By Roland C. Warren, President, National Fatherhood Initiative
Due to several high profile celebrities becoming teen parents in recent years, our nation has been having one of its most candid conversations about teen fatherhood that I can remember.
However, the conversation has exposed our nation’s confusion and, at times, indifference about dealing with teen fathers. It has also exposed some of our lingering prejudices against fathers in general.
On the one hand, commentators often suggest that teen fathers need to “buck up” and “do the right thing.” Usually they simply mean providing financially, which is a symptom of our culture’s tendency to frame fatherhood in strictly economic terms.
On the other hand, some commentators seem to suggest that all parties would be better off if teen fathers were to move along, get on with their lives, and let the teen mother and her family deal with the pregnancy. After all, he has an education he needs to tend to, and he is just a boy who can’t possibly know how to raise a child effectively.
Therefore, it not surprising that teen fathers are too often locked into a “fight or flight” dichotomy.
It is a conundrum that I know well since I was essentially a teen father. My first son was born when I was a 20-year-old college student, and I feel compelled to help teenage boys, and our culture, sort out what all of this means.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book, On Death and Dying, introduced a now-famous model of dealing with tragedy, “The Five Stages of Grief.” It is instructive in our conversation about teen fatherhood, because teen fatherhood is the death of boyhood.
Kubler-Ross’ grief framework gives us powerful insights into the minds of teenage boys when they learn they are to be fathers; they are grieving the death of their boyhoods. Therefore, it is our responsibility as parents, counselors, and shapers of culture to stand alongside them and guide them through this grieving process so that they can be the kinds of fathers their children deserve.
The five stages of grief that Kubler-Ross described are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Having gone through this myself, I know how each of those stages plays out. For example, when I first found out that my then-girlfriend, now-wife, was pregnant, I did not want to believe it. I was in denial.
You see, boyhood is fun and you can say “yes” to just about anything. But the difference between boyhood and fatherhood is the requirement to say “no.” I started having to say “no” to a lot of things that most college students take for granted. “No, I can’t go to that party.” “No, I can’t go on that road trip.” “No, I can’t stay up until 3 a.m. watching TV.” I needed to work because I was going to be a father. I must admit that for a time, I was a bit angry.
At times, I even started bargaining with myself and others. I tried to negotiate how often I could stay out late with my buddies or how much of my time it really would take to be an involved father. When I realized that involved, responsible, and committed fatherhood was going to be a full time job, I got a bit depressed.
Life as I knew it had come to an unceremonious end.
But by the time my son was born, I realized what an incredible blessing he was. After my parents separated when I was about 7-years-old, my father slowly faded from my life. His absence hurt quite a bit and, frankly, still does today. So, I was deeply motivated to not do the same thing to my son. I entered the acceptance stage. My new son was my chance to move from oppression to opportunity – the perceived oppression of new responsibilities to the wonderful opportunity to try and be a good father for my son and a good husband to my wife.
By understanding teen fatherhood as the death of boyhood, we can come to a deeper appreciation of the unique challenges that teen fathers face, often with little to no support because, generally, most of the focus is on the teen mother. Accordingly, it is very easy for teen dads to become disconnected from what is happening around them during the pregnancy, which is unfortunate since the research suggests that this is a unique period when new fathers are most interested in learning how to be good dads.
Indeed, we should not shun teen fathers; we should support and encourage them. We should not just ask them for dollars but we should help them develop the skills that they need to connect with their children — heart to heart. After all, their children deserve nothing less.