Teen fathers get encouragement and advice in special program

RYAN is a soft-spoken teen-ager with a serious expression on his face. He and his girlfriend are having a baby in November. As an expectant father, Ryan wants counseling. This teen-ager represents a difference from the stereotype of youngster fathers. Ryan says he's planning for the arrival of his child - that he already loves it, but is worried about ``getting work, getting a roof over its head and food in its mouth.''

And that's why Ryan has come to the weekly fatherhood meeting of the Teen Age Pregnancy and Parenting Project, one of the few programs for teen-age fathers in the country. Here, teen dads and dads-to-be can learn how to care for their children and get advice on how to support them.

The counseling can include simple encouragement to continue with their education - instead of leaving school to support a child on minimum wage.

That may mean a few more years of monetary support from the baby's grandparents, but the higher-paying jobs that a high school diploma can bring are usually thought to make up for the temporary economic dependence. The program can also help these young fathers find full-time jobs after graduation.

The weekly group meetings range from talks on childhood development, age-appropriate toys, and relationships with in-laws to hands-on training for diapering and feeding. In ``rap'' sessions, male staff members and teen dads share the successes and concerns of fathering. Ryan's first meeting (the fathers here use only first names) is a discussion group with five other dads. They offer him several words of advice.

Eddie, the father of a one-year-old boy, suggests preparing early. ``Start collecting things now,'' he says, ``crib, playpen, stuff like that. And try to get away from your friends if you got bad friends that influence you.''

Mike, who has a young daughter, prepares Ryan for the pressure of parenting: ``Before you even brush your teeth, man, she's cryin.'''

Mark Brand, a student intern, tells him of an upcoming talk on prenatal care, labor, and delivery - which will include an explanation of how fathers can be involved in the delivery process.

Terry Day, an outreach worker, brings up the subject of Ryan's girlfriend: ``Regardless of what happens between the two of you, you are always gonna have that responsibility together - you're always gonna have that child. And you gotta keep talkin.''

Relations with girlfriends are an important topic here. Many of these young relationships dissolve after the baby is born. Mr. Brand estimates that only 30 or 40 percent of the fathers here are still romantically involved with the mothers of their children. So it's important, according to staff workers, to get teen dads involved with their children as soon as possible. That way a feeling of responsibility and commitment will continue even if the romantic relationships have ended.

But it's not easy for teen-age dads to get involved with their kids, according to Manuel Mene, the project's director.

``The culture of women says men don't know anything about babies,'' Mr. Mene says. ``Men are discouraged from babysitting. A lot of women don't want to leave their babies with them. [The mothers] are afraid they can't take care of them.

``And guys don't know that's one of the more powerful bonding situations,'' he continues, ``touching, feeding your kid. [The dads] love to hear `your baby will love you more' if you touch, talk, make faces.

``So we're redefining stereotypes,'' he concludes.

Outreach workers Richard Marquez and Terry Day explain that there are a lot of pressures on a teen-age father: Society blames him because he can't support his children, the girlfriend's parents usually blame him for the pregnancy, and his friends in school or on the street may try to convince him that being involved with his child isn't cool.

``They're very suspicious when we contact them,'' Mr. Day says. ``Everybody they hear from wants something from them.''

But once they get here, according to Maryam Rashada, program supervisor, they're given ``an alternative way to look at themselves - a sense of self-esteem. Most of these guys don't have that.''

The workers first make contact with these young fathers through the teen-age mothers in the program, through the juvenile justice system, and sometimes by word of mouth. It takes a lot of outreach, the workers say, to keep young fathers coming to the group.

The outreach program started in 1981 as a school for pregnant teen-age girls - with classes, counseling, and an in-house nursery for babies born mid-semester.

But, Ms. Rashada explains, a male staff member soon began to attract enough teen-age fathers that a fatherhood project was eventually formed. The program is funded mostly by donations from United Way and some city and state money.

At this point it's hard to measure the success of the fatherhood program. ``We're planting seeds and we probably won't see them come to fruition,'' says Brand, a graduate student in social work at the University of California at Berkeley. ``The successes we do see are very small.

``Getting [the fathers] to come to meetings can be a success,'' Brand continues. ``Getting them to say they want to be a better father than theirs was can be a success. Getting them to say `I love my baby' can be a big success.''

Eddie, whose consistant attendance at the weekly meetings earns a literal pat on the back, is one such success.

When asked about his son, Eddie beams proudly.

``He's a `junior','' he says. ``And he's at that stage where he repeats everything I say!''

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