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Family Man

Bobby Krotendorfer didn't expect to be a father at 19, or jobless at 20. But he's determined to be a loving dad and strong breadwinner. The first part comes easily.

Teen dads aren't known for meeting their parental responsibilities, but Bobby Krotendorfer wants to stick around.
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By Laura Sessions Stepp
Sunday, July 5, 2009

Bobby Krotendorfer plods through the garage and into the kitchen of the small, blue-gray Colonial in Southern Maryland. He drops a Snoopy diaper bag onto the kitchen table next to the GED prep book and a box of Hostess Twinkies. A lanky 20-year-old wearing baggy sweat pants, Bobby has just taken his girlfriend's 5-year-old daughter, Faith, to school, then listened to his girlfriend fuss at him over the cellphone on his way back home. Seems she's always yelling at him about something since she took a part-time waitressing job at the Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, leaving him to watch the children.

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"I've had it," Bobby says. Exhaustion pulls at his pale, angular face, and his day has just started. There are baby clothes to fold, floors to mop and three kids to put down for naps: 18-month-old Robert, called "Junior," his biological child with his girlfriend; 3-year-old Hope, whom his girlfriend had with another man; and Savannah, the toddler daughter of a couple whom he agreed to watch.

Bobby is trying to keep a relationship going with his 22-year-old girlfriend, Lori Ball, and build a family with their children. But how to do that, when he no longer brings home a regular paycheck and doesn't know when he will, worries him a lot. Especially the father part. Until recently, he saw himself as one day being the family breadwinner. He had not envisioned becoming the family caretaker.

For the moment, he, Lori and the kids are living with Lori's dad, Pete Ball, in Pete's house in Waldorf, a city of split-levels, ramblers and Colonials in Charles County. Waldorf attracts many first-time home buyers who dream of making more money someday and moving into a posher suburb closer to the nation's capital. There aren't a lot of moving vans in the neighborhoods these days, though. (Pete put his house up for sale over six months ago, hoping to move with the family to a nearby county, and hasn't had one serious bidder.)

It's nap time for Junior and Savannah. Bobby changes their diapers, puts them down in separate bedrooms, then goes to the bathroom.

Then he shuffles into the living room to check Hope's diaper. "Wanna chair lay-down?" he asks. She snuggles into a chair and starts watching "SpongeBob SquarePants." Her eyelids close; he drapes a blanket over her.

He starts to plop down on one end of the living room couch only to reconsider and return to Junior's bedroom. He stands outside the door and, although everything is quiet, senses that his namesake is awake on the other side contemplating a breakout. It has happened before. He opens the door, finds Junior standing there, swoops him back into the crib and closes the bedroom door to the sound of sobs. He returns to the living room clutching his abdomen.

"My stomach hurts," he groans softly.

He pulls his sweat shirt hood over his head, curls up at the far end of the couch and falls asleep, looking every bit like the boy he was not so long ago.

***

The principal casualties of this recession are not middle-aged, out-of-work professionals, but young men like Bobby, more of whom are unemployed than at any time in almost two decades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15 percent of men ages 20 to 24 were out of work in the first quarter of this year, compared with 7.4 percent for men age 25 and older. The numbers are even higher for those who, like Bobby, lack a high school diploma or college education. Many are trying to find jobs in construction and other trades that have been hit hard by the recession. They do not tend to carry the union cards that guarantee higher wages, and they don't believe in accepting welfare. Hard work, to them, is as honorable as higher education. But the economy has betrayed them, and many have no savings to draw from, no well-off parents to turn to for financial help.

As the teenage birth rate rises again, more of these young men are becoming fathers as teenagers or in their early 20s. We don't see these young fathers on the nightly news, says Maria Kefalas, a sociologist at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia who studies "fragile families" -- working class and low-income unmarried couples who have children. They are invisible to many of us and often struggle to grasp their new identities themselves. ("Why would anyone want to write about a father?" Bobby asked when approached for this story.) And yet, "they are so vulnerable," Kefalas says. "The problems seep into, as opposed to sweep over, them."


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