On May 11, 2007, my life as I knew it completely changed with the birth of my first daughter. I was 17 years old. A mediocre high school student who only barely graduated with a high school diploma was going to become a father.
As one from a predominately Latino, working-class community whose parents both immigrated from Mexico, the odds of my attaining an education were dismal; those odds lessened once I found out I was going to become a father.
Society’s perception of teen dads has become enveloped by a mythos of neglect, inability and ignorance, with an irrefutable consensus that all teen dads will leave their children or be oblivious to being a father and parent.
Most poignantly, a myth has been recently constructed and heavily conveyed by “reality” television shows such as “Teen Mom” and “Sixteen and Pregnant.” The shows track the lives of desperate teens who must make difficult decisions as to how they plan to care for their children and work through the struggles of juggling being a teenager and a parent.
Fathers, in particular, are oftentimes depicted as inept to the role of being a dad. They are often portrayed as being away from their new family, off with their buddies or completely oblivious to the certainty of fatherhood. In the last several seasons, only an extremely insignificant number of dads maintained a healthy relationship with their families. Recently, the two shows, in addition to their other permutations (“Teen Mom 2”), have garnered immense viewership, thus requiring our collective re-evaluations of teen dads today. The role of “reality” television in general has skewed our collective perceptions concerning wealth, marriage, love and relationships, although the ways in which teen pregnancy and parenting have been addressed only exacerbate the increasing rate of teen pregnancies by glorifying a few who have garnered celebrity from their stories.
Even though I recall being treated as a bewildered and helpless teen dad when I was changing my daughter’s diaper for the first time, a day after she was born the hospital staff was stunned by my dedication as a father when they noticed my acquired knowledge of Braxton hicks, Apgar scores, diapering (it’s an art) and the like. The degree to which these shows have ossified our collective understandings of teen dads is not withholding. False representations were present before reality television, though they have only recently been further legitimized and amplified.
From the very basic (diapering, bottle feeding, health) to the enduring questions of plans and pursuits, teen dads have been portrayed superficially; editing and conscious decisions as to what is left in the final cut of shows aired on national television do not reflect the realities of teen dads and those who dedicate themselves to caring for their children at a young age.
It is not about dismissing the statistical data that indicate the larger number of teen dads who do fit the “reality” television portrayal, but it is about those who against all odds stay with their families and struggle to provide them with a good life.
After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, last spring and entering a graduate program in teacher education at the University of California, Los Angeles, I have tried to work against currents of media and television representations and ideologies that say that I should have not graduated and should have instead left or neglected my parenting responsibilities.
As a father of three daughters, I have learned the importance of being supportive, caring and loving. Many other teen dads whom I have had the pleasure of knowing have had similar paths. Today, as a result of the inundation of “reality” television misrepresenting the role of “teen dads,” it has become more paramount to acknowledge that not all teen dads are bad and to understand that these misconstrued re-presentations have an effect on the way future teen fathers understand and embrace their roles.
Alex Serna studied American Studies at UC Berkeley.