The MTV reality series is called Teen Mom, not Teen Dad. The disturbing figures from Memphis, Tennessee schools refer to how many teen girls are pregnant, not how many teen boys have made a baby. Having lived through that scary first year, from finding out my child was going to become a parent to witnessing the reality of a baby, I know that teen pregnancy happens to teen dads as well as to the mom. My son was a teenage father.
I did not know what to say after my husband told me one winter afternoon that our high school senior was going to be a father. My son sat nearby, his head in his hands. My heart was breaking for him. But I was angry, too. And hurt.
On one hand I was shocked that my son was going to be a father. Here was a good and responsible kid. Although he had an unremarkable school career, he showed up every day, his teachers liked him, and he had never been in any trouble. He was efficient and reliable at his part-time job. He didn't abuse his driving privileges, and we rarely had fights over curfew.
On the other hand, I had been half expecting to hear this sort of news ever since my son had poked his head into my bedroom late one night to tell me he was in love.
At the time, I went on Red Alert, tightening security. I told him that even though teenagers in our culture were bombarded with ads, TV shows, movies, and songs that were all about sex, they were not ready for the consequences. My son was furious that I didn't trust him. It wasn't him I was worried about: it was his biologically programmed hormones, not to mention his girlfriend's.
Now I was living my worst nightmare. And he was too.
Before his impending fatherhood, his goals had been to stay out as late as he wanted and to move away from home as soon as possible. He had visions of traveling the world and owning an expensive car. As parents, we knew reality would catch up with those fantasies. We trusted that as he transitioned to adulthood, he would have time to figure out what he wanted to do while we provided the necessities.
But the future was now.
My vision of what was in store for these two kids was not rosy. My mother said, trying to console me, "Life is change." "Shut up," I wanted to snarl. I didn't make her a grandmother until I was 29, a reasonable age for that kind of responsibility. My son was 18. Everyone knew this could not be a good thing.
He decided not to rush into marriage, pointing out the obvious: "I think it will be hard enough trying to figure out how to be a father," he said, let alone a husband to someone he wasn't really sure he wanted to be with his whole life. He didn't get married, but he did support his girlfriend emotionally through the pregnancy.
After his daughter was born, his entire life and outlook changed. He grew up immediately. He went to a technical college, worked part-time, studied, took care of his daughter part-time and paid child support. But we all pitched in - her parents and his dad and me. The kids each lived at home and shared parenting responsibilities between their parents' houses.
It was difficult, but perhaps more so for a teenage dad. My son had to sue for his natural rights as a father in our state because he and his girlfriend had never cohabited. He had all the financial responsibilities of a father, but none of the rights. Having to litigate was not conducive to a good working relationship between our families.
My son also had to take parenting courses in order to receive his rights, although his girlfriend did not. Our experience was that all services for teen parents are geared toward teen moms, not teen dads. I remember realizing for the first time why there might be a different side to young "deadbeat" dads. Our systems - healthcare, government, education, social -- are not set up to offer support and structure to teen fathers.
While his girlfriend had friends who were in the same situation and others who had been there, done that, it was a lonely time for our son. He felt people judged him when he was out with the baby. He was embarrassed to run into his friends in stores when he was shopping for diapers and clothes for little girls. He had no peer group, no friends with whom to share stories about his daughter's progress. But all that faded away when he was at home and in charge. He was, much to my surprise, a great daddy, and worked steadily to be worthy of his new role.
I don't think he would have been motivated to set and achieve goals right out of high school if he hadn't been scared out of his wits about providing for his daughter. Based on his high school grades, his dad and I would never have predicted that he would get A's in difficult college courses, or that he would get a job changing tracheotomy tubes and weaning heart surgery patients off ventilators in a hospital. His work was saving lives. In addition to all his other responsibilities, he managed to train as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician as well as volunteer with children at a shelter for battered women.
Being a teenage dad not only made my son a father, but turned a self-absorbed teenager into a man.
It could easily have gone another way; perhaps if the families hadn't been involved to offer basic support, for instance. My son is now married with four daughters and a great job. His ex-girlfriend is married with three daughters and lives in the same small town. The families blend together in times of need, which is something I never thought I would witness.
I hope for the best for all the teenage moms in the public eye on reality shows and those coming to the attention of the nation with possible "copycat" pregnancies and those who try to hide their pregnancies and don't tell anyone. But let's not forget the teenage dads, who share the responsibilities and burdens of raising our country's children born to young or unprepared parents.
There is hope for these young people that they will catch up to the maturity they need to function well as parents. At the same time, it is important to teach teens who are not currently on the mommy/daddy track that it's a very difficult position to be in at such a young age. I don't know if MTV's reality series is helping with that task.
Tell us: What would you do if your teenage son became a father? Would you help him in any way?
About the Author: Judy Kirkwood is happy to be a grandmother - and that her children are no longer teenagers.
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