By Lori Tremmel Freeman, BS, MBA
Chief Executive Officer, AMCHP
Although teenage pregnancy is at its lowest rate in decades and the declines have been steep, still there were an astonishing 274,641 teen births in 2013, and U.S. teen birth rates remain some of the highest among developed countries. The socioeconomic impacts of teen pregnancy are significant and long lasting, with only 38 percent of teen moms under the age of 18 getting a high school diploma, and children of teen moms being three times as likely to become teen moms themselves. In 2010, it is estimated that teen childbearing cost the United States $9.3 billion. You have to dig a little further to understand the impact related to the teen dad, but it is no less, or arguably, even more significant. The involvement of the father deeply influences health (infant mortality, obesity, substance abuse), poverty, behavior and emotional issues, education, crime, domestic violence, incarceration and the list goes on.
Every now and then, you read about someone and you tuck it away for later use. A few months ago, the story of Devin Davis came to our attention at AMCHP. This is the story of a pretty amazing teen dad. With this issue of Pulse dedicated to Adolescent Health, a perfect opportunity arose to talk with Devin about sharing his story with you. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
What circumstances led you to be a youth advocate for teenage pregnancy prevention?
Devin and his girlfriend got pregnant during his sophomore year of high school in Ticonderoga, NY when he was just sixteen years old. Devin notes "Ticonderoga High School has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the county. Here's an interesting thing also. My son is a fifth generation child born to a teen parent."
Although in a serious relationship, the pregnancy and later delivery of their son took its toll on the relationship. The two parents ended their relationship one month after the baby was born and shared custody for about three months. A crucial turning point for Devin came unexpectedly when full custody was sought by the mother of their child. Devin would spend the next 18 months of his teen years fighting for joint custody. During the custody hearings, Devin says he heard over and over the argument for sole custody, "But, I am his mother…" It was at this moment that he realized that being a father actively engaged in the life of his son was of equal importance to the involvement of the mother, and worth fighting for.
Was there a defining moment after the pregnancy and/or birth when you thought you should share your story to help other teens?
The birth of his son, the long custody battle, and the reality of caring for a baby while a teenager impacted Devin's life in profound ways. "I can't fully go back to being a teen now, because I'm now in a parenting role," says Devin. "Teenagers who become pregnant think they will have this little family together and that it'll be fun. Well, having a child as a teenager is nothing like Teen Mom on the internet. Teenagers don't have any money. How can they possibly think they can have a baby and care for a baby?" Devin passionately differentiates between the financial strain and the mental aspects of bearing a child so young. He wants teens to understand both impacts. Balancing homework, school, work and taking care of the child is a tremendous effort. And, he wants teens to care most about the impact on the baby.
As he entered his senior year and was faced with selecting a required senior project, the answer was quite easy for Devin. He immediately knew he wanted to leave something of his own experience behind. Devin saw his senior project as an amazing opportunity to focus on reducing teen pregnancy rates in his high school and felt that the curriculum was a good starting point. "I didn't have a lot of confidence that I'd be able to do it," he says. In the end, he couldn't have been more wrong. Devin successfully developed and proposed a new curriculum to educate students about teenage pregnancy prevention. He successfully sought and received a donation from Realityworks (realityworks.com) for the Total Parenting Experience including comprehensive curricula and infant simulators to further enhance his proposed health class curriculum.
Tell me a little about your son. What's the best part about being a Dad? The hardest challenge?
"He's fun and can count to 10 at the age of two!" laughs Devin. "My son is my best friend. I always have this little person I can count on, trust and he fills any emptiness. I always have something to look forward to on the weekends, he keeps me positive." Devin recognizes the challenges at the same time. He notes it's not easy to do it alone, to share his son between two homes and to come to mutual agreement about how to raise a child. He constantly juggles the requirements of school, getting ready for college and work. Time management has become critical. He recognizes the value of having a good relationship with the baby's mom and that his son is "healthier and happier" from both parents working together. Devin also has a new understanding of selflessness. He no longer can always do the things he wants to do and there is sacrifice that comes with being a teen dad.
What message would you like others to know about a father's involvement in pregnancy and/or raising their child?
"Mothers have this nine month relationship with the baby long before the father gets to meet the baby," says Devin. "Fathers have to work at it a little more and earn the bond, but they have natural paternal instincts also. But both the maternal and paternal roles are crucial! I want everyone to realize that many fathers DO want to be part of their child's life, even if it is at their own pace. Even if it is a little at a time. Kids need both parents. They need to learn the role of both the mom and the dad in their life."
What is one important message you'd like school or government leaders to hear about educating teens about pregnancy?
"Hands on activities are absolutely required – make it dramatic, make it impactful. Using infant simulators really give teens a taste of real life," comments Devin. "It's also crucial to include the mental aspects of having a baby. Get teen parents to come to the classroom and share the real story of having a baby." He also recommends changing up the conversation about birth control. "Don't just talk about all of the types of birth control. Talk about how teens can discover the best method or practice for them individually, so that they are completely comfortable and consistent with their choice." Devin believes updating curriculums around teen pregnancy is an investment. "Investing in these programs now will decrease the costs associated with teen pregnancy. But, more importantly, give children more opportunities in their lives."
In late May 2014, Devin presented his proposed curriculum to the Ticonderoga Central School District Board of Education and received full approval for implementation. He continues to share joint custody of his two-year-old son and is busy preparing for college in the fall. Devin plans to major in child development and psychology in preparation for a career as a family law attorney. With the recent approval of the new high school curriculum, he also hopes to return to the classroom to peer mentor teens on the impact of teen pregnancy.
Devin left me with these poignant words:
"I take every opportunity I can to prove that the world is changing and fathers do want to participate in their children's lives. Everyone assumes that the fathers are losers and they have a bad reputation and I want to redeem that reputation. I want less babies to have deprived lives because their parents can't adjust to parenthood, and for my peers to be able to do all the things they want to do because it does hurt sometimes, not being able to live my life how I want and having restrictions. There will be a time to have children and it's not when you're 16 and not established."
Please join me in sincerely thanking Devin for sharing his story with us, for his honesty and forthright comments, and for his passion in advocating for education around teenage pregnancy prevention. He's an inspiration to many, including myself.