Miguel Vasquez met the mother of his daughter when they were in first grade. However, these childhood sweethearts' story didn't go exactly as planned.
The two officially started dating in high school, but just three months into their relationship, they got pregnant. When Miguel found out, he was more than a little shocked.
"It was kind of terrifying," Miguel says. "You know, like panic."
Suddenly he had to go from playing video games and hanging with friends, like a typical teenager, to finding a regular job and buying all the supplies you need to care for a baby.
It was an adjustment to say the least.
However, once their baby girl, Aaliyah, came into the world, Miguel was over the moon about her.
"I went into being a father unprepared," Miguel said. "I didn't know what I was getting myself into, but I wouldn't change it for the world, because my little girl's my everything, you know?"
Miguel and Aaliyah. Photo via Miguel Vasquez.
That said, there was still so much about being a dad that left him feeling ill-equipped, especially when he and his girlfriend started having problems.
They had some help from their families and were attending New Futures High School, which specializes in educating teen parents. But when they decided to split up and things like visitation rights started getting thrown around, Miguel didn't know how to proceed.
Thankfully an organization called Fathers New Mexico came to their high school and offered to mentor any young fathers who were feeling overwhelmed.
Miguel connected with executive director Johnny Wilson to learn more. Soon, he was going to weekly meetings and workshops, where fathers come together, ask any questions they want, talk about issues they're dealing with, and get some much-needed advice.
According to Johnny, that's the heart of what the organization does — it gives young fathers a safe space where they can open up and learn.
"It ends up being a group of guys sitting around … that are able to see one another become comfortable with some vulnerability, they're able to hear each other," Johnny explains.
Eventually, many of them get to a place where they're confronting the things that scare them the most about being a father. Often it comes down to a lack of control.
This idea of letting go and allowing oneself to be vulnerable flies in the face of traditional masculine stereotypes to which many men still adhere. The problem with that is when men close themselves off to their own emotions, it breeds toxic masculinity, which can in turn lead to serious mental and physical issues.
In fact, a recent study by Lancet Public Health found single fathers are more than twice as likely to die prematurely than single mothers. It's hard not to see the correlation there.
What's more, teen parents in general get a lot of flack from society for "making poor choices," which, needless to say, doesn't help them become better parents.
Fathers New Mexico works against societal judgment and tries to show young dads they're capable of being amazing parents, no matter their age.
"We [have to] look at [them] without that concept of blame and as people who may be victims themselves that we can give support and tools to," Johnny says.
They've given that and more to dads like Miguel. Aside from providing a variety of weekly group meetings, Johnny makes himself available to chat one-on-one with them.
"They're really hands on," Miguel says.
Not only has the organization given him the space and tools to express himself better, Johnny has helped him assemble paperwork so he can apply for visitation rights to see his daughter.
The group is willing to go above and beyond to let these fathers know they're not alone in their parenting journey and that it's more than OK to have a lot of questions.
This promotion of healthy masculinity shouldn't start after a man becomes a father. That's why Fathers New Mexico strives to educate younger boys too.
It's called the Future Men Project, and it aims to start a dialogue about masculinity and making healthy choices with boys who have yet to become parents but are at risk. The project meets in small groups once a week to offer middle-school boys a new perspective on what their future could look like. They discuss how society currently views manhood and what needs to change about that as well as self-perceptions and personal relationships.
The hope is that by starting these conversations young, it'll make sharing feelings more inherent in boys, which will in turn make them more emotionally tuned-in men.
It's wonderful that the men in Fathers New Mexico are learning to emote and ask questions as they navigate fatherhood. It would be even more wonderful if they felt like they could do that in the first place.
But until that becomes the norm, there are places like Fathers New Mexico that remind men that strength doesn't come from hiding your feelings — it comes from being brave enough to share them.