Why we need to support not stigmatise young men who are fathers

Having recently completed an evaluation of a project in the North East of England which supports young men under the age of 25 who have children, I have been reminded just how marginalised young parents can be. Whilst society spends a great deal of time focusing on women’s ‘biological clocks’, and cautions women to have children before it is ‘too late’, we still see censure of those who have children at a young age. Recent comments by a Conservative Mayoral candidate suggesting that teenage pregnancy is a means to secure council funded housing, demonstrates how far we have yet to travel in terms of being supportive and accepting of those who have children in their teens or early twenties.

Young men who are fathers are often doubly excluded, by virtue of being young, but are also sometimes perceived as unable to fulfil social ‘ideals’ of fatherhood (Ferguson, 2016). We expect fathers to be supportive of their partners and children, emotionally expressive about fatherhood, engaging in an equal share of childcaring as well as working to financially contribute to the support the family (Dermott, 2008). However, we know that young men who become parents at a young age are likely to have experienced deprivation and disadvantage and, in some instances, are likely to be vulnerable themselves (Tarrant and Neale, 2017). Despite the work being done to change the way young fathers are perceived, young men are still narrated as being ‘feckless’ or ‘absent’ from their children’s lives and presented more as a risk than a resource to their children (Hanna, 2018).

Projects such as North East Young Dads and Lads (NEYDL) work within this context, providing support, opportunities and advice for young men who may have little other support as they navigate parenthood. In my evaluation of this project, which took place over two years, the work of NEYDL became a ‘one stop shop’ for these young men. Having the opportunity to focus on being fathers, to meet other young men who had children, and to develop and learn new skills was seen as highly positive to the young men who attended the project. Many of the young men we interviewed for the evaluation felt that the male project staff took on a fatherly role for them, providing them with opportunity to have someone to look up to, and who they could go to for advice.

Overall, we found that the project was having positive impacts on the wellbeing, relationships and skills of the young people who were involved. We often think of social isolation as relating to older people, but young people, particularly those who are new parents, can feel very alone and many of the young men from the NEYDL reported feeling less isolated as a result of the project. Whilst running a project such as NEYDL to support young men can be challenging, not least in terms of the resources needed for such intensive and bespoke support, the positive outcomes of the project for young men, and their young families was plainly evident.

In times of austerity, services and support for young people continue to be scaled back, youth services have been decimated by cuts to local authorities and sexual health services continue to be pared back, all of which means that the support options for young people have become increasingly limited. Whilst projects such as NEYDL work in spite of this context, as well as supporting individuals to improve their life opportunities, they also provide an opportunity for young men who are fathers to be seen differently. Through working with other organisations and services, and delivering training to professionals of the future, the stigma around being a young age father can be challenged. Allowing young men to be seen as a possible resource for their children rather than a risk, requires a sea change in thinking, but projects that allow young men to be viewed differently and gives them the skills in which to be the parents they desire to be, deserve our full support.

By Dr Esmée Hanna, VC2020 Lecturer

References:
Dermott, E. (2008). Intimate fatherhood: A sociological analysis. London: Routledge.
Ferguson, H. (2016). Patterns of engagement and non-engagement of young fathers in early intervention and safeguarding work. Social Policy and Society, 15(1), 99–111.
Hanna, E. (2018). Supporting young men as fathers: Gendered understandings of group-based community provisions. Basingstoke: Palgrave
Tarrant, A., & Neale, B. (2017). Supporting young fathers in welfare settings: An evidence review of what matters and what helps. Leeds: Leeds Social Science Institute.

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