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Friday, November 15, 2013

The Having It All Project: Vincent O'Keefe

Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph. D. in American literature (and, like me, a fan of Twitter). He recently finished a humorous memoir about a decade of at-home parenting. You can watch, read, and listen to more of his work at www.vincentokeefe.com. Check out how Vincent is having it all.

Briefly describe your life and what you think makes it unique. 
I am a writer and stay-at-home father with two daughters, ages thirteen and ten. Probably most unique about my life is that I went from Most Likely to Succeed back in high school to a Ph. D. in American literature to a Lecturer at the University of Michigan to a stay-at-home father trapped under a colicky baby. In fact, my journey from literary scholar to at-home humorist contained so much absurdity I decided to write a memoir about it. (I recently finished the manuscript and have begun seeking an agent/publisher.)

What are some of your favorite tips and strategies for coping with the chaos? 

It sounds counterintuitive, but you have to force yourself to care for yourself (and your marriage). I remember reading all the advice books about taking naps while the baby napped, but who was going to clean all those pre-nap messes while I dreamed about wearing a stainless sweatshirt? In that tumultuous first year, there were days I didn’t even have time to glance in a mirror before noon. And when I did, I had to look away from my bloodshot eyes and stubbly face.

But I realize now more naps would have helped. It’s so easy to drown oneself in guilt and parental duties. Don’t do it. Of course, when I vent like this I have to remind myself of the luxury of the at-home parenting option. My wife and I count our blessings often, which also helps us cope with the chaos.

I also regret that my wife and I didn’t heed all that advice to nurture your relationship--e.g. by firmly establishing date night, ideally every Saturday. I strongly recommend this to all parents--especially new ones. Again, it seems counterintuitive to purposely leave your baby with a sitter during that first year especially, but trust me: your baby’s future will benefit from happier parents.

A few more tips for self-care and chaos-mitigation include using a calendar and lists to stay organized, exercising if it all possible (perhaps with equipment at home to save time), committing to tech-free family dinners, and most importantly, keeping your sense of humor!
 

Please share a moment where it all broke down, and how you got through it. 
When our firstborn was seven months old, we had to move to an Orlando, Florida hotel for two months while my wife took a GYN oncology rotation at a cancer hospital. Yes, that’s correct: I was a stay-in-hotel-room father to an infant for two full months. Let’s just say the Comfort Inn became uncomfortable in a hurry. To make matters worse, our daughter had recently started sleeping through the night, but that ended in the hotel’s rickety crib. The result? One exhausted family.

The breaking point occurred one day when my baby and I were speeding around town in our tiny rental car. After she fell asleep in her carseat behind me, I parked and tried to work on a book review in the front seat. I had not yet accepted that my becoming an at-home parent with a wife who worked long hours would seriously curtail my production as a writer, at least for a few years.

Shortly into my writing session, my daughter started crying. It was incredibly frustrating, but I knew I had reached a limit. Tired beyond words, I looked back at my crying baby in her carseat, and it seemed fitting that she was facing backwards and I was facing forwards. Obviously, I needed to be more in sync with her needs, at least for a time.

So I got through the breakdown via surrender. I quit writing that book review, and I did not pursue any new assignments for a while. I may have had it all, but it was all too much, and I couldn’t do it all at once. It was time to reprioritize. After doing so, I became a better father and our time in that hotel room (and the rest of my baby’s first year) went much smoother.
 

Do you have any balance role models? Anything you try to avoid because it wouldn’t work for you? 
I admire couples who share parenting. We know one couple who were both able to work part-time and somehow still enjoy quality benefits. I imagine they gained a greater understanding of each other’s plight, though I’m hesitant to see the grass as always greener. (Parents do that so much!) I’m also not sure my wife and I could agree on splitting so many duties.

I also admire couples who simply play to their strengths instead of trying to share chores 50/50. For example, even though I have two daughters, I will never, ever be good at hair braiding (believe me, I’ve even practiced on a fake head). But my wife happens to love styling hair, so she carves time out of her busy mornings to help the girls. While she debates “hot buns” vs. “low piggies” with the girls, I make the lunches and handle school forms.
 

Think back to your 18th birthday. How is your life different from how you expected it to be then? 
In many ways, my life is unrecognizable from how I expected it to be. At age 18, I was a captain of my high school baseball and soccer teams. Now, I’m a Dance Dad who often strategizes about the manliest way to hold a family member’s purse outside a women’s changing room at the mall.

Also at age 18, I dreamed of becoming a writer of science fiction. Now, I write parenting pieces that often appear in publications with the word “mother” in the title --e.g. the New York Times “Motherlode” blog and Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. (My dad laughed hard at that one.) One could argue that my at-home odyssey has elements of a science fiction saga, but it was certainly unexpected.

Overall, however, I am thankful for all these revisions of my expectations. They have taught me that if you lead with gratitude and an open mind, good things usually follow. 


Relate to what Vincent is saying? Leave him some love in the comments. Read other posts from The Having It All Project here. Questions? Send me an email at havingitallproject@gmail.com.

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