Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Teen Dads - family anger and professional indifference?

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 2nd October, 2007:

Today, three or four teenage girls who became pregnant shortly after they turned 18 or at a younger age will give birth. Just under half will have become pregnant at the age of 17 or under. One birth every eight or nine days will be to a girl who became pregnant when she was 15 or under.

Each of these pregnancies is likely to have been experienced as a major crisis by the families of the teenagers involved.

At the centre of each of these crises is a young mother-to-be and a young father-to-be. The young father may very well be at the receiving end of a lot of anger from the girl’s family.

The first thing the parents have to do in such a situation is to work their way through this crisis and to help their teenagers to work through the crisis. They have to grieve – or rage! – at the loss, or deferral, of their children’s opportunities and at finding themselves suddenly thrown back into a care-giving role they thought they were leaving behind.

Families get through this: the girl has her baby and somehow people rearrange things around this fact. The baby, on arrival, usually succeeds in winning over the hearts of any remaining sceptics.
So where is the father? Generally speaking, he will be living separately from the mother of the child. The teenage mother’s parents may see him as the villain of the piece. Professionals working with families and young mothers may or may not seek to include him in what goes on.

The Teen Parents Support Programme, (Link to pdf) established in 1999 by the Department of Health and Children and supported by such bodies as the HSE and the Crisis Pregnancy Agency has helped roughly 1,500 teenage parents. Earlier this year, the programme’s national coordinator, Margaret Morris, said that in the ante-natal and immediate post-natal period, just over half of fathers (51 per cent) have contact with the teen mothers and their children while a further 17 per cent have sporadic contact.

This is a low level of involvement. And yet, as I have mentioned many times in this column, the involvement of fathers with their children has enormous benefits for the children later on in life.

Moreover, the child wants contact with the father and is hurt if the contact doesn’t happen. But if the teenage father is in the doghouse as far as the parents of the mother are concerned, then one can see why he would be inclined to avoid such contact.

Teenage boys are fairly inarticulate about emotional matters at the best of times. Certainly it seems to me that most teenage fathers are in no position to argue their case and fight their corner with their own family or the teenage mother’s family. Still less are they able to assert themselves with childcare professionals who may be ignoring their role.

Arguments over maintenance payments or rows between the two grand-parenting families can derail the relationship between father and child. It can also happen that when the teenage mother gets a new boyfriend, contact with the teenage father is disrupted.

But the need and right of the children to contact with their father transcends all these issues.

It’s really good, therefore, that a conference called “Teen Dads: The Neglected Parents,” subtitled “Engaging with and supporting young fathers,” is to be held at Croke Park on 18th October.The Teen Parents Support Programme is behind the conference which, the organisers say, “will interest anyone who has contact with young parents.”

The Teenage Parents Support Project is based at Treoir which is the National Federation of Services for Unmarried Parents and their Children.

If you are a family going through the crisis of a teenage pregnancy, the first thing you need is good information and you’ll find that information on this page on the Treoir website at where there is also a link to sound advice on shared parenting.

It’s time to bring teenage dads into the picture. It’s what their children want.

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