Since the news broke that Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin‘s teenage daughter is pregnant by an 18-year-old young man, our nation has had one of its most candid conversations about teen fatherhood I can remember. As in the Palin situation, it happens.
The conversation has exposed our nation’s confusion and, at times, indifference about dealing with teen fathers, as well as some of our lingering prejudices against fathers in general.
On the one hand, commentators are suggesting 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 be suggesting 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 youth who can’t possibly know how to raise a child effectively.
It not surprising that teen fathers are too often locked into a “fight or flight” dichotomy.
It is a conundrum I know well. 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 introduced a now-famous model of dealing with tragedy in her book, “On Death and Dying.” Her framework on the “five stages of grief” 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.
Our responsibility as parents, counselors and shapers of culture is to stand alongside these young men and guide them through this grieving process so they can be the kinds of fathers their children deserve.
The five stages of grief that Miss 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 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. The difference between boyhood and fatherhood is the requirement to say “no.” I had to say “no” to a lot of things 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 watch TV until 3 a.m.”
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 bargained 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.
By the time my son was born, I realized what an incredible blessing he was. My parents separated when I was about 7 years old and 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 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 them to become disconnected from what is happening around them during the pregnancy.
Indeed, we should not shun teen fathers; we should support and encourage them. We should not just ask them for dollars, but we also should help them develop the skills they need to connect with their children, heart to heart. After all, their children deserve nothing less.
• Roland C. Warren is the president of the National Fatherhood Initiative. He can be reached at rwarren@ fatherhood.org.