Just Telling It like It Is? Representations of Teenage Fatherhood in Contemporary Western Young Adult Fiction

Article excerpt

 
  The word "father" scares the life out of me. How can I be a father at 
  sixteen, seventy miles away from a girl I hardly know and a baby I've 
  never seen? 
  (Reckless 2002, p.160) 
 
  Baby hands. Warm, sweet-smelling baby hands. And all I can do is kiss 
  them and pull her closer so she won't see my face and how scared I am. 
 
  When there's nothing you can do, do nothing. 
 
  But then I realize. I've done it. I know something. I know something 
  about this little thing that is my baby. I know that she needs me. I 
  know what she does when she just needs me. 
  (The First Part Last 2003. p.15) 

The above quotations offer two fictional representations of teenage boys, both boys are afraid of 'fatherhood', worried about whether they can, or actually want to, take on the role. However, their fears are subtly different. In Reckless (Mayfield, 2002), Josh has yet to meet his new born son, Sam, and so his concerns centre around his perception of a cultural understanding of what it means to be a father. He perceives his youth, non-resident status and consequently, lack of ability to provide, as absolute barriers to his role as a 'good' father. Bobby in The First Part Last (Johnson, 2003) is sole carer to his daughter, 'Feather', after complications during the birth leave his girlfriend Nia in an irreversible coma. Billy is fearful of his inadequacy in meeting the daily needs of his daughter in terms of the emotional strength which this demands from him. However, he comes to realize that the deep bonds which exist between them make him a parent in ways which cannot be articulated through language and are beyond social discourses regulating 'good' or 'bad' ways of being a father.

In this paper I will introduce a number of fictional narratives, written for a young adult audience, which address the experience of teenage parenthood from the perspective of the teen father. In doing so, I will consider how the narratives interact with dominant ideological understandings of fatherhood in Western societies at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries in order to explore the various experiences which the texts potentially offer to the reader and how they work to support or challenge privileged ideas about being 'a good father'.

The fatherhood debate and the politics of fatherhood: father as 'breadwinner'

Within Western societies teenage parenthood is positioned as disruptive and teen fathers specifically remain an enigmatic, disparate group. Kiselica and Sturmer (1993) suggest that one of the reasons why teenage fatherhood is considered problematic is because teenage boys are not able to participate in culturally constructed understandings of normative fatherhood:

 
  Until the 1980s, scant positive attention was devoted toward teenage 
  fathers in the social sciences literature. Robinson (1988) suggested 
  that such treatment reflected societal stereotypes that depicted 
  teenage fathers as psychologically maladjusted youths who first 
  sexually exploited adolescent girls and then abandoned them and their 
  children. This perception of teenage fathers is at odds with the 
  cultural expectation that fathers accept the responsibilities of 
  emotionally and financially supporting their children. 
  (p. 487) 

This statement suggests some compelling reasons for the absence of teenage fathers in professional literature, one consequence of which is that very little is known about them as a group and practical support services are not provided for them. In making this statement, however, assumptions are made about 'normative' fatherhood; that is, fathers are expected to 'emotionally and financially' (p.487) support their children. This statement contains a number of complex, often contradictory, discourses as the two states 'financial provider' and 'caregiver' are often at variance in Western capitalist societies which privilege the nuclear family structure, with its associated gendered spaces, through which capitalism is able to maintain its prerogatives (Morgan 1996). …