Contemporary debates on teenage pregnancy often give a bad press to young fathers. They can be depicted as feckless and flighty and often as not shouldering their responsibilities, leaving young women to cope alone. Often the fathers of children born to teenage mothers are themselves young.
My research1 involved interviews with 22 fathers aged between 14 and 24 who were all service users. Some were described as having learning difficulties, some were non-white, some were offenders, and some had babies who were on the at risk register. Some fathers were a mix of all of these “categories”. Most of the young men fitted the government’s criteria of being socially excluded, living in poor circumstances with a range and depth of problems. One young father was living away from his baby as he was in prison. However, all of the others were with their partners and babies and all the young men were receiving some degree of support from social services.
During the telling of their stories over half admitted to committing serious offences in the years before becoming a parent and some had been to youth offender institutions for these offences. The offences ranged from burglaries and assaults to car thefts. All of these particular young men were white. Other young men admitted to living life in the fast lane particularly in relation to alcohol consumption, antisocial behaviour and sexual activity.
However, following the news of the pregnancy – most of which were described as being “unplanned” – many of these young men portrayed themselves as wanting to move on with their lives. This included becoming involved in the pregnancy and birth, accepting day-to-day responsibility for the child and cutting their ties with their previous lives of crime, antisocial behaviour, drugs and alcohol consumption. As one young man put it: “You’ve got to get your head together”.
Factors that seemed to facilitate this period of moving on appeared to be falling in love with their partner, renewed parental involvement, the influence of their partner’s parents and support from external agencies.
Indeed, the agency most singled out for praise, in addition to individual social workers and probation officers, was Sure Start: “They have more experience, they are really talkative, want to get to know you, just make you feel really welcome. That makes me feel like I want to talk to them and have a chatÉwhen you get someone who is a bit more down to earth, a bit more casual, then you talk to them and hope they can help.”
The support from the staff at Sure Start was frequently described as having a special ingredient: the approachability and non-judgemental methods of the staff individually and in group work parenting settings. This was especially appreciated by some of the young men, who admitted that they were often reluctant to get involved with agencies.
The overall message from this research seems to be that some fairly socially excluded young fathers are eager to become involved with their young families and that external agencies can be a positive part of this
1 Jane Reeves, From Recklessness to Responsibility: Young Fathers Tell Their Stories, unpublished, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Research findings will be presented at the Parent and Child Family Futures conference in London, 17 June 2004.
Jane Reeves is a full-time PhD research student at the Open University, and contributes as a senior lecturer, school of health and social care at the University of Greenwich.