The challenges of loving my child in prison

Charlyn Ellis' son Nathanael has been in prison since he was 16. Charlyn's love for her son hasn't faltered once, even when she was confronted by the tragedy of his actions. She now supports other parents going through the struggle of loving children inside.

On April 20th, 1999, Charlyn Ellis returned home after work and flicked on the TV.

The first thing that came on was a news report about a fatal shooting just down the street. 

Moments later, her 16-year-old son Nathanael walked in the door.

"As soon as he walked in, the incident came back up on the TV and he goes, 'That's me.' And shocking reality of it was that there's this incident playing on the TV, that there was a shooting -- one man was killed and two young offenders were arrested but released -- and he was one of them."

Charlyn Ellis' love for her son remains steadfast after he's spent the majority of his life in prison. (Courtesy)

Nathanael was eventually charged with second degree murder and given a life sentence.

Ellis has spent the last 18 years learning to navigate what it means to be the mother of an incarcerated child.

It's an experience, she says, that pits overwhelming feelings of shame, guilt, loneliness and sadness against her determination to remain a good mother to her imprisoned son, as well as to her two other boys.

She says the first great challenge to that determination was simply accepting that her son had killed someone and coping with her sadness for the victim and his family. 

"That was a father, that was a brother, that was somebody's son."

But soon, other challenges began to pile on.

At Nathanael's trial, Ellis says, her competence as a mother was repeatedly called into question.

"The court was the most horrific part because it was about you not doing your duty as a mother, and then worse as a black mother. It was even more pointing out, well, 'you failed, you failed him, and you failed the society because you didn't bring up this man, he became a criminal.'"

She says lawyers would point to instances when Nathanael was young and got into trouble and ask her, "what were you doing?"

"Well, I was trying to get an education. I was working nights so I could go to college during the day."

Ellis says before the shooting, her family struggled against poverty and racism.

She says at one stage, they lived in a predominantly white neighbourhood in Mississauga where neighbours would chant the 'n-word' when her family walked by.

Eventually, her marriage broke apart and her husband left.

Shortly after, Ellis and her three boys lost their home and had to live in a shelter.

This turbulence took a toll on Nathanael and his behaviour took a turn for the worse.

Ellis says she struggled to keep him on the right track but, ultimately, he was making his own decisions.

That's a message, Ellis says, that Nathanael has repeated to her in his years behind bars.

"Your choices had no reflection on the choices that I made," Ellis say her son told her. "I made those choices as a singular individual. You had nothing to do with that."     

Nathanael encourages his younger brothers to make different choices than he did, to make sure they look after themselves and their mother. (Courtesy)

But that message never got through to Ellis's own family. She says she's been "blacklisted" by most of her relatives. Her own father has said the murder was her fault.

"They were some of the loneliest days, when I had to sit back and let that sink in that, 'well, you're almost being blamed for something that you had absolutely no control over.'"

Ellis says the loss of her family network has been one of the most devastating experiences that came in the wake of the murder.

It also motivated her to give support to other parents of incarcerated children, because she says, she's learned that her experience -- the isolation, the blame, the stigma -- are common, especially among black mothers.

The whole experience she says, has increased her determination to maintain strong ties between herself, Nathanael and her other two sons.

"Those are our closest moments, when you do a 3-way [call] and all three boys are on the phone. It's like we're in the living room together."

And she says, despite being behind bars, Nathanael has become a strong positive influence on his brothers, making sure they take care of themselves and their mom.

"He kept telling them, 'She's cried enough, you guys can't do anything to make her cry anymore.' And I think that's really stabilized my other sons in that they realize that this issue of prison, it's got our brother and we're not going to put our mother through that again."

Click LISTEN to hear more of Nathanael's story and how he and Charlyn Ellis continue to love and look out for one another.