Shane Ryan turns 40 next month and he’s planning a big family bash in his local pub in Rathmines, in Dublin’s Southside. While most men his age are embracing fatherhood for the first-time (it’s now more common to have a baby at 40 than 20) he says he’s most looking forward to sharing a pint with his 21-year-old son who he hasn’t seen since Christmas as he’s studying in London.
“I miss my son terribly when he’s gone, we used to do everything together, we even played on the same football team,” says Ryan, an engineer for Dublin City Council.
While there is no magic number when it comes to discerning the ‘right’ age to become a dad, few would argue that the optimal age is in your teens.
Yet Ryan and his now wife Linda, had their son Connor when he was 18 and she was 19. “We don’t need studies to tell us that a father in his thirties is more likely to be financially stable and emotionally prepared to take on the role of a father than a teenager but that doesn’t mean that young dads can’t do a good job,” Ryan told Daddy's Digest.
He recalled the day he broke the news to his parents that he was about to become a father. “I was dreading going home from school that day. It’s only a short walk but I shook the whole way home. I had no choice, my girlfriend was due to give birth in six weeks’ time and I couldn’t hide it from them any longer.”
While the odds were stacked against Ryan who is the oldest of his four siblings, it didn’t deter him from continuing with his education and being an involved father at the same time. “My parent’s main concern was my education. They wanted more for me and since I was top of my class in Math, I had plans to go to university in England.” Ryan says he would have been the first in his extended family to have gone to university but he knew that wasn’t an option anymore. Instead, he opted for community college to do mechanical engineering so he could be closer to Linda and Connor, plus it was much more affordable. He stayed at home with his parents, while Linda lived with her parents and their baby son across town.
“It wasn’t an ideal situation but it meant that we could save money and I had peace to study.” Ryan concedes that to some people that may sound selfish but he says he had to grow-up quickly and he was thinking of his family’s long-term future. “I saw my family every day after college and I tried to be as hands-on as possible. I kept my son overnight at the weekends so Linda could work.
“If I didn’t make a go of college I knew I wouldn’t get a decent job and we’d end up stuck in this position forever. I wanted us to break free and not just get by like my parents did but have a good life.”
Fast forward to today, Ryan and Linda live “comfortably” in a wealthy suburb of Dublin with their 13-year-old daughter and son when he returns during holidays. The couple made “a substantial profit” from the sale of their more modest first home during the Celtic Tiger period when property prices in the city surged.
Reflecting as he prepares to hit a birthday milestone, Ryan says “he got lucky” and credits his wife and in-laws for doing the lion’s share of childcare in the early days which allowed him to focus on his studies. He points to friends who also became young dads and had to fight to be involved in their child’s lives as their relationships broke down with the baby’s mother.
“I know we’re probably a rarity but we managed to battle through the tough times, and there were some dark days when I thought we wouldn’t cope but we stayed together as a couple and our son is proof that we did a good job.”
While Ryan says he wouldn’t want to become a grandfather anytime soon, he says “it’s not the end of the world” for a young person to have a baby. “The main thing is to accept your responsibility, it’s easy for men to turn their backs and even walk away totally but a real man would never do that. For me personally, becoming a father was the best thing that ever happened to me and I’m now at a stage where I can hang out with my son and enjoy each other’s company.”
Teenage pregnancy rates in Ireland have dropped by more than 60% in the last 15 years, while they have almost halved in the UK, plummeting to the lowest level since records began. “Under 18 conception rates have declined by 55 per cent since 1998, whilst for women aged 30 and over, conception rates have increased by 34 per cent,” explained statistician Nicola Haines from Office for National Statistics in the UK. The reason given for the drop includes better sex education, improved access to contraception and a growing trend to start families later in life.