Fatherhood is scary enough, but it’s most terrifying for the 1 in 15 Americans who will experience it as a teenage boy. Society not only doesn’t prepare teens to become dads (see pretty much all the dads on MTV’s Teen Mom), but those who do, face years of shame and an overwhelming lack of financial resources. As their friends are finishing high school or heading off to college, these guys are often left to figure out parenthood for themselves, in addition to providing for their child on meager hourly wages — all, of course, before they’ve grown up themselves.
To understand that experience firsthand, we talked to three teen dads — one who’s still a teenager, another in his 40s and the last in his 60s. Each of them talks about the immediate days, weeks and months following their child’s birth, but also how the passage of time — measured in decades for two of them — has changed their perspective on being a teen dad.
Zachary O’Leary, 19
I was 17 years old when I became a dad. It wasn’t planned. We’d gotten together that week at school; we went to this party and then we … you know. I was mortified and freaking out when I found out. Like, My youth is over. I gotta grow up now. I can’t do stupid stuff anymore.
My dad was a teen dad, too, and he told me how hard it was. I started thinking about all those horror stories he told me about. The biggest one was that he never got to have fun again. He said that I took up all of his time, and that everybody shunned him. None of which he wanted to happen to me.
It didn’t help that at first the baby’s mother broke up with me because she said it was my fault she got pregnant. She blamed me for not using protection. I fell apart and dropped out of high school. I fell in love with her quick, and when she broke up with me, it broke my heart real bad. I was a depressed wreck. But she finally figured out that it wasn’t my fault — it was our fault — and we got back together. Ever since, it’s been pretty solid. We’re engaged right now, and we plan on getting married this summer.
Abortion was never discussed. I’m pro-choice — I leave it up to the parents to decide — but for me, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Adoption was talked about — at first that’s what we were thinking about doing — but we both thought that neither one of us could live knowing that our child was being raised by somebody else.
My sister was excited — her and my baby’s mom are friends. My dad and my mom weren’t as excited. My stepmom tried to ground me and tell me I couldn’t go see my fiancée anymore. But my dad was like, “He’s exactly in my shoes. You can’t do that to him, or the mom is going to resent him.” Other than that, he wasn’t happy. He told me that if I wasn’t going to be there for my fiancée and the baby, he was going to beat me up.
Sadly, he knew this pain firsthand since he wasn’t around for the first 18 months of my life. When I was born, he said I wasn’t his — you know, just being a dumb teenager. But then he finally accepted it. He’s tried to be the best father he can be ever since.
My fiancée got involved with a teen-mom group, and they did a lot for us — for example, they got us a baby monitor and a car seat. We’re currently on food stamps and cash assistance. I’m searching for work now because we just moved. (I have my GED, but I quit high school during the pregnancy so my baby’s mother could continue her education.) Before that, I was working at Target and doing construction with my dad.
I know it sounds clichéd, but all the struggle is worth it. I love doing everything with my daughter, and the memories I have with her are the best ones I’ve ever had. I used to go out with my friends and get drunk and high, and whatever else you could think of — breaking the law and running from police. I also was a drug addict, addicted to painkillers, muscle relaxers and most pills. That’s what I call dumb stuff now.
My daughter got me over my addiction. Before that, I was addicted throughout the pregnancy. But when my daughter’s mother told me I had to quit in order to see my daughter, I quit using them cold turkey that day. I don’t even take ibuprofen anymore. Any kind of medication is a big trigger. It could cause me to relapse, and I just don’t wanna risk it.
Before I had a kid, people looked down on me for being a foul-mouthed hooligan because all I did was skateboard. Now I walk down the street, and I’ve got a kid. I feel like people look at me and see that I’m so young, and they’re like, “Oh, this kid made another mistake.” At the same time, I feel like people praise me because I’m a dad who’s staying for his kid. I’m not skipping out or leaving the mom to do it herself.
An old friend of mine from middle school is in the same boat I am, and he recently told me that having a kid was the worst thing he could’ve done because now he’s got this woman who won’t leave him alone. I’m like, “How could you do that? That’s your baby. You want him growing up not knowing you?”
I think a baby’s a blessing, no matter how young you are.
Shanne Sowards, 41
I was 15 years, 8 months and 27 days old when my daughter was born. I was living at home with my dad. My girlfriend and I hadn’t been using protection for most of the summer. At some point, we decided to go to Planned Parenthood to start her on the pill. We got the pills and were going to start after her next cycle — which never came. So we took the bus back to Planned Parenthood, she took a pregnancy test and it was positive. Needless to say, it was a long bus ride home.
I just kept thinking about how my grandmother was going to be so ashamed of me, how my dad was going to kill me and how I probably wasn’t going to be able to go to college anymore. And: What will happen if I ask her to get an abortion? Will she break up with me? How much does that cost? Is it legal?
The first few months were really awkward because no one would hire me because I was only 15 and couldn’t work without a worker’s permit. Plus, my relationship with the mother of the baby wasn’t great. So I saw my daughter less than I would’ve liked. I also was homeless a few times those first couple of years and couch-surfing at places where it wasn’t a great environment for a kid.
That meant my name was often associated with the term “loser.” For instance: I had a good friend whose dad didn’t like him hanging out with me — he told him I was only going to bring him down. And family and strangers alike would shake their head in shame when I would share with them that I was a father.
Out of high school, I joined the military. It didn’t work out, and I’m so grateful it didn’t. Looking back, it feels like the dumbest thing I could’ve done. But I wanted to get money for college so I could provide for my daughter in a meaningful way, not just flipping burgers. I quit during basic training. I wasn’t proud that I quit the military, but I was proud that I was home for my daughter more. Afterward, I got a job with the local factory working 40-plus hours a week, taking my daughter every other weekend. I just kind of muscled through. I also had a great girlfriend who encouraged me as a father — and who is now my wife.
Over the years, my daughter’s mother and I have argued a lot — mostly over dumb things. But we’ve always been able to put what’s best for our daughter first. In large part because we both came from broken homes and wanted better for her than what we had. I also used to be afraid that if I pissed her off, I’d never see my kid again. Today, I’m proud to say, we’re friends, and even though our daughter is now 25, we still spend some of Christmas together.
Until about five years ago, I would’ve said I’m a good dad. But after starting a nonprofit called Squires PDX that helps and guides teen fathers, I’ve had some eye-opening experiences. When you start mentoring dads, you do a lot of reflection. Spending time with someone else’s kids will make you see some of the things you’re not doing with your own kids, or how the things you say affect your children.
Because that stupid Monday night football game isn’t important. And don’t just give a kiss goodnight and have Mom read to your child in bed. You need to get off your ass and read to them. Be intentional with that time — don’t take it for granted. I think any father that gets down the road will think about all the stupid video games they played, all the stupid sports they watched, and regret saying things like, “Stop it, I’m watching the game” instead of saying, “I’m so glad I’m going to read to you.”
Looking back, I would’ve definitely said “yes” more to my child. Things like, “Can I stay up a half hour and watch this with you, Dad?” Or: “Can we go to the park?” And not just answer, “Yeah, after the show.” My kid is literally asking me to spend time with her, and I’m saying no. As they become teenagers, it’s like the “Cat’s in the Cradle” song: Now I’m asking them for time.
A lot of these thoughts started when my daughter moved out of my house her sophomore year of college and I saw the results of how I parented. Not that I’m a bad parent — on the contrary, we love each other very much — it’s just like, “Well, shit. The connection I wish I had with her just isn’t there.”
But it’s never too late. A year ago I started “Cooking with Dad” night. I decided I wanted to be more intentional with my children. They might be in high school — and one might not live with me anymore — but we still get together, decide what we want to eat and figure out how to cook it. That’s me just saying, “I want to spend time with you, and I want to tell you I love you.”
It doesn’t necessarily make up for lost time, but it still matters all the same.
Craig Cameron, 60
In 1975, I was an 18-year-old senior in high school enjoying life and looking forward to my college baseball scholarship. Working hard, playing hard. Then, that fall, my girlfriend of eight months informed me she was pregnant. We cried, held each other and talked about our plans together. We never brought up abortion — it just never came up in our thought process. We were just wondering, Are we going to get married? Are we going to live together? How are we going to live with this child?
One month later, we decided to get married and alerted our families to our choice. My father-in-law-to-be, however, wanted us to get an abortion. He said this wasn’t the time to have a baby in our lives, and that it wasn’t right for the baby either. I didn’t agree with him, but I did confide in my mom about how hard this all was for me. I told her that I didn’t want my life to change. I wanted to play baseball. I wanted to go to school. I wanted to be a kid. Her response was great. She calmly explained how not everybody gets the same breaks, and not everyone can deal the same with adversity.
The first few years were wonderful. We had a beautiful child, and a bunch of family members to help us out. I really enjoyed my new brothers- and sisters-in-law. We even had another baby. I quit school and was working 50 hours a week at a cabinet shop and moving up; soon, we were able to buy a house. Life was great. We were very social, and our daughters were awesome. Nothing beats driving home to toddlers in the window waiting for you to get home.
But I found I enjoyed being a dad more than being a husband. Three years later, my spouse and I were growing apart. Not long after that — when I was just 23 — we were divorced.
She wanted me to have the girls full-time, but I said no. I didn’t want the responsibility of being a single father. As a matter of fact, I didn’t want any more responsibility. If I was going to be free, I was really going to be free.
I kept the house and got two roommates — my sister and her friend. Life changed dramatically again. We had parties every weekend. We were drinking and doing drugs almost nightly. After 18 months, I lost my house. I could’ve made the payments. I chose not to. I just didn’t want to be responsible. My goals, choices and personality had changed — and not for the better. Fatherhood was sporadic, and the time spent with my daughters was definitely not quality time. I was going through the motions as long as there was a game on TV.
Luckily, I got on with my life. It was just one of those things where you wake up and say, “I’m 26. I’m too old for this. This isn’t the person I am, and I’ve gotta get away from it.” I asked my uncle, who ran a construction company, for help. He got me out of town for six weeks on a job, and that really helped. When I came back, I reacquainted myself with my old, successful friends from school, changed my habits and renewed my fatherly duties. Even though I’d be out of the state on construction jobs for three or four months at a time, I was never out of my daughters’ lives. If I wasn’t around for their birthdays, I’d send them corsages. I’d write them letters or send them toys.
A few years later, I got married again. We have a daughter and son together. My wife always says we have four kids, and my older kids love her. They treat her like a mother. But life’s not always fair. One time we came back from Disneyland, and my older daughter was crying. She told me that she loved me, my second wife and her new stepdad. “But I want you and mommy together,” she said.
We also had more money, which was harder for my older kids. We’d go on trips, but by the time my older kids moved back in with us, they were in high school and couldn’t go along with us all the time. So they kind of felt like they missed out on stuff. There’s also a big age difference. My oldest are 40 and 39 now. The next ones are 27 and 25. They get along well; they’re just not friends.
Overall, parenting the second time was so much easier. We had more time, more money, more choices. When you’re younger and working 60 or 70 hours a week, there wasn’t time for that. But the second time around, I owned my own business and had the choice of how much I wanted to work. I could be a parent helper. I could coach basketball or baseball. There was just more time to give to my kids. You knew them better. You knew their friends better.
And the more you give, the more you get. In coaching kids’ sports, you can tell the kids whose parents aren’t there. You can tell who has nannies and who’s involved with the kids. You should never forget your kids. Especially teen parents. I’ve seen a lot of teen parents that don’t come back into the kids’ lives, and it hurts them. The kids always think it’s their fault.
Would I do things differently? Sure. But the only thing in my life I wish I would’ve never done is drugs. Other than that, everything’s a learning experience. Have I done everything right? Of course not. But it makes me who I am, and makes my kids who they are.
—As told to Adam Elder