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A Dad at 14

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Garry wasn't allowed into the labour ward the day his daughter was born. Staff at the hospital felt he was too young, so he never saw the moment his little girl came into the world. With a boyish smirk, he shrugs his shoulders and says he doesn't mind. He thinks he would have fainted if he'd been there.

Garry The north Dublin schoolboy had just turned 13 when he found out his girlfriend Emma, who was a year older, was carrying their baby. On a summer's day last year, he became a parent at the age of 14, and one of the youngest fathers in Ireland.

Last week, the baby-faced youth revealed as one of Britain's youngest fathers provoked a storm of moral outrage around the world. The story of Alfie Patten, a 13-year-old boy whose voice has not yet broken, has reignited concerns about teenage parenthood and the sexualisation of children at increasingly early ages.

A poignant response from the new father in a video released on YouTube this week spoke volumes about his readiness for the role. When asked if he could provide financially for his family, he answered with bewilderment: "What's 'financially'?"

Garry has followed the story keenly. Eight months ago, he was in Alfie's shoes, trying to make sense of fatherhood in the middle of a carefree childhood. Today, he is paying the price for his premature sexual adventure, with weekends spent cradling his teething infant, changing nappies and making bottles.

But this week, as he sat in a run-down playground close to his home, bouncing his adoring baby daughter on his knee, he vowed that he was in for the long haul.

"When I heard I was going to be a father, it was a big fright," he says. "I felt like giving up everything. I couldn't eat. I was depressed. I thought I wouldn't be able to handle it, but I'm OK now. I've stuck with her for nine months and I plan to stick with her for the rest of my life."

Garry and Emma grew up in the same flat complex in a deprived suburb of Dublin. They claim they have been "boyfriend and girlfriend" for six years, suggesting their relationship began when they were just seven.

Today, he lives with his mother, a lone parent who became a grandmother to his daughter at 34. Emma has since moved to a neighbouring parish with her family and their eight-month-old child. They see each other nearly every day and the baby stays with Garry and his mother at weekends. One day, they'd like to get married.

"Luckily, I have a brilliant Ma who helps us out, but I try to do as much as I can," he says. "I'm not a normal kid any more. I used to go swimming and play football. Now I change nappies and make feeds. I wanted to be a professional footballer -- but that's not going to happen now. Everything has changed.

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"When I saw her for the first time, she was lovely. I couldn't believe she was mine. She was so tiny. But there's very little good about it.

"At the time we didn't think what we were doing. It's not really normal for kids our age to be having sex. I did get sex education at school but it didn't make any difference."

Unlike Alfie Patten, whose parents allowed him to share a bedroom in the family home with his 15-year-old girlfriend, Garry grew up in an environment of boundaries and curfews.

His mother, Angela, still has sleepless nights worrying about their future and how her son will cope with the burdens of parenthood at such a young age. "I was disgusted when I found out, devastated," she says. "He was too young. He still is too young but what can you do? You can't watch them 24/7.

"I cried for two weeks solid when I heard. He's my only child. You keep asking over and over in your head, 'how, where, when?' When I was 13, I didn't even go to discos. If they had been 16 or 17, you might have understood, but 13?

"To this day, I've never got any answers. I know it was never done under my roof. I was strict with him. He had to be in by 10pm. But it's true what they say -- it only takes a minute.

As an unmarried teenage father, Garry had no automatic custody rights over his child, so Angela, who survives mainly on her lone parent's allowance, fought for access to her grand-daughter.

"At first, I thought abortion might be the answer but Emma wasn't willing to go down that road. Once the baby was born, there was no going back. I had to stand by them. I couldn't throw Garry out on the street and disown him.

"But he doesn't get any help whatsoever and it's very hard to keep supporting him financially. I'm barely surviving as it is and he doesn't get a penny from the state. He needs money for nappies and bottles and I can't say no to him. He should be entitled to something but the mother gets everything. At the end of the day, fathers like him should have rights too but they have none. The only support he gets is counselling from the local Teen Parents group."

For now, Garry, a second-year student who has struggled with absenteeism, has no plans for the future but to finish school and take care of his daughter.

"He wants to do his Leaving and get a good job to look after his child," says Angela. "Just as he's finishing school, she'll be starting. He's had to grow up but deep down he's still just a kid. He wants to hang out with his friends and go to the movies. Sometimes I look out the window and watch him kicking a ball with his friends. I think 'God, he's only a child, yet he's a father'.

"He's really quite good with the baby. He gets her breakfast and all, and at least they can watch cartoons together. I'm not sure who enjoys them more!

"I have lived through every parent's worst nightmare. I live in terror of it happening again. Garry swears it never will but I watch them like hawks. If she comes over, I say to them, 'sit on that sofa where I can see you'. If he walks her to the bus, I walk with them. I'm sure they are still sexually active but I pray every night they are careful.

"I reared him on my own. I thought that was hard. Then just when you're getting near the end, you're back at the beginning. God forgive me, but I don't think I could forgive him if it happened again."

*Names have been changed


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