.g., Blum 2015; Bridges 2011; Edin and Kefalas 2011; Roberts 1999, 2003). The vulnerabilities that emerge from living in spaces characterized by high levels of state and environmental violence exacerbate existing conflicts between care work and the marketplace, which many marginalized families navigate as part of their everyday lives (Bridges 2011; Collins 1994; Edin and Kefalas 2011). Therefore, this study also illuminates how people strategize—at both the individual and collective levels—to protect themselves and their families from punitive state interventions. Future scholarship might consider how decarceral motherwork occurs outside of settings like New Beginnings; many women experience reentry while homeless, with no or little financial support (O’Brien 2001), and few transitional homes allow children to cohabitate with their mothers (Arditti and Few 2008). Future study might specifically consider what reentry conditions enable collective motherwork, and more broadly investigate what other types of decarceral motherwork emerge from different reentry contexts. This study also indicates a need to understand how intersectional forms of marginalization impact the mothering work that formerly incarcerated women do, particularly given that Black women in same-sex relationships are already heavily policed by the child welfare system (Moore 2011). Additionally, future studies might examine how Black mothers’ contention with these multiple sources of surveillance impact children, as it is well-established that children are negatively impacted by parental incarceration (e.g., Bernstein 2007). Though it is beyond the scope of this article to understand the role of fathers in protecting children from the state, other scholars might inquire how male partners support Black mothers exiting prison. Ultimately, this research illuminates how Black women engage in decarceral motherwork as “a testament to the stubbornness of a mother’s love in opposition to the dehumanizing demands …” (Jones 2009:1) of carceral bondage. Though the mothers in this study undoubtedly have their maternal shortcomings—like women with and without carceral histories—their actions are situated within a historical trajectory of Black mothers resisting extreme structural precarities that threaten their children’s lives. The author wishes to thank the UCLA Institute of American Cultures, Bunche Center for African American Studies, and the Center for the Study of Women for their generous support of this research. She is also grateful to Amberia Allen, Diya Bose, Karida Brown, Aaron Crawford, Rocío Garcia, Sarah Haley, Marcus Hunter, Mignon Moore, Makeda Njoroge, Vilma Ortiz, Abigail Saguy, Phi Su, Stefan Timmermans, Terrell Winder, and Vilma Ortiz’s Research Group for their thoughtful comments, edits, and suggestions in the development of this article. She expresses her deepest appreciation to the women who shared their experiences for this project. Footnotes 1 Following Du Bois (1973), Crenshaw (1988), Touré (2012), and other writers and Black scholars of race, I designate “Black” as a proper noun to signal that like other “minorities”—such as Asians or Latinx—Black people are a specific cultural group with shared experiences, often of cohesion and/or stigmatization. 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Social Problems – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 13, 2018
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