By Elissa Chudwin // Photos by T.J. Thomson
Kyle Garcia and Jessica Wieberg knew something wasn’t right as soon as they saw their newborn, Jacob. He was quiet. His skin was purplish. Wieberg, starting to panic, asked nervously why he wasn’t crying.
She didn’t get an answer. The doctors grabbed the baby, and neither parent knew why. The room filled with medical staff speaking loudly. They sped to the room next door, and they took Jacob with them.
His parents and both grandmothers sat in the hospital room, waiting. Garcia tried to be optimistic. He talked to his girlfriend and tried to reassure her, but the longer their child was gone, the less they spoke. An hour went by.
He told himself everything would be fine. Everything had to be fine.
Finally, Jacob was brought back into the room. Just some breathing problems, the doctors said. Garcia got to hold his son for the first time. He stared down at him and thought, He looks just like Jessica.
The couple could finally relax. Relief washed over the new parents. But in that moment, Garcia realized how much growing up he had ahead of him.
He was 16 years old.
The unheard half
Now 22, Garcia is the father he hoped he would become. He and Wieberg live together, and both matured quickly after Jacob’s birth.
“I wasn’t going to be messing around and going out and doing whatever,” he says. “I went from being a kid in school to being a parent in school.”
Garcia still lives with Wieberg. They moved in together in 2012, and they have a house in Ashland with Jacob, now 6, and their 10-month-old daughter, Ellie. People often assume they aren’t together anymore because of the stereotypes surrounding young parents and, in particular, young fathers. “There have been multiple times they just automatically assume I left or it didn’t work out or something,” Garcia says. “Then, they find out we’re still together, and then they’re really surprised.”
Garcia and Wieberg had been dating for three months when Wieberg became pregnant. When his son was born, Garcia’s priorities had to change. His social life stopped. “After we had the baby, I’d get a phone call: ‘Hey, let’s hang out. Let’s go party.’ And it always was, ‘I can’t,’” he says. “‘I have to go to work, or I’m going to stay at home.’” Garcia had planned to head to the coast for
college — east or west, it didn’t matter. He wanted to study marine biology. Instead, he got a job working as an equipment operator for the City of Columbia. He doesn’t know what life would have been like without Jacob. “I wonder almost every day,” he says. “And it’s not because I’m not happy with what I have now. It’s just something I’ve always wondered about.”
Although Garcia is involved in Jacob’s life, teen fathers face stereotypes that label them as both absent and uncaring, according to a study conducted by former MU graduate student Jennifer Beggs Weber in 2012. She used data from a 1998 study that surveyed 128 young moms who were part of social work programs.
The results of the 1998 research show 62 to 66 percent of teen mothers no longer lived with the child’s father a year and a half after the child’s birth. There have not been many studies conducted since then to determine if those statistics are still accurate.
At the same table
Mason Raithel and his daughter, Lilly, started having tea parties with her stuffed animals. One of his co-workers gave her a pink and purple Disney princess-themed play kitchen about a month and a half ago with a sink, cups and a teapot. It’s in their living room near the kitchen where Lilly, who is 19 months old, spends most of her time at home.
She doesn’t understand how to start the tea party yet, so her dad sets the table. She pretends to pour the tea into the cups, and when she takes a sip, she says, “Aaahhhh.”
Lilly will soon be a toddler. “She used to just be this blob,” Raithel says. “Now, she’s got teeth. She looks like a person.” Lilly’s dad, 20, says she can’t be left alone for more than 10 seconds. She’s always running around, and she’s started sneaking into the pantry for crackers and Cheetos. When Lilly wants something, she screams as loud as she can, so Raithel and his wife, Brittany Raithel, are teaching her to use words.
Although the two separated in May, they both remain in Lilly’s life. Brittany Raithel watches her in the mornings while Mason Raithel is at work, and their daughter lives with him.
She’s learning new words all the time, and her parents are trying to document every important milestone she reaches.
Raithel keeps a journal listing the funny or important things his daughter does. He wants her to know he paid attention to her development, and he wants to be able to remember these stories when she’s older.
One day, when Raithel went to change her diaper, Lilly decided it’d be fun to roll away from him before he could clean her off. She started to run around upstairs, still completely naked and poop-covered. He chased her throughout the second floor just to get her in the bathtub.
“It was ridiculous,” he says. “She thought it was a game. It was hilarious. She was having the time of her life.”
A father’s sacrifice
Raithel found out he was going to be a father when he was a senior at Hickman High School in 2012. “I think I was just scared,” he says. “It was like, ‘I’m just a kid in high school, I can’t be a dad.’” He got a job working nights at MBS Textbook Center.
“It was terrible,” he says. “You feel like you can never, ever get enough sleep, and I always felt like that.”
A few months later, they moved into their own apartment, and Lilly was born on New Year’s Eve. “I feel like I’m 20 going on 27,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m a kid raising a kid. In some regard I do because that is indeed the actuality of it, but I work a full-time job. I put food on the table for my kid. Am I still a kid? Yeah. I’m 20. But there are people who are 30 who are kids.”
Before Lilly was born, he worried whether she’d even like him. After she was born, his worries revolved around her well-being. He began to worry about expenses: They spent at least $130 per month on formula.
He was horrified the first time she got sick.
Once, when Lilly was around 4 months old, she couldn’t stop vomiting. The parents had to take her to the emergency room. It was a terrifying experience for the couple, but doctors said Lilly was probably sick because they had switched her formula. Otherwise, she was healthy.
Raithel also worries about the kinds of decisions she’ll have to make when she’s older. Will she hang out with the right people? Will she make the right choices? What will the world be like when she’s going into high school?
When she’s a teenager, she’s going to have a curfew. Raithel wants to meet all her friends, and he’s already thought about what he’ll say to the boys who ask her on dates. He knows she’ll end up on Facebook, even if he tells her no, but he’s going to warn her about all the bad things that could happen. He thinks it’s weird that kids grow up on the Internet, so he tries not to post pictures of Lilly online.
“My biggest responsibility is being there when she needs me, and even when she doesn’t,” he says. “Being there when she wants me and even when she doesn’t want me.”
Making ends meet
In April, Stephen Vanderlip and Julia Peterson, both 19, moved into their first apartment. On their son Jeremy’s fourth day in his new home, he wanders between the hallway and kitchen where Peterson is making mac’n’cheese. His parents say Jeremy, now 18 months old, is a pretty mellow kid. The toddler has huge brown eyes, and Peterson says he captures the attention of strangers. Jeremy draws smiles everywhere he goes.
In between laps around the apartment, he runs to Vanderlip, who is standing behind the kitchen counter, and reaches his arms out to be held. Later, when they go to put him down for a nap, he fusses. Peterson says her son is not used to having his own room yet.
Jeremy is not Vanderlip’s only child. He was 15 years old when he first found out he was going to be a dad. He was in the car with his father, and they were moving to Columbia from Jackson, Mich., when his ex-girlfriend texted him the news. “I thought to myself, ‘What am I going to do?’” he says. “I’m going to be 700 miles away. But I just told her, ‘I can’t come back now.’” Vanderlip and his ex thought about abortion. Then, they considered adoption. “We were so young, and I knew in my mind as a 16-year-old boy I wouldn’t be able to give him everything that I would be able to as an adult,” he says.
His ex decided to have the baby and even moved to Columbia briefly so their son, Hayden, could be near both his parents. Vanderlip hasn’t been able to see his son since his ex and Hayden moved back to Michigan, but he pays child support.
Vanderlip and Peterson met their sophomore year at Hickman and had Jeremy their senior year. Vanderlip dropped out during his second semester to work full time at Long John Silver’s, and the couple took turns spending the night at each other’s houses to be together after Jeremy was born. Vanderlip and Peterson both work nights now, so Jeremy spends the night with his grandparents during the week. That allows Vanderlip and Peterson to spend most of their free time with Jeremy.
Vanderlip wants his kids to do better than he did, and he wants them to finish school. “I don’t ever want him to come to me one day and say, ‘Why didn’t I have this?’” he says. “It’s not even a matter of I didn’t have a good life or (Peterson) didn’t either. It’s a matter of you want to give your kid, or kids, everything they want just to make them happy and to make sure they have everything they deserve to have.”
Vanderlip says people often think fathers aren’t part of their children’s lives because it’s common to hear about missing dads. “The mom does do a lot, don’t get me wrong, but there are those cases where there are moms who don’t do anything,” he says. “There are a lot of cases that people don’t really focus on or think about. They mainly see the mom does it, and the dad’s gone, but that’s not always the case.”
According to a 2004 Prevention Researcher article “Teen Fathers: An Introduction,” issues such as difficulty determining paternity, problems with the child’s mother or her family and problems with the court system can prevent teen fathers from being involved in their child’s life.
Carla Ardiner, the executive director of pregnancy resource center My Life Clinic in Columbia, says about 70 percent of its clients are between 18 and 24 years old, and it’s common for the mother to not receive support from the child’s father.
Ardiner says part of this might be because an expectant mother might not tell the father she’s pregnant if the two aren’t dating. She also might not tell him if she knows he already has other children. People often assume the mother is the primary caretaker, and this discounts what some young fathers are willing to do, she says.
Because the statistics match the stereotype that young fathers are not actively involved, the teen fathers who are present in their children’s lives tend to go unmentioned.
Learning as they go
Lilly wakes up from her nap a few hours before Raithel is scheduled to open for Steddy P at Mojo’s. She’s just finished eating a snack, and she giggles every time Raithel pushes her high chair across the kitchen floor with his feet.
Lilly has more yogurt on her face and shirt than in her mouth, and she whines every time Raithel tries to wipe it off. “I don’t even want to pick her up,” he says. “She’s so messy.” She needs a bath, and Raithel has to drop her off at his mom’s house soon so he can be at Mojo’s
Before Raithel became a father, he spent most of his weekends recording music at home. He joined a choir and did musical theater his senior year at Hickman. At that time, he planned to study music technology at the University of Central Missouri.
Now, when Raithel isn’t taking care of Lilly or working, he raps under the moniker Van Ghost. “This is a pretty easy thing to do with a kid,” he says. “I don’t have time to sit down and compose on a piano and sing as loud as I would like to. She’s sleeping. I can just put a beat down.” His next show is Monday at Southside Pizza and Pub, and he also produces songs on the side to make some extra money.
Raithel thinks Lilly likes music, too. When he has his fingers on a chord, she strums the guitar. “She’ll play it and just lose it,” he says. He bought her a pink soccer ball that she kicks around, and he wonders if she might want to play the sport when she’s older. She’s been looking at books since before she could walk, and she has a milk crate filled with them. Whatever book is at the top of the crate becomes her favorite, and she combs through them over and over again.
In five years, Raithel wants to be settled somewhere in a house with a yard where he can barbecue and Lilly can play. He wants her to have a dog. He wouldn’t mind keeping the job he has; he’s on the dayside at MBS Textbook Center now. He’s looking forward to picking her up from school one day and seeing all her art projects.
If she asks him what it’s like to have a kid as a teenager, he’s going to tell her it changes your life. “I wouldn’t recommend it like, ‘Hey, high school kids, go have a baby,” he says. “Just dive into real life blindly and hope you come out alright.’ I got lucky.
“I’m excited to watch her grow up and become this great person. She’s only 1, but she’s going to be this great whatever.”