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Re/Assembling the Pregnant and Parenting Teenager

Narratives from the Field(s)

Edited By Annelies Kamp and Majella McSharry

In 2003, Wendy Luttrell posed an important question: what might result if we were able to turn questions of judgement about pregnant and parenting teenagers into questions of interest about their sense of self and identity-making? This book takes up the challenge, offering a re/assemblage of what is, can be and perhaps should be known about teenage pregnancy and parenting in the context of the twenty-first century. The collection presents original contributions from leading commentators in four key contexts: the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Aotearoa New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland, all sites of elevated incidence of and/or concern around what is commonly articulated as the «problem» of teenage pregnancy and parenting. In offering a multi-disciplinary reading of the narratives of young men and women, this volume engages with the ambiguity shared by all of us in confronting the life transition that is pregnancy and parenting.

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12: The ‘Missing’ Parent: Teenage Fathers Talk About the Meaning of Early Parenthood (Keith Tuffin / Gareth Rouch / Karen Frewin)

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KEITH TUFFIN, GARETH ROUCH AND KAREN FREWIN

12 The ‘Missing’ Parent: Teenage Fathers Talk About the Meaning of Early Parenthood

ABSTRACT

Literature on adolescent parenthood is skewed towards young mothers, with male counterparts often forgotten or invisible. The paucity of research into the experience of teenage fatherhood has created a space occupied by myths and negative stereotypes. Teenage males are cast as disinterested and/or unwilling participants in their children’s lives who mostly fail to meet parental responsibilities. This chapter reviews research conducted by us, based on extended interviews with teenage fathers. We ask whether the findings of our exploratory research, undertaken a decade ago, have been further supported, challenged, or overturned. Contemporary literature provides some different perspectives but, essentially, supports our research conclusions. While there are undoubtedly challenges and pressures on teenage fathers, there are also psychologically positive aspects whereby fatherhood can be transformative. Teenage fathers do take up the responsibilities of fatherhood and advocate on behalf of their children in respect of intergenerational repair and a better future for their children. These positive features are far from guaranteed. However, they offer a counter discourse to stereotypical views of teenage fathers as selfish and impervious to their children’s needs. This counter discourse unsettles the invisibility and negativity which has dominated discussions about teenage fatherhood. Given the ‘right’ support, teenage fatherhood can be reassembled as an opportunity rather than a tragedy.

Introduction

Previously, we have interrogated the psychology of teenage fatherhood in Aotearoa New Zealand by examining key discourses around which the talk of teenage fathers was structured. In particular, we have considered discourses of responsibility and intergenerational repair (Tuffin, Rouch & Frewin 2010), the transformative experience of becoming a teenage father ← 269 | 270 → (Tuffin & Rouch 2007), the redemptive positive psychology of teenage fatherhood (Rouch 2005) and identity issues associated with the accelerated developmental transition involved (Frewin, Tuffin & Rouch 2007). In this chapter we revisit these notions in the light of more recent international literature which has examined the experience of teenage fatherhood. The fundamental question we address is whether the findings of our exploratory research, undertaken a decade ago, have been further supported, challenged, or overturned. Did we get some things right, or has recent scholarship displaced our suggestions with more enlightened understandings of the meaning of the atypical disjunction of becoming a father before becoming an adult?

Dominant discourses of the teenage father

Teenage fatherhood sits at the intersection of biological possibility and cultural expectation, and for that reason is peppered with challenges. When a fourteen-year-old boy announces that he is the father of two children this can raise eyebrows as we question social expectations about maturity and parental responsibility. When the usual sequence of adulthood preceding parenthood is reversed, is it still appropriate to refer to such a young father as a ‘boy’? For some, this highly politicized area represents a public health problem (Lawlor & Shaw 2002). Negative public perceptions are well documented with, for example, Mollborn (2011) reporting an opinion poll where teenage pregnancy was rated by 42 per cent as a very serious problem, while a further 37 per cent rated it as an important problem. Others have questioned the assumptions of negativity and suggest beliefs are closely tied to wider socio-cultural climates (Cherrington & Breheny 2005).

Until recently, the topic of teenage fathers was greatly neglected, especially in comparison with the research on teenage mothers (Strug & Wilmore-Schaeffer 2003). The absence of teenage fathers from the literature (Bunting & McAuley 2004) fostered the development of myths and damning stereotypes which contributed to the pathologizing of teenage fathers as ← 270 | 271 → uncaring, selfish and indifferent to parental responsibilities (Kiselica 2008; Weber 2012). The apparent absence of teenage fathers is in stark contrast to the wider societal trend involving increased visibility of fathers, increased awareness of traditional constraints around the role, and debates about the changing nature of fatherhood. The traditional ‘breadwinning’ role of fathers remains dominant (Bryan 2013); however, the narrowness of this has been foregrounded by research examining expectations of fathers’ more active involvement in parenting (Carlson 2006). Discussions about ‘new fathering’ (Roy 2006) have widened the parameters of what this identity means. Dermott (2008) suggests these changes have not displaced the importance of constructing fatherhood as synonymous with providing, but fatherhood now includes increased expressions of love and affection. Constricted definitions of fatherhood have broadened to include the idea of fathers as caring, with the gender-equal father increasingly becoming a core part of contemporary masculinity (Johansson & Klinth 2008).

Negative characterizations of teenage fathers have been exacerbated by research which has studied perceived ‘risk’ factors which differentiate teenage fathers from their childless peers. Demographic factors such as poverty, family instability, low self-esteem and low educational attainment have been cited (for example, Winstanley, Meyers & Florsheim 2002). As we have argued previously, these negative characterizations line teenage fathers up alongside Kelly’s (1996: 429) emblematic description of teen mothers as ‘girls from flawed backgrounds making tragic mistakes’. While much of the theorizing around teen parenting (Cherrington & Breheny 2005) has been dominated by deficit models informed by the identification of risk factors, there are also studies which directly challenge the myths about teenage parents (Weed, Nicholson & Farris 2015). These studies form an intellectual counterpoint in highlighting the positive effect of fatherhood for the teenage father and the positive contributions teenage fathers can make. Most impressively, these contributions occur at a time when the teenage fathers are least able to deal with the responsibilities of parenthood. They are disadvantaged in terms of limited resources such as experience, maturity, workplace skills and access to well-paid employment. Hendricks and Montgomery (1983) concluded that teenage fathers were generally accepting of fatherhood, and Johnson (2001) noted high levels of ← 271 | 272 → paternal involvement, with the sustainability of this being, unsurprisingly, linked to employment. Stug and Wilmore-Schaeffer (2003) suggest teenage fathers care deeply and take an active role in the care of their offspring, and Knoester and Eggeben (2006) have shown how the unique challenges of early fatherhood can lead to positive personal reorganization and growth.

Teenage fathers in Aotearoa New Zealand

Our research was stimulated by Miller’s (1997) conclusion that this area has been sorely neglected and required further study to explore teenage fatherhood from the perspective of the teenage father. Thus, we sought to extend this line of work which considered ‘insiders’ perspectives (Breheny & Stephens 2007) by examining the talk of teenage fathers with a view to considering the validity of the prevailing negative stereotypes. The work we have undertaken was based on interviews informed by critical social psychology and social constructionist epistemology (Tuffin 2005). This approach assumes our understandings are inextricably located in language use involving metaphors and discourses. Critical social psychologists have reconceptualized social life as language use, thereby giving linguistic precedence to what was formerly considered the psychological (Wetherell 1996). Our theoretical claim is that discourse does not merely describe, but rather structures the very experience of teenage fatherhood.

Participants in the study we present here were twelve fathers who had become fathers prior to their nineteenth birthday and who were twenty or younger at the time of interview. While the number of participants may seem modest, this number is likely to have captured a good deal of the linguistic variability, and such data saturation would make further interviews superfluous to the key discourses. We wish to note some observations, as our research employed an inductive methodology and detailed data analysis. Firstly, our claims and conclusions reflect the exploratory nature of the research and we fully acknowledge the partiality of the work. Secondly, while the discourses structuring the experience of teenage fatherhood are ← 272 | 273 → largely positive, this work remains agnostic with respect to the sustained commitment to fathering. Such questions are best addressed by longitudinal research, as would also be the case for non-adolescent fathers. Thirdly, we note that participants self-selected for the study, which raises the possibility of more positivity toward parental responsibility.

In what follows, we review key discourses and associated issues and conflicts which arose from our analysis (Frewin, Tuffin & Rouch 2007; Rouch 2005; Tuffin & Rouch 2007; Tuffin, Rouch & Frewin 2010). We then review a number of more recent studies from the international literature and discuss these in the light of our original work published nearly a decade ago.

A discourse of responsibility

A discourse of responsibility considered talk relevant to paternal duties, obligations and responsibilities and was pervasive in the data. Responsibility was constructed as being age neutral and youthfulness was not talked about as a barrier to good fathering. Discursively this formulation attends to possible concerns that teenage fathers may be too young to be successful, responsible parents. However, age wasn’t regarded as providing a guarantee of good parenting.

The responsibility discourse was organized around the traditional male imperative to act as breadwinner and provider. Taking up these responsibilities positioned teenage fathers as necessarily re-evaluating priorities, with freedom and autonomy compromised by the demands of work, fiscal responsibility, parental obligation and the considerable challenges involved in managing these duties. One significant challenge arose from the move to full-time paid work. Born out of financial necessity, this involved a dramatic shift from being time-rich, free and independent to becoming time-poor, responsible fathers. While enabling the financial viability of the young family, paid employment meant less time available to spend with their children and supporting their partners. Stepping up to enter ← 273 | 274 → the workforce also meant stepping out, thereby becoming distanced from both the emotional joys and demands of parenting. Successfully managing these issues and stresses was pivotal to constructing the teenage father as a committed parent. Undeniably, competing demands on parental time are not unique to teenage parents, with three quarters of parents wishing they had more time for family (Roxburgh 2006). However, time constraints may apply more acutely for teenage fathers who have incomplete educational qualifications and limited work skills and experience. This places them in an unenviable position of working for lower pay and needing to work longer hours, often in work which is physically exhausting, adding pressure to their time-poor status and impacting negatively on the quality of family relationships. The imperative to provide contributes to the family’s financial capital, but comes at a cost to the family’s social capital (Christiansen & Palkovitz 2001). The responsibility discourse constructs work related commitments as imperative, with the tragic irony that this may undermine the very family the teenage father is striving to support.

A discourse of intergenerational repair

This discourse centred on teenage fathers’ reflections on their own childhoods and the strong desire of many to ensure their children benefited from better parenting. Thus, damaged childhood became opened to the possibility of repair through the next generation. The teenage fathers wanted their offspring to have a better childhood than their own as they sought to repair the mistakes of their own upbringing through striving to become better parents than the previous generation. Such generational comparisons were readily accessible given the teenage fathers’ own early childhood provided a recent linguistic resource against which to measure their aspirations as parents and their wishes for their children.

In some cases this involved material possessions which were afforded a psychological value as indexing the broader notion of improved quality of life. The pursuit of the ‘good life’ for one’s children also meant avoidance of ← 274 | 275 → dysfunctionality which was commonly referred to without being detailed. More positively, repairs were constructed as being associated with active involvement in the child’s upbringing with demonstrative expressions of love and affection: attention, cuddles, spending time with children and enquiring about the things that are important to them. The discourse of intergenerational repair rests on the good intentions of teenage fathers to improve on their own upbringing and this means willingness and desire to do fathering differently from what they experienced as children. Such aspirational talk does much to dispel suggestions of paternal disinterest in their children.

The notion of generational repair runs contrary to suggestions of intergenerational transmission of abusive parenting and the theorized nature of this as cyclical and repetitive. The cyclical aspect of this can be positive and it is highly desirable to have intergenerational transmission of constructive and positive parenting (Chen & Kaplan 2001). For our participants, the notion of repair and improved parenting was often a reaction to, and hence motivated by, their own fathers’ lack of involvement. Having an absent father (Allen & Doherty 1996) can stimulate teenage fathers to solidify their commitment and have constant contact with their children. The motivational aspects of teenage fatherhood are also intimately involved in the discourse of transformation which is considered next.

A discourse of positive transformation

This discourse arose from talk about fatherhood, with the dramatic transformation it instigated offering opportunity for personal development, positive change and psychological growth. Fatherhood broadened the horizons of these teenage fathers as their newly acquired responsibilities demanded maturity and offered a greater sense of self-importance and deeper appreciation of relationships with significant others. The comparative structure of this discourse was twofold: firstly, involving contrasts between pre- and post-fatherhood experience and, secondly, between themselves and peers ← 275 | 276 → who had not yet become fathers. The initial contrasts see directionless hedonistic freedom replaced with awareness of paternal responsibility. This contrast did not involve complaints about loss of youth or freedom, but focussed on the positive aspects of becoming a father. The comparison with peers who were not fathers yielded negative judgements regarding lack of direction and reliance on welfare, drugs and alcohol. Former peers were associated with risk and illegal and dangerous activities. There was reference to friends who had been incarcerated, injured in car accidents, or idled their time away in a directionless drug haze. The status of fatherhood served to motivate the relinquishing of this lifestyle and associated risky activities. While formerly positioned as socially precarious, the positive transformation of fatherhood moved them toward greater stability and provided motivation and purpose.

Triggered by the arrival of a child, the transformation saw teenage indulgence and indolence replaced with direction, industry and responsibility. This motivational turning point is dramatic, relatively quick and stimulates consideration on behalf of the future of both the new father and the child. These futures are inextricably linked and the acceptance of paternal responsibility entails planful talk which is, emblematically, captured here: ‘I’ve got to do something with my life otherwise, yeah, my baby’s not going to have a life’. The interactive and inter dependent characterization of fathering is evident with the father taking responsibility for his child, and symmetrical responsibility emerging by providing a strong motivation for the father’s future. Not only does the father seek to give the child a life, but the child also gives his life greater meaning.

A final feature of the discourse of positive transformation was evident in the way social relationships were talked about. Teenage egocentrism yielded to more compassionate, pro-social understandings in two respects. Firstly, family and friends were valued more than previously. Consistent with Knoester and Eggeben (2006), fatherhood encouraged increased intergenerational and extended family interactions. The detachment that formerly characterized teenage interactions became replaced with a preference for increased family involvement. Secondly, greater empathy was noted with regard to basic issues of human tragedy. In particular participants talked about being emotionally impacted by news stories of human ← 276 | 277 → suffering. Fatherhood has a profound effect and this has an impact on the teenage father, who not only recalibrates self-appraisal, but also rethinks the meaning of important social relationships. This transformation encourages priorities to be re-evaluated which in turn may lead to the emergence of a more caring human being (Marsiglio 1998; Palkovitz 2002; Tuffin & Rouch 2007). This suggests that fatherhood can broaden the narrow psychological horizons of the typical teenager, opening up a more mature orientation to both their family and wider events in the world.

A discourse of identity development

Against a developmental backdrop of considerable challenge, adolescent identity is required to navigate dramatic physical, psychological and social change. For all men, fatherhood revolves around a metamorphosis that imposes demanding psychological upheaval irrespective of the age of the father. These processes are intensified for teenage fathers, who experience an accelerated developmental trajectory and are faced with the formidable confrontation of a swift and often unexpected transformation.

Our research examining identity formation highlighted the discourse of dual identities. The teenage father is positioned between the lure of independence and freedom and the responsibilities and duties of parenthood. Caught between disparate identities, these teenage fathers sought to reconcile the conflicting identities of adolescent and father–adult. Contrary to negative stereotypes that cast teenage fathers as reluctant to yield the freedoms associated with an adolescent identity, our participants were willing to overcome the psychological disequilibrium involved and demonstrate significant investment in their changing identities. A shifting sense of self was evident with acceptance of themselves as fathers. This movement may not be without problems, but it was talked about with strong intent, leading to suggestions of strength and determination rather than the ineffectiveness suggested by the more negative characterizations of teenage fathers. ← 277 | 278 →

Part of the psychology of teenage fatherhood was the unexpected nature of parenting. It is likely that some teenage fathers deliberately seek fatherhood, but none of our participants set out to achieve this. And while these conflicting identities are characterized by considerable upheaval, there was never any suggestion of disinterest. Indeed, responses showed considerable nuance and sophistication in not regretting their new found identity as fathers but, given the difficulties involved, neither was this life course to be recommended.

Revisiting the international literature on teenage fatherhood

Reviewing this literature involved sourcing ten new studies of teenage fathers from a number of geographically and culturally diverse groups including African American, Brazilian, Mexican, African, Australian, Puerto Rican and Swedish. The review included qualitative studies that had typically interviewed teenage fathers, in addition to one study (Johansson & Hammarén 2012) which analysed constructions of fatherhood based on internet blogs. Our review is structured around three key themes, all of which relate to the work we undertook in Aotearoa New Zealand: struggles, the meaning of fatherhood, and relationships. Each of these will be detailed and discussed in terms of how this adds to or informs our earlier work.

Struggles

Despite their willingness to be involved as fathers and the positive transformations this could entail, research strongly suggests these young men face almost overwhelming pressure and struggle with a number of issues. While they very much sought intergenerational repair, this was compromised by a pressing need to find employment in order to provide material necessities for their child. There were also difficulties in gaining a balance between spending time with their child and spending time attaining long-term ← 278 | 279 → goals such as completing educational qualifications. Further difficulties were encountered with respect to relative loss of freedom and the need to deal with stigma and negative societal judgements.

The financial pressures on teenage fathers are considerable. With limited educational qualifications and experience, their earning power in the labour market has a low ceiling and the available work often involves long hours of exhausting manual labour which takes time away from being with their child (Wilkes, Mannix & Jackson 2011). Not only was quality time with their children scarce, but the complex demands of sleep deprivation, managing child-care and balancing work and financial commitments had a negative impact on attempts to engage with educational goals. For Finch and Bacon’s (2015) participants, this combination of factors was rated as the main stress as they attempted to juggle complex competing demands. While education was often valued as a means of providing a solid foundation for the future, this was difficult to manage without the support of wider family (Bordignon et al. 2014).

Planning for the future could be either inhibited or enhanced by early fatherhood. For some, their plans were interrupted by the arrival of their child, but others were stimulated to think about the future in a manner that went beyond the narrow considerations of ‘the selfish teen’. Planning involved considerations about their relationship with the child’s mother and, most importantly, thinking about the future they could provide for their child (Wilkes, Mannix & Jackson 2011). For some teenage fathers, the birth of their child motivated them to plan meaningfully for the future. This could involve committing to finishing school, or moving to a new area based on the hope of a better chance of work or accommodation (Parra-Cardona, Sharp & Wampler 2008).

Another struggle involved the dramatic transition whereby the typical freedoms of the teenage years were replaced with the responsibilities of fatherhood. Finch and Bacon (2015) noted this with the requirement of accelerated maturation in combination with the loss of the ostensibly carefree years of youth. These stresses were also evident for the teenage fathers in Johansson and Hammarén’s (2012) study, which highlighted the conflict between being young, fun loving and carefree and the need to take on the responsibilities of maintaining a household. Similarly, tensions ← 279 | 280 → were apparent for the African American teenage fathers in Paschal, Lewis-Moss and Hsiao’s (2011) study, where participants acknowledged the conflict between wanting the perceived ‘freedom’ of youth, and the responsibilities of fatherhood through which such freedoms were compromised.

A number of studies reported negative stigma associated with teenage fatherhood. For teenage Mexican fathers, stigmatization and negative attitudes could begin with the family of the mother of the child but were also noted more publicly among older people who gave them dirty looks when they were out with their children and partners (Jaime, Robbins & De Los Santos 2016). Teenage Swedish fathers similarly talked about stigma within society and suggested that this stems from atypical masculinity/fatherhood (Johansson & Hammarén 2012). These young men defied expectations regarding fathers as being in their early thirties and middle class, and invoked negative judgements as a result. While negativity was evident, there were also sources of positive support, with Bordignon, Meincke, Soares, Schwartz, Barlem and Lundardi (2015) noting that the church and some neighbours were supportive, and Johansson and Hammarén’s (2012) data suggesting teenage fathers received praise for remaining involved in their children’s lives.

The meaning of fatherhood

One meaning that was predominant in this literature was the push toward self-improvement. In some research, teenage fathers talked about moving away from street life, gangs, drugs and excessive drinking in order to become better fathers (Finch & Bacon 2015; Foster 2004; Jaime, Robbins & De Los Santos 2016; Wilkes, Mannix & Jackson 2011). This fits well with the notion of a positive transformation and adds to the weight of evidence suggesting fatherhood can become a significant turning point for otherwise directionless teenagers.

The emotional and psychological impact of parenthood was to the fore when, as loving fathers, participants talked about their emotional connection and unconditional love for their children. They also expressed pride ← 280 | 281 → in their accomplishments, embracing the new and developing identity of father (Jaime, Robbins & De Los Santos 2016). Fatherhood provided an increased sense of control over their lives and provided a strong purpose around which they could concentrate their energies (Wilkes, Mannix & Jackson 2011). The realization that they had the capacity to create life and the unique love that is both given and received from a child led to greater happiness and fulfilment (Parra-Cardona, Sharp & Wampler 2008).

The meaning of fatherhood was explicitly the focus of Johansson and Hammarén’s (2012) research that analysed the blogs of teenage Swedish fathers. The blogs provided a new social space that enabled the narratives that largely countered the traditional negative stereotypes of teenage fathers. Indeed, these accounts projected positive and empowering constructions of teenage fathers. The narratives identified changing identities resulting from the responsibility and development of being a father. The young men spoke of feeling lost before they became fathers. Their children were a cause for change to become better people, with focus and purpose (Johansson & Hammarén 2012). This work aligns closely with the transformative discourse where fatherhood can serve as a catalyst to profound psychological change.

While the pregnancy was often unexpected, this was not a matter of pregnancy out of ignorance. The surprise factor did stimulate teenage fathers to consider the parenting they had received from their fathers and how this might be improved (Wilkes, Mannix & Jackson 2011). This sentiment resonates with the notion of intergenerational repair, and the kind of improvements included material and emotional resources. One fundamental aspect of such repair involved being present to make an emotional connection with the child. This was especially important for those whose fathers were mostly absent, and these teenage fathers were left with a strong desire to be different, to be better, and to be present (Jaime, Robbins & De Los Santos 2016). More generally, the teenage fathers were confident about their ability to be present, loving and caring fathers. Possibly in the light of their perceptions of their own childhoods, they were concerned about how their children would see them as fathers and this provided an incentive to be better fathers (Foster 2004). Undoubtedly, such repair comes at a cost, involving self-sacrifice and displacing the sometimes egotistical concerns of teenage years with the responsibilities of fatherhood, and ← 281 | 282 → dealing with the struggles outlined above which are commonly entailed. Providing materially and emotionally was important and meant making sacrifices associated with putting the needs of the child first (Jaime, Robbins & De Los Santos 2016). Ideally, caring, present, engaged fatherhood prioritizes the child, and this extends to the wider notion of a family and may include love for the mother of the child.

For many of the African American men in Paschal, Lewis-Moss and Hsiao’s (2011) study, fatherhood meant being a provider and providing nurturance. The economic imperative to provide for one’s offspring was closely associated with fatherhood and masculinity and was regarded as a measure of being a good father and of being a real man. The issue of financial assistance and provision was more likely to be enacted when the relationship with the child’s mother was intact and when the teenage father was employed. Under these circumstances, the teenage father would refer to ‘his family’ and was more likely to financially support the child’s mother. This support was often supplemented by assistance from the teenage father’s parents and wider family. Nurturance meant being actively involved with the child. This entailed spending time together, being physically present, providing emotional support and involvement in care giving.

However, a small group of participants in the 2011 study didn’t identify with their role as a father, and expressed opposition to the idea of fatherhood. This group of participants thought they had no real obligation to be providers or to be involved in their children’s lives (Paschal, Lewis-Moss & Hsiao 2011). In many regards, they saw themselves simply as sperm donors. All but one of the men holding this view had a negative relationship with the mother of their child. The pregnancies were seen as the fault of the mother and an attempt to ‘trap’ the man intentionally by not taking steps to prevent pregnancy, which was seen as being a woman’s responsibility (Paschal, Lewis-Moss & Hsiao 2011).

For the young Hispanic fathers in Parra-Cardona, Sharp and Wampler’s (2008) study, fatherhood meant the need to provide financial and emotional support along with the need to embrace their ethnic background. The need for financial provision is far from uncommon and the emotional support was talked about in terms of being actively involved in their children’s lives and showing them unconditional love of the kind they were ← 282 | 283 → denied as children. Another feature of what fatherhood meant to these young men involved the importance of proudly embracing their ethnic background and the Hispanic/Mexican values that stress the importance of family. This emphasis on the importance of family leads to the final thematic – that of relationships.

Relationships

In our research, the discourse of positive transformation highlighted a number of key areas where positive features were evident, and one of these addressed the issue of relationships with significant others. Youthful egocentrism gave way to greater understanding and compassion. Fatherhood contributed to shrinking teen detachment and a preference for increased extended family interactions. This reflection on the meaning of important social relationships carries with it the prospect of teenage fathers becoming more caring human beings and this is evident in the recent literature.

Jaime, Robbins and De Los Santos (2016) discuss how for the teenage father the birth of their own child is catalytic, whereby the historic framework of relationships with their own parents, and particularly their fathers, looms large. Those whose fathers were largely absent regard this neglect as something they seek to redress by way of intergenerational repair. They seek to embrace the responsibility of fatherhood and ‘do better’. This underscores the extent to which these differing categories (struggles, meaning and relationships) merge into each other with the differentiations being important but far from absolute. When considering the influence of their own parents, participants in Parra-Cardona, Sharp and Wampler’s (2008) study talked about a gendered sense of deprivation. While they were able to rely on their mothers, for many their fathers were either absent or emotionally unavailable. The loss of the father–son bond was evident, with participants still wanting contact with their fathers and feeling they had missed out on lessons in masculinity and what it meant to be a ‘real man’.

Having a child also meant the relationship with the child’s mother became an important point of focus. This was of critical importance, since it mediated the kind of relationship they could have with their child. In ← 283 | 284 → some cases the pregnancy strained the relationship, but with others the couple were brought closer together (Jaime, Robbins & De Los Santos 2016). The teenage father’s desire to be a good father was made extremely difficult if they were separated from their baby’s mother (Parra-Cardona, Sharp & Wampler 2008, Wilkes, Mannix & Jackson 2011).

Cultural overlays provide a rich and complex lens through which to consider relationships, as Bhana and Nkani (2014) show in their study of South African Zulu, where unwed pregnancy requires the father to pay money to the woman’s family. Failure to pay meant the rights of access to both mother and child were withdrawn. When access was available the freedom of the young couple was restricted by the woman’s family, resulting in some of the men taking on other sexual relationships. While still professing love for the mother of their child, these young men separated love and sex within a particular cultural context where having multiple sexual partners is regarded as an important aspect of masculinity. Unsurprisingly, the mothers of their children are not extended the same sexual freedom and are culturally not permitted to have multiple partners.

The final cultural overlay considers the impact of criminality on teenage fatherhood and draws on the research by Shade, Kools, Pinderhughes and Weiss (2012) that looked at the developing identity of fatherhood among young Californian men who were also involved in the criminal justice system. Four patterns of fatherhood were identified: those who embraced fatherhood, those who were barred from fatherhood, those who were ambivalent and those who rejected it. Those who embraced fatherhood took great pride in co-parenting and sharing parental responsibilities. They also talked about the mother of their child with deep love and respect and prided themselves on sexual fidelity to their partners, which they regarded as an important feature of being a good father. The majority of men were prevented from fathering due to significant barriers. These included resistance from the child’s mother or her parents, who restricted access to the child, incarceration, mental health issues and limited financial means.

In spite of these considerable barriers, these teenage fathers expressed a strong desire for a relationship with their children and hoped this would provide a motivational boost by encouraging them to make the necessary changes to their lives. Those who were ambivalent were most likely not to ← 284 | 285 → have a caring relationship with the mother of the child and were likely to be unemployed. At one level they believed they should make a financial contribution but were unsure how to do this. Finally, there were some who actively rejected fatherhood. Typically, they had fathered a child with a woman with whom they were not in a meaningful relationship. The mothers of their children were, accordingly, devalued. They held negative views of women and took no responsibility for contraception, believing this was exclusively the woman’s responsibility. In some cases, the men faced lengthy prison terms that constrained paternal involvement. While they rejected the current circumstances of paternity, they talked about wanting children in the future when it was time to settle down with the right partner.

Summary and concluding insights

Our research into the experience of teenage fatherhood challenged the prevailing negative stereotypes. Mostly the teenage fathers who have been the subject of these studies are far from disinterested and unwilling participants in their children’s lives. Fatherhood entails many responsibilities. While this is true for fathers of all ages, it is acutely so for the teenage father. Are teenage fathers too young to be considered as successful responsible parents? The contemporary research suggests not, but when responsibility is operationalized through the traditional male imperative to provide, the challenges faced by the teenage father are considerable. These include the demands of work, fiscal responsibilities and parental obligations. Further, when working, these young men become time poor, which impacts on the expectations that as new fathers they will be nurturant, caring and willing to spend time with their children.

The discourse of intergenerational repair has retained its currency in the latest literature. Indeed, the desire to ensure their children benefit from better parenting has become even more pronounced in the recent literature. Fatherhood stimulated thinking about their own fathers and this was ← 285 | 286 → particularly so for those whose fathers had been absent. This left a strong wish for these teenage fathers to be different, to be better and to be present.

The positive transformative function of fatherhood whereby becoming a parent became a motivational turning point also retained currency. The push toward self-improvement was prominent in the new literature, with young fathers talking about lifestyle changes in order to become better fathers. Prior to parenthood they often felt lost; their child provided the impetus to become better people. The trend for new fathers to become more empathic, caring men was also evident in changing identities and relationships.

The original discourse of dual identity saw, at its simplest, young men thrust into accelerated maturation in terms of social expectations as one identity was replaced with another. The new literature suggests that as loving fathers the emotional and psychological impact is evident. Participants talk about emotional connections to their children, pride in their achievements as new fathers, and increased control over their lives, which now involved a strong sense of paternal purpose. The unique love which is both given and received from a child increased their happiness and fulfilment. However, not all identified with their role of father, with one small group resisting any obligation to provide for their children. This group claimed to have been trapped by their partners’ failure to take responsibility for contraception and – with only one exception – these men had negative relationships with the mothers of their children. This apparent hostility toward fatherhood and the child’s mother highlights the importance of relationships, to which we now turn our attention.

Our original research documented a more mature outlook toward the importance of social relationships. Teenage aloofness was replaced with an appreciation of the importance of wider family relationships and the support afforded by these relationships. The most recent literature has supplemented this understanding and begun to show a more sophisticated and complex understanding of teenage fatherhood and the structural relationships which are fundamental to its viability and success. The notion of gendered deprivation came to light when participants considered their own parents and noted they had been able to rely on their mothers while, for many, their fathers had been absent or emotionally inaccessible. Accordingly, they felt deprived of lessons in masculinity. ← 286 | 287 →

In the complicated assemblage of relationships that support successful teenage fatherhood, prime importance must go to the relationship with the mother of the child. The importance of this cannot be overstated, since it mediates the relationship the teenage father can have with his child. The aspiration to be a good father became strained if the teenage father was separated from the baby’s mother. The grandparents on both sides also assume great importance and can be a foundational source of support.

Finally, the complexity of these relationships was demonstrated by studies that considered two key overlays – culture and criminality. For South African Zulu, customs dictate that in the case of an unwed pregnancy the father must pay money to the woman’s family in order to retain access to both child and mother. Incarceration had an impact on fatherhood for young Californian fathers, some of whom embraced fatherhood; others were prevented from participation; still others remained ambivalent; a small number rejected this completely. The complications for teenage fathers behind bars are almost overwhelming as they attempt to negotiate resistance from the child’s mother, and/or her parents, incarceration, mental health issues and extremely limited financial means.

This chapter has assessed the currency of our research conclusions in the light of a review of contemporary international studies of teenage fathers. It is somewhat gratifying to be able to report that the tentative findings of our earlier exploratory research have largely been supported. The latest studies do support the key discourses, but also supplement and expand these in ways which contribute to our knowledge of teenage fatherhood. We did get some things right – and the recent epistemic validation of this work has added layers of complexity and depth to our fundamental understanding of this important, and often overlooked, aspect of teen parenting.

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