CELEBRATING DAD — Single-dad of Apolo Ohno, other dads, challenge traditional roles

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Yuki Ohno (right) and his son Apolo Ohno (left) (Photo provided by Yuki Ohno)

By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly

He is one of the most widely-recognized single fathers in the world. Yuki Ohno has spent the past two decades cheering on his son from the stands, prodding him to believe in himself and to never give up. His son, Apolo Anton Ohno, grew up to become the most decorated American Winter Olympian after winning eight medals in short track speed skating. Ohno told Northwest Asian Weekly that while being a single father has been the most challenging experience of his life, it has also been the most rewarding.

“It was tough. At the beginning, I did not have confidence that I could do this alone. I wasn’t sure at all, but I had no choice but to do it,” he said.

Behind the athlete is the strength of a single dad

Apolo’s mother left when Apolo was a 1-year-old. Ohno made ends meet by managing two hair salons. But with no family around, he struggled to balance work with raising a son. During the weekends, when most day cares were closed, he had no choice but to bring Apolo to work.

“I didn’t have any relatives here. I was all alone. I had to put blankets over the carpet in the salon and hope Apolo would stay in one place,” he recalled.

But Ohno soon discovered that his son could not keep still. As Apolo grew up, his passion for sports became palpable. He loved to skate, and Ohno’s instincts told him to support his son’s athletic dreams.

“Apolo has been competitive in sports since he was very young, like 6 years old. Sometimes, competitions were held out of town, and we’d drive or fly up there. By participating in those sporting events, he and I became a team, setting out to accomplish one thing,” said Ohno.

“I would tell Apolo, ‘If you’re going to do an event, I will be there. No doubt, you can count on me.’ ”

Ohno acknowledges that his relationship with his son was not always smooth. During his son’s teenage years, in particular, the pair would often clash.

“There were some bad days. I was the only parent to provide mentorship and decision-making, so if Apolo didn’t like my way, it was rough. There wasn’t another person there to buffer the differences,” he said.

Through sports, the pair’s relationship was strengthened. The proud father watched as his son went from a young boy on roller blades at Federal Way’s Pattison’s West skating rink to competing on the world stage at the Winter Olympics.

Ohno said that what he loves most about being a father is the bond that he has developed with his son.

“It’s almost like [Apolo’s] a teacher to me. He taught me so much,” said Ohno. “I acknowledge him for how he handles the world, how he treats people, and just how he behaves,” he said.

“It’s more than just a father-son relationship. The feeling I have towards [him] is more like a best friend. Being a father and being able to say that is really special.”

Ohno encourages other single fathers to listen to their instincts and take the time to be with their children, as the rewards can be plentiful.

“I know there are so many things a father has to do, but do the important thing.  Be with your child. There’s a time your child really needs you, in person. You gotta be there,” he said.

“And same goes for single mothers. Don’t feel like you’re anything less. It’s up to you, and you can care for your child if your husband or partner is gone,” he said.

The stay-at-home dad

David Wilson of Phinney Ridge recently retired from his career as an attorney to become a stay-at-home dad. He and his wife, Sarah Leung, have a 5-year-old son and 5-month-old daughter. When Leung returned to her full-time corporate attorney job following maternity leave two months ago, Wilson began serving as the children’s primary caretaker.

While Wilson’s typical workday used to entail advising corporate clients and drafting legal memoranda, it now involves chauffeuring his son to preschool and changing his daughter’s dirty diapers. Wilson quickly discovered that being a stay-at-home dad comes with its own steep learning curve.

“I find there are two main challenges.  The first is constantly remembering that the baby’s needs come first and not to get frustrated that the day isn’t going the way I wanted it to or the way I thought it was going to go,” said Wilson. “My motto has become ‘Every day is different,’ ” he said.

“The second challenge is trying to carve out some time for myself during the day and not to get completely lost doing kid stuff,” Wilson added.

Despite the challenges, Wilson said he loves being at home with the kids.

“I really enjoy watching [our daughter] develop from day to day and seeing the changes in her. When you’re not at home with [the kids], you see the big changes, but the little ones and the progress they make often get missed,” he said.

Leung said that the family is still getting used to the new parenting arrangements, but so far the changes seem to be positive.

“The baby has the somewhat unique experience of being raised primarily by her dad, with one-on-one attention, and our 5-year-old has options now. He can participate in a wealth of activities that he wasn’t able to before, because we didn’t have a parent available to attend with or drive him,” she said.

Challenging gender roles

Leung hopes that by example, she and her husband are also teaching their children to be open-minded about gender roles.
“Men are capable of excelling at being the primary caregivers for their children, of managing the household, cooking family meals. Women can have fulfilling careers outside of the home,” said Leung.

Ken Barnes is a dad who hopes to challenge traditional notions of fatherhood. He is a gay father of two daughters and he believes that there is more than one way to define a father.

“I think a father is more than just having kids,” he said. “I think it’s someone who puts their kids first, no matter what the situation is, making sure that they’re okay,” he said.

“I think of myself as a father who happens to be gay,” said Dr. Ken Hapke, licensed Seattle psychologist who works with fathers and a gay father with three adult biological children. “I think of myself as a father first. Another way I can describe myself is that I am a gay man. … [I]n no way do I think that diminishes or changes the relationship I have with my kids, the love I have for my  kids, and the hopes that I have for them.”

“I’d like to think that a father is a collaborator in development. We learn just as much from our kids as they do from us,” he said.

Hapke has been divorced from his children’s mother for about 13 years and has been with his current partner for about 10 years.

“I think it’s really important to be reminded that fathers come in all flavors and shapes and sizes,” he said.

PEPS

Wilson has been able to make a smooth transition to being a stay-at-home father thanks in large part to a group called Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS). PEPS supports parents of infants and young children through information sharing. Wilson joined the PEPS for Dads group this year and has found it to be very beneficial.

“One, I’ve made some new friends, and we hang out during the days with the kids. It’s been a way to have some time with adults.

Second, it has been valuable talking with the other dads about our situations and problems. I’ve gotten a few ideas on feeding and sleep issues as a result. Lastly, the parent [education] portion has been helpful, particularly in thinking about the changes that kids bring to the marriage relationship. Some of the things we’ve discussed at PEPS have definitely strengthened Sarah and my relationship,” said Wilson.

Stay-at-home fatherhood appears to be on the rise. According to the U.S. Census, 20 percent of fathers with children under age 5 were primary caretakers in 2010. Among fathers whose wife worked, more than 30 percent stayed home at least once a week to care for their children. That is an increase from 26 percent in 2002. Experts believe the trend stems from a combination of mothers joining the workforce and fathers being out of work because of the economic downturn.

Mary Power, program director of PEPs for Dads, said that the group was created in light of this growing trend.

“PEPS for Dads was created because we knew that there were more and more Dads who are serving as primary caregivers for their babies,” she said. “Taking care of a new baby can be very isolating, and getting out and meeting others who are going through the same experiences that you are as a parent is very helpful.”

PEPs for Dads groups meet for 11 weeks, and each meeting starts with 45 minutes of sharing about each father’s parenting “highs and lows” from the past week. After that, the group spends 45 minutes discussing a weekly topic, such as brain development, sleep, routines, feeding, the couple’s relationship, and childcare.

“The children benefit from having happier, calmer, less stressed-out parents. Dads learn a lot about child development, activities to do with their children, and where to take them, et cetera. Wives or partners benefit because the primary caregiver is receiving support and information to help them do their job better, and the whole family benefits from that. All parents and children benefit from having a community that supports them,” said Power.

The inaugural PEPS for Dads group met from January through March, and the second group has been meeting since April. Another group will start meeting September, and there is still room for interested dads to join. (end)

Evangeline Cafe can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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