Too young to be a dad? | The Observer (UK)

August 11, 2013


“Mark” and “Lucy” had been together for three years, on and off, at school when, aged 16, Lucy became pregnant. Soon after, the relationship ended. “I told her I’d broken up with her but I hadn’t broken up with our baby,” says Mark, now 20. “Right from the beginning, I wanted to be a proper dad and do what you’re supposed to do.”

For two years, Mark has had Katie two days a week, helped by his parents and sister. During that time he has also been fighting through the courts for full custody of his daughter, who is in the care of her maternal grandmother. Several months after Katie’s birth, social services had become concerned about Lucy’s drinking. Now, she sees her daughter once a week.

In Mark’s case, to show the strength of his intent to the judge and social workers, he abandoned his ambition to become an engineer, found a full-time job in retail, took courses in parenting and asked his employer to give him a character reference for the courts. “He said I had great potential. I’ve already been promoted. I’m not bigging myself up, but that’s not bad for a 20-year-old,” says Mark.

“I’ve asked for an independent social worker because Katie’s social worker treats me as if I’m invisible,” he adds. “The assumption is that because I’m young I can’t be responsible. At one point they tried to say I was working on the days I have Katie but it was all there on the company records. I want to take Katie for a week’s holiday. It’s in England, not Spain, but her grandma has said no. So it’s back to court, again and again. All I’m trying to do is the right thing. I know she’s the grandma but being the dad has to count for something, too.”

Given how often the stereotype of the feral jobless teenager, fathering a tribe of offspring with different women, figures in the media, it is perhaps surprising that no statistics are kept on the number of “young fathers” – classified as anyone becoming a dad under the age of 24, and often much younger. What is known is that, unlike Mark, many have had only a fleeting relationship with the mother but still want to play a positive role as a father. What often stands in their way is a system that frequently focuses on the child first, the mother second and turns the dad into a shadow – even though, like Mark, he may have the support of his entire family.

“The reality of modern-day Britain is that many of the fathers we work with have never had a relationship with the mother of their child. Nevertheless, they still want to stay involved,” says Shane Ryan, 41, chief executive of the award-winning charity Working With Men (WWM), which recruits its workers from the communities from which the young dads come, and sticks with them to improve their qualifications, employment opportunities and life skills. “We need to think about the different concepts of family life. The system needs to be flexible enough to deal with that variety.”


‘For too long our culture has treated boys who become fathers as detached misfits’: Olatunde Kareem, 21, with his son Aaron, three. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Ryan says many of the young men he works with are already marginalised, from ethnicminority groups or less affluent backgrounds; some may have come from families with a history of abuse or mental health issues, or have been in trouble at school. “Once they become dads, too often that pattern of exclusion begins again. They are expected to fail when they have assets and love to offer. Some teenage mothers, support services and grandparents can make it extremely difficult for them to gain a foothold in their children’s lives.”

Cory Ellison is 16. He is polite, articulate and smart and, when we first meet in early May, he has plans. He has no qualifications, no home and, until his benefits are sorted, he has no income but he does have a new tattoo on his right arm. Large, calligraphy-rich letters spell the name “Riley-Romero” and the date, 19/03/13. Cory’s face lights up with pleasure and pride. “That’s my son,” he says with a broad smile. Riley-Romero’s mother, Jordan, is also 16 and she has been in foster care for 10 years. She says the baby weighed 6lb 1oz, and was born after two hours of labour with Cory in attendance.

“When she first told me I didn’t take it seriously,” says Cory. “To be honest, I didn’t know her all that well. Now, we’ve bonded. I think she’s wonderful.” They spend most of their time in his hostel, at the park or taking Riley-Romero to the Horniman Museum in south London. “We chill out. I’d rather go and see my son than my friends. Friends are mad. You can be influenced so quickly and do something you regret. I have to be mature now. So I’d rather be safe than sorry. Everyone has the choice to sell drugs and that. Riley is the reason I don’t. He’s the reason I want to be a businessman. He matters.”

Cory’s own parents split up when he was very young. Earlier this year his mother threw him out of the house. “She said that I couldn’t take anything that she had paid for…” That included his clothes and his school uniform. He was in Year 10 aiming to take five GCSEs. He is not in school now but he wants to go back; he lives in a hostel. “I’m the youngest in the place. The first two days I couldn’t sleep, I was scared. It was the first time I realised, nobody’s going to protect me now.”

Disruption has been a pattern in his life. At the age of 10, he was sent to Florida to live with Gloria, his grandmother. “I was bad in primary school. Rude to teachers and that. It took two years for her to sort out my behaviour. It wasn’t meant to take so long but it did.” He smiles shyly.

Cory has all the right intentions but he is in a system that appears designed to sabotage every young father’s efforts to stay involved in his child’s life. In housing, for instance, residential units are mostly for mother and baby and the benefits system doesn’t bend easily to parents who split the care of a child, while the attitudes of some professionals is highly negative. One young dad at Working With Men says, “When I showed them our birth plan and said I was going to be there, the midwife said, ‘I expect you’d rather be with your mates.'”

According to the Office for National Statistics, 47.2% of the 723,913 babies born in England and Wales in 2011 had a mother and a father who were not married or in a civil partnership. The proportion of children who begin life without a resident father is higher in Britain that in most other European countries, though in a 2005 study 45% of non-resident fathers had attended the birth. But if the relationship between father and mother is fragile, and the mother denies access, many teenage fathers lack the resources to fight for the right to be in their child’s life.

Since the 1970s the academics Charlie Lewis and Michael E Lamb, among others, have challenged stereotypical and one-dimensional portrayals of fathers as “deadbeat dads” or “play partners” incapable of the serious business of rearing a child. Professor Lamb argues that “good enough” fathers perform very similar roles to that of “good enough” mothers; they offer love, interest, boundaries and security. More recent research suggests that both the quantity and quality of father-child interactions during the early childhood years can lead to fewer behavioural problems, greater emotional self-regulation, increased language development and improved cognitive functioning for young children. Evidence shows that the more fathers engage with their babies, the more likely their relationships with their children will be sustained over years, in spite of divorce or separation.


‘I was there at the birth. I’ve read everything I can about child psychology’: Ali Hakeem Lahrech, 18, with his girlfriend Sarah, and their baby boy. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

There are plenty of success stories at WWM: Olatunde Kareem is 21, his son Aaron is three, he works 12-hour shifts, managing security, and tells me proudly that his girlfriend Deborah is in her second year at university. Ali Hakeem Lahrech, 18, has been a father for two weeks when we meet: “I was there at the birth,” he says. “I’ve read everything I can about child psychology.”

For young fathers, however, the barriers to becoming a “good enough” dad are multiple and complex not least because, too often, their own needs aren’t addressed. Many have little or no contact with midwives, health visitors, social workers or the staff of children’s centres. A study for the Department of Work and Pensions published last year describes “a cycle of disengagement”. “Low self-esteem leads to an inability to find appropriate support both because of a reluctance to seek [it] and a lack of available services. That leads to increased frustration and conflict with the mother.”

A report by the charity Barnardo’s, “Are We Nearly There Yet, Dad?” shows that while there are individual projects such as the Barnardo’s BabyFather Initiative working in children’s centres, there is very little tailor-made help. Nevertheless, some young dads, like Mark, refuse to give up. Shane Ryan says the numbers of young fathers who try to win custody when mothers experience difficulties is rising.

“It’s very difficult for many of these young men,” says Chris Facey, a WWM Young Fathers Development worker. “They have to sit through meetings with lawyers and social workers. Everyone has a negative perception of their abilities and they have to keep their cool. At risk is the real chance that if they show their frustration, even by an inch, their child may be put up for adoption. It happens. It takes maturity to handle a situation like that.”

“All I hear from the social worker is build up your relationship this, build up your relationship that,” another young dad tells me. “Well hold on a minute, if the mum is not willing to build on that relationship, then how are you meant to do it?”

The battle to maintain a set of relationships can be hard: grandparents disapprove; new boyfriends and girlfriends come and go; plans are measured in hours not weeks, money is short. Eight weeks after Cory and I first meet, Jordan says they have had “a little misunderstanding”. She hasn’t seen him lately; his mobile phone number has changed. Yet Cory had wanted so badly to be the right kind of dad.

Mark S Kiselica writes in When Boys Become Parents, “For too long our culture has treated boys who become fathers… as detached misfits who are the architects of many of our nation’s problems, rather than seeing these youth for who they really are: young men trying to navigate a complex array of difficult life circumstances that place them at a tremendous disadvantage.” Investment in high-quality compulsory relationship education in schools and a national holistic service for young parents would benefit children, mums and dads. It would save the taxpayer money in the long run, since absent and neglectful dads also exact a cost, as many of the young fathers interviewed testified about their own childhoods. “They can become the men they want to be,” says Shane Ryan.


‘I tried bringing her up tomboyish but she’s not having it’: Christopher Ferguson, 25, with Soraya, five. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Owen Thomas, who manages the WWM Fathers Development team, introduces me to Christopher Ferguson, 25, whose daughter, Soraya, is five. Chris shows me a photograph of a striking little girl smiling in a party frock. “I tried to bring her up tomboyish,” Chris says, smiling. “But she’s not having it. She likes her dresses.” I ask who does Soraya’s hair, immaculate in bunches. “Every lady asks that,” Chris says amiably. “I do her hair. It’s like ladies don’t expect you to be up for that kind of thing. When Soraya was younger, women in the street felt they had the right to say, ‘You’re not holding her right.’ They wouldn’t do that with another woman. Now Soraya is older, they say to her, ‘Are you with your daddy for the day?'”

Chris has cared for her full time since she was a baby. Now Soraya is in full-time school, he is looking for a job to fit round school hours. “And that’s not easy.” The two live on £148.50 in benefits a week. Chris has £600 in debt that he is also paying off. In the early years, he and Soraya moved from bed and breakfast to hostels to temporary accommodation but now they live in a two-bedroom social housing flat, close to her school. “Financially we are trying to do a lot on a little but we get by.”

Soraya’s mother, Naomi, was brought up in care. “We weren’t very involved. No hand-holding stuff and that. Then, when I found out she was pregnant, I asked for a DNA test and signed the birth certificate so I have parental responsibility. I was very intent on certain things for my daughter.” After Soraya was born, he and her mother shared care. “But Naomi started to leave Soraya with me for days at a time. I couldn’t turn up for work and when there were redundancies I was the first to go.” Chris now has sole charge of Soraya. “The system worked for me but for a lot of young dads it doesn’t. The mum trumps all. Some dads give up, behave macho and act as if they don’t care but they feel those emotions. I know they do.”

Naomi now has a two-year-old son. Chris tries to maintain regular contact between Soraya and her mother but he says it’s difficult. “I try to deal with it all positively. It’s important for Soraya. When people ask her a question she can say, ‘Yes, that’s my mum.’

“I’ve got great parents,” he adds. “I was raised with a very strong idea about parenthood and responsibilities. I was worried in the early stages that there wouldn’t be enough feminine energy around Soraya but she sees a lot of my family and my girlfriend’s family. It’s me and her but we’re not closed in.”

Chris says he keeps a tight domestic ship: bed by seven on school days, plenty of fruit and veg (lamb tagine is on the menu tonight. Pre-Soraya, he lived on fast food). “Our set-up is how men like to parent. Rules are rules and that doesn’t change.” He smiles. “I think she’s brilliant. She’s bright as light.”

Source: Too young to be a dad? (

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *