My Son, the Teenage Dad

I did not know what to say when my teenage son, Robin, told me one winter afternoon that he was going to be a father.

I did not know what to say when my teenage son, Robin, told me one winter afternoon that he was going to be a father. That didn’t stop me from mumbling something like, "I hope you’re happy. This is the kind of thing that happens when you think you know everything."

I was angry. Yes, I could see how scared he was — and my heart was breaking for him — but I was hurt and I didn’t want to let him off easy.

On one hand I was shocked that my son was going to be a father. He was a good kid. And in spite of having an unremarkable school career, he showed up every day and had never been in any trouble. He was efficient and reliable at his part-time job.

On the other hand, I had been half expecting to hear this sort of news from him since he had poked his head into my bedroom late one night to tell me he was in love. I went on Red Alert, tightening security. I talked to him about how even though teenagers in our culture were bombarded with ads, TV shows and songs that were all about sex, they were not ready for the consequences. Robin was furious that I didn’t trust him. He was always in by curfew, mostly followed our rules and grudgingly listened to my lectures. But Robin and his girlfriend were teenagers with biologically programmed hormones and the result was the oldest story in the book.

Now I was living my worst nightmare. Robin’s face, gray with worry and fear, had the haunted look of someone who lived in a war zone, not a high school senior just a few months from prom.

Before his impending fatherhood, Robin’s goals had been to stay out as late as he wanted and to move away from home as soon as possible. He had visions of traveling the world and owning an expensive car. As parents, we knew reality would catch up with those fantasies. We trusted that he had time to figure out what he wanted to do.

But for Robin, the future was now. He no longer had the luxury of daydreams about what might be. The only goal Robin had achieved was scuttling his curfew. What was the point of having him home by midnight now that the thing I most feared had come to pass? Curiously, he didn’t much care about staying out late anymore.

He decided not to rush into marriage, pointing out the obvious: his age. "I think it will be hard enough trying to figure out how to be a father," he said. He may not have gotten married, but he did support his girlfriend emotionally.

My vision of what was in store for these two kids was, to put it mildly, not rosy. My mother said, trying to console me, "Life is change." "Shut up," I wanted to snarl. I didn’t make her a grandmother until I was 29, a reasonable age for that kind of responsibility. My son was 18. This was not a good thing.

Fast-forward seven years: I can say now that it was a good thing.

My granddaughter, Kailey, has been the light in our lives since the day she was born. At 6 years old, she is a perfect companion for me. We read books in tents made with blankets draped over furniture, sing while swinging in the backyard, clean and cook (her idea, not mine), play dolls, have tea parties. I did not know it, but I needed a little girl in my life.

As for Robin, being a single teenage dad was difficult. He went to a technical college, worked part-time, studied, took care of Kailey part-time and paid child support. But we all pitched in. On the days Robin had Kailey, he would wake me early so I could keep an eye on her while he showered and got ready for school before dropping her off at day care. On evenings, my husband and I took turns playing with Kailey while one of us quizzed Robin on homework. We all helped with diapering and feeding, shopping for groceries, clothes and toys. But Robin was in charge. He was the daddy.

It was a lonely time for our son. Robin was afraid of being judged for being such a young parent; he felt people gave him disapproving looks when he was out with Kailey by himself. He was embarrassed to run into his friends in stores when he was shopping for diapers and clothes for little girls. He had no peer group, no friends with whom to share stories about his daughter’s progress.

But there certainly was a silver lining to this: I don’t think Robin would have been motivated to set and achieve goals right out of high school if he hadn’t been scared out of his wits about providing for his daughter. Based on his high school grades, my husband and I would never have predicted that he would get A’s in difficult courses, or that he would get a job changing tracheotomy tubes and weaning heart surgery patients off ventilators in a hospital. In addition to all his other responsibilities, he managed to train and work as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician, as well as volunteer with children at a shelter for battered women. Having Kailey not only made him a father, but it turned a self-absorbed teenager into a man.

For quite a while, Robin’s forays into dating always ended with the young woman not being ready for instant motherhood. Then Robin found Katie, who wanted to be a mother as well as a wife. They live in a small town near us with their new baby, Hannah; Kailey lives with them part-time. They both work several jobs, yet have arranged their schedules so they don’t need outside child care. They have just bought their first home and are active in their church and Kailey’s school. Robin and Kailey’s mom have worked hard at co-parenting and communicating and I’m proud of both of them and Katie for getting along.

All of which I could not have predicted on that winter afternoon when my son’s news was about as welcome as a truck plowing through the middle of our suburban house. I wish I would have said, "Son, your dad and I will support you the best we can no matter what. It will be difficult, but everything will turn out OK."

And, maybe not so surprising is the sense of loss I felt when my son and granddaughter moved out to become part of a new family. It was almost as painful as the dread I lived with in the months before Kailey was born."Life is change," my mother said, consoling me. And this time, I knew what she meant. Everything is going to be fine.

Judith Kirkwood's sons have provided writing material for her essays and articles in magazines, including Bride’s, National Wildlife, Family Life, Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, Christian Science Monitor, Orange Coast and inflight magazines.