By Taylor Vandenbossche, MPH | June 22, 2017
Graduate Research Intern, ETR
What comes to mind when you hear the words “young father”? I’ve noticed the narrative behind teen pregnancy often focuses solely on the thoughts and feelings of the mother. Funding and programs primarily serve teen moms.
So what about the young fathers? Why have we ignored them? Are they uninterested? Unavailable? Or have we just not asked them about their experiences?
Uncovering the thoughts and feelings, dreams and aspirations of young fathers may help us better understand the dynamics of teen pregnancy and support culturally appropriate interventions for all teens.
As an intern with ETR this past semester, I’ve had the chance to get a glimpse into the lives and stories of many young fathers who were partners of the teen moms in our AIM4Teen Moms study.
In-depth qualitative phone interviews were conducted with a convenience sample of 69 young men who were still in contact with the teen mom two to three years after the birth of the child. The interviewers asked these young fathers questions about their attitudes, intentions and knowledge related to sex and contraception. They also asked about their relationships with the mother and the child.
I’ve been immersed in both the quantitative and qualitative data from these interviews over the past five months. Their stories have made me think about teen pregnancy prevention a little differently. Here are some of the conclusions I’ve drawn.
Although the majority of the teen moms in our study tell us that they did not stay with the father of the baby, we found that approximately 40% of the couples have stayed in contact. Of the fathers interviewed, 86% were in some type of relationship with the mother, and 63% said that they got along with the mother really well. At the time of the interview, 61% percent of fathers reported living with the mother and the child.
These young men provide insight and understanding into the realities of young fathers who choose to be a part of their child’s lives. They work hard to provide for their children and themselves, but receive little recognition for their efforts. It is safe to say that their time is precious—73% of the fathers interviewed hold full-time jobs (40 or more hours per week).
The contact they have with their child is limited to the times they are not working. The main reasons fathers had little contact with their child were cited as (1) not having enough time or (2) work hours interfering (for example, working nights). It’s easy to buy into our culture’s portrayal of the “deadbeat dad” or absent teen father, but these fathers’ experiences suggest a different possible narrative for many young men.
Understanding their individual stories has helped me see that many young fathers do want to be involved with raising their children and have often been excluded from teen pregnancy prevention programs based on stereotypes.
Most of the teen fathers associated with this study who remain a part of the mother’s and child’s lives say that they do not want to have more children. Their attitudes and behaviors towards birth control seem inconsistent with this goal. Forty-four percent reported not using any form of birth control in the last three months.
This is certainly cause for alarm in terms of pregnancy prevention. If these individuals do not want more children, why are they declining to use birth control?
I believe it has to do with inadequate knowledge. We asked our sample several factual questions regarding birth control methods, and for each of the items about 40% answered “Don’t Know." It is imperative we take steps to better educate both young mothers and young fathers.
We are working with some truly in-depth data in our study. This has changed my perspective on the way society looks at young fathers. DoSomething, a global non-profit encouraging young people to get engaged in social change, has reported that 8 out of 10 teen dads do not marry the mother of their child.
Even when young parents don’t marry, it is important to involve the father in some respect. They want to be good fathers. To one father interviewed, this meant “raising them, being there for them, showing them what is right from wrong and being a good influence on them.” This may not always mean staying with the mother. Can we identify reasons young fathers don’t stay with the mother after the child is born?
It’s equally important to understand why young parents do stay together. The fathers in our study are quite involved with their children. Eighty percent report being happy in their role as a parent. They feel close to their child (or children) and enjoying spending time with them.
It’s time to include young men in prevention programs. We need to understand their stories and dreams. We need more opportunities to see all the ways young fathers don’t conform to stereotypes. Let’s offer them some relief from the stigma and judgment that can create obstacles to their success as parents.
I’d like to see future programs incorporate efforts to increase empathy and understanding towards young fathers. We can create programs that help them be more proactive with their child. We can share information, skills and strategies that support their goals about whether or not to have additional children at this time in their lives.
I believe these efforts would strengthen our pregnancy prevention efforts, support greater involvement of young fathers with their children, and help all youth make more informed decisions about their futures.
Taylor Vandenbossche, MPH, is a graduate research intern at ETR and a recent graduate of the MPH program at California Baptist University. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org