My dissertation, “The Available Means of Motherhood: Writing, Resistance and Childrearing Behind Bars,” focuses on various acts of writing in which incarcerated mothers not only re-claim their right to motherhood and literacy, but, in doing so, re-define what it means to be a capable and loving mother. Incarcerated mothers, who are largely poor and of color, recognize the need to improve their writing skills; at the same time, the fact of their imprisonment makes it difficult for them to do so. Responding to a call for literacy studies to investigate how and why marginalized groups improve their literacy skills, my dissertation examines the sacrifices incarcerated mothers make to become literate, the rhetorical moves they make to resist normativity, and the negotiations they make in order to tell their stories. Through my work in the prisons themselves as well as my research in the American Prison Writing Archive, I conduct a detailed analysis of these women’s letters and poems, their narratives of crime, pain and identity, and their appeals to parole boards. My analysis reveals that these writers continue to develop literacy practices so that they can write through their trauma, demand change, produce counterstories about their incarceration, and establish relationships both inside and outside of prison. My dissertation offers a criterion for how mothers outside the white hegemonic archetype of motherhood use writing to (re)claim their right to motherhood and literacy.

Extending Lindal Buchanan’s characterization of a “cultural code” that establishes a topos of motherhood, I consider six specific topoi that enable a widespread, but yet limiting, definition of a “good” mother: self-sacrifice; forgiveness; marriage; heterosexuality; domesticity; “natural” care; and nurturing. My research indicates that incarcerated mothers are as concerned with these dominant ways of defining motherhood as anyone else–they want, for example, a stable home life for their children and they are willing to sacrifice themselves for it. Yet these moms expand the topoi, embodying multiple identities excluded by the normative definition. They see the separation from their children as parenting from a distance rather than being an absent parent, and they see activism against the systematic factors contributing to their incarceration as a means to break the cycle of imprisonment in their families. These women mother their children despite the obstacles put in front of them; moreover, they use the structures that had been set up to exclude them from their children’s lives as a means to become closer to and, indeed, raise their children.

My dissertation is organized around three questions, each of which in turn organize the arguments of three chapters. In my first chapter, I ask: who gets access to motherhood? In this chapter, I look at 64 narratives written by women in prison, most of whom are mothers, many of whom are transgender, Latinx, multi-racial, Asian-American, and African-American. My archival analysis reveals mass incarceration has prevented some women from having the choice to become mothers, and that the penal system, as well as educational and medical institutions alike, use literacy to regulate motherhood. In my second chapter, I ask: how do prisons treat motherhood? In this chapter, I look at the correlation between the rising population of black and brown mothers being sent to prison and the concurrent replacement of in-person visits with video visitation. Analyzing its cost and structure, I argue that correctional facilities use video visitation as a surveillance technology to regulate motherhood and to enact punitive measures for acting outside of the dominant paradigms. In my third chapter, I ask: how do incarcerated mothers perform motherhood? Drawing from the surveys I circulated in Caldwell County Jail in Lockhart, Texas, I argue incarcerated mothers write letters to their children to establish their credibility as mothers, as well as resist conforming to mainstream motherhood.