The Men Involved in Adolescent Pregnancies

By Meira Stern, McGill University.

In the years 1992-1994 in Canada alone there were 25 000 births to adolescent females aged 15–17 (Millar, Wadhera, 1997). This number does not take into account pregnancies not taken to term. Generally, when thinking about teenage pregnancy, we tend to focus on adolescent mothers. Perhaps this is an attempt to understand these women better in order to determine ways to avoid these pregnancies. In reality, these women are not solely responsible. It seems equally important to look at the fathers as well. The question of who these men are, what their feelings on fatherhood are, and how they measure up as fathers are ones I wanted to examine in depth.


To begin looking at fatherhood in general, it is useful to consider the complexity of the role. According to traditional western societal values, the father is the provider first and foremost. This feeling is clearly expressed in Marsiglio et al’s study (2000) involving young single men ages 16 – 30, looking at their reasons for not being ready to be fathers. The most consistent concern stated was that of being unable financially to provide for their children. It is felt that the ability to provide or lack thereof may play a role in the type of involvement a father will have with his children. For example if a father is forced to work long hours to provide for his family, there may be little time available to be actively involved in the lives of his children. As well, given the importance of this financial role, if a father is unable to provide he may feel he is a failure as a father and may disconnect from his family. As well, he may be seen as a failure and be forced by his wife to stay away (Marsiglio and Cohan 2000). Marsiglio and Cohan refer to Coltrane (2000) who suggested that gender wage inequity has contributed to this role of financial supporter by making women’s lower paying jobs more easily dispensable. As such, the mothers will more often sacrifice their seemingly less worthy jobs to take on the role of primary caretaker while the father is providing financially.

It seems that cultural expectations of fathers include a less active role in raising children (Marsiglio and Cohan, 2000). But according to general modern day sensibilities a father should also be a role model. He should be an involved parent providing emotional support and comfort, discipline when needed, working with the mother to instill their values in their children. Marsiglio (2000) also looked at various men’s visions of the ideal father in terms of how they themselves would hope to be. These men felt that providing economically is important but not enough. A good father also needs to be “present, approachable, a friend, [and] a dispenser of measured discipline.” In other words, he needs to spend time with his children and be involved.

When we look at women and childbearing, the term “biological clock” is familiar. With women there is a sense, right or wrong, that it is their role to bear children and they must fulfill it before they are unable, before their “biological clock” runs out. For men, a sense of readiness to have children is felt to be related to whether they feel they fit the mold of how a father should be. This is often affected by their own relationship with their fathers and an awareness of how their fathers were positive and/or negative role models (Marsiglio 2000). Guidelines used for fatherhood readiness include whether they are financially ready, whether they have achieved all their goals for themselves as single people such as completing college and whether or not they feel ready to settle down into a steadier lifestyle. Personal experiences with children and pregnancy also can be a strong influence. Threats of unwanted pregnancies and dealing with unwanted pregnancies may show them that they are definitely not yet ready or may make them realize that this is what they want. On the other hand, personal experiences with the children of friends and relatives, babysitting and playing, may show to some that they are not prepared for that responsibility or, on the other hand, may show them that this is something they want (Marsiglio 2000).


If men really are choosing to wait to achieve certain goals in order to be ready to have a child, then this begs the question of who is fathering the babies of adolescent mothers. In other words are these men adults who feel they are ready for fatherhood or boys who are not. Lindberg et al (1997) did a study in which they looked at age differences between adolescent mothers and their partners. Despite the acknowledged norm in society of women being with slightly older partners, there is a societal concern about older men and younger women when the women are minors. This concern is particularly strong when it comes to adult men fathering the babies of these minors. This study showed that among mothers between the ages of 15 – 17, 27% had a partner 5 or more years older than them. Many of these women were married to their partners leaving 21% as unmarried minors having babies with men at least 5 years older than themselves. This number is reinforced by Taylor et al (1999) in their look at fathers of babies born to young adolescents up to 15 years of age. According to their results, 26.7% of these fathers are on average 8.8 years older than the mothers. While this number can not be considered insignificant, it is perhaps not as large as some fear. In a look at Canadian statistics (Millar, Wadhera, 1997), it is seen that 77% of males involved in teenage pregnancies are older than the mother, 37% of these men are within 2 years of the mother, 39% are 3 – 5 years older. The overall rate in Canada of paternal age being 6 or more years older than that of the mother is 24% with Quebec and British Columbia having somewhat higher numbers. This is similar to the above-mentioned rate in the US (Lindberg et al 1997). So if adult men are fathering approximately one quarter of these babies, this leaves adolescents as the fathers of as many as 75%.

It has been found by Lindberg et al (1997) that for many of these adolescent women with adult men as the fathers of their babies, the relationships are close and considerably long lasting. This is significantly different from when the fathers are minors as well. Also, it has been found that women with older partners are more likely to report that their pregnancy is wanted. These findings may be related to the fact that older fathers are more likely to have jobs and be able to support a family to some extent, at least more competently than an adolescent father (Lindberg et al, 1997). From this angle adolescent mothers with older partners appear to be better off. But, it would seem important not to lose sight of the fact that these women are still children themselves. Even if well provided for it is unlikely that they are any more ready to be having children of their own than any other adolescent. Lindberg et al point out that an older man may make a better partner in the sense that he would have a greater immediate earning potential than an adolescent father. However, an adult male involved in a sexual relationship and bearing children with a minor may “possess developmental or psychosocial deficits (Lindberg et al 1997)” that would make him a less desirable partner. In fact, these may be men who are considered by adult women to not be good partners. Over time they may prove to have less earning potential then other adult males. Finally, Lindberg et al (1997) suggest that if disadvantaged men had more access to economic opportunities they may be less likely to become involved with adolescent women as they would be more desirable to women their own age.

Four major risk factors for adult paternity with adolescent mothers are defined by Taylor et al (1999). First is if the father’s educational achievement is at least three years below what would be age appropriate. Second is if the mother’s education is 1-2 years below the average for her age. Third is if the mother’s birthplace is not the United States and finally, the fourth is if the father is either Hispanic or African-American. All of these variables are associated with adult paternity with young adolescent mothers. The first two may suggest that teenagers who are not prepared for a successful future are more at risk. The other two factors bring into attention how different cultural values may play into young adolescents choosing older partners and vice versa.

While it is suggested that statutory rape laws may reduce adult paternity (Taylor et al, 1999; Lindberg et al, 1999) it would seem that these are difficult to enforce. In fact, at times the relationship may only become known once there is a pregnancy. While the man may still be punishable by law, the end result is still an adolescent woman with a baby. Whether prosecution and punishment of this offense should be more severe is a different question that will not be discussed here. Important to mention, however, is that even if these relationships could somehow be stopped entirely, this would still only put a minor dent in adolescent pregnancies. Particularly in view of the fact that a small but considerable proportion of these relationships, 23%, are marriages thus lending them legality (Lindberg et al, 1997). So, even if somehow effectively prohibited, only a small decrease in numbers would actually be achieved.

Risk factors

When considering adolescent fathers an interesting thought is, what if anything is the difference between adolescents who become fathers and those who do not. Is it simply a question of bad luck or are their certain factors in an adolescent male’s personality and behaviour that make him more likely to impregnate his partner. Marsiglio et al (2000) discuss that when young men contemplate fatherhood what often comes out is that they are not ready for children. One major factor is that they do not want to interrupt their own immediate goals of finishing school and enjoying a social life. Are these young men who become fathers less intent on their own goals for the future or are they simply more ignorant of the consequences of their actions?

Spingarn and DuRant (1996) looked at male adolescent fathers and whether specific problem behaviours and/or health risks can be associated with becoming a young father. By looking at randomly selected 9th through 12th graders in 51 schools, they concluded that being involved in a number of risky behaviours seems to coincide with being involved with a pregnancy. As such, when risky behaviours are encountered among these boys, special attention should be given to impressing upon them methods and importance of birth control. Specific behaviours noted include smoking cigarettes, use of cocaine, earlier sexual intercourse, greater incidence of times being injured in a fight in the past year, drinking and driving, and multiple sexual partners. If engaging in unprotected sex is looked at as simply another risk-taking behaviour than it would not be surprising that these actions coincide in the same individual and that these patterns are seen. These ideas are reinforced in an article by Nesmith et al (1997) who look at incarcerated adolescent males and their experiences with paternity. Of all adolescent males in a specific long-term facility over one quarter reported being involved with a pregnancy. Of these, almost half reported more than one pregnancy. These results fit with an increase in risk taking behaviour, particularly risky sexual behaviour. Fagot et al (1998) showed how a difference in boys who would become young fathers and those who would not could be seen as early as sixth grade in terms of those felt to be on a pathway to antisocial behaviour. Poor parental discipline, a deviant group of friends, academic failure and antisocial behaviour were all predictive of fatherhood before the age of twenty. In this study early sexual experience was not predictive of early fatherhood but poor performance in school and low income were. Jones Harris (1998) reinforces this point in his study of adolescent attitudes towards multiple issues, showing that the majority of fathers were already having difficulties in school before the pregnancy occurred. Having a child and new responsibilities was not responsible for trouble at school, these problems already existed.

Interestingly Cox and Bithoney (1995) in their look at fathers of babies of adolescent mothers determined that whether they are adults or adolescents themselves, they are similar in many significant ways.

Employment status, interaction with partner and child, criminal history and use of illegal drugs were found to be similar in both groups. In terms of education, however, adolescent fathers are more likely to have dropped out of high school either because of fatherhood or because of other associated risk factors.

Looking at risk factors for early fatherhood among high school students, Pierre et al (1998) looked at 4159 students in grades 9 through 12 in Massachusetts in 59 high schools. Of these, 824 males reported being sexually active. 12% of these reported being involved with a pregnancy with the proportion increasing with age. Interestingly, 8.1% of the total sample reported having had sexual contact against their will. Of these, 36.4% reported being involved in a pregnancy versus 9.4% of the rest. So, for a male, having forced sexual contact appears to be associated with early paternity. Considering the males involved in pregnancies they found a number of risk factors similar to those mentioned above. Carrying a weapon to school, number of cigarettes per day, number of sexual partners in the last three months and not having used a condom the last time they had intercourse were all considered factors that make an adolescent male more likely to be involved in a pregnancy. To this list they add the experience of forced sexual contact. It is left unclear as to why boys involved in less desirable behaviours are more likely to have this experience. However, as above, they conclude that risky behaviours are associated and that someone willing to take more risks will be more likely to end up involved in an unplanned pregnancy.

Attitudes on parenting

How do these young fathers actually feel about fatherhood? Again looking at Nesmith at al’s (1997) look at incarcerated adolescent fathers it is seen that the majority look at fatherhood as something desirable. They feel that they could be capable and responsible fathers. Twenty percent of the adolescent males in this jail felt that fatherhood would make them feel like “real men.” No racial or cultural differences were seen in this result. In Marsiglio’s (1993) look at a population not incarcerated, only 5% felt that fatherhood would make them “real men.” Interestingly 40% of Nesmith’s incarcerated group felt that their families would be happy if they were to become fathers. 62% felt that their friends would be happy. In comparison, in a group of rural American high school students (Robinson et al 1998), 93% felt that their parents would not think it was alright for them to become teenage parents. 81% felt they would definitely use birth control if having sex but only 11% of the study group had actually had intercourse. Even though these teenagers in comparison to those in the above study seem to have greater awareness that pregnancy is something to be avoided at this time they do not seem to have a clearer understanding of the reasons. When asked whether being a teen parent would keep them from being a successful adult 35% felt it would while 32% felt it would not. While it is possible for teen parents to go on to be successful adults it is not easy and requires support. Even in this group their seems to be a lack of understanding of how becoming a parent before you are emotionally and financially ready can make life difficult. Fagot et al (1998) show that adolescents with less money and fewer options may be more likely to become fathers. This may have to do with a lack of plans that would be interrupted by becoming a parent. As well, they may feel that becoming a father is the only thing that would give them a positive role as fully functional adults. Sadly, it is pointed out that 40% of the fathers did not have contact with their children and so in the end failed in this role as well.

Marsiglio (1993) in his article Adolescent Males’ Orientation Toward Paternity and Contraception looked at a sample of 1880 men between the ages of 15 and 19. Specifically he looked at their procreative consciousness and procreative responsibility. In other words, their personal experiences of reproductive issues and their sense of obligation regarding procreative issues such as birth control, pregnancy resolution and care of children. He found that a number of factors such as economic status, parental education, ethnicity and attitudes about gender roles all play into feelings about contraception and the threat of unplanned fatherhood. Among his results is the fact that young men in poorer areas were more likely to feel that pregnancy was a good idea and that it would make them feel more masculine. These feelings in both poor and more upscale neighborhoods were stronger among blacks than whites. Blacks were also more likely to have used effective contraception the last time they had intercourse. Marsiglio suggests that to some young men possession and use of a condom may actually be associated with feelings of masculinity and sexual prowess. Adolescent boys who knew they had already caused a pregnancy were found to be less likely than average to have used effective contraception and were also more likely to feel that becoming a father would be a positive thing and would increase their masculinity.

Looking at urban African American adolescent parents it is interesting to hear some of their views on sex, love, intimacy, pregnancy and parenting ( Jones Harris, 1998). The majority of both mothers and fathers interviewed for Jones Harris’ study claim to have been in love with their partners when the pregnancy occurred. The majority of the mothers said that they were still in relationships with their partners while most fathers said they were no longer in a relationship with the mothers of their children. This apparent inconsistency was not explained. For the mothers it was seen that most considered sex to be part of an intimate relationship while for the men this was not the case for any. For the fathers sex was not part of the definition of love and intimacy. In other words, for these young men sex and love were not necessarily connected while the women seem to feel that they should be. All the men admitted that the pregnancies were not intended to happen yet only one had actually used protection. This shows a lack of responsibility together with a feeling of invincibility, that nothing bad could possibly happen to them. Finally, all the fathers felt that life was more difficult since the pregnancy due to less freedom and more responsibilities.

Adolescents as fathers

Dallas and Chen (1999) spoke with five mothers of adolescent fathers to hear their perspectives on their sons as fathers. They began with the suspicion that these women had a strong influence on their sons’ parenting behaviours. In their discussion, seven major themes were identified. To begin with, they discussed barriers to fatherhood. These included the fact that they saw their sons as children who still need parenting themselves and that this dependence is normal for their age group both emotionally and financially. They discussed the value of fatherhood and from their own experiences felt that in general fathers are more peripheral than mothers, mothers are able to take on both roles. Interestingly, they did not seem to blame fathers for leaving. They all seemed to feel that men had to undergo a transition to fatherhood, which their own sons had not yet achieved. To make this transition they would have to finish school, be employed, get married and set up their own households, a point that none of their sons had reached. These women seemed to expect fathers in general to provide financial support and guidance to their children however their own sons were still expected to act like children. For the most part these women did not want their sons to marry the mothers of their children believing that the relationships would not last. However they did expect their sons to remain in contact and involved with their children. They felt that it was up to the adolescent mother to provide support and cooperation so that they and their sons could maintain contact with the children. Overall, these women did not feel their sons were ready for fatherhood nor did they expect them to be. However, they did believe that they should be involved with their own children. The mothers are putting their fingers on the paradox here. Their sons are not ready to be fathers and nor should they be yet their babies have been born and so they must fulfill their responsibilities.

Fagot et al (1998) look at how adolescents do as parents. They show that their children appear to have somewhat greater health risks. They suggest that the same factors such as low maturity and engagement in risky behaviours that lead to fatherhood also predict failure in fatherhood. These adolescents do not possess appropriate monitoring skills. Nor have they developed skills necessary to control and to guide their children. Rather than teaching and guiding their children they seem to use more negative controls. The use of more negative and coercive parenting strategies has been associated with the development of antisocial behaviour. It can be seen how this creates a pattern. If these children develop antisocial behaviours they will then be more likely to become adolescent parents themselves.

The question of financial support is a large one. If this is considered such an integral part of fatherhood as suggested earlier, do adolescent fathers even stand a chance of success? Rhein et al. (1997), in looking at fathers of babies of adolescents found that financial contributions were more sporadic from teen fathers than older fathers. It would seem that for adolescent fathers to earn sufficient money to support their child, an immediate future in school is less likely. Without an education, these men have less earning potential. Despite this Rangarajan and Gleason (1998) found that younger fathers were actually more likely to provide support than older fathers. This was explained by the idea that perhaps older fathers are more likely to have other children with other women and would therefore be less likely to support all their children. Looking further at the sample of young fathers in this study, one third were found to have no high school degree or equivalent and more than a third did not have jobs. In the end only one in ten was able to financially support their children. In terms of non-monetary support such as food and clothing, more than fifty percent had never provided any. This study found that often the amount of support given depended on the father’s relationship with the mother and the child. For instance if another man is involved they will be less likely to provide support. As the relationship weakens, financial support may also lessen. In turn, if the father has no contact with his child he will be less likely to provide any support.

In terms of the question of how involved adolescent fathers are, it appears that they are more present than would be assumed. Of the six fathers interviewed in Jones Harris’ study (1998) discussed above, only one was not in contact with his child. Perhaps adolescent fathers are more willing to take responsibility than is commonly believed. There are multiple factors influencing their involvement. While Rangarajan and Gleason (1998) found that unwed adolescent fathers are less likely than single adult fathers to have regular contact with their children, they are still involved. In their sample almost one half of the fathers had had no contact with their children in a specific three month period. However, the rest did maintain some degree of contact. Some fathers are felt to substitute emotional support and contact for economic support that they are unable to provide while others feel that if they cannot provide one that they should not be providing the other. The encouragement or discouragement of mothers is also an important factor in their involvement. If a father is unable to help financially the mother may not want him involved at all.

In general, fathers who see their children regularly are more likely to provide financial support, showing that they are acknowledging the responsibilities of fatherhood along with its rights. Cox and Bithoney (1995) make a connection between the amount of active participation on the part of the father in the prenatal and neonatal periods to later, continued contact with their children. They hypothesized that father involvement in prenatal and perinatal care, and those who are older with more education and in stable relationships with the mother would be more likely to be involved with their child in the long run. Their results showed that prenatal involvement, contact with the baby by two weeks of age and support of the mother’s family were found to be the most important indicators of involvement at the two year mark. Age of the father, education and relationship with the mom were found to be less important. Finally it is suggested that father involvement in the prenatal process may “enhance role satisfaction, self–esteem, and parenting effectiveness (Cox and Bithoney, 1995)” and so should be encouraged as it would likely encourage future involvement. From these results it would seem beneficial for fathers to be encouraged to be involved early on in the pregnancy.

Of 173 teen fathers in a study done by Rhein et al (1997), the majority were involved in the lives of their children. Going back to the traditional view of father as provider it was found that a main reason for a seeming disinterest among fathers was inability to provide financially. As well, lack of knowledge concerning childcare was found to lead to less interest in their children. Fewer fathers than mothers claimed to have wanted the pregnancy however, fewer fathers admitted to considering an abortion. They showed that while most fathers expected to be involved with their children this expectation was more likely to include playing with and dressing their children rather than taking responsibility for feeding their children or taking them for doctor’s visits. In other words, they do not seem as eager to take on the more difficult roles of parenting as they do for the lighter ones.

Pregnancy Decisions

In regards to decisions about whether or not to go through with a pregnancy it is generally acknowledged that in the end it is the mother’s body and therefore, her decision. Yet this decision also has a large impact on the father as it is his partner and his child involved. A study from Sweden (Holmberg, Wahlberg 1999) concerns teenage boys involved in the process of an abortion decision. Thirty-five adolescent boys were interviewed in the waiting room of clinics. Common concerns mentioned were a need to be taken care of, a struggle to reach maturity and responsibility and thoughts about their autonomy and ability to be care providers. The staff in these clinics were asked for their impressions of the adolescent fathers. They found it was common for the fathers to be concerned about the process of the abortion and potential complications, to be feeling powerless concerning a lack of influence over the decision. As well, many expressed concerns about their own maturity. The most common feeling noted among the young men (90%) was relief. Other feelings noted were grief, depression, disappointment and irritation. Only 25% of males actually went with their partners to appointments. However most wanted to be included in the decision of whether or not to have an abortion. Twelve percent of responses from clinic staff stated that the male partner was frequently allowed to take part in the decision, 62% said rather frequently while 26% said that it was a rare occurrence. 61% of adolescent males felt that if the father objects to the abortion than it would be wrong for the women to have one. In general, teenage fathers have been found to have more liberal attitudes towards abortion than those who are not fathers.


Danielson et al (1990) arranged a reproductive health intervention for young men. In it they examined the question of whether adolescent use of contraception would be affected by receiving intense sexual and reproductive counseling. This included a very explicit audiovisual presentation as well as one-on-one consultation. There was some evidence that this led to more effective use of contraception, however this was only significant among participants who were reached before becoming sexually active. They felt that this intervention could promote better communication within couples by giving practice discussing sexual matters and by improving male understanding of female anatomy, sexuality and health concerns. It was felt that “sexual impatience” was a main contributor to unprotected sex and that this intervention helped to reduce sexual impatience, in other words this intervention promoted sexual restraint. In general there was a small increase in use of protection. The control group versus the group with the intervention showed that 39% versus only 32% were having unprotected sex. This may however, partially reflect an increase in awareness of what method his partner may be using as a result of improved communication about sexuality.

There is no question that adolescent pregnancy is generally undesirable; yet, adolescents continue to have babies. The question remains what can be done to help reduce the numbers. One thing that is clear is that much work must be done to target young men as well as women. To begin with the aim of prevention, it would seem that a large effort to educate is required. The studies examined here suggest that education is an appropriate first step. This education should begin with contraception and safe sex. If communication regarding birth control among couples could be improved, this alone would be a positive step. However, this education needs to go further by focusing as well on the realities of parenthood. Marsiglio (2000) suggests that it can be useful to encourage adolescents to really think about whether or not they are ready for fatherhood, whether or not they can fit the role that they envision a father should have. Also it may make a difference if young men are encouraged to examine their own experiences with children, or even if they are provided with experiences in childcare. This would force them to think about whether babies are something they are ready to handle. Together these will help increase awareness of the consequences of not using birth control in terms of the reality of having a young baby to raise before they are ready. As well, as demonstrated by Taylor et al (1999) cultural values can play a role in teenage pregnancy and so, in creating programs for prevention it is important to look at different cultural beliefs in order to have a better understanding of motivation for young parenthood. Finally, for situations where prevention is no longer possible there is clearly a need to teach young unprepared parents how to be more effective. Not only will their children experience immediate benefits but in the long run they may be less likely to become adolescent parents themselves thereby breaking the cycle seen earlier in the discussion of Fagot et al’s (1998) study, of children having children.