Mark is 14. And a dad

The Government wants to chase up teenage fathers for financial contributions. But some young men have far more to offer their families than a fiver a week - if only they had the chance to give it.
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The Independent Culture
When Mark Thurley was 19, his teenage girlfriend Aisling became pregnant and life changed utterly for both of them. "Abortion was not an option," recalls Mark. "So there was no other option than to become a father."

That meant moving with Aisling and baby Jessica into one room of a council hostel in Hertford. "I was barman, motorcycle courier, cleaner. You name it, I did it," he says. "There's always that concern that you need the money. I just had to switch almost overnight from being a teenage boy to being a father."

He has no regrets. "You cannot have regrets. I think kids are fantastic. I can play with them in the park. I'm still very young and able, still got a lot going for me.

"You just have to keep hold of the long-term picture. You have to realise that for 20 years or so someone else will get everything you wanted as a young lad. But it's hard. Your friends are off doing things, drinking and that. Fortunately, I was never a big drinker, because at pounds 2 a pint you have to realise that the money is better spent in a supermarket on food."

Tony Blair would probably be delighted with Mark Thurley - although he might have preferred him to wait a little longer before becoming a father. The Prime Minister wants young men to understand the consequences of early fatherhood. Yesterday he promised to get the Child Support Agency to chase them up once they start jobs, so they pay their share for the upkeep of their children.

The CSA will not, however, be bothering Mr Thurley. Yesterday lunch time, when we spoke, he was leaving to take over from Aisling at a local drug company where they double-shift, packing tablets into bottles. "We don't see each other between 6am and 10pm, but it brings in the money," he said. They need it. Before leaving for work (while talking to me) he had to give lunch to the family's latest additions - triplets aged 15 months.

But thousands of young fathers, who aren't living with their children, may in future get a call from the CSA once they begin earning. They are not, typically, teenagers - only one in three of the fathers of teenage mothers' babies are themselves under 20. However, one in 10 young men aged between 20 and 24 say they are dads. Half of them are unemployed.

It seems fair enough that they should contribute to their offspring. Mark Thurley has no argument with the principle. But is that enough? Is that all the state will do to help forge a good relationship between young men and their children? Across the United States now there is recognition that young fathers are easily pushed aside and need active encouragement. In hospitals staff are waging a highly successful campaign to encourage both parents to put their names on the birth certificate. Some programmes, recognising that young men may be leading chaotic, unstable lives, assign a worker specifically for the father for the first two years. In a sense they are parented, because, like many teenage mothers, they may not yet be mature enough to set aside their own desires for those of an infant. Mark Thurley knows such fathers among his contemporaries. "Some cannot hack it. Perhaps it is delayed shock and resentment at how the consequences of a short period of pleasure can overtake your life."

There are also other types of support offered in the US. If young fathers attend parenting classes, they will be rewarded with packs of photos, an ideal present for that maternal grandma who might prefer her daughter to have nothing to do with the young man who made her a mother.

Plenty of food and free transport to support centres is provided - all ideas that have worked well in drawing in young mothers and are now being applied to fathers. And much of the work is funded through cash raised via child support initiatives such as the CSA. In Minnesota, businesses additionally provide "baby bucks", vouchers given to active fathers and redeemable at local stores. In that state, child-care workers make a point of going up to men holding children in the street and praising the child, to make the father feel positive about what he is doing.

Would these approaches work here? It is not clear, as there is so little research on young fathers. Much of what is known is gathered in young offenders' institutions, where recent surveys have shown that up to 30 per cent are about to become or are already fathers. It is a figure that demonstrates the huge social disadvantages many young fathers face, and the need for a more thorough approach.

Among these men there is a chance to create good fathers. American research suggests that 90 per cent of disadvantaged young fathers visit the mother and baby in hospital. Additionally, the most thorough existing research in the UK, by Dr Suzanne Speak at Newcastle University, suggests that there is a desire for involvement among young fathers, which could be encouraged. Her 1997 study found that the image of the young father as feckless Don Juan was inaccurate. They are usually no more sexually sophisticated than their peers who are not fathers.

Dr Speak discovered that they frequently contribute money, goods and child-care support, at least for the first two years. Indeed some non- resident young fathers were so deeply involved with caring for their children that they saw a conflict between fathering and taking certain jobs.

Mark Thurley is typical. Far from being a superstud who led his young partner astray, he confesses to having been a virgin until he met Aisling. Now he reflects: "I had always dreamed of joining the Army,. But I soon realised that there was no way I could be a good dad and be in the Army, so I had to forget about that."

The Newcastle study also located young men who had no relationship with the mother, and no cash. The majority still said they were "committed to being there" for their children.

Another interesting straw in the wind is research that was recently conducted among 300 teenage boys in London comprehensive schools. They were asked to rank certain tasks for fathers. Top came "loving your child"; second was "being responsible". Typically "bread winning" came in 10th or 11th, suggesting that young fathers, even when they have no paid work, still perceive themselves as having an important job to do.

If, then, there is this desire among many young fathers to be active in their children's lives, what is going wrong? We cannot escape seeing what is all too obvious to the eye - hundreds of thousands of women who are managing their children largely alone.

"Disengagement tends to be gradual," according to Adrienne Burgess, author of Fatherhood Reclaimed. "It is driven by many factors, from personal chaos to the attitudes of parents and professionals who may be dismissive of the father's potential. Afro-Caribbean fathers may experience racial stereotyping; there are often false beliefs about the primary importance of the mother-child relationship, which can leave Dad out in the cold."

Ms Burgess, a co-founder of Fathers Direct, the new independent information service for fathers, argues that health professionals often regard young fathers negatively - seeing them as not ready to be parents unless they are fully vocationally trained and employed, whereas, for mothers, full- time employment may be regarded as incompatible with motherhood.

"Health professionals will often ignore a father unless he is living on the premises," says Ms Burgess. "They'll set him up as an outside figure that the child cannot bond with in a primeval way. Yet it is that early attachment which is so important, which makes a child ask for things from us and motivates us as parents."

The danger, she argues, of failing to engage fathers properly is that further generations of woman will live, possibly unnecessarily, through the stress of raising their children alone, the very problem the Government is trying to avoid.

"We should not forget," says Adrienne Burgess, "that there is some evidence that a father who loses touch will go off and cause another unwanted pregnancy. Just as for women, men can feel the great loss of their children."