Essay: Making Fathers
November 25, 1996
Anne Taylor Fleming has some thoughts about young fathers.
STEVEN: My name's Steven. I'm 16, and I have a son. He'll be eight months on the 17th.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: They are here--these young men at the Bienvenidos Family Center in East Los Angeles trying to learn to be fathers. Week after week, they come voluntarily, teenagers struggling to be there for their own children. Quite obviously, these are not your trendy, upscale soccer-coaching dads. These are the hard-scrabble young men of the inner city who are desperate to defy the odds and the stereotypes about teenage dads.
RICHARD PACHECO, 18 Years Old: Because I go to school, and people tell me, you look like you don't even belong here because I look so old. And I'm there, and I'm not thinking about what the teacher's talking about. I'm think about what am I going to make for dinner. To be honest, I don't really got any goals. I don't know what I want to be ‘cause I look at my life, and it just evolves around him. So every step I make it's like with him; it's not by myself. It's not solo. It's with him. It's like we walk together, not one, one up. Maybe sometimes I'll be ahead of him, but I'm holding his hand and pulling him with me, you know.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: This Conlos Padres program is funded through a $100,000 grant from the California Office of Criminal Justice Planning. The young men who come through these doors are given help staying in school and are also given $50 a month, money earmarked for the support of their children. They know the statistics, the skyrocketing number of out-of-wedlock births, a divorce rate that has doubled in 30 years. They know them; they live them. All around them, young women get pregnant. All around them fathers disappear. Long gone is the briefcase-toting, bread-winning sitcom dad of the post-war era, he would work faithfully from marriage to gold watch in order to look after and provide for his wife and children. He is now a gauzy figure in gray flannel, an object of nostalgia. In just 30 years, from the 1960's to the 1990's, the number of children living apart from their biological fathers has nearly doubled from 17 percent to 36 percent. Half of today's children will spend at least part of their growing up years without their fathers, regardless of economic or racial class, and everyone agrees, without dads around, children are much more likely to get into trouble, do badly in school, shoot up, drop out, and have kids of their own outside of marriage, just like the young men in this room.
MARTIN MOYEDA, 16 Years Old: If I were to go back, you know, and be with my friends and not focus on my baby's life, I'd be going back to the same situation my dad did with me. My dad was never there for me, so he'd go out with his friends. He'd drink, get drunk. You know what I mean? He didn't care where we were at. I'd be doing the same thing. I mean, so it'd just be like pulling on a chain, you know.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: For most of them, it is the absence of their own fathers that has driven them here, their sometimes inarticulate, sometimes very eloquent young male pain so palpable.
STEVEN LOPEZ, 16 Years Old: Because when I was little, I didn't always have my dad there, and so it hurts a lot, not seeing your dad.
ANTHONY GONZALES, 16 Years Old: My dad was a teen dad too. My dad had my brother when he was 17. So like my dad wasn't really around, so if he was around, he would have told me the experience that he went through, and I would understand.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Whether they'll make it or not over the long haul, whether they'll stay connected emotionally and financially to their children, no one knows. They are a work in progress, men trying to hang in, make a family, be part of one.
MARTIN ROMOS, 18 Years Old: I mean, I think about it all the time, and sometimes when I really do want to see and I can't see her, she'll call me and she'll just tell me she loves me. It tears me up inside when I can't be there for her to tell me that she loves me face to face. I don't know. It makes me real sad sometimes until I can't even talk about it, because it tears me up so bad, where she only lives two blocks away, and I can't go, because I don't want to get in a fight with her mom or with her parents.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: In Orange County, California, about 50 miles down the road from here, the social services agency working on the same theory obviously was found to be helping underage young women marry the men who had impregnated them. We're talking in some cases about 13 year old girls and 20 year old men. When the story broke, there was angry reaction, including from the governor of the state, who would rather see these fathers prosecuted for statutory rape, that is, for having sex with a minor, than see them married. These are such thorny issues, such hot-button, polarizing issues, there are no easy solutions, certainly none that are universally agreed upon. This is a sexed-up country but one with such a complicated, squeamish edge, part MTV, part Bible belt taboos. And in the middle are our children having children, some of whom, like the young men in this program, are trying to become the fathers they want to be.
HECTOR SERRANO, 18 Years Old: And if you aren't there, you know, who's going to be there for him, you know? Who else is going to be there for your kid if you're not there, the mom? That's only the mom, you know. A kid needs two people in his life--mom and dad--no matter what--regardless, you know. I think two people, if the two people are there, and they're willing to do the work for that baby, a lot of wonders could happen out of that baby. I mean, he could even become the President, you know.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.