CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 9. . . .October 30, 2015
Last year, I found myself listening to a re-broadcast of an episode featured on CBC Radio’s The Current. It was a radio documentary, The Boy with the Past, and told the story of Chris, who, as a 16-year-old high school student, became the father of twins. It was a sensitive re-telling of a difficult episode in his life, and it made me wonder, “Why isn’t more attention paid to the stories of teen fathers?” My Girlfriend’s Pregnant addresses that need and tells the stories of many young men who face a situation that is as difficult, frightening, and as life-altering an experience for them as it is for the mothers of their children. Chloe Shantz-Hilkes is aware that young dads face as many challenges as young moms, that they aren’t all irresponsible deadbeats, and her book is intended “to challenge the assumptions people make about them.” (p. 9)
The book contains eight chapters, each of which deals with the different aspects of the situation that a young man experiences with his partner’s pregnancy: finding out about the pregnancy; the physical realities of pregnancy and childbirth; the experience of early parenthood; involvement in the care and life of the child; the impact of young parenthood on the parents’ relationship; options such as adoption and abortion; and coping with the stress of being a young parent. While the book can be read sequentially, chapter by chapter, the author also encourages her reader to approach the book in whatever way makes sense, perhaps choosing a topic or issue that’s of particular need or urgency. Whatever the approach, it’s highly accessible to its audience: the font is clear and easy-to read, “True/False” statements offer up commonly-held beliefs which are then explored (i.e. Many teenage couples actually intend to get pregnant), and the author quotes extensively from the many young dads whose real-life experiences are the primary content of this book.
While pregnancy is a natural physiological process, teen moms are more likely to experience complications. The author provides plenty of advice as to what is “normal” and what symptoms are genuine cause for concern and consultation with a medical professional (Shantz-Hilkes does an excellent job of clearly explaining the roles of the various medical professionals involved). Although every parent-to-be has been told their share of “scary birth stories”, such tales are the exception, and not the rule, and much of the fear comes from not understanding the process of pregnancy and birth. Surprisingly, a number of the young dads recounted amazingly positive stories of the actual birth of their son or daughter: “When Gemma arrived I was one of those dads who watched the whole thing, wide-eyed. I was like, this is unbelievable. I’ve met some other young dads through support groups and stuff who say they found childbirth really gross, but to me it was too amazing to miss.” (p. 30)
Once that little guy or gal has kicked and screamed his or her way out of the delivery room, diapers and childcare are the new reality, one that continues for years. Young parents face financial, educational, and social problems, and, while some are fortunate enough to have family support which enables them to prevail against the odds (of being poor, of having limited educational options, and consequently, of limited employment opportunities), most face unexpected stress. All new parents experience sleep deprivation and the extraordinary demands of caring for an infant, but young parents face additional challenges. For one thing, they miss out on the normal life of someone in their teens or twenties: “It was really hard to have a kid before any of my friends. We’d be invited to New Year’s and Halloween parties, and we’d have to say no, no, no. – Steve” (p. 40) Babies are a strain on anyone’s budget, and many of the young dads interviewed state that the financial stresses they and their partners faced were enormous, and without the support of family, they could not have managed. For many, high school or post-secondary education is interrupted, in some cases, never to be resumed.
“One of the stereotypes you hear most about young dads is that they tend to take off on their kids.” (p. 49) In fact, the statistics don’t bear this out. However, the chapter “Father from Afar” tells the often-poignant stories of young dads who found themselves separated from their kids. The reasons are many and various: conflict with the parents of their partner, break-up of the relationship that led to the pregnancy, or adoption. Sometimes, abusive behaviour leads to the young dad’s being denied contact with his son or daughter. Shantz-Hilkes describes child protection services in place, as well as how a young dad can access help should it seem that he has been unfairly been denied access to his child. And, she reminds her reader that, “if you’re a young dad who is separated from your child for whatever reason, know that it’s never too late to reach out.” (p. 56)
When I was a teen and in my early twenties, an early marriage was seen as one of the two “acceptable” alternatives to a young unmarried couple faced with unexpected parenthood. Some of the early marriages of fellow high school students survived, and I taught a number of senior high students whose parents had them when they were the same age as my students. But, that was in the last century, and the chapter on “Relationships” states that “only about 20 percent of teenage parents” actually marry, and more than 50% ultimately split up. This chapter talks a great deal about what teen couples really need to consider in order to decide to sustain the relationship, whether as a married couple or not. Having a child together may not be enough for them to stay together. While ending a relationship is never pleasant, and feelings of pain and hurt are inevitable, sometimes, teen parents have to acknowledge that they just can’t stay together “for the sake of the child” (as used to be the case).
What are the other options to becoming a teen dad? Well, abortion is one and the author is frank in stating that the chapter on abortion was one of the most difficult for her to write. One of the difficulties she faced was in finding young men who were willing to talk about their experiences with their partner’s abortion. Shantz-Hilkes resists debate on the morality of abortion, recognizing that the decision to terminate a pregnancy can happen for all manner of reasons and that the decision is fraught with a variety of conflicting opinions. While the author supports the position that abortion is ultimately a decision for the woman who is pregnant, she also believes that young fathers have a “responsibility to play a supportive role no matter what the decision turns out to be.” (p. 73) The young men who reflected on their experience of their partner’s situation offered a variety of perspectives: hurt and anger, at the harassment faced by pro-life protesters; absolute certainty that they and their child’s mother both had made the right decision; retrospective guilt; and an acknowledgement that, while mothers have rights, so do dads. The chapter concludes with a plan for how to deal with the issue: start the discussion early in the pregnancy, be honest about one’s feelings, ask questions, think carefully, and if there is disagreement, be prepared to forgive.
Relinquishing one’s baby for adoption used to be the option for a pregnant and unmarried young woman, and by default, the father of her child. Now, not so much. “Fifty years ago, a vast majority of unmarried teenagers who found themselves pregnant opted to release their children for adoption. Today, that number is a lot lower, with adoptions accounting for about 2.5 percent of teenage pregnancies.” (p. 83) Changing societal attitudes have done much to reduce the stigma around teen pregnancy, but some teens still choose to relinquish their children. Today, the relatively new arrangement known as open adoption has made it possible for teen birth parents to maintain some contact with their children (the degree of contact is negotiated), while closed adoption severely limits the contact birth parents and their children can ever have. Open adoption does offer birth parents some say in the type of family their child will live in, but it is not without its psychological pitfalls. Some young parents stated that it was great to know that their kids would have a comfortable life, one that they could never give them. Nevertheless, one young man stated that when the adoptive parents of his son “came to the hospital to pick him up. We said our goodbyes, and then he went home with them. Leaving the hospital without our son was very, very hard.” (p. 89) Chris, the young man profiled in The Boy with the Past, was profoundly affected at the age of sixteen by the experience of his relinquishing his twins. Later in his life, he was able to re-connect with them, but he spent a good portion of his young adulthood feeling as if a part of himself was missing.
The final chapter of the book focuses on how young dads coped with stress and where they were able to find supports. When we are adolescents, our peers are often are biggest support system. But, being a young dad means that you might not have the support of your classmates because your life has changed so drastically and has become focussed on your child. And if abortion or adoption has been chosen, it can be impossible to talk with anyone who has a sense of what you have experienced. This chapter helps young dads to identify behaviours which are indicators of their stress and of how they can deal with them productively. But, surprisingly, some young dads found positive aspects to their experience and actually took pride in their ability to tough it out and manage. If nothing else, they realized that parenting was difficult, but that they had found their way.
I thought that My Girlfriend’s Pregnant! was an extraordinary book in so many ways. It was factual, compassionate, supportive, and non-judgmental. In addition to exploring a young man’s perspective on early fatherhood, it offered sound factual content, an excellent listing of “Further Resources”, including a list of organizations offering support to young and first-time dads, resources for general parenting advice and where to seek information on specific issues (i.e. adoption and abortion) discussed in this book. A Bibliography and short Index end the book.
Every high school guidance office should have at least one copy of My Girlfriend’s Pregnant!, as should every high school library collection. Guidance counsellors, as well as teachers of health and family studies, will find this an excellent resource for their work, and it’s a much-needed support for young men who find out that their girlfriend’s pregnant. And it’s also required reading for that girlfriend, too.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.