One last piece on the report “Are We Nearly There Yet, Dad?”
As I’ve said before, the report is about teenage fathers in the United Kingdom and includes the stories of several of those young men. Unsurprisingly, they have a lot in common, but I’d like to discuss two threads that run throughout. These common elements recur not just for teen dads, but for their older counterparts as well.
First, here are a few quotations from the stories that make up much of the report: Nick became a father at 17. ”After his child is born, Nick becomes withdrawn because his ex-girlfriend and her family won’t let him see his daughter.”
Luke was 18 when he’s surprised to learn his girlfriend Amy was going to have his child. ”Luke and Amy’s relationship breaks down just before the birth. The baby is born, but Amy doesn’t inform Luke. This causes problems in their relationship and he doesn’t see his baby until he is four weeks old, which he finds very difficult.” Those things happened despite the fact that Luke voluntarily withdrew from the university and took a job he didn’t want in order to support his child and its mother.
Ethan was 19 when his child was born. ”Ethan and his partner have a rocky relationship and split up soon after the baby is born. Ethan’s partner is angry with him and decides that he shouldn’t see his daughter.”
So, the first thread consists of mothers exercising power over fathers’ access to their children. We know how this goes, because we see it, not just among teen mothers and not just in the first months/years of a baby’s life. Time and again we see mothers deciding on their own whether a father will have access to his child and if so, how much. From the simple fact of breaking up with a man and not informing him of the existence of his child or, if he learns of it somehow, saying it’s another man’s, to surreptitiously placing the child for adoption, to refusing or limiting his visitation, to child abduction, to false claims of abuse, to maternal gatekeeping, to parental alienation, mothers maintain all but complete power over a father’s ability to have a relationship with his child and, of course, the child’s ability to have one with its father.
Needless to say, the legal system, replete with its vast array of guardians ad litem, psychologists, social workers, child protective services, custody evaluators, police, domestic violence institutions, state legislatures, etc., pitches in on Mom’s side. There’s very little that she can do to make them turn against her. On rare occasions, a particularly cruel, incompetent, mentally defective or drink- and drug-addled mother may manage to so offend common decency as to throw the machinery of family courts into reverse gear and give custody to the dad, but overwhelmingly, everything about family law abets mothers’ power over fathers and their children.
And so we see the same in the stories of Nick, Luke and Ethan. Mom elects to keep him from his child and that’s an end to it. If Mom changes her mind, then he may have contact with little Andy or Jenny, but otherwise, it’s his tough luck. Of course, he can always hire a lawyer/solicitor, but we all know these kids don’t have that kind of money and even if they did, there’s nothing to prevent her from going to Plan B which, often as not consists of a domestic abuse charge. That’ll hold him at bay for a good long time, and once Plan B is exhausted, there’s always Plan C, D, etc., (see above).
Report Shows Fatherhood Changes Even the Youngest MenSecond is the profound ways in which fatherhood affects the young men in the report’s stories. Again, this phenomenon is scarcely confined to young fathers, but we empathize uniquely with them because fatherhood forces them to grow up faster than it does older men.
So, Luke had just begun his curriculum at the university when he learned about his child. Now, abandoning a university degree must have been a huge decision for an 18-year-old to make, but Luke did just that, taking a job as a sales adviser to help support his partner and child. Soon Luke was caring for his daughter “several days a week” and then full-time for two months when Amy decided to quit motherhood for that time. (Notice how Amy went from denying him all access to his daughter to turning her over to him 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In each case, it was at her whim.) Luke moved on to pursue a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) in childcare. In other words, he’s not just caring for his own child, he’s getting trained to do so as a vocation. Into the bargain, that training will likely do his own child worlds of good.
Dominic too wanted to go to the university, but put that aspiration aside to care for his child. He needed and sought guidance at age 17 to learn to cope with his new identity, not as young man about to start college, but as a father. This took a lot of getting used to; his whole self-concept had to change. But Dominic did it. Against everything he desired, he took a job at a bank to support his son and partner. ”He still has ambitions for his life, but doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to fulfill them.”
“Ethan realizes that his lifestyle has to change. His friends are still drinking and fighting and several of them are in custody. Ethan decides to leave his friendship group for the sake of his child. This leaves him feeling isolated but pleased that he is changing his life to be a better dad. Ethan wants to become his daughter’s primary carer, looking after her full-time.” Social services attempted to thwart Ethan’s desire, but he persevered. The problem was that he needed to find a job that could accommodate his need to care for his daughter. Eventually he did, and, by her second birthday, Ethan got full custody of his daughter. He was still only 21, and being a full-time parent and full-time wage-earner left Ethan feeling isolated – like he was the only man on the planet in his situation. Despite the isolation though, he was happy with his relationship with his daughter and the position of trust and maturity he enjoyed in her life.
The lesson? Fatherhood changes men. It does so profoundly and for the better. Not only that, but men embrace that change. Remember, all the young men described in “Are We Almost There Yet, Dad” were barely more than children themselves when they became fathers. They were no better prepared to take the enormous leap into adulthood than any other young man of their age is. But when their children came into the world, they answered the call and, in all cases, overcame many institutional obstacles to do so. Each of those young men and millions more who aren’t profiled in the report, should receive our applause and our support.
But they don’t. Time and again in popular culture and the news media, such young men are portrayed as useless, dangerous, incompetent and uncaring. None of those adjectives apply to the young fathers described in the report.
More important is the fact that, if we want a stable, productive society, we want men of whatever age to be fathers. Study after study, data set after data set show fathers to be stabilizing influences on society. Exactly as we see in the report, young men who would otherwise be unemployed and involved in drugs, gangs and criminal behavior, become sober, hard-working members of society when their children are born. That’s no accident. Children give men a purpose they may not have had before. Whether we admit it or not, we all want and need that.
Needless to say a society like ours that comes between its fathers and their children is a society that is asking for trouble. It’s a society that is begging for more crime, more drug and alcohol abuse, more unemployment, and the like. As I say so often, someone should inform our legislatures and judges. Everyone knows but them.