Teenage fathers need support

My son turned “free!” - his word - not mine in August this year. As I reflect on that Saturday three years ago when he came into the world at quarter past three in the afternoon, weighing in at 2,9 kilogrammes and measuring 49 centimetres long, I marvel at the challenges, joys and fears that have characterised my life in this new role. You see, I stopped being only a man that day, I became a father.

In time and through reliance on human and written resources, I have become better at embracing all my roles and responsibilities as a father. I can only imagine how much tougher the challenge of fatherhood is for a teenage father. Research titled Teenage Tata, Voices of Young Fathers in South Africa (Human Sciences Research Council, 2009) indicates that teenage fathers often do not get a lot of support as families, communities and organisations focus on the needs of teenage mothers.

My partner and I had our son when we were in our late 20’s, somewhat financially stable and with a supportive network of friends and family. Although we were ready to be parents, I soon found myself experiencing a roller coaster of emotions, and increasingly weighed under by new expectations regarding the baby.

While my partner dealt with hormonal fluctuations, I tried to deal with my own fears and challenges. Although as relevant as my partner’s, my fears were very different. But my partner had a lot of support: from her mother, sisters, friends, other women with children and the medical providers paid to listen and help. The pregnancy”show” revolves around the mother. Fathers, left on the fringes, are expected to simultaneously support their partners and cope with their own feelings, even when they do not know how.

During the course of the pregnancy, I went into “provision mode” with my main worry being whether I would be able to provide for my child. After the baby, clothes, furniture and diapers had been bought. I turned to worrying about whether I would be able to afford a “good school”. Expectant fathers can feel left out of the pregnancy as they do not actually carry the baby, do not experience hormonal changes and cannot do much to eradicate heartburn and morning sickness. “Provider” seems to be the only role that fathers fit into perfectly. But a teenage father with no job, no source of income and little family support is at a disadvantage.

The SADC Gender Protocol Barometer (2011) notes that many of the campaigns and interventions in southern African countries which promote men’s involvement in sexual and reproductive health are less focused on encouraging men’s involvement in family planning and in supporting their partners during care. The campaigns focus more on prevention of HIV and sexually transmitted infections. The assumption is that contraceptive use and prevention of pregnancy is solely a woman’s role, taking responsibility for an unplanned pregnancy away from men. Pregnancy, child delivery and child care thus become, by extension, also a woman’s responsibility.

According to the HSRC, many teenage fathers are aware of the magnitude of the responsibility of parenting. They would like to play a role in raising their child. In the research Teenage Tata, Voices of Young Fathers in South Africa young fathers between the ages of 14 and 20 years explained that just like young mothers, they need two main things. They need support to improve their educational and economic circumstances so that they can fulfil their caregiver and provider roles. They also need family support and parenting information that can help them to support their partners and children.

I have grown a lot emotionally since my son’s birth. I experienced every emotion; among them anticipation, fear, pride, frustration and confusion. My ability, or not, to meet the societal and cultural expectations of fatherhood determined these emotions.

No one taught me how to be a parent, I have had to make up a lot of the rules as I went along and looked for support and information where I could find it. My partner provided some of the resources I needed, as did friends with children who have gone through the same things. A lot of my information came from the Internet.

All I know is that I want a good life for my son, and I will take advice where I can find it. There are increasingly more resources for men on fatherhood. These resources also aim to encourage young men to question some of the patriarchal beliefs that discourage nurturing and engagement. But there is need for more, efforts to target these resources at young fathers in low income and rural communities.

Tafadzwa Sekeso is a Zimbabwean knowledge management and communications consultant based in South Africa. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis
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  1. Daniela Gennrich

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