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Young And Keen

By Harald Breiding-Buss

Teen dads are highly motivated, rate the birth of their child as one of the best things that ever happened in their lives, and feel reasonably competent to bring up a young fellow. In a nutshell that’s what came out of a survey that Christchurch’s Father & Child Trust conducted over the last year with young dads.

The research also shed some light on why so often this motivation does not translate into practice.

The young men were virtually unanimous in their opinion that organisations and institutions charged with the welfare of parents and children gave them no support or encouragement whatsoever in their role.

The interviewers came across an amazing array of stories of courage and success as well as disappointment and loss. Happy as the young men may be to be fathers, they have the distinct feeling that everyone else isn’t, and that noone sees them playing any major role in the life of the baby.

The biggest support need they identified was “someone to talk to”. The picture that emerged very early in the survey was one of a group of fathers highly keen to take on the challenge, but being utterly left alone with it and sometimes thwarted at every step of the way.

A young man that gives up then becomes just another irresponsible youth – something that everyone knew all along would happen. A foregone conclusion.

The interviewers also came across some single dads amongst the lads – a 21 year-old young man raising three children by himself; a 19 year-old raising the youngest of his three children alone. Isolation hits these guys hard.

Because “teenage dad” is considered a synonym to “runaway dad” these young single and utterly non-stereotypical dads exist at the very edge of society. No less than five of the 20-odd young dads interviewed were, or have been, in this position.

So who are these lads?

While the teen dads in the study were slightly more likely than average to have grown up with only one parent for some of their childhood years, only a minority did not have a significant relationship with their own fathers, and most spoke positively about them. For some, especially those growing up in a wider whanau, being a teen parent held little or no stigma, and was “normal” enough.

Those from single parent families were more likely than average to have grown up with their fathers, or have lived with only their fathers for some part of their adolescence.

Many had troubled backgrounds, meaning booze and drugs featured even more than in today’s average teen male. Many had left home early, at 15 or 16. All of the men in the survey had been in a relationship with the mother of the child when the baby was conceived – meaning noone admitted to a one-night stand under the influence of alcohol.

Indeed, the young guys tried to seize an opportunity when baby came along to re-create a home that they themselves had lost. More than a few said that having a baby “straightened me out”. Despite rebelling against adulthood, they tried to be the model fathers – seeking a job, moving in together in a flat and overall becoming more settled.

Some examples of guys in their mid-twenties showed that this was not just wishful thinking. A 29- and a 25 year-old participated in the survey, both having had their first at 17 and now being on to their third one, still living with the same partners. One of those partners rang the Trust after “The Press” had published the story of 18-year-old Tyler Guise (see Father&Child #18), one of the participants and later interviewer for the survey.

Her comment: “I wish you guys had been around in those days [eight years ago]. No-one told any positive stories about teen parents then.”

While most did not readily admit it in the interview, quite a few said during subsequent contacts with Trust workers that the baby was a result of the first sexual relationship they had had. Many of the young guys feel that their partner is the person that is helping them most in their role. But teenage relationships are volatile, and a breakup left some of the young men emotionally devastated.

These guys expressed feelings of great powerlessness about maintaining a relationship with the child they have come to love more than anything else in the world.

“I think I can say I’m over her now”, says one young dad, for whom the mother of his child also was the first sexual relationship he has had, “but not seeing my son is something that never stops hurting.” Suicidal thoughts were worryingly common even after many months amongst dads, whose relationship breakup has also meant not being able to see their children. Those, who had dealings with the Family Court, gave it the lowest ratings possible.

“Being your baby’s dad means nothing to the Court”, says one.

Relationship breakup also meant total loss of any support there might have been from professionals working with the young family. Given the huge ongoing motivation of the young fathers and their acknowledged need to talk and be supported, the performance of help organisations is disappointing.

On a scale from 1 to 5, professionals scored a meagre 1.7. This contrasts with an average 4.7 to the question “How do you feel about being a dad?” and 4.1 to “Would you like more, less or the same input [in raising the child] as you do now?”( 3.0 representing the answer “same”).

A stunning picture not just of the failure of the “maternity” system to include young men, but more importantly that of a lost opportunity. Given that the mothers, too, very often had difficult backgrounds, with sometimes severe mental health or drug problems, ignoring the other biological parent like this does the baby no service.

Teachers, and to a lesser degree employers also got the thumbs down. One young dad found no sympathy with his school for needing time off to care for a baby, while his partner sought treatment for her mental illness. “It was like they were out to make it especially hard for me, like they wanted to say to me: now that you’re a dad we’ll give you a taste of the real life”.

He felt he had no choice but to quit school.

And unlike the stereotype, the young guys quite readily acknowledged their need to talk to someone – towards an interviewer they had never seen before. Amongst a range of options of what could help, “someone to talk to” rated tops, scoring a “5” (“very helpful”) more often than any other rating, more important than money and equally important to help with the job hunt.

“Meeting other guys my age with kids” was also a popular option, although not with everyone. But many teen dads recognised that hanging out with their mates is no longer viable. Interests now are different, and the time commitment involved with a baby is huge. “A lot of friends were supportive at first. Until I couldn’t go out with them”, says one.

“A lot of things that people do at our age you can’t do, because you’ve got a kid to worry about”, says another. A support group wasn’t very popular, however – the guys wanted to get together to do things, preferably with the children, not sit around in a circle mulling over past and present failures.

Such support for themselves easily outranked suggestions of parenting courses or information. Teen dads pretty much thought themselves to be up with the game. The question “Do you think you can raise a child just as well, better, or not as well as an older person” even showed a slight bias towards better parenting skills than older dads.

“Learning about the ins and outs of parenting” drew a decidedly vague response, although some were keen. But to the average young man in the survey, feeling good about himself is more important than parenting knowledge in terms of being a good dad.

Teen dads felt society’s attitudes to be mostly negative (average 2.0 on a scale from 1-5), but many made an additional comment such as “I don’t really care what other people think”. Most had examples readily at hand, however – they felt the looks or comment at the supermarket or other public places, try as they might to shrug them off.

And despite thinking they can parent a young child just as well or even better than an older person, they also believed that overall being a teen dad is “a little harder” than being an older dad, some mentioning the lack of money.

Perhaps teen dads are getting caught up within the bad press young males have – and always have had. Instead of realising the potential for both, the young man and his baby, society writes him off.

Instead of banking on their will to shoulder the responsibility, society only sees the act of irresponsibility of making the baby in the first place.

Time to give teen dads a break.

Next: Smacking And The Law

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