By DIANA McCURDY
The sperm wriggles up the Fallopian tube, nosing its way unerringly towards the egg. It penetrates. Conception has occurred. And if you were to judge by the amount of public and academic attention dedicated to them, this is where the role of the teenaged father ends. Somehow, once the babies are born, their boy-fathers slip off the radar.
The underlying assumption, it seems, is that young fathers don't stick around long enough to warrant attention.
Nobody is even certain how many teen fathers are out there. The meagre statistics available (commissioned by the former Ministry of Youth Affairs and dating back to 1997) indicate that just over half the babies born to teenaged girls are fathered by teenaged boys.
Given New Zealand has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world, the lack of solid information is bizarre, says Father and Child Trust co-ordinator Harald Breiding-Buss.
"There is so much written about teen mums but there's got to be a guy somewhere. It takes two to make a baby. Where are these guys? Are they really a completely lost cause? Is it just a bit of a party to them? Or is there something we could possibly do for them?"
After fielding comments from several midwives and antenatal nurses who were concerned about the numbers of teen fathers slipping through the cracks, the Christchurch-based Father and Child Trust decided to investigate.
The trust tracked down 24 young fathers and was astonished by what it found. Contrary to the stereotype of teen fathers being uninterested and irresponsible, they were almost unanimously positive about being dads and keen to play an active role, Breiding-Buss says.
Usually, once they were over the initial shock of the pregnancy, many of the young men seemed to thrive on the new responsibility. They were eager to live up to the model of fatherhood, believing they could raise a child as well as - or better than - older parents.
"What I was amazed to see was how having a child changed their whole perception of themselves," Breiding-Buss says. "They were really implementing major lifestyle changes. They were thinking: 'I'm a dad now, I can't smoke any more, I can't smoke dope any more, I can't go out partying with friends any more. I need to go and find a job'. And they were really putting a lot of energy into it. They were changing their lives."
Most teenaged fathers attended the birth of their baby and visited regularly during the first few months, even if they were no longer in a relationship with the mother.
Victoria University associate professor of psychology Jan Pryor uncovered similar attitudes when she interviewed 15 teen fathers in 1995. Her findings have never been published, but she describes it as one of the most extraordinary studies she has done.
"I had no idea it [fatherhood] would be so important to them ... These were ordinary young men, but they had been through the birth and had been extraordinarily moved by it ... That was a turning point for them. More than one of them was in tears describing the birth of their child."
But if they are so well-intentioned and emotionally involved, why do so few stay in the picture for the long term?
Teenaged relationships are notoriously unstable and that's where the rot starts setting in, Breiding-Buss says. "When their access to their children is compromised it all starts to fall apart again."
Young fathers are often willing to work long hours for little pay or give up drugs when they live with their child. But the incentive fades when they split with the mother.
Ongoing support for fathers is usually minimal, Breiding-Buss says. In all cases where young parents broke up in the months following the survey interview, the mothers had at least one social or support worker. The fathers had none.
Nor are they likely to seek help.
"They [teenaged fathers] felt discouraged rather than encouraged to be involved," the trust's survey reports. "If stereotypes prevail of young men as irresponsible and not very interested in their offspring, then service providers will have a part in conveying those stereotypes to the young men."
No matter how well-intentioned they are, it can be difficult for teenaged fathers to see a useful place for themselves in their child's life.
"I thought the motivation alone was just quite mindblowing," Breiding-Buss says.
"You think of young people as being so fun-oriented, but here they were, suddenly they had responsibilities thrown at them and they were thriving on it. They were absolutely loving it.
"They were scared shitless as well, but they wanted to do the right thing and they were just so keen to finally have a point in life. Personally, I was quite disappointed that sort of motivation is not being utilised."
Kori Bragg, a support worker for the trust's Teen Dads Project, is all too familiar with the frustrations of being a teen father. His girlfriend became pregnant when he was 18. It was a shock, because he had thought she was on the Pill.
"I felt out of my depth and when she had the baby I was sort of pushed into decisions and I felt like I was an innocent bystander, just watching while everyone played with my life."
Determined to be a good father, Bragg found work on a dairy farm near their home town of Invercargill. When his girlfriend announced she and her parents were moving to Christchurch soon after the baby was born, he followed them.
His relationship with the mother of his child was never easy. Eventually, when their son was more than a year old, they broke up.
"It sort of led me to a breakdown because it felt like I'd let my son down," Bragg says.
"I got so depressed I couldn't sleep for about three or four days. I was shaking like a leaf, I kept pacing around the room, I would cry for no reason at all. I had really tried to keep the family together for him."
Bragg's experience is not uncommon. The Father and Child Trust's research has found many teen fathers have suicidal thoughts. Some young men they interviewed bore marks from previous attempts.
If there is one message that Bragg wants to hammer home, it is that teenaged fathers do care. It would be nice to be acknowledged for it, he says.
Bragg eventually began to realise that if he wanted his son to be happy, he had to be happy.
"So I thought: we have to go our separate ways. Trying to keep this unhappy family together is just making us all miserable."
After they separated, relations between Bragg and his ex-girlfriend remained strained. He lost track of her, and his son, for six months after she moved flats.
Now, Bragg has a formal arrangement to see his son every weekend. He has moved in with a new partner and they have a toddler and another baby on the way. At 25, he will soon be a father of three.
In his job as a support worker, Bragg meets many young fathers going through the same problems he encountered. "A lot of these guys are still kids themselves. They don't know their rights and they are still learning how to be an adult, let alone a parent. And they get pushed back and forward between different organisations and families and parents and things like that, and they often get confused and pushed out of the picture or not taken seriously."
Breiding-Buss believes the solution is to attach a mentor to every teen father who arrives at hospital for the birth of his child, to help to guide young fathers through social and health services and provide job and parenting advice.
Breiding-Buss believes the key is to help young fathers early. "Most of them are around in the early months. It tends to break up later on. Even when they're separated, they are usually invited to come along to the birth.
"It would be money worth spending. First of all you have a guy you are helping - and teen dads from our experience tend to be from fairly rough backgrounds - so they can be a problem in themselves. Then you're looking at the next generation, another person who will really benefit from the father's involvement."
TEEN DAD: PARENTING IS A FULL-TIME JOB
Joshua Watson, 19, treats fatherhood like a job. Since he gained custody of his 16-month-old daughter Isabella Luci-Rose a couple of months ago, the Christchurch teenager has drawn up a regimented timetable of housework and childcare duties to ensure everything is done.
Joshua and his daughter live at home with his mum - who works full-time - and his younger brother, aged 14. Between looking after Isabella, Joshua takes full responsibility for the housework.
He admits it's an unusual life for a teenaged male but he believes it is the best thing he can do for his child. "I really, really love my wee daughter."
Joshua moved in with his girlfriend at 16 after leaving school at the end of fifth form without any qualifications.
He says the pair didn't actively try to get pregnant but they never used contraception, either. After more than a year passed without a pregnancy, he began to worry that one of them was infertile.
"[When we got pregnant] we were ecstatic because of so many false alarms before. It was just, 'wow, it's finally come'."
From that moment, his life revolved around his impending fatherhood. He had been working in various jobs since school and, though he and his partner had ongoing money problems, he was confident he could support his young family emotionally and financially.
"I felt as though I should go to work, come home, spend some time with [Isabella], do the dishes, then go to bed. On the weekends I would love spending time with her - I would be out doing the garden and just sit her on a blanket with me."
When Isabella was 9 months old, Joshua and his partner separated. At first, his ex-girlfriend had full custody, but after problems developed, her mother began looking after the baby.
Two months ago, Watson gained full custody on the condition that he stopped working his two jobs at the local freezing works and leather factory and moved home with his mother. His ex-girlfriend's mother looks after Isabella two days a week.
Watson is meeting the challenge of full-time fatherhood head-on. At first, he found it difficult to cope with the transition from working but now he treats his new situation like a job - drawing up a timetable of childcare and housework duties, and scheduling parenting courses on his days off.
Watson's mother is delighted with the way her son is coping with full-time fatherhood. She hasn't even had to change a nappy since he moved home, she says.
Joshua shrugs. Isabella comes first, no questions asked, he says. He doesn't have many friends these days, but that's just something he deals with. The most important thing is that Isabella has a full-time parent.
"It was just something I really wanted to do for Isabella's sake. That's what I think a lot of these teenagers think when they become parents: they still don't have the concept of putting someone else first."
By DIANA McCURDY