The Support Needs of Teenage Fathers
Harald Breiding-Buss, Tyler Guise, Tony Scanlan, Terry Voice
Introduction – Why Supporting Teen Fathers?
If there is any group that appears to be completely absent from their children’s lives, it is that of teenage fathers.
Teenage pregnancy almost inevitably seems to lead to sole motherhood, and society tends to blame the young men themselves: after having caused a pregnancy they flee from the responsibility.
Yet, both researchers and practitioners, who have made the effort of talking to those young men, disagree. In fact, it was practitioners themselves, most notably midwives and antenatal parent educators, who drew the attention of the Father & Child Trust to this subject.
They reported that there seems to be a significant number of young men quite willing to be involved in the lives of their babies, but little appropriate help for them to achieve this goal.
This paper includes a review of the literature available to date on teenage fatherhood, which comes to a similar conclusion.
Our research presented in this paper did not question the motivation of the young father – it stemmed from the philosophy of the Father & Child Trust that obstacles to involved fatherhood do not often include a lack of interest by the father himself.
We believed from the outset that we would find similar interest even in teenagers; however we knew little about how to translate any such motivation, if we should find it, into the practice of supporting them.
The design of the survey reflects its intention as a tool to set up a support programme.
As a team we were often greatly surprised to hear the stories of these young men, their hopes and their courage; how much they wanted to take fatherhood on board – and how much their efforts were often thwarted by misconceptions and often by professionals who simply did not know how to include young males in their work.
We were surprised by the consistency in the responses to some of the questions, and how deeply their success, or lack of it, of their hopes about their fatherhood role impacted on them emotionally.
The teenage dads project has drawn more unsolicited feedback and media reports than any other project the Trust has set up or been involved in.
Many stories have surfaced of young parents, both male and female, who have succeeded and went on to have more children, often with the same partner. These couples were always adamant how much support for young parents as a couple, and especially for the dad, is needed in the early months.
After and during the survey we were hoping to hand over control of the programme that may follow to the young fathers themselves. Hence the team included 18 year old Tyler Guise, one of the first interviewees of the survey, and later 22 year old single dad Terry Voice.
Their involvement has brought a new dimension and purpose to the Trust for which we are very grateful.
2. Literature Review
For this review, the Pub Med database for academic research was used extensively, as well as other general search engines for information on books and articles for and about teenage fathers.
Individual articles were obtained through the University of Canterbury library and by contacting individual researchers. Books were mainly accessed through the Canterbury Public Library.
It soon became apparent that, although a large volume of academic research dealt with teenage pregnancy, only a small proportion dealt with the fathers as a factor, and many studies did not mention the father at all, even though, as E. Pitt (1986) put it “-In light of the fact that most sexual activity is male initiated, and most sexual behaviour is male influenced, it becomes clear that there will be no resolution of the problem of teenage pregnancy without directing greater attention to the male.”
Much of the research into teenage pregnancy dealt with the economic and social burden the young mother and child put on society, and how to reduce or eliminate that burden.
This review concerns itself with the research that focused on the teenage father.
Specifically, his emotional support value (of lack of) to the child and teenage mother when he is involved in the life of the child, the impact of having a teenage father on the child, the impact of being a parent on the teenage father himself, and the research that looked at support structures and needs for the teenage father.
2.1. Academic Research
Researchers over the past few years have found that, contrary to popular belief, many teenage fathers were quite keen to be involved with their children, but that they had a lot of obstacles to overcome to actually be involved.
This includes their backgrounds, often raised by single mothers themselves; the disapproval and lack of support from the maternal and paternal grandparents; the mother’s reluctance to allow his involvement (Speak S et al (1997)): the seemingly impossible demand on time and emotion; and the financial obligations where very little finances exist to meet them.
Even though they wanted to be involved with their children, the researchers found many of the young fathers gradually lost contact through lack of structured intervention and committed support from the child’s mother and both sets of grandparents.
The methodology of most of these studies meant, however, that it is not easy to get a representative view of teenage fathers.
Many researchers were limited to the teenage fathers that agreed to take part in the various studies, often obtaining their subjects from those fathers that were still with the mother after the birth (Dallas C et al. (2000), Jones M. (2000), Rivara FP et al. (1986)), or alternatively they asked the mothers and relied on what they were willing to share about the young fathers (Cox JE, Bithoney WG (1995)). Speak S et al. (1997) studied 40 young fathers between 16 and 24, who were no longer in a relationship with the mother but who still maintained contact with their children.
Hendricks L. et al (1983) went out into the public and sought subjects through word of mouth, and offered small cash payments, which may have encouraged more of the elusive, uninterested fathers to come forward. Jaffee SR et al. (2001) used a longitudinal study of approximately 1000 young men who had been part of a study since they were born, to look at the teenage fathers among them.
Stouthamer-Loeber M, Wei EH. (1998) also used a longitudinal study, this time of 506 inner city school students to study the effect fatherhood had on the behaviour of teenagers (12.3 % were fathers).
Gravelle K used a selection of involved and uninterested fathers for her book Teenage Fathers, and while the proportion in the book isn’t meant to suggest a representative sample, it does give an insight into the mindset of those young fathers that really do match the negative stereotypes.
There are young fathers who slip quietly away, never to be heard from again, who like it that way, and some authors assert that the mother and child are probably better off without them. (Wiemann CM et al. (2000)) Speak S et al. (1997)).
2.1.1. Age of Fathers of Children Born to Teenage Mothers
The National Network of Health website (www.nnh.org/products/fathers.htm) used research from 1976 through to 1997 to identify the average age and characteristics of the fathers of children born to teenage girls.
They point out that the fathers were usually older than their partners, even going so far as to say the majority would be considered adult. Taylor DJ et al. (1999), in an analysis of 12,317 adolescent mothers under 15, found that adult males were responsible for just over a quarter of first births.
Using the 1988 National Maternal and Infant Health Survey, Lindberg LD et al. (1997) similarly found that 27% of the 15 to 17 year old girls that gave birth to a child in 1988 had a partner at least five years older than themselves. Many of those adult males married the girls; only 8% of the births to unmarried 15 to 18 year old girls were to fathers 5 years or older.
Often the teenage mother did not fill in the fathers name or age on the birth certificate, possibly to protect adults from prosecution. Dallas C et al. (2000) found that in some cases at least this was described as an attempt to prevent loss of control of the child to the father in the future, and to prevent the baby getting the father’s surname.
There does not seem to be New Zealand data available on the age difference between mother and father, and the New Zealand situation may differ significantly from US studies.
2.1.2. Teenage Father Involvement
Research found that teenage fathers were not always as keen to avoid responsibility as is generally thought by society, that they were often very enthusiastic about the prospect of becoming an involved parent, wanting to learn how to do the job properly.
Although, as the subjects of these studies were often the teenage fathers that cared enough to go to prenatal clinics, the findings obviously do not apply to all teenage fathers.
Speak S asserts in “Young, single, non-residential fathers: their involvement in fatherhood”: “It is important to acknowledge that not all fathers – whatever their age – want to be involved with their children and that not all children would benefit from their father’s involvement. Fathers are no more homogenous as a group than mothers are.”
It was also found that even when the father wanted to be involved, as the child grew older, the father would often become more distant. Rivara FP et al. found that those who lived with the mother and child were in the minority of teenage fathers, and the percentage decreased further with time.
18 months after the birth, 37% of the teenage parents studied lived together or had daily contact (7.5% were married).
Although at 36 months only one father had no contact with his child, only 12% still lived with the child and 25% still saw the child daily. The most common reasons given for not living with the child were that the baby was too young, finances, and problems in the relationship with the woman.
Speak S et al (1997) found that there were various external factors that were barriers to the fathers’ contact with their children, such as the mothers’ or her parents’ attitudes, lack of support and encouragement from health professionals, the fathers’ accommodation, and his financial situation.
Jaffee SR et al (2001) found that background and behavioural problems were a factor in teenagers become uninvolved fathers, and that they would need serious help before their involvement with their child should even be encouraged. Stouthamer-Loeber M, Wei EH. (1998) also found a correlation between behavioural problems and teenage fatherhood.
THE MOTHER FACTOR.
The most common reason given by the fathers for not having more contact with their children was the mothers’ reluctance to let them, or problems in their relationship (Rivara FP et al. (1986) Speak S et al (1997), Cohen DL (1993)). Similarly, in a study of 173 teen fathers, 167 teen mothers, 76 paternal grandmothers and 79 maternal grandmothers (Rhein LM et al.(1997)), the teenage fathers interviewed were more likely to attribute their lack of involvement to resistance from mothers and maternal grandmothers than to other factors.
With the information derived from the other interviewees, however, the researchers concluded that it was the young fathers’ own disinterest in child rearing that most consistently predicted uninvolvement. Of those fathers who cited disinterest, there was an association with lack of money and lack of knowledge of child care.
The National Network of Health found in their study based on research from 1976 to 1997 that teenage fathers were less likely than the mothers to care about their education: less likely to have wanted a child or to have considered abortion, but that most teenage fathers planned on being involved with the life of their child, including wanting to take part in childcare training.
Factors found that contributed to teenage fathers not becoming involved or losing contact were parental disapproval (both sets of parents), the teen mother’s rejection of the father’s involvement, and the failure of health care professionals to encourage paternal involvement.
Dallas D et al (2000) found in their study of 7 teenage mothers and their partners that both the males and females showed a lack of developmental knowledge and unrealistic expectations for their children’s behaviour, although the mother’s misconceptions were less pronounced.
Although both parents thought the father should be involved in the child’s life, they differed in what form that involvement should take.
As well as the traditional gender roles with the male providing financial support and the woman caring for the child at home, the females felt the father should provide emotional support for the child and mother and share basic childcare tasks with the mother.
In contrast the fathers saw their relationship to the mother as separate to their relationship to the child. Most of the males did not think a good relationship with the mother might be an expectation of fatherhood, although most of the young fathers felt that arguing with the mother in front of the child might cause problems for the child.
The young fathers felt it was more important for them to be involved in fun activities with the child than to help with the actual childcare.
The researchers believe a problem lies in the difference in how the adolescent mothers and fathers viewed the importance of the quality of their relationship on their relationship with the children.
They believe that health care providers should assess the young parents relationship more extensively than just asking the mother “where is the father? ” and that young parents that report serious relationship issues should be referred to a counsellor to learn how to negotiate with each other as parents regardless of the status of their romantic relationship.
OBSTACLES TO INVOLVEMENT.
In a study of 30 adolescent fathers, Jones M.(2000) looked at self image and parenting role expectations. He found 30% of respondents had a low self image. He felt that the results of his study indicated that teen fathers want to be involved in parenting.
“However, unrealistic expectations and the inability to combine the developmental tasks of adolescence with the responsibilities of fatherhood increase their vulnerability to parenting failure.”
Jaffee R et al (2001) used the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Developmental longitudinal study of 1037 people born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1972-73 to study the relationship between individual/background characteristics and the involvement of young fathers in raising their children (96 of the 980 still involved in the study at age 26 had become fathers).
They found that the amount of time spent with the child was significantly decreased if the quality of the father’s relationship with his own parents was poor, if he initiated sexual activity before he was 16 and if he had a history of behavioural problems.
Of marginal significance in this study was high parental criminal convictions, caretaker changes, family conflicts, and low reading scores. It was found that the amount of time the young fathers spent with their children decreased as the incidence of the risk factors increased.
The researchers believe these analyses point to a common set of family-of-origin and individual characteristics that predict both early fatherhood, and how long a young man would spend living with his first child.
Absent and ‘part time’ fathers were found to have had a significantly lower socio-economic status, had less education, had higher unemployment and had more behavioural problems than both full-time and non-fathers. Full-time and non-fathers were found to have similar backgrounds.
Speak S et al. (1997) report that teenage fathers felt they were made to feel unimportant both during the pregnancy and after the birth. Little effort was made to encourage them to develop and maintain involvement with their child.
However, the men themselves saw ‘being there’ for their children as extremely important. They were keen to be ‘better’ or more involved fathers than their own fathers had been.
Difficulties establishing and maintaining a suitable independent home prevented men from having greater access to, and involvement with, their children. Unemployment and resulting lack of money also prevented young men being involved in the way they wanted to be.
Because of their young age many felt unable to access support from the few fathers groups which existed. They did not feel welcome at general family support groups or support groups established for young mothers.
2.2. The Effect of the Teenage Father on Mother And Child.
Some teenage fathers report that the teenage mothers are reluctant to let them become involved, but many do encourage them, or they are still in a relationship.
The inexperience and immaturity of a young father was found to be a factor in his relationship with the child and the mother. Dallas C et al (2000) believe the lack of developmental knowledge and unrealistic expectations for their children’s behaviour shown by the subjects they studied might lead some young parents to mistake their children’s developmental immaturity for deliberate misbehaviour, which could then lead to inappropriate discipline.
The teenage fathers thought physical discipline appropriate for children under 3, even under 1 year old.
The children of adolescent parents experience higher rates of physical abuse and infant homicides, but this is also statistically true for children of single parents overall (Overpeck, M.D et al.,. (1998).
Although the fathers showed less knowledge of child development and appropriate discipline, they admitted their lack of knowledge and most were willing to learn, and hoped parenting classes would help.
To better understand the experiences and behaviours of battered pregnant adolescents and the characteristics of their intimate partners, Wiemann CM et al. (2000) interviewed 724 pregnant and parenting adolescent girls as part of a longitudinal multiracial/ethnic study of drug use among adolescents between 1994 and 1996.
They were asked about the father of their babies’ level of substance use, gang and police involvement, and intimate partner violence. 11.9% reported being physically assaulted by the fathers of their babies.
A history of nonconforming behaviour and frequent or recent substance use was more common among both battered adolescents and their perpetrator partners.
The age and race/ethnicity of the pregnant adolescent and the length of her relationship with the father of her baby were not associated with assault status. Anecdotal evidence suggests that violence against the young fathers either by the mother directly, or through male friends or relatives, is also common.
Jaffee R, et al (2001) believe their data shows that fathers in stable relationships differ from absent fathers on key psychosocial characteristics and that absent young fathers who have behavioural problems would need help in order to become supportive parents and partners.
Because they did not directly observe the fathers interacting with their children, the researchers point out that they cannot say for certain that these problems actually impaired their parenting. However they say that other studies have linked criminal behaviour, drug use, unemployment and low educational attainment with poor parenting (Fagot et al 1998; Newcomb & Loeb 1999).
The researchers believe that simply encouraging young absent fathers to be more involved in their children’s lives is not necessarily in the best interests of the children unless significant help can be given to the fathers: “Otherwise they may simply exacerbate the difficulties already faced by single mothers and their children.”
However, the researchers emphasise that many of the young fathers in their sample study were highly involved parents who were successfully employed, crime free and supportive of the mothers of their children, and that their “data clearly demonstrates that it is not early fatherhood that marks a young man as an uninvolved father, but rather the combination of individual and family-of-origin risk factors that situate him on a path ending in under-involved parenting and psychosocial difficulties in young adulthood.”
Bloom KC (1998) examined the effect of the relationship of pregnant adolescents and the father of the baby and found a close and satisfying relationship with the father of the baby has a positive influence on maternal attachment behaviours.
KC Bloom concludes “fathers of the babies of adolescent mothers should be included, where appropriate, in ongoing care of the mother and infant.” Westney OE, Cole OJ, Munford TL. (1988) assessed the relationship between the father’s knowledge in human sexuality, pregnancy, prenatal care, labour, delivery, and infant and child care and his supportive behaviours towards the adolescent mother and the expected infant.
The data suggests that fathers who were more informed tended to report more supportive behaviours towards the mother and the infant.
2.3. Effects on the Father
Having a child is a life changing event for a teenage mother, but the teenage father may be little affected physically, if he is out of the picture for whatever reason.
Emotionally, however, the birth of his child can have a big impact on the teenage father. 55% of the 95 adolescent fathers interviewed by Hendricks L et al (1983) were unhappy with not being able to see the child as much as they wanted.
Less than 10% said they were having a problem coping with being a father. 14 % said they had not yet faced any problems as an unmarried adolescent father.
Rivara FP et al. (1986) found there was no difference in the employment status of teenage fathers compared to non-fathers of a similar age, although the teenage fathers left school earlier than non fathers.
Teenage fathers, regardless of their marital status at conception or age at first birth, were much more likely to have been high school dropouts than were other male teenagers. Those with a maritally conceived child had a particularly high drop-out rate – almost 62 percent. Marsiglio W (1987). Rhein LM et al.(1997) found that lack of employment was one of the factors that contributed to the absent teenage fathers disinterest in his child.
Stouthamer-Loeber M & Wei EH (1998) investigated what effect fatherhood had on the behaviour of teenage males.
Although they found that fatherhood did not reduce delinquent behaviour in teenagers, fathers were more than twice as likely to be delinquent than non-fathers, but being a father didn’t necessarily cause the delinquency, rather, they found that the factors related to young fatherhood were a subset of those for delinquency.
2.4. Needs of Teenage Fathers
Speak S et al (1997) found that little effort was made to encourage the young men to develop and maintain involvement with their child, even though the men themselves recognised that that was very important.
Many of the participants in the study felt unable to take support from the few fathers’ groups that existed.
They did not feel welcome at general family support groups or groups established for young mothers. Youth and community workers were the most supportive, but that was generally because of individual workers, rather than the service itself.
Most of the men were proud to be seen as competent carers and displayed a knowledge of child-care issues. Caring for their children, changing nappies or feeding them was not seen as a woman’s job.
Several felt that they were better carers than the mothers were. Westney et al (1988) assessed the impact of a prenatal education program dealing with human sexuality, pregnancy, prenatal care, labour, delivery, and infant and child care on the unwed expectant adolescent father.
The findings suggest significant gains in knowledge for those involved in a prenatal education program in pregnancy and prenatal care, and infant development and child care. They believe there is an association between a father’s active participation in both the prenatal and neonatal periods and later contacts between children of adolescent mothers and their fathers.
Jaffee S et al. (2001) warn that support programs need to do more than encouraging teenage father to be involved and teaching parenting skills: “Increasing positive father involvement is a laudable goal, but if interventions are going to prove successful in fostering intact families in which children benefit from the involvement of both parents, then intervention planners must understand young father’s developmental histories, appreciate the challenges they face in becoming responsible and responsive parents, and acknowledge the help they need.”
When asked who they ‘would go to first with a problem’, an overwhelming majority of the 95 adolescent fathers interviewed by L Hendricks et al. (1983) said they would go to a family member first (88%), 11% would go to a friend, and only 1% would go to a social service agency.
98% of the fathers expressed an interest in their children’s future. The researchers suggest that to help the adolescent fathers represented in their study, health care professionals should start out in small ways, such as practical help with education.
“Unless a worker can help resolve the young man’s practical problems, it is difficult to focus on many other less visible but important problems. Peer counsellors may be of benefit. Workers should also obtain the help and support of the young father’s mother.”
Wendy Schwartz (1999) offers advice on how to involve the elusive teenage father in support programs. She points out that teenage fathers are unique as a group of fathers because they “almost never plan pregnancies, their initial reaction may be denial, fear, and a desire to escape.”
She says they face family rejection, barriers to contacting the mother and child, and will be mostly unable to help financially. An effective support program, she says, will be one that takes into account the ethnicity and socio-economic status of the participants, using culturally sensitive strategies and curriculum.
She lists methods of getting teenage fathers involved in programmes.
She then goes on to list the areas that should be covered in the programme: education, parenting education, career development, and counselling.
“Successful programs help young fathers develop the behaviours and assume the responsibilities common to committed parents by providing them with emotional support and useful services.”
On the web site www.edweek.org Deborah L. Cohen’s “The Parenting Trap: Forgotten Fathers (1993)” looks at why young adult sex and parenting programmes associate ‘parenting’ with ‘mother': “Youth workers offer many theories on why parenting interventions tend to sidestep fathers, including narrow gender stereotypes; systems of public aid that offer few incentives for father involvement; the desire by some young mothers to sever all ties with absent fathers; and the fact that the programs often are administered by women”; and how fathering can be reduced to the act of insemination.
“If the only message boys are getting about fatherhood is that they should not impregnate a girl or should use a condom, that limits fatherhood to that one thing: insemination,’ said Richard Louv, the author of the books Father Love and Childhood’s Future.”
She talks to the people behind some teenage father support programmes who say that they have had mixed results getting young fathers interested in parenting programmes, but once they were in, they were very enthusiastic.
She points out how providing support for those who need it most can be seen by some people as encouraging or glamourising the very problem they are trying to fix: ” As is the case with school-based services to teenage mothers, some question whether making support services more readily available to young fathers makes their choice seem too easy or sends an overly tolerant message to other youths.”
THE PARENTS OF TEEN PARENTS
The teenage mothers studied by Dallas C et al. (2000) felt they had plenty of information on parenting, but that the fathers needed more. The young mothers felt they had more than enough advice from parents, health care professionals, and from other media, but as the information varied, it caused them confusion.
The fathers agreed that they would benefit from more information.
The researchers suggested that including the mothers of both teenage parents in child development education would increase the chances that the young parents would consistently receive accurate child care advice from a variety of sources.
L Hendricks, T. Hawkins, M. McCoy, and C.S. Howard (1983) asked their subjects who they would go to with a personal problem, the majority said they would go to their mothers or fathers, primarily to their mothers (most of the subjects felt closer to their mothers).
Speak S et al (1997) found the child’s grandparents played a big role in the development of the father-child relationship. That was especially true of the paternal grandparents, who often gave practical, financial and moral support to the young man.
“Both the child’s paternal and maternal grandparents strongly influenced the young man in developing an early relationship with his child. Despite the stress it sometimes caused, the fathers’ families often helped with accommodation and financial support.” .
“Thriving fathers” by Lydia Bras, is a proposal for an 8 week support group to assist adolescent fathers. Course topics include Adjusting to Toddlers, Fathers Needs, Community Links, Communication, and Problem Solving.
The author of the proposal found there was “evidence that many young fathers wish to share more fully in the lives of their children, both with a partner in a family context and on their own.”
She found that initiatives that focused on “scare tactics, short term interventions, on supplying only information, on solo topics (such as self esteem, or contraception) and services which are school based are more likely to be ineffective when working with youth.”
Ms Bras seeks to provide a holistic course to improve young fathers’ self confidence, childcare skills, and general life skills in a closed small group environment, through encouraging participation, involvement, and active contribution to the program.
The author places a lot of value in the power of a supportive peer group environment working through set exercises, solving problems as a group. She acknowledges some particular needs and problems may be too intense for this approach.
A workshop was held on Teenage Fathers at the Youth Forum: Fathering The Future on March 27, 1998 in Christchurch, New Zealand.
A group of mostly female participants discussed the responsibilities and problems of teenage fathers. They looked at the impact of being a teenage father on a young man’s life and the influence that having a teenage father has on the life of the child.
The group felt teenage fathers should accept the responsibility of having a child and be involved in its life. They thought to do this, teenage fathers would need support from friends, family and society.
Support and advice to grandparents was also suggested. They thought continued education was important, especially sex education – that teenage males should think it OK to say no to sex.
The participants in the workshop thought the teenage mother and father had to keep communicating for the sake of the baby, to avoid custody battles; that the teenage fathers should ‘grow up’ and stop bad habits like getting drunk and stealing; and that teenage fathers and teenage sex shouldn’t be glamourised on television.
Counselling Teenage Fathers: The “Maximising a Life Experience” (MALE) Group is a school based group counselling program that was developed to provide support and assistance for unwed teenage fathers in the school.
It focuses on its very own set of 3 ‘R’s: Rights, responsibilities, and resources. The example group consisted of 8 participants aged from 15 to 18, half of whom hoped to attain higher education.
The programme consisted of 9 sessions made up of learning legal rights and responsibilities, reproductive biology and contraception, problem solving and decision making. The participants were given the simulated situations to practice their new skills.
The participants gave the program a 9.5 out of 10 in an evaluation. The supportive peer environment to discuss their problems was the most liked feature of the program.
One year later 4 were in college or technical school, 2 were in the military and 2 were still in school. Two years later one had dropped out of college, and one had graduated from high school and both were in employment. All 8 were contributing to the support of their children.
“Becoming a father during adolescence has serious consequences for individual development, and teenage fathers are not psychologically prepared for their new role. School counsellors must become more active in responding to the silent cries of the forgotten half of the teenage pregnancy problem.”
2.5. Some Books For and About Teenage Fathers
With the research pointing out that there is a large proportion of the teenage fathers that want to be involved in the lives of their children, but who are experiencing some difficulty in realising that goal, there have been a number of guide books written especially for teenage fathers with information on parenting skills, fathers rights, and dealing with problems specific to young fathers.
‘Be Prepared’ for teen fatherhood:
Eleanor H. Ayer’s Everything You Need to Know about Teen Fatherhood (1995) is one of a series of “everything you need to know” attempts to prepare prospective young fathers for the birth, discussing the financial implications and advocating responsible fatherhood.
The author does not deal with the actual parenting. Another book in a series Teen Fathers : Getting Involved (Perspectives on Healthy Sexuality) by Julie K Endersby is aimed at 9 to 12 year olds. It discusses what is involved with being a teenage father with quotes from teenage fathers.
It has chapters on fathers rights, training for fatherhood, the birth, the costs of raising a baby and working with the mother.
DIY Parenting :
Teen dads : rights, responsibilities and joys by Jeanne Warren Lindsay turns the mystery of parenting into a non-judgmental practical parenting guide, matter-of-factly dealing with the subjects usually only explained to the mum: the birth, breast feeding, and nappies.
The book also offers advice on dealing with areas common in the teenage father experience, such as trying to maintain contact with the child in a distant relationship.
As well as pregnancy, birth and caring for the baby, fathers’ rights and encouraging continuing education and career goals, What it takes : a survival guide for young and teen dads-to-be by Connie Nykiel stresses the importance of the relationship with the mother of the child and her family.
Teen Father Handbook for Teen Fathers and Teen Fathers-To-Be: Straight Talk for Young Fathers by Karol K Maybury focuses on the importance of the relationship between the young mother and father, trying to include the father in the decision making process facing all teenage girls with an unplanned pregnancy.
This handbook discusses the various options open to pregnant teenagers (adoption. abortion, foster care, and keeping the baby). “While the final decision about pregnancy legally rests with the mother, the father can be involved in the process by helping the mother make decisions, supporting the mother, and being an involved father if the mother decides to keep the baby.
Fathers-to-be are especially encouraged to be responsible and patient and to help support the mother, even hough she may be feeling very sensitive and depressed.”
GUIDES FOR THE GUIDES
There are a number of books available at present looking at the value of, and the obstacles to, encouraging teenage paternal involvement and how to best support him.
Jon Morris’s ROAD to Fatherhood: How to Help Young Dads Become Loving and Responsible Parents uses his “Reaching Out to Adolescent Dads” program used in Roanoke City, Virginia, USA, as a template for a guide for both health care providers and parents trying to help teenage fathers.
He stresses that young fathers need to be treated as individuals, not as members of a problem group. The book focuses on helping the teenage father complete their education, learning parenting skills and encouraging responsibility.
Mark S Kiselica’s Multicultural Counselling With Teenage Fathers: A Practical Guide is a similar in-depth guide book for those looking to help teenage fathers and seeking to help the teenage father accept his responsibilities, but it also looks at the needs and perceptions of teenage fathers through various cultural interpretations, acknowledging that different cultures will need different solutions, and even have different problems.
Kiselica also looks at the teenage fathers relationships with his peers, parents, partner and child, and how they can influence his development as a father.
MYTHS AND REALITIES:
Teen Fathers Today by Ted Gottfried considers the myths and realities of teenage fathers. It uses real-life stories of teenage fathers to illustrate the often harsh reality faced by young men trying to accept their responsibilities.
It looks at the emotional stresses facing young fathers in telling their parents about the pregnancy, the pregnancy itself and birth, the daily grind of bringing up a child and the often torturous task of dealing with the child’s mother.
It also deals with the financial aspects of assumed responsibility. Like Gottried’s Teen Fathers Today, Susan S. Lang and Paul S. Lang’s Teen Fathers looks at the myths surrounding teenage fathers and the problems faced by the teenage father.
It investigates various programmes that have been created to encourage teenage father responsibility and involvement. It discusses marriage, sex education, the birth, racial and cultural differences.
LOOKING AT INDIVIDUALS:
Karen Gravelle and Leslie Paterson also use real life stories to get their point across in Teenage Fathers.
They conducted interviews with 13 teenage fathers, with a wide range of involvement, ranging from a father who, starting at 12, had 9 children to 6 different girls by the time he was 19, to what she calls ‘Devoted Dads’.
The authors look at what makes the ‘Devoted Dads’ different to the ‘Deadbeat Dads’.
They found that educational and socioeconomic backgrounds didn’t feature greatly but that the big difference was that the devoted Dads had “had long term relationships with the mother of the children (at least a year) well before the mother became pregnant.”
They also found “these young fathers place their children’s welfare above everything else.
Without exception they have a genuine love for their children and thoroughly enjoy interacting with them.” Another book that looks at individual life stories is Teen Fathers by Gail B. Stewart. It has 4 first person accounts of teenage fathers.
Giving the reader a personal insight into the often turbulent period when young men are faced with hard decisions and very little life experience to help them. It contains an epilogue about the success (or lack) of the subjects life choices.
We had planned to draw participants from referrals by agencies involved with teenage mothers. However, the response by such agencies was disappointing and was perhaps a reflection of how teenage fathers feel left alone by them (see results section).
Except for about five referrals of individual social workers, all of the participants were recruited through the networks of people involved with the Father&Child Trust or through the Trust’s direct involvement in other areas such as antenatal classes.
We aimed for 30 participants in the survey to give us an idea of what kind of support programme would be effective for at least a significant number of young fathers. However, to complete the survey in a reasonable amount of time only 24 men were interviewed.
Of these, 17 were 21 or under at the time of the interview. As pointed out in the results section the responses by the young men were remarkably consistent, and therefore we are confident that a higher number would not have altered the results significantly.
The only entry criterion for the survey was for the participant to have had his first child at age 21 or younger.
The status of his relationship with the mother of the child or with the child himself did not matter, and indeed some of the interviewees had very little or no contact with the child.
As a general rule, young men were approached to be part of the survey rather than volunteering themselves after having read an advertisement or information, and we are reasonably confident to have captured a wide variety of people and situations young men find themselves in.
We did not aim to conduct a representative study of the needs and views of young fathers, and hence we did not collect demographic data, such as ethnic background, income etc. Information about the family background of the respondent was included, however.
Due to our own experience in working with men, and that of other researchers in different fields, we designed the survey to be as brief as possible, and to go with “multiple choice” rather than open-ended questions.
These were asked during personal, structured interviews and the answers recorded by the interviewers. The participants were interviewed confidentially at a place of their own choosing, which often was their home, but sometimes also a pub or fast food restaurant, and sometimes the Trust’s office.
Two interviews were conducted over the phone, as the participants lived outside of Christchurch.
As the interviews progressed most of the young men needed only a little encouragement to extend on specific points.
Interviewers generally allowed the young men to talk about the questions at length or deviate from the actual question, and the questions were not necessarily asked in the order they appeared on the survey forms, as we considered it more important to let the young men voice their issues than stick to the structure of the interview.
The interviewers encouraged the participants to elaborate on points that seemed important to them, and sometimes asked about their stories and their lives.
Some questions and concepts were explained by the interviewer if the respondent did not seem to understand them, and the wording of the question was often deviated from during the interviews to make the meaning of the questions clearer.
Interviews lasted for an average of one hour.
The questionnaire was roughly divided into three parts:
“The young man as a father” aimed to gauge the young dads motivation and confidence, and how he saw his own capabilities and competence as a parent.
“Support” included suggestions for possible support initiatives, to gauge the fathers’ acceptance of a possible programme. It also asks about any help they may have received through professional agencies.
“Background” included questions about the state of the father’s relationship with the mother of his child, the circumstances under which the child was conceived, the father’s own family background and age at the time of birth of his first child.
For the purposes of this report, answers for some questions were converted into numerical values to be able to compare them to the 1-5 scale used elsewhere in the questionnaire.
For example question I.2a asks “Do you think you can raise a child just as well, better, or not as well as an older person” and respondents could choose between options “much better”, “better”, “just as well”, “not as good” and “much worse”, then converted to numbers 5,4,3,2,1. “5” was always located at the most positive or most quantitative end of the scale.
Seven of the interviewees have had a child over five years of age; they were asked to try to answer the questions as they would have answered them at the time this child was born.
Some of their responses differ significantly from the responses of the younger men, however, and their questionnaires were analysed separately. They are referred to in this report as “older fathers”, even though they were in their early to mid twenties when we spoke to them.
4.1. Feelings About Fatherhood
4.1.1. Perceptions About Self
The positiveness in the responses to the question “How do you feel about having a child?” was almost unanimous amongst the younger fathers, with all but one respondent choosing “very positive” or “positive”.
This was also one of the questions, where fathers with older children differed significantly, even though they were asked how they felt at the time. These fathers remembered their feelings to be much more negative. On a converted scale, the younger fathers scored a mean average of 4.6, whereas the older fathers were at 2.7.
Most of the young men chose the answer “just as well” to the question “Do you think you can raise a child just as well, better, or not as good as an older person?”, although there was a bias towards the answer “better” (3.2 on a converted scale).
With the now-older fathers there was a bias towards “not as good” (2.6 converted scale). When asked, however, what they thought was good and not so good about having a child, typical comments referred to the benefit of “growing up together”, “being able to do more things together”, and still being young when their baby will be their age.
The “not so good” answers most often referred to the lack of money and the impact on social life. “A lot of friends were supportive at first – until I couldn’t go out with them”, said one respondent. Another said being a dad “cuts your social life out.
A lot of the things guys do at our age you can’t do because you’ve got a child to worry about.” The older fathers often referred to having been inexperienced or immature.
Most respondents did not think being young makes fatherhood any harder, but there was a bias towards the “harder” answers in the young men (2.5 converted scale). A majority of the older fathers considered it to be “a lot harder” to be a young father, with this answer given by more than half of the older respondents (average 1.7 converted). Only one respondent found being young makes it a little easier.
Asking “Do you think you have more, less or same input as the mother in raising this child?” most respondents chose the answer “same”, with a slight bias towards “less” (averages 2.5 and 2.9 for the two groups).
Most fathers wanted more input, even if they already rated their input high. This was especially true for the younger fathers (average 4.1 converted).
The men soundly rejected the idea that being male has any effect on how they bond or are involved with their offspring. Rating the statement “The fact that I am male” in terms of its impact on bonding drew an average of 1.4 in both groups.
This is consistent with the findings of Julian R (2000) who found that 94% of 2000 randomly selected New Zealanders rejected the statement “Looking after children is not manly”.
The question about society’s attitudes to young fathers was mostly answered in the negative, but not as much as might be expected, and again it was the older fathers that tended more towards the negative ratings.
Even so the median for both groups was 2, with the averages being 2.4 for the younger and 1.7 for the older fathers. As part of a later question, they were asked to rate how society’s attitudes impact on their bond with baby.
Most of the younger men especially denied any such impact and rated on average 2.0 (median 1). The older men were less sure (average 2.7, median 3). Many respondents made comments like “I don’t care what other people think”, indicating that while they felt some negative pressure from society they were defiant about letting it have any impact on them.
Several men commented on society’s attitudes under the question “What do you think is not so good about [being young and having a child]?” One, for example, said “The ignorance of others.
It’s so easy to judge: you’re young and can’t do it.” Another answered to this question: “Flak from other people. Everyone is down on you.”
When asked what they thought people expected them to do to be a good dad, only two respondents referred to the provider role. “Being there” was a common answer, as was “playing with baby” and “caring for baby”.
There was often little difference between this question and the following one, which asked if that was the same as what they thought makes a good dad. Several young men also referred to the role of father as teacher.
“Providing opportunities for the child”, “to teach values and morals and educate”, “I want to teach him right from wrong, build a strong foundation for him” were some of the comments made.
However, the young men did appear to react quite strongly to the idea of father as provider – questions about finding a job, pay, help with career etc. consistently drew the highest rating responses, and a substantial number of interviewees worked long hours at very low pay.
When the young man no longer lived with the mother of the child, work seemed less important, however.
Considering this, the interviewees may have answered this question mainly by giving their own expectations of themselves rather than society’s.
4.2. Important Factors
[Table 1] Top five: average ratings on a scale from 1-5 by young fathers with children under five of the five highest rating answers to the question “What factors affect how much time you can spend with your child and how close your bond is?”
|The Mother Of My Child||4.1|
|My Own Family||3.7|
|Her Family’s Attitudes||3.4|
|My Knowledge And Experience In Handling Children||3.2|
[Table 2] As above, but answers chosen by fathers with children over 5 years
|The Mother Of My Child||4.1|
|Knowing Other Guys In The Same Situation||3.4|
|My Own Family||3.1|
|My Knowledge And Experience In Handling Children||3.1|
|Her Families Attitudes||3.0|
4.2.1. Family and Friends
Asked to rate a number of factors regarding their importance and impact especially with a view on bonding, answers varied widely (see tables above).
The wording of the question “What factors affect how much time you can spend with your child and how close your bond is?” was often modified by the interviewer, or re-stated several times while the options were given.
Respondents may have rated the factors in terms of their general importance to them.
New Zealand research (Chapman et al, 2000) has also found that fathers of all ages tend to answer such questions not for themselves, but for their partners or the family as a whole, and that often considerable effort needs to be put into explaining that the interview is about them.
Stating their own needs appears to many men as a selfish act, and that needs to be taken into consideration when analysing the responses in this section.
Those in a relationship with the mother at the time of the interview consistently rated her amongst the most important factors, and often elaborated that she was their most important support person.
Ratings about the importance of his own family tended to draw responses at either end of the spectrum, reflecting either very supportive or very unsupportive families. Most of the men had one or two stories to tell about the reaction of the mother’s family.
Either mother or father were often individually mentioned as particularly important. In fact, interviewers noticed a trend for the young men to seek out their fathers at this time, even if they have not had a very close relationship with them before.
Mothers were often highly praised: either the own mother or the mother of the partner (“She’s been brilliant”).
Some young men related the story of how the mothers of their then-partners had received the news of their daughters’ pregnancies as a complete shock, but had gradually accepted the fathers into the family, and sometimes supported them even when their own daughters did no longer want their involvement.
However, in two of the cases who stayed involved after the survey, the young men broke almost completely with their own mothers because they felt they were unsupportive or they weren’t understood by them in their role.
The effect a mother and father can have on their teenage son in fostering his involvement should never be underestimated.
Two respondents pointed out the support of a sibling.
Ratings for “my own family” and “her families attitudes” were higher for the young men than for the older fathers (median 4 compared to 3 for both questions), but both groups considered the mother of their child as the most important factor (median 5, average 4.1 for both) of all.
“Knowing other guys in the same situation” often drew the comment “I don’t know any”, and the young men then rated this either low or could not rate it at all.
The older fathers were more likely to reflect on the fact of not having known any or, if they had, how important this support had been.
“My knowledge and experience in handling children” was not one of the highest rating answers chosen, with most fathers of both groups rating this “3”. They clearly did not feel inadequate as parents.
However, they responded mostly positive to “Learning about the ins and outs of parenting” (see below). Parenting education was often cited as one of the most important needs of young men by professionals.
4.2.3. Outside Factors
“Work/School” was amongst the highest rating factors impacting on time and bond with baby for the young fathers (average 3.7, median 4).
The older fathers did not quite see it as so important (2.7, median 3). Only five respondents in the tota sample had had direct contact with the Family Court, and all rated it’s importance as 4 or 5. None of these respondents felt they were getting a fair hearing in the court.
4.3. Support Needs
The young fathers were almost unanimous about how little support they have had from professionals such as midwives, doctors or nurses.
Only two respondents felt they have had plenty of support and all but three respondents rated in the negative. There was no significant difference between the responses of the young dads and the older ones (averages 1.7 and 1.9).
None of the respondents still at school when expecting the baby (four of the respondents) received, or expected to receive, any help from teachers, and two rated the teacher’s performance as “extremely unhelpful”.
One respondent related a story of how his school seemed to have deliberately obstructed his efforts to combine continued education with the needs of a baby and a partner that was mentally ill, and this ended in him being expelled from school.
When confronted with this perception by the young men, responses of youth agencies varied.
One professional said “the young men are often not very helpful”, another said that the young men are often a distraction in the life of the mother that makes it more difficult for her to get back on track.
These comments indicate an expectation of such service providers that a young man has to prove his worth first before he should be allowed to have any significant involvement.
Others vehemently denied that their service is not inclusive of men. Yet others admitted that they do not even attempt to include men for lack of male staff and lack of expertise on how to do this successfully.
Responding to the question “How helpful do you think the following things would be for you as a young father” and asked to rate a number of options, teenage dads’ highest ranking support needs related to employment (see table 3, below).
“Helpful employers” was most often given the rating 5. This figure excludes young men not currently in paid work, but those still at school rated similarly for the option “helpful teachers”. “Help with finding a job/launching a career” was the next highest rating suggestion, also mostly rating a five.
For both questions, younger dads rated higher than older dads, and some older but no younger dads rated 1 (not at all important).
Somewhat related to this, “Having the money to move into my/our own place” was also given a 5 more often than any other rating.
The answers seem to suggest a struggle to make ends meet, and at the same time the young dads seemed to feel the onus was mainly on them to provide for the basics the family can grow from.
Apart from job needs, the highest ranking suggestion with the younger dads was “someone to talk to”. The consistent high rating of this latter suggestion took the interviewers by surprise, because it was so readily admitted and seemed to fly in the face of stereotypes of teenage male’s “pride”.
All but two of the young dads rated this 4 or 5. The older dads were divided about this issue, with three of them rating it as 1 or 2. Most of the young men were seen again after the interview to have such a talk. Some of these revealed suicidal thoughts during such talks, and even previous attempts.
“Meeting other guys my age with kids” also rated highly with the young men (median 4, average 3.7) and also the older ones (median 4, average 3.1).
However, as with the suggestion “someone to talk to”, some of the older dads rated this 1 or 2. In fact, the older men were twice as likely as the younger fathers to give a rating of 1 to any of the support suggestions, and three times as likely if the advocacy suggestion is taken out of the analysis, which was not well understood (see below).
While several explanations for this phenomenon are possible simply on the basis of the sample size of the survey, the interviewers had the impression that there was an element of defiance in these answers: these were men who have been through it without much (or any) support themselves.
All of the five respondents who have been at school or in another education facility when expecting the baby rated “helpful teachers” with a 4 or 5. This is in contrast to their assessment of how much help they have received or are receiving from teachers.
There was no significant movement to either side of the spectrum for the young dads with the suggestion of “somehow getting more time to do the things I like” – however, the older dads seem to remember this as a very busy time, rating it 4.1 on average.
“Newsletter or info specially for young dads” rated high with both groups, with four or five the most common ratings. This suggestion tended to rate high with those who were not too keen on actually meeting others guys their age.
[Table 3] Differences: Average ratings on a scale from 1-5 of the options given to the question “How helpful do you think the following things would be for you as a young father?” Top three rating answers highlighted in red. Note the very different priorities.
|Helpful Teachers/Helpful Employers||4.4||3.9|
|Someone To Talk To||4.0||3.3|
|Help With Finding A Job/Launching A Career||3.9||3.1|
|Meeting Other Guys My Age With Kids||3.6||3.1|
|Newsletter/Info Specially For Young Dads||3.5||4.0|
|Learning About The Ins And Outs Of Parenting||3.4||3.7|
|Somehow Having More Time To Do The Things I Like||3.3||4.1|
|Having The Money To Move Into My/Our Own Place||3.1||4.6|
|Someone To Advocate For Me||2.6||2.7|
One suggestion in the list was “someone to advocate for me”.
The concept of advocacy needed to be explained to the majority of respondents, and even then was not readily understood.
This in itself is another indication that this group of men so far has had little contact with social or community workers, for whom advocating on behalf of their clients towards other agencies or service providers is one of the key responsibilities.
The concept of a knowledgeable support person who helps with issues of state assistance, employment, mental health and other issues was alien to the young men, which corroborates their own assessment of how little support they had received so far.
In terms of ratings we do not have great confidence of the ratings reflecting the respondents’ needs perception. Mean averages for both groups are slightly under 3.0.
When “someone to talk to” and “getting to know other guys my age with kids” crystallised as the most popular suggestions after the first few interviews, some follow-up questions were inserted to provide more detail on what a support service addressing these things could look like.
Respondents who rated 4 or 5 in the “someone to talk to” or advocacy question were also asked about their acceptance of a mentor.
The first question asked how “comfortable” the young man would feel to be peered up with a mentor.
The average for the fifteen responses to this question was 3.0 – however, each rating was chosen by exactly three people. When asked whether they would give it a go, regardless of feeling comfortable or uncomfortable, only one respondent thought that unlikely (average 3.8, median 4).
To the open-ended question of what they would expect from such a mentor, respondents most often answered along the lines of “someone to confide in”, reflecting their need to talk.
Advice and guidance were also often mentioned, and so were parenting skills. Many respondents said it was important that such a person was not condescending or patronising, but open to listen and open to different ideas. Answers included:
“Be supportive; give advice on raising children”; “Ideas on how to go about fatherhood.
Dealing with having a partner. Someone who says it’s alright.”; “Listening. Someone to talk to about parenting from a male perspective.”; “Someone I could ask questions”; “Guidance on how to deal with being a parent.
What my role should be, what my kid should expect from me.”
Respondents who rated a 4 or 5 for the suggestion of meeting others their age were given a list of things to rate and were also asked for their personal favourite amongst those. “Doing things together with the children” as well as “without the children” were almost equally the highest rating options, and either one was usually picked as the favourite.
Several respondents refused to pick between the two as their favourite.
“Organising stuff together” also rated above four on average. “Regular meetings to talk” was the least popular option, and the only one attracting “1” or “2” ratings. However, given men’s almost legendary reluctance to attend “support groups”, even this suggestion rated quite high at 3.4 on average, and two of the young men indicated this as their favourite option.
Many of the young men also indicated the need for a friend, although never expressing it in those words. When asked about their personal favourite, some answers were “Hanging out with another father and his kid” or “Catching up often with another guy”.
This may reflect the expressed need for “someone to talk to” and for emotional support from a limited number of people rather than a playgroup situation.
4.4. Background Questions
Background questions related to the circumstances of the conception of the child.
Ethnicity was deliberately excluded from the questions, as New Zealanders, both Maori and non-Maori, respond increasingly antagonistic to having to state their ethnic group.
The questions were mainly introduced to find out if the circumstances of the conception have had a major effect on the father’s later motivation to be involved.
One question aimed to find out if the young men considered “foul play” by the mother a significant factor in the conception, whether the baby was wanted by at least one parent and, by implication, whether the young men felt cheated into parenthood.
To make this as easy as possible, only Boolean questions were used and the interviewer said in advance that he will not ask or comment further. Even so we have limited confidence in the truthfulness of some of the answers.
Several of the respondents disclosed during later meetings with them that the mother of the child had been their first sexual relationship, when during the interview they claimed to have had previous sexual experience.
During the interviews, only one respondent admitted for this to have been their first sexual relationship.
Several respondents took a minute to think about statement (v) “I think she wanted a child to make me live with her”, and during later meetings with them they were often still unsure about this point. However, during the interview only one young man said this statement was true for him, and another felt he could say neither true nor false.
Two respondents wanted a child at this time. All but five of the others answered “true” to the statement “I wasn’t thinking about contraception in the heat of the moment”, and one said contraception failed. Six respondents felt they had been lied to about her using contraception when she wasn’t, with another two being not sure on this point.
Amongst the respondents it seems that the pregnancy was usually the result of quite normal early sexual experimentation combined with carelessness.
Exactly half of the respondents felt they were ready to have a child, however. All but one said they had been in a relationship with the mother of the child at the time of conception, but that may have been for as little as 3 weeks.
All but four of the respondents lived with the mother at the time of the birth (although that often changed later). The age of respondents at the time of the birth was between 15 and 21, with an average of 18.
The experience of teenage fatherhood was a factor in two of the respondents’ career choices as social workers.
We did not find that the circumstances of the conception, or whether the child was wanted or not, had an effect on how the respondent felt about his own role as a father.
All respondents showed strong motivation to be involved, and for some we observed a father-child attachment which was significant in terms of current thinking about Attachment Theory.
The very real possibility of traumatising the child when a father leaves the scene may need more consideration by agencies working with young parents.
The picture emerging from the results of the survey speaks of a lost opportunity.
Given the expressed high motivation of teenage fathers to be involved with their babies, and the increasing body of research suggesting great benefits to child development from father involvement, we need to ask what gets in the way rather than what needs to be done to motivate the teen dads even more.
We also need to ask whether those young men that are absent from their children’s lives by their own choice really stay away because they do not care, or because they cannot see a useful place for themselves.
Some of the studies reviewed for this paper assert that there are some young men the young mother is better off without – this assumption implies a judgement of the young father’s usefulness that should determine whether he should be allowed to be involved.
Some of those absent young fathers may stay away because they agree with the belief that the mother is better off without them, not because they do not care.
The children of the young men in our survey were almost always unwanted initially, and some young men related that they had tried to convince their partners to have an abortion.
However, once accommodated with the fact that there is to be a child, the respondents felt good about the fact that they were now dads, and did want to have an active part in the upbringing of the child.
This is consistent with what many professionals have told us: that the teenage father is almost always around initially: most attend the birth of their baby, even if not in a relationship with the mother, and most visit their baby regularly during the first months.
The situation of a fatherless child from birth is rare, even amongst teenage parents.
As other studies have found, the young father’s involvement decreases over time. Our survey indicates that teenage fathers do not feel appreciated or in any way supported in their role, and teenage fathers’ increasing absence over time may have to do with an increasing feeling of uselessness and not being wanted.
We do believe that a supportive social service system would make a very big difference in reversing this trend.
The young men almost unanimously rated the support they have received, or are receiving, very poorly. They feel they are in a situation where they need someone to talk to, and where it would help to have social networks with others in similar situations as well.
At least for the young men in our survey the support system did not work: they felt discouraged rather than encouraged to be involved.
If stereotypes prevail of young men as irresponsible and not very interested in their offspring, then service providers will have a part in conveying those stereotypes to the young men themselves.
If service providers are judgemental about the quality of a father’s involvement, then this will have an impact on the father’s self esteem and view of his role (Breiding-Buss, 2000).
We believe a father’s motivations and rights to have significant input into a child’s life should be no more or no less questioned than a mother’s.
If there are concerns for a parent’s parenting style, lifestyle, or social problems, then the parent should be given help to address these regardless of gender, rather than being dismissed altogether.
In those cases where the relationship between the young mother and father broke up in the months after the interview we noted that in all cases at least one social or support worker was involved with the mother of the baby, but none with the father.
We did encounter an attitude that saw the father as one amongst many factors affecting the mother-baby unit, but almost never as a potential asset who can step in when the mother has to deal with her own issues, and who has his own parenting ideas to bring in.
For both teenage mothers and fathers, the prevailing model is a deficit model, concentrating on the weaknesses.
Fathers and mothers, who have been teenage parents and whose children are now a few years old, have told us that what was missing was support for them as a couple.
That a couple parenting together may have different needs than a single mum with limited father involvement did not seem to occur to service providers, and several people involved in the survey – both male and female – felt that the system as it is encourages break-ups or, when a break-up has occurred, discourages further involvement by the father.
Virtually all of the young men identified the mother of the child as a key person for their own bonding and level of involvement.
If together in a relationship, they expected their partners to be their main source of support in their new role – which caused particularly big emotional problems after the relationship broke up. It is the young mothers who often can make or break a young father’s involvement, and social or support workers engaging with young mothers need to be aware that their involvement has an impact beyond the mother-baby relationship.
Several of the young men made major lifestyle changes after their partners fell pregnant or the baby was born, usually involving a drive to find (or keep) fulltime work, quitting addictions such as marihuana, tobacco or alcohol, and a focus on debt repayment.
This symbolised their eagerness to live up to stereotypes of a proper, responsible father and they gave us the impression of thriving on responsibility. Yet clearly they were given no credit for this, and they were given no help to deal with this major change in their lives.
There was great disappointment that despite their efforts they were not being taken seriously as parents. It is almost as though young men are being put through an extra hard obstacle course to see if they survive, and blame them if they fail.
Many of the young men have indicated suicidal thoughts towards us, and some bore the marks of previous attempts. This is a sad side-effect of a parenting role that is given no encouragement but instead is being told in many subtle ways that it is worthless.
By their own account their mental health is intricately enmeshed in their role as fathers.
Somehow the message of how important direct father involvement is for children does not get through to the young dads, and the lack of acknowledgement for a role that is important to them and takes a huge place in their lives will not help a person that is doubting their own worth.
Four of the fathers in our study either were sole parents at the time they were interviewed, or had been sole parents at some time.
While our study is not representative, sole fatherhood or shared custodial arrangements appear to be more common amongst very young parents, perhaps reflecting background problems on the mother’s side which led to the teenage pregnancy in the first place.
In New Zealand, substance abuse (including alcohol and smoking) are on the rise for young women, but slowly recede for young men. Supporting the father in a main caregiver role needs to be considered in cases where the mother’s mental health or parenting capabilities are impeded and this might become increasingly important.
Lack of support for the father may in some cases mean denying the baby access to basic services, such as Well Child Health checks.
The young men’s answers about how they see their role as a father also differed significantly from how New Zealand fathers overall see their role. Chapman and Mitchell (2002) found that notions of the father as protector and provider for the whole family are as strong as ever in expecting and new fathers.
Our teenage fathers, however, saw themselves much more in terms of their direct relationship with the baby, and found it much easier to picture a meaningful fatherhood role outside of a relationship with the mother.
“Being there” and “caring for the baby” were usually the first statements made when asked what they think they should do to be a good dad. Money as well as the relationship with the mother of the child were usually not mentioned at all in this question.
Consistent with the development of teenage males, teenage fathers seem to respond to the emotional components of fatherhood (love, time, care), where older fathers might respond more to the technical components (money, standard of living, parenting skills).
More than older fathers, young fathers may need a sense of importance of the direct relationship they have with the baby, and emotional support for this role does not seem to be available outside a relationship with the mother.
What does a support programme need to look like?
The differences in many of the answers between those who are now young, and those for whom being a teen dad has been a past experience, is curious and alerts us to the fact that any successful programme must create a sense of ownership for the young men to avoid it becoming based on ideas that are not their own.
The need to be understood and to have help with a job rated consistently high amongst the younger fathers, whereas the older ones often did not think these would have been the most helpful things to have had when they were in the situation.
We strongly suspect that the older dads have, over the years, accommodated themselves with the fact that the situation they were in was isolated and in some ways lonely to the point where they no longer recall having felt this isolation.
a) Emotional Support
Becoming a father is a big event at any time in a man’s life, but especially so at a time when you think about your own role in society, your own worth and your identity, as teenage males tend to do.
The young men in our survey more readily spoke about their emotions and their needs than we would expect from older men, indicating that talking can be very effective for them to become clearer about their own role.
Emotional support may come from an (older) mentor, but also from a friend of similar age with similar experiences. We note a great reliance on the emotional support of their partners even though those relationships tend to be volatile.
A support programme needs to create support avenues for the young father outside of his relationship, and one-on-one mentoring and support will be needed at least for the first year or so to establish the young man as a confident enough father.
However while we tend to see father involvement in terms of benefits or liabilities for the child, the emotional health of the young man himself is reason enough to become involved.
A programme supporting young fathers needs to have compassion for young males as well as children, something that is often lacking in our society.
b) Structural Support
Not many of the young men in our survey were unable to find paid work, and all were eager to have such an income. However, none of these jobs provided income which made a significant difference compared to living on state welfare or had any prospect of career advancement.
We believe the all-too-common practice of young fathers to leave school (or other education) to find work is a trap. Firstly, the amount of hours required to gain any reasonable income on the low wages paid will leave the father with little energy to put into his child or relationship.
Secondly the long-term financial prospects for child and family look much more positive for fathers with tertiary qualifications.
The fathers themselves have indicated that help with job and career would be useful, and such help should include opportunities for the young man to evaluate the options. However, once the young father has made his decision, hands-on help to realise this goal will also be needed.
The education system as well as the work market can be a bewildering and confusing place for someone who is not yet experienced in it.
Given that hardly any of the relationships we found at the time of our survey survived the following six months, advice and support about their rights as separated fathers, the Family Court system, parenting skills for sole parents (custodial or non-custodial) and access to a support person for inter-family meetings as well as dealings with the state are crucial.
The best people to truly understand young fathers are other young fathers, and most (although not all) of the young men were interested in meeting others and do activities together with or without the children.
However, there was also some apprehensiveness initially about how to go about such a meeting, and initially such introductions will need to be facilitated. Relationships between young males can be competitive as well as supportive.
Ideally, the young men should be encouraged to run the network themselves, and the support organisation should do no more than helping with venues, mailouts, new referrals etc.
However, the young men in our survey have not proven to be the most reliable in keeping appointments and organising their time, which are key skills in facilitating a support network. Therefore, the support organisation might have to remain quite substantially involved.
d) Education of service providers
There is a significant need to educate service providers about what young fathers expect from a provider, about their mental health and ideas of their own role, and what they have to offer their children.
A support programme for young fathers cannot work in isolation from support programmes for young mothers, or overall parenting and social support services.
Such cooperations can be very successful if based on mutual respect and openness, and have the potential to improve outcomes for mothers as well as fathers and children ( Bigsby et al. 2002).
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