Edinburgh News

Wed 1 May 2002

Young dads who donít give up


Lara Macmillan
Edinburgh News

A SWINGING TIME: Anthony Larner, 23, was 17 when he first became a father, and is now a full-time dad to, from left, Sean, Ross and Grant.

YOUNG boys are perhaps the most stereotyped people in society. They are either monosyllabic miseries, teenage thugs or bespectacled bright sparks intent on getting a good education. Of course, the truth as always is somewhere in the middle - but what they all are is a raging bundle of hormones.

Which leads on to the worst stereotype of all - that of promiscuous lads sowing their wild oats and, of course, shirking their responsibilities when a girl falls pregnant.

However, it seems the reality for those boys who do suddenly discover they are about to be fathers is completely the opposite.

Many donít want to stop the relationship they have with the young mother, and would like to be involved in bringing up the baby. But they often have a struggle on their hands.

A new report, Lads Becoming Dads, has revealed that many young men are trying to keep in touch with their children against the odds, with families and society shutting them out - a problem recently highlighted in EastEnders when teenager Martin Fowler was cut out from making decisions about his child by Sonia, who wanted their baby adopted.

While that situation wasnít faced by any of the nine dads interviewed - all under 25 and from Musselburgh, which has a higher than average rate of teenage pregnancy - they had all experienced feelings of helplessness and frustration when they were sidelined.

As one said: "I had really mixed feelings at the birth. I was proud but ashamed and was thinking this wasnít really mine, because in the run-up to the birth Iíd been given a clear message of not being wanted by her folks, and sometimes by her."

The experience of being "squeezed out" by the girlsí parents also featured strongly. One felt they were "dead against him" and, as a result, had restricted his access to his son.

Another young dad says: "Contactís a killer. The motherís parents want her to stick in at college, to get a decent job, and they see me as a waster - not good enough for her. Iím starting to feel they are right, and maybe I should just drift off the scene."

What they all said, though, was that while there were support groups for the mother, they as new and young fathers had few people to turn to - especially if their own parents felt let down.

Now the authors of the report have called for more recognition of the vital role that young men can play in caring for their children.

A total of 54 girls aged between 13 and 15 gave birth in the Lothians in 2000 (the last year for which figures are available), while a further 55 in the same age group terminated their pregnancies.

And while they would have received plenty of support, the study states that services set up to support parenting are traditionally targeted at mothers, which can further marginalise men in childcare.

The research was carried out on behalf of parenting support group First Steps by social policy consultant Brian Cavanagh - who also chairs Lothian NHS Board - and social work lecturer Mark Smith.

"A lot of young dads are cut out by both the girlsí families and society in general," explains Mr Cavanagh. "If theyíre not married, they could have real problems with custody and rights of access. Often the girl will be encouraged to continue with her education, and her family will look after the child. The boy is then squeezed out.

"Young men are just coming to terms with puberty and discover that they are going to be dads. There are some who donít want to know if a girl gets pregnant. But some lads do want to be involved.

"These young dads want to do their best but have no strong legal rights. They have to just try to come to an arrangement with the girl.

"They could pursue their case in court, but where do they go for information? They probably wonít get Legal Aid. And they are worried about getting some woman in a twinset and pearls being judgmental.

"They tend to be stereotyped. But the stigmatising of young guys by society isnít helping. It would be great to have a drop-in facility where they could get support and advice without being judged. Thereís nothing really like that at the moment."

He adds: "We also found that itís not just women who worry about other peopleís opinions. A lot of the guys we spoke to were worried that nobody would want to get involved with them in other relationships.

"Also, some young men had a romantic notion of being a dad and that everything would be wonderful and their lives would be transformed. Our soap operas are full of it."

One of the young men who took part in the study is Anthony Larner. Now 23 and living in Musselburgh, he was 17 when he became a dad for the first time a year after he met his girlfriend Lynette Campbell, who was then 24.

But he admits to being one of the luckier ones - although a child was unplanned, heís still with Lynette and the couple now have four-year-old Ross as well as Sean, whoís six, and Lynetteís first son Grant, who is ten.

Lynette has also been confined to a wheelchair for five years, after a routine operation to remove a disc on her back went wrong, which has meant Anthony is even more involved with the children.

"I was shocked at first when she got pregnant, but I wanted to be involved. It was never a question of leaving her," he says. "And now weíre a very close family. We have to be.

"But we never intend to marry. I saw my mum go through a messy divorce and I never want to go through that. I donít speak to my dad, but my mum sees the kids a lot.

"My father has had a strong influence on the way I want to be a dad. I want to do my best for them and not copy the mistakes I think he made.

"Lynette is seven years older than me and was living with her parents at the time when she became pregnant with Sean. Her parents were fine about it. She has been in a wheelchair for five years, so I have to look after them all full-time now. Itís something Iíve had to learn to live with. Being a dad is very satisfying. But it can be stressful too. My advice to other young guys is use protection and donít have kids too young. Finish your education and have a life."

He adds: "I love the children to bits but it hasnít been ideal. But I do get tired of the stereotypical view of young fathers. Itís a fact of life now and people have to get used to it."

Co-author of the study Mark Smith says while young men do want to help care for their children, they often feel excluded by services traditionally aimed at women.

"What was apparent was how involved these lads wanted to be in the birth, changing nappies and reading stories at bedtime. But some of them werenít quite sure how to go about it," he says. "And itís very hard for men to break into existing services. Even parenting classes can be quite intimidating as theyíre dominated by women.

"Many young dads are not aware of their legal rights. If theyíre not married, they donít have any automatic legal rights. They have to go to court. Itís an issue that needs to be acknowledged and I do think the law is going to change."

What the fathers said . .

OF the nine dads who were interviewed, none were married to the mother of their child. One had previously been married and had children in this relationship.

Four were in stable relationships with their childrenís mothers - two of them claiming theyíd get married. One relationship was on and off, with both partners maintaining regular contact but aware that they could not live together.

Most contrasted their ambitions for being a father with their own experiences. The hope of one was "to be a better dad than my own".

Another "didnít want to be like my dad and didnít want to get married because it just caused upset and unhappiness".

One "wanted to play happy families and for the kids to be close", while another wanted a "balanced life where there wasnít turmoil all the time and where parents trusted each other and gave respect to them and the kids - and that the kids came first".

On finding out that their girlfriend was pregnant, a sense of shock was the predominant response.

One was "devastated but also felt responsible because I still loved the girl, even though we couldnít live together".

Only two were unequivocal in experiencing the news as "brilliant" or in expressing emotions of "happiness and delight".

For others, the news had more of a double edge to it. One lad was "quite pleased after the initial fear - but worried about being a good dad because I had no positive examples. But I wasnít going to walk away from her or suggest that she Ďloseí the baby."

All claimed that they made some contribution to their childís upkeep, but said one of the problems was the effect it had on lifeís opportunities.

Two had embarked on further education courses, which they had to give up as a result of impending fatherhood.

One dad in his second relationship and with children in both has to "work full-time but also run a small business carpet-laying to pay for two families and maintenance".

Another, in his second relationship involving children, admitted to getting depressed "having to fend off the tax and the Child Support Agency".

Most claimed to play an active role with their children. A number mentioned the kind of everyday parenting tasks such as "bathing them and stories and taking them for walks and outings".

All said they would welcome a service where they could get support in being a dad. Most wanted practical advice "to cope with the moods and changes of kids growing up and being a pain".

Many of the young dads would like to be able to meet other dads, "in a place that doesnít need to be a pub and just talk about stuff".