It's a warm Saturday afternoon and baby Dominic is fussy. His dad decides to cheer him. Joe Avery lifts the 4-month-old high overhead. Like a teeny Superman, Dominic stiffens his arms and legs, as if to fly. He looks down into his father's face.
"Girls," says Joe. He chortles the word. "Girls. Girls. Find some girls? You like girls?" The baby laughs.Girls. Girls. Liking girls. He jokes about it, but liking girls is not without complications. Joe knows. He's a 17-year-old dad.
Dominic lives with his 15-year-old mom, who lives with her own mom. Joe has the baby every other weekend. Joe and his mom and younger sisters cuddle him for two days; then they take him home. Then Joe goes about his regular life. He works part time as a fast-food chef, makes slow progress toward his GED, sleeps in every chance he gets, and takes his new girlfriend out to eat.
Viewed in a certain light, Joe's life is uninspiring. Watch him with Dominic and you see a kid playing with a kid. Without the baby, Joe looks like just another laid-back teenager.
But to take this view of Joe's life is to overlook the hopefulness. Joe says Dominic changed him. Loving Dominic has changed him.
Joe talks, now, as if his son can depend on him forever. In a society where too many fathers are absent from their children's lives, here is a father - little more than a child himself - who promises he will never disappear.
Whether or not he makes it, Joe says he wants to be a responsible adult. Last year at this time, he didn't even want to.
Joe credits the baby for his more mature outlook. Joe's mom also credits A Fatherhood Project.
Several thousand Utah teenagers become fathers each year. Joe is one of the few enrolled in a class just for dads, one of the few who will get any special help with his new role.
Counting all the in-school classes, Utah currently has dozens of publicly funded programs for teen parents. But "teen parent" almost always means "teen mom."
An example: The teen parent school in Davis district is unusually successful at enrolling teen dads. This year there were 15, compared with 150 moms.
In some districts, dads are actively discouraged from hanging around the moms in the teen parent school. In some districts, the teen parent school is offered only to the primary caretaker, who is almost always the nursing mom.
Experts explain why the young woman's needs are paramount. She's carrying the baby. She needs health care, good food, parenting advice. Moreover, when you reach a young woman at this vulnerable time in her life, you can often persuade her to make big changes, to stay in school, to stop using drugs or smoking.
Concentrating on moms, however, society has ignored teen dads. With what results?
A recent policy paper from Utah Children recommends more social support for young dads. It says, "Absent dads mean children don't have the fully supportive parenting they need for cognitive and social development. Dads are needed emotionally as well as financially."
At the University of Utah Teen Mother and Child Program, social worker Lisa Ord says she tries to include dads in the prenatal visits. Lately, she's seen more studies on the subject. They show how the dad's support helps the mom be nurturing. They show how important it is for the child to have a dad around and how the dad's involvement often ends when he and the mom stop being in love.
Angie Rowland, director of the YWCA home for teen moms, says she and her staff always kid about building a home next door for dads - who so obviously need emotional support, too. As it is, the staff tries to help both parents by offering communication classes for moms and their boyfriends.
Over the years, Rowland has met many teen dads. Few fit the stereotype of a heartless abandoner. Rowland says some teen dads desperately want to get married. Often it's young moms who want to be single, keep their options open.
These young dads might be as vulnerable as the moms, she says. Even if they do disguise it by acting macho.
Funded through Salt Lake County, administered by Centro de Familia, A Fatherhood Project has now come to Utah (its full name: "Raising Children With Pride, A Fatherhood Project"). It copies a program started by two California psychologists. The project is a 15-week series of classes and one-on-one mentoring. The goal is to help teen dads finish school, find a job, see their kids and understand child development.
The program is open to any teen dad, 14 through 19, regardless of ethnicity or marital status. In theory, it's open to any young dad. In practice, most everyone who comes to the Centro de Familia class is court-ordered to be there.
Fighting, stealing and drugs are among the problems that bring a young man to court. Once there, he talks to an intake worker who asks if he, by chance, has a pregnant girlfriend. This is how A Fatherhood Project became part of Joe's probation.
Joe wasn't excited about the project. He's not big on classes. But he started going and got to know the teacher, Joshua Bravo, who is 27 years old and not a father and kind of cool. Now Joe thinks A Fatherhood Project is OK. He says he might keep going even after his probation ends.
So here is Joe, on a Tuesday evening, with a dozen other young men, sitting in a classroom in the Sorenson Multipurpose Center. Tonight's topic: anger.
"What makes you angry?" Bravo asks the group. The guy next to Joe answers fast: "Crying. I hate it when my kid cries." The other dads say, "Yeah. Yeah. I sit there and check and there's nothing wrong." The baby's not hungry. Diaper's dry. No need for tears. "It gets on my nerves, man."
A fellow we'll call Matt says his daughter is spoiled by her mom. When Matt gets home from work, his girlfriend leaves for her job and then he takes care of their demanding toddler, who whines to be picked up and entertained.
Matt is 17, and the toughest talker in a room full of tough talkers. Every sentence has at least one F-word in it. That's OK, says Bravo. Talk the way you always talk. People get to be themselves in this group.
Back to anger. Bravo summarizes as the guys talk. He makes a list on the board. So far, what makes guys mad is: Crying and Spoiled People. Jeremy says something about Other Drivers making him angry. Bravo asks, "Who here drives legally?" General laughter.
David tells Bravo, "You make me angry. Always asking about my kids. `When did I see my kids? Where are they?' "
Bravo writes the words Nosy People on the board. Followed by People Who Talk S---. Followed by Girls Who Play Games. Girls act all interested and then they aren't. Bravo asks David if they get less interested when they find out he has two kids, both born before he turned 17. David laughs, agrees.
"Tight-a-- people!" a guy shouts out. Here we are talking girlfriends and their parents. Bravo tries to clarify the anger. When the young moms act uptight and demanding, are they really wondering, "Why do I have to stay with the baby all the time and you get to come and go as you please?"
"Yeah," David says. "And I say, `Because I can and you can't.' "
Bravo says, "David, that's why I come to your house a lot. Because I worry about you. Because you have that attitude."
Bravo explains how anger can cover other emotions, like fear. How anger can be useful in a dangerous situation, but there's no danger from a crying baby.
Later, Bravo passes out a list of the positive and negative results of different behaviors. He reviews the list with the guys. If you don't drink, you keep your body healthy. That's a positive. But you also may not fit in with your friends. A negative?
If you don't have sex, you don't have to worry about disease or fatherhood. But you also might not feel like a real man. Right? Bravo asks. To the guys, it is eye-rollingly obvious that teens have sex and will keep on having sex.
The dads like to end each class with a game of basketball in the gym across the hall. Before they dash out the door, Bravo summarizes: In spite of the frustration, you guys hang in with crying children, uptight girlfriends and the girls' parents."You're there because you are responsible."
You keep on talking to your girlfriend, even when she becomes your ex-girlfriend. You keep on paying child support. You keep your mouth shut around her parents, even if they butt in. You do what you have to do in order to be part of your kids' lives, Bravo says. He sounds proud.
Another day, when they aren't around, Bravo admits he is proud. He says he loves these guys.
He doesn't believe in miracles. Still, he sees guys going to school. Guys getting jobs. Maybe leaving gangs. Maybe leaving drugs.
Bravo is protective of them. He worries when their parents and the girls' parents, thrilled at the boys' new maturity, start talking marriage. "You just can't make a 16-year-old into a 26-year-old," Bravo warns.
Maybe all you can expect from a teen dad is that he studies and works and plays with his child and keeps his probation. After all, Bravo says, "They don't have to be here."
Plenty of guys skip out on their probation. Plenty skip out on their kids.
Spreading the word
Ever since she became a counselor with Children's Service Society, Jean Workman has been taking teen mothers into local junior highs and high schools. Workman hopes they illustrate the wisdom of abstinence. This year, she added Joe to her speaker's roster.
Today, at a middle school in West Valley, Workman speaks first about teen moms. "It's a 24-hour-a-day responsibility." She introduces Joe, explains A Fatherhood Project, then prompts him to tell his life story.
He begins, "In junior high, I just started getting in trouble. I had 60 referrals to the counselor. They kicked me out in eighth grade." He went to an alternative school for awhile, but mostly "hung with the homeboys."
At Workman's urging, Joe mentions drugs he tried and problems at home. His parents were divorced. His mother could not control him. His dad stepped in with a firm hand. He and Joe are still not very close.
Joe was high when Dominic was conceived. Otherwise it wouldn't have happened, he says. His girlfriend was 14. When she told him she was pregnant, Joe was nervous but happy. Her parents were just plain mad.
A month later, she broke up with him. She told Joe she was scared, too young to be serious. He shrugs. Says he also heard she was seeing one of his friends.
It was her decision to keep the baby. Joe's glad. He doesn't believe in adoption or abortion, he says. This is his child. He wants to do his part.
Maybe some of the dads exaggerate their newfound maturity, says Bravo. Maybe they don't contribute as much money, or change as many diapers as they say they do. Still he's glad they're "pumped" about their role.
"You guys don't want a kid, I can tell you that much," Joe concludes his talk to the junior high class. "They are hard. A pain in the butt. They make you mad." Take my word for it, Joe says; I am young, like you.
It's Joe's final message to teens: Don't have a baby. And yet he brought Dominic along today, eager to show him off. Joe's emotions seem to fluctuate between pride, frustration and bravery. Parenthood is complex.
It's not just Joe's life that's grown more complicated, either. One afternoon, while his mom is feeding Dominic, a family friend stops by, bringing along his pregnant girlfriend. He's 18. The girlfriend smiles, revealing braces, and starts telling Joe's mom how much help she'll get from her boyfriend, how they will both still live with their own moms, but raise the baby together. And Joe's mom laughs.
It's clear to her the grandmothers are going to play a major role. So she laughs. But it's not a bitter laugh. She believes a baby is never a mistake.
Joe's not bitter, either. When the baby's mother called him a few weeks ago to say she couldn't handle this any more and would he please come get Dominic, Joe said "sure."
Joe and his mom and his 16-year-old sister took turns going to school and working and caring for the baby. They had him for a week before Joe's ex-girlfriend surfaced again - ready, at age 15, to go back to being a mom.
Joe didn't know the details of why she wanted a break. Some fight with her folks, maybe. He didn't know, actually, if he'd hear from her again. Or if he'd be raising Dominic forever. Either way was cool, he says, sounding grown-up.
Sounding in charge. Sounding like a dad.