Becoming a father at a young age isn’t the death sentence most people think it is. Here’s what it’s really like.
When he got the phone call, Eamonn Horan-Lunney was 21 years old. It was September of 1997, and he was an aspiring filmmaker settling into his third year of a degree in communications. A fan of Michael Moore, he hoped to make documentaries that would change the world by educating the masses about social issues. In the meantime, he was enjoying the bohemian life of a student. Then one evening, the girl he was dating called him.
“It was Megan,” he remembers, “saying, ‘I’m pregnant.’”
The news blindsided him.
“I was flabbergasted. Speechless,” says Horan-Lunney, now 37 and an airline-industry executive. “How do you respond to that? You just have to marvel at it for a while.” The announcement, he recalls, replaced the vague image of his future with a series of precise questions: What’s next? What’s my role? How is this going to change what I thought was my life plan?
Megan was two years younger and beginning her first year of university.
Instantly, the pregnancy became the most important issue in their lives, and the most significant decision either had ever faced. They discussed abortion. They discussed adoption. They discussed all the possibilities for the future, in excruciating detail.
“The conversations were kind and tender at times, and really vicious and cruel at other times,” Horan-Lunney recalls. “We talked about all available options. It’s emotional, and it’s personal. Everything is raw and on the table. You’re two young people going through a lot very quickly, and it all kind of flows out.”
They decided to keep the child.
“We determined this was the path we were going on,” Horan-Lunney says, “and we both jumped on board.”
The Threat (and Reward) of Fatherhood
For many young men, fatherhood is more of a threat than a promise. Pop culture reinforces the idea that becoming a dad early ruins a man’s life by cutting short the wild years of his 20s. Perhaps for that reason, we’re waiting later and later to become fathers. According to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, the average age at which a man becomes a dad is 27.1, but that goes up to 30.8 for men with a college education. Over the last century, the age at which men get married has consistently risen, and we’re having fewer kids than at any other time in history. Through these choices, we’ve framed marriage and fatherhood as roles that are best left until later in life.
Perhaps because of this, early fatherhood can bring out the coward in a young man, provoking some to run off on their kids and spouses. In the popular imagination, however, the option of sticking around to provide for the kids isn’t much nobler. For many guys, early parenthood reeks of abandoned dreams and stifled potential. Our understanding of fatherhood is that it is a lasting complication that makes career advancement difficult and personal growth entirely secondary. When a kid comes along, according to common thinking, you can forget about achieving goals or dreams. You’ll be lucky if you can find the time to relax at the end of a day at a thankless job that you endure only because you’re man enough to put your kids ahead of yourself — no matter how much that makes you resent them.
Horan-Lunney never saw it that way, though, even if some around him and his new wife did.
“I honestly lost a couple of friends over this,” he says. “They’d never say they were opposed to being friends with a young father. They’d just say that choosing fatherhood was throwing away my life.”
Above all, he credits his children for his success, which he might never have achieved had he not been forced to change direction so drastically at the age of 21.“It gave me some drive, some focus and some discipline, because all of a sudden I had to start providing.”
The Demands of Fatherhood vs. the Demands of Career
The problem, says champion competitive eater Jamie “The Bear” McDonald, is that the desire to provide for your family is often at odds with the need to be close to them. Eventually, you’ll be forced to choose between the highest levels of success and the satisfaction of time spent as a parent.“I went along the path for a few years of working 80 or 90 hours a week,” he says. “But you miss too much of your kids growing up.”
Not yet 40, McDonald has thrown himself into many callings, beginning with a stint in the Navy, a college degree in economics and a successful career at the executive level of a major aerospace tech-support firm. He has been a competitive bodybuilder, runs a nutritional coaching business with his wife and is opening a Kansas-City-style barbecue restaurant near Hartford. Last year, after competing in over 60 competitive eating events — such as eating nearly 10 pounds of peach fried pie in eight minutes — All Pro Eating ranked McDonald the No. 1 independent competitive eater in the world.
The fact that he and Cheryl had their first child when they were 20 doesn’t seem like it held McDonald back.
“I’ve always been a driven person,” he says. “But it’s not just about me and my career. That whole work-life balance becomes much more critical when you have kids at home. Growing up, I wanted to be the CEO or the president of some mega-corporation. But once I saw what that would take, in terms of time away from the family, it just ended up not being worth it.”
Unlike Horan-Lunney, whose kids gave him the drive to succeed in his career, McDonald says that having kids so young held him back from the level of accomplishment he would otherwise have striven for. Though his vigor seems almost superhuman, McDonald’s energy met its match in the early years of fatherhood. He had just left the Armed Forces and was going to college, working for an hourly wage at the company he’s remained with ever since, and figuring out the basics of making his marriage work and raising his children right. Despite the fact that, 16 years on, he’s gone from the repair shop to a title of Director of Customer Support, he recognizes that his duty to his children slowed him down at a critical point when he could have been focused most intently on building his career.
“It took me longer to get here than I wanted,” he says. “I’ve been successful in my job, but I could have pushed it further. But then the work-life balance wouldn’t have been there, and that just wasn’t worth it to me.”
As a result, McDonald says he went through years during the beginning of his career when money was tighter than he wanted it to be, at the same time as he and his wife were figuring out work and family. They’ve been married 17 years, and he concedes there were times when it was rocky.
“You really know nothing,” he says about the early years. “From 20 to 30, even to 35, you do a lot of damn changing, a lot of growing up. I don’t think you’re emotionally capable of handling things in the best manner.”
The Virtue of Responsibility
Computer programmer James Lafferty, 35, went through similar struggles as an young father. At 22, he had dropped out of a liberal arts program and was searching for direction when his girlfriend told him she was pregnant.
“I got a feeling of needing to put my head down,” he recalls. “It gave me more of a sense of purpose. I was kind of treading water, trying to figure out what I was trying to do or wanting to do. Then you have a kid and there’s a really definite, palpable, immediate physical responsibility, where you say, ‘All right, get your head out of the clouds and be a man.’”
The Unacknowledged Reward
Duty that fatherhood may be, Lafferty emphasizes what a pleasure it is as well, something that detractors of young parents don’t often factor into the equation of benefits and losses. McDonald and Horan-Lunney strongly agree. Though early fatherhood puts you out of step with people your own age, they all say that spending time with your kids is a new and meaningful activity that largely makes up for it — and that it changes the way you feel about the things you used to enjoy.“You really just don’t have anything in common with people without kids,” McDonald says, adding that this is especially so if your friends are young single guys who want to hit the bars. “I’d rather take the kids out to a movie, or go play baseball or football. At the end of the day, what’s more important? It’s just been natural for me to say my kids come first.”
Reaching the End
Watching babies become children and grow into individual teens and adults is the great pleasure of fatherhood. But a related experience is the strange and melancholy realization that being a parent, in its most intense form, only lasts a short time. A man is a father his whole life, sure, but after his kids move out, the role becomes largely symbolic compared to its importance a few years before. Parenthood isn’t an experience we expect to be transitory, and it can come as a shock when it begins to represent a decreasing portion of your life.“I’ll be 42, and both my kids will be in the military or at college,” McDonald says. “Having kids as young as I did, you learn very quickly how fast time passes. My son will be 16 this year. Where did those 16 years go? I thought that this would be forever, that I would have all this time. I only have two years left with him. Of course we’ll continue to be close, but there’s a major change if he goes off to college and we see him a couple of times a year.”
As McDonald, Horan-Lunney, Lafferty and many before them all say, becoming a father changes everything about you. But since the most engaged years of fatherhood aren’t a permanent condition, their end can leave the new, changed version of you feeling as though you’re out of a job. For McDonald, that too seems like an easier experience to deal with as a younger man. His plan is to funnel his energy into work.
“At that point I can start pushing hard, because I’m established in my field,” he says. “It’s all possible. People say your life will end when you have kids. No, it doesn’t. It’s just different. I really do consider it better.”