Boys to men

by andrew.mcnulty / 26 February, 2005
The stereotype of irresponsible teenage fathers isn't always matched by reality.

Mal Lange's rugged dental topography bears graphic testament to an eventful youth. Almost every one of his front teeth protrudes from his gums at a slightly different angle, creating a geometric effect akin to the carefully gelled hairstyle popular among many short-haired, fashion-conscious men.

Growing up rough in the Waikato town of Cambridge, Mal did a few "burgs" and got into more than a few fights. Just two weeks after his 17th birthday, he became a father. A year later, Mal and Anita - the mother of his child - parted ways. Lange shot through to the Gold Coast, but returned to New Zealand 18 months later when the authorities put his daughter Leanne into care. Anita - a year younger than Mal - was failing to cope with the pressures of young motherhood and physically abused Leanne.

Following a legal battle, Mal was granted sole custody and found himself living in Auckland, working 52 hours a week managing a NZ Drycleaners branch and being a solo dad to Leanne.

This was in the early 80s, when - according to the now 43-year-old Mal - solo dads were virtually non-existent. Looking like he did and at a time when sexual abuse cases were hitting the headlines, Mal reckons that he was regarded with suspicion.

"A lot of people didn't understand why a 21-year-old guy would want to be in that role," he says. "They thought there was something a bit weird about a father wanting to bring up a little girl by himself."

But Mal was too busy to worry about it much. "It was just arse up, head down," he says. He'd take Leanne to work with him just after 7.00am, drop her off to school at 8.30am, head back to work, pick her up after school and go back to work. Around 5.30pm he'd go home to cook dinner, do the household chores and put Leanne to bed. Maybe about once a month he'd get a babysitter, head out with his mates and do the types of things that most guys in their early twenties take for granted.

Despite this gruelling routine and without much support, Lange reckons that he didn't really feel isolated. Although after a few moments of consideration, he adds: "The hardest thing was dropping off and picking up Leanne from school. I'd get to school and little knots of mothers would be standing around and chatting. They didn't make an effort to include me and I didn't have the confidence to approach them."

In the 20 or so years since Mal was a single father, it's hard to gauge how society's attitudes to young fathers have changed. Mal, a counsellor and therapist at West Auckland men's group Man Alive, believes that things have changed, at least a little, for the better. "Society is a bit more tolerant in general now, although still intolerant towards teenage parents, be they male or female," he says. "There's still a lot of judgmental attitudes."

Listening to talk-back radio or reading letters to the editor, it's hard to disagree with him. Solo dads, teenagers especially, get a bad rap. Irresponsible. Running off at the first sign of responsibility. But being a teenage dad isn't the same as being one of the deadbeat dads that National social welfare spokeswoman Judith Collins has described as "nothing more than sperm donors, who use and abuse these women and leave us, the taxpayer, to pay ..."

Many young fathers want to do their bit, but the law doesn't make it easy.

No one knows for sure how many teenage dads there are in New Zealand. Although medical histories, which record age, are taken for young mothers, these do not extend to the father. Parenting services record some information on participants but, again, the majority are female. And applications to WINZ for financial assistance record information from the applicant only and do not necessarily extend to the partner. The proportion of teenage fathers is also difficult to establish, as the age is not recorded for unnamed parents.

But some statistics are available. On Census night, 2001, there were 1356 families where the mother was under the age of 20 and, of these, 375 where the father was also a teenager. Another 285 teen fathers lived with women who were 20 years or older. But this is just part of the teen dad picture - the Census data only captures the numbers of teen dads still living with the mother of their children.

As of January 31, 2005, Inland Revenue had 965 teenage dads registered on its database as paying child support. However, this figure, too, is limited, as it only records fathers who are in the child support system and does not take into account private arrangements between the parents, or fathers who pay nothing at all. On average those teen fathers paid child support of $18.80 a week, compared to $41.50 a week for fathers of all ages. As many as 724 teen dads had missed one or more payments. And yes, there are some teen dads with custody of their child on the DPB, although only 32 of them as of December 2004, down from 48 in 1996.

The slew of stories about teenage dads who mess up certainly doesn't help their public image. The most notorious of these cases was that of rugby league player Shaun Metcalf, the former Junior Warriors player who went to horrific lengths to avoid becoming one. In August 2003, Metcalf - along with two friends - lured his then 15-year-old pregnant girlfriend to a South Auckland park where they punched and kicked her repeatedly, then left her bleeding on the ground in an attempt to make her miscarry. Metcalf and his accomplices - Geoffrey Ruaporo and Kyle Donovan - are now in jail, while his former girlfriend is bringing up the baby, who was born healthy.

There have been tragedies with teenage fathers: two-month-old Samantha Thompson was shaken by her 19-year-old father in Blenheim in '93 and later died. The young father was the sole caregiver and was driven to desperation by the crying baby who refused her bottle. But the grim stereotype isn't always matched by reality. Positive role models abound. Young Shortland Street actor David Wikaira-Paul became the father of a son - Ricco - at the age of 19. In a case of life imitating art, the now 20-year-old actor's character Tama had a baby with partner Shannon, although the show's writers had little Ngakau die when only a week old.

David lives with his 18-year-old partner Samantha and admits that finding his way as an actor, father and musician is not easy. "But who said it was going to be?" he says. "It's tiring, but this is what I wanted to do."

David and Sam's day starts at around 6.30am, when Ricco - six months old - wakes up and lies in bed with his parents. After fixing breakfast, David leaves for Henderson, where Shortland Street is filmed. In his line of work there's no such thing as a typical working week. It can be anything from 25 to 60 hours on set, he says. Sam stays home with Ricco, but is managing to study extramurally for a bachelors degree in sport and recreation, through Massey University. Sam goes to a special centre for teenage mums, where she can study, while Ricco is cared for at an on-site creche. As well as his acting work, David practises every Wednesday night with his hip-hop group BDS and plays about four gigs a month.

"It's hard trying to juggle work, family commitments, plus trying to pursue a musical career," says David. "It gets tricky."

Just as important as spending time with Ricco is the need to make time to be alone with Sam, David says.

Ricco didn't come as a total surprise. David and Sam had been talking about having a child for eight or nine months before Ricco was conceived. "We didn't think of Sam having an abortion or adopting Ricco out," says David. "We were prepared for it."

The hardest part of the decision was Sam being worried that she wouldn't be able to pursue her studies.

David and Sam were also lucky that their families were very supportive. "No one tried to talk us out of it," says David. "My mum had me when she was 20 and she was pretty stoked to become a grandmother before she was 40."

Having Ricco has, of course, affected David and Sam's social lives. "I don't go out and get trolleyed any more because I don't feel the need to," the young dad says. "Why? What for? I don't want to have to look after my son with a hangover. And it's a lot cheaper drinking water."

David still goes out with his mates about once a month and encourages Sam to get out with her friends as well. "As a family we also go out and have dinner at Valentines or Denny's," he adds.

Asked whether Ricco forced him to grow up in a hurry, David says he was already pretty grown up. "I grew up without a father and my mother had several relationships. I had to look after my younger brothers and that forced me to grow up. So it's nothing new to me. I reckon if you are going to have a kid you've got no choice, you have to grow up."

He also sees potential upsides in having children while still young. "People say that when you have your kids young you understand them more, but I reckons that's a lie. Generations change so fast these days. But when Ricco's a teenager, hopefully I'll still be able to run around on the field with him and smash him," he jokes. "I really dig the idea of living my life to the full when I'm older. I didn't want to live my life, have kids [at an older age] and then stay home. We want to have the next one pretty soon - to keep them close together."

But there's no doubt society still frowns a bit on young parents, David says. He knows of a few people who made disparaging comments about him and Sam. "They set you up for failure." And he admits being irritated by some of the letters to the editor after a story on his family was published in Woman's Day. Some of the letter writers said that the story would encourage other young couples to have children.

"Everyone pushes the big education thing - go to uni, get a good job. Everyone's saying, live your life first before you settle down. I don't think it's such a bad thing being a parent at such a young age. But it's always going to depend on the individual."

David's story is not typical among teenage dads, however. Most young couples split up after they have a baby. Harald Breiding-Buss, who runs the Christchurch-based father support organisation Father and Child Trust, has done one of the few local studies on the topic. Breiding-Buss reviewed a raft of international literature on teenage fathers and then set out to track down as many (teen dads) as he could to interview them about their experiences. "We started to think about it three or four years ago," he says. "There's a lot of media coverage of teenage mums, but you don't hear much about teenage dads. So we wanted to find out if they were a complete write-off or if it was more of a case that there was no support for these guys."

The first revelation for Breiding-Buss was how hard teenage dads were to find. Although he ended up tracking down 24 teenage dads in and around Christchurch, he only got two or three through Plunket and midwives. To find the rest, he had to go through other men's groups or use personal contacts.

Revelation number two for Breiding-Buss was how highly motivated the teenage fathers were to become good dads. Although in his summary of the inter-national literature he concedes that, in some cases (such as that of Shaun Metcalf), it's best for the children if the father plays no part in their upbringing.

Most came from troubled backgrounds and having a child seemed to give them a new perspective in life and was often the catalyst for them to stop drinking and taking drugs, find a job and start thinking about their futures, he says.

This was certainly true for Mal Lange. "When Leanne was born, I stopped my burgs," he says. "I didn't want to have that crap tainting Leanne. I reckon I would have ended up in jail if not for Leanne. I've said that to her a number of times."

But what happened with most of the young dads that Breiding-Buss talked to was that their relationships with the mothers tended to break up quite quickly. "Often it was not their fault," he says. "Some were hit with protection orders and many got disillusioned and went back to their old ways. Although they get visitation rights, they become more like a playmate than a dad. The incentive to clean up their act was the responsibility of having a child, but this gets taken away when they split up.

"It was a shame. They were so highly motivated, but then often it didn't work out. When they split up, they find that it's the mother who calls the shots, so there's a sense of powerlessness there."

Breiding-Buss laments the fact that there's very little, if any, support available to teenage dads. Some high schools have set up teen parenting units for teenage mums, but guys are seldom included.

"There's also nothing in place to help keep the relationships going. Once the various services get into action to help the young mums, they make no effort to help the relationship," he says. "It's just assumed that the guy is going to drop out and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Some teen parenting units do accept boys, though. Former teacher Susan Baragwanath set up the country's first teen parenting unit at Porirua College in 1994 (it has since relocated to Tawa and is now affiliated to Wellington East Girls' College). Originally funded through sources such as Rotary and Lions clubs, the school received partial government funding in 1997. Then, in 2000 the Ministry of Education decided to fully fund the unit and there are now 16 around the country. Of these only three - Tawa and units based at Kawerau College and Kaiapoi College in Christchurch - have male students. As of July 1, 2004, there were 330 students enrolled in teen parenting units around the country, of which only four were male. Despite the low numbers of male students, the units are prohibited from turning them away.

Baragwanath's first teenage dad turned up in 1995. He had been abandoned by the mother of his child and at age 18 was looking after a baby. "He asked to stay and I said, of course, you can, although I had to change all of my paperwork."

She says around 10 percent of the students at the Tawa unit have been male. "In my experience, they [young dads] are even harder to reach than young mums," says Baragwanath. "They are usually isolated from the school system and often have a low reading age. A lot of them are too frightened to come into the school."

But she claims fantastic success with the male students she's had. Baragwanath says she's still in touch with many of them and knows of one who's an electrician, one who's a crane driver and another who's at university doing a teaching degree.

Baragwanath agrees with Breiding-Buss that the system does not encourage young parents to stay together. "The DPB encourages young mothers to live separately from the fathers," she says. "Also the midwives, who play a major role in providing support, deal almost exclusively with the mothers."

Plunket's general manager clinical services Angela Baldwin says its services are geared towards women and that's reasonable as far more young mothers have custody.

But Baldwin concedes that involving the fathers more is something that Plunket needs to do better. Together with Nelson-based researchers Philip Chapman and David Mitchell, Plunket is trying to figure out how to better engage with young dads, she says.

Breiding-Buss's survey convinced him of the need to try to help, so, in 2001, he set up a support group aimed at young dads - the only one of its kind in the country. But through a lack of funding and the fact that the teen fathers move around a lot, there's only been the occasional barbecue or picnic for the young dads and their children so far.

Last year, Breiding-Buss put in a proposal to the Ministry of Youth Development to fund a mentoring programme for young fathers, but is waiting to hear back. In an emailed response to enquiries by the Listener, the MYD says that it is currently exploring options for funding programmes aimed at teen dads, although it woudn't comment specifically on Breiding-Buss's proposal. "The linked areas of teen pregnancy and support for parents in general are topics that are of interest to government as indicated by the early intervention work led by the Ministry of Social Development," says the MYD. "The involvement of MYD in the issue of young fathers is an endorsement that this is an area where there is an opportunity for improved outcomes."

In other words, it's dawning on the government that it has got some work to do.

Fourteen months on from the birth of his daughter Ellie, Aucklander Tim Deynzer plays a major role in her life and is determined to keep it that way. Now 17, Tim was 16 when Ellie was born. His then girlfriend Natalie (not her real name) was also 16.

In trainers, baggy jeans and Nike cap, with his skateboard always at hand, Tim looks a lot like your typical 17-year-old. Except younger. "I still get IDed when I go to R16 movies," he says, laughing.

Tim and Natalie flatted together after Ellie was born, but split up about six months ago. Tim now lives with his mother and has Ellie two to three days a week. "I was a bit of a drongo before I had Ellie," he says. "I was just a little kid. School didn't seem that relevant to me."

When Natalie got pregnant, they talked about an abortion, but then made a joint decision to have the baby. Adults around them were "pretty schiz[ophrenic]", says Tim. "It did not go down too well. They tried to talk me out of it. But when we decided to have Ellie, I didn't think, damn, I'm not going to be able to travel or go partying. I was like, who cares?"

Tim left school and got a labouring job - "a job for drongos", he reckons. After saving up, he enrolled in a one-year web design course and has since scored work at a Ponsonby web design company.

He doesn't really hang out with his old mates any more. Most of his new friends are in their twenties and think his having a daughter is "pretty cool".

Tim reckons that if he had not had Ellie, he would have done something fun - maybe working in a skate shop - but would not be going anywhere. Now he wants to buy an apartment in five years' time. He says that he thinks about the future a lot.

Like most dads of any age, he is also immensely proud of his daughter. "You know how kids are really cute," he says. "Well, Ellie is a real stand-out, she's cuter than most."

But essentially, he's still a 17-year-old, albeit one with more responsibility than most. "That was awesome," he says at the end of our interview. "Just don't make me look like a retard."

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