Growing pains for dads

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am

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Apprentice chef Ah Wun had high hopes for the future. One day, he told himself, he would save enough money to open his own restaurant. But his girlfriend's pregnancy three years ago has thrown a spanner in the works. 'I never wanted to get married,' he says. 'I thought that if I just had to fend for myself, I would be able save a lot of money.'

He eventually tied the knot with his girlfriend, but the surprise responsibilities of being a father and having to support a family weigh heavily on the 23-year-old who left school after Form Three.

'I want to help my wife, who was just 17 when she became a mother. But I know nothing about child rearing. I earn about HK$12,000 per month but our rent costs HK$5,000, so we are just scraping by.'

Ah Wun's worries are typical among young men who become accidental fathers, many while barely out of their teens. But compared to pregnant teenage girls, this is a group that gets little sympathy or help.

'The media portrays us as scoundrels who make a young girl pregnant. After becoming fathers, we are portrayed as layabouts who are glued to video games, while leaving our wives to care for the babies on their own,' Ah Wun says.

'There's no way to seek outside help. Services for young parents are mainly for mothers who are considered more vulnerable. We are left to our own devices.'

Trying to live up to the traditional male role as the strong head of a household only adds to the stress. 'We are supposed to bite the bullet as whingeing does not help solve problems,' he says.

The dearth of services for young fathers prompted the Evangelical Lutheran Church Social Service to launch a programme last August to redress the situation.

Covering child-rearing classes, job training, work placement and scholarships, the scheme is an extension of an initiative launched three years ago to help teenage mothers, says Elisa Cheng Wai-hing, director of the service.

'The young mothers told us their burden would be relieved greatly if their husbands could help with housekeeping and child rearing. The role of the father is critical to maintaining a harmonious family. We employed a male social worker to reach out to such dads who are more likely to bond with a man.'

Since then, the programme has signed up about 50 new dads, most of whom became fathers before they turned 25. The youngest is just 15 years old. These young fathers are a neglected community, says Joyce Ma Lai-chong, a professor in social work at Chinese University.

'Young women are deemed to be more in need of support. But the young men who assume the responsibility of parenthood under such circumstances suffer a lot of stress, not least because men mature emotionally later than women.'

The situation requires them to grow up in a hurry. 'Anyone becoming a dad must make a lot of adjustments to cope with the new responsibility. But for such young fathers who have yet to establish any career or financial foundation, the obstacles are greater,' says Lau Kit-wai, a social worker with the service.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the young fathers have a poor self-image and the programme works to boost their confidence.

'Many are totally unprepared for pregnancy and parenthood, so they think that their life is ruined,' Cheng says. 'By providing them with skills training and study opportunities, we want them to know there's still a future ahead of them.'

Parenthood has inspired Wong Kwan, a 24-year-old construction worker, to turn his life around. He served five years in prison for assault. But the birth of his son last year and marriage to his girlfriend, then 19, made him mend his ways.

'I used to be a party animal. But now, I seldom go out and my entertainment is mostly excursions with my kid on holidays. I enjoy my new lifestyle a lot,' Wong adds. 'My father and I used to have a bad relationship, but he reconciled with me after the birth of his grandchild.'

Now Wong has even became the leader in a project aimed at nurturing entrepreneurial skills in young people. His group of young dads are among 11 finalists in an entrepreneurs competition that has been organised by the Youth Development Council.

Wong is optimistic that their idea to produce a bag for dads will win the top prize of HK$150,000. 'The bag was my idea. I always help my wife carry her bag [of baby gear] but it is too feminine for me.

'Women's bags are usually filled up with things like cosmetics and baby products, and only they can fish what they need from the heap of clutter. I wanted to make a bag that is specifically for fathers. Our bag has a thermal compartment for keeping baby bottles and adjustable dividers to customise the interior.

'If they used our bag, fathers would be more willing to help their wives carry stuff around.'