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Five Gainesville dads talk about the joy, stress, work of fatherhood

Being a father means prioritizing, loving, teaching and giving children experiences that will help them learn the lessons they’ll need later in life.

For Father’s Day this year, we found five dads in Gainesville who are doing just that in their own ways.

Single dads, working dads, stay-at-home dads — this group of guys talked about their various backgrounds, how they prepared to raise their kids and whose model they’re following as fathers.

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Mark Thomas - photo by Scott Rogers
Mark Thomas, 32

Hannah Thomas, wife

Josie Thomas, 4

Levi Thomas, 3

Newborn boy, 4 months

Mark Thomas remembers reading the book “Choosing to Cheat: Who Wins When Family and Work Collide?” as he prepared to become a father for the first time. His daughter, Josie, 4, was about to be born and he wasn’t ready.

“When is anyone ready?” he told The Times.

Apart from all the advice he heard and things he learned from his own father and friends over the years, the book offered something that he hadn’t thought about.

“The concept was you can either cheat your time with your kids at home or you can cheat work. And cheat is a weird way to say it, but essentially, there's always going to be more stuff to do at home and there's always going to be more stuff to do at work,” said Thomas, the college and young adult pastor at Lakewood Baptist Church. “The to-do list will never end.”

The book forced him to make a choice: He could spend more time at work, gaining notoriety there, or he could choose to spend that extra time at home.

He chose the latter and it’s one of the best decisions he’s made as a father.

“I think a lot of dads, they don't know what to prioritize, therefore they'll say yes to everything.”

He has two other children now. Levi is 3 years old. The family recently started fostering, too, so a 4-month-old boy was added to the family. For Thomas, having his priorities in order has never been more important.

“If I don't know what's important to me, I'll say yes to everything,” Thomas said. “But if I know what's important to me, then I know what to say no to and what to say yes to.”

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Zach Chadwick - photo by Austin Steele
Zach Chadwick, 27

Avery Chadwick, 2

Jessica Chadwick, ex-wife

Zach Chadwick grew up with family around — mom, dad, an older brother and two younger sisters. He always knew he wanted the same thing. He watched his own father build a heating and air company to pass on to one of his children someday, so he knows the value of a parent working hard.

And recently, he learned he’d have to work just as hard. Chadwick is a single father to his daughter, Avery, 2, after a recent divorce. Even though the parenting dynamic has changed, Chadwick said he’s always remembered that his daughter is the most important person in his life.

“The best lesson I got out of the worst possible situation is how to show more love and affection so that my daughter knows what kind of dad she has and that my daughter knows what kind of love that she’ll always have and the special place she'll have in my heart,” Chadwick said.

He’s learned that he sometimes has to show her “twice as much affection” being a single father.

Chadwick always makes extra time for Avery, so she knows she’s the most important person in his life. Even if the family looks different than others hasn’t taken away from the love Chadwick show and has shown to his daughter each day.

“There’s no other more special moment than becoming a dad,” Chadwick said. “You just always have to be sure to show that child more love than you've ever gotten in your whole entire life because at the end of the day, it's all about your child.”

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Michael McPeek - photo by Austin Steele
Michael McPeek, 40

Meg McPeek, wife

Isaac McPeek, 7

Mae McPeek, 5

Michael McPeek tried the whole stay-at-home dad thing for about seven months until he realized he was no good at it. The dishes were never clean, the meals were never cooked.

“Everything was a mess,” he said.

But it was during that time that he began teaching his son, Isaac, 7, lessons about the little things he’d need to know as he grew up.

“I struggled for a long time trying to figure out what it meant to be a good man and to be a good dad,” McPeek said. “And I think what it finally shook out to is just being somebody who is there. I'm never going to be the smartest dad, I'm never going to be the coolest dad, but I can be their dad. I can give as much to them as I can.”

After going back to work and becoming a dad to a daughter, Mae, 5, a couple years later, he never stopped teaching those lessons.

Above all, he wants his children to be kind.

“My proudest moment as a dad really has very little to do with me,” McPeek said.

When it comes to Isaac, McPeek knows he’s done something right.

For months this past school year, the McPeeks sent Isaac to school with a snack. What they didn’t know was that Isaac hadn’t been eating them.

“My son's teacher said … he has been giving his snack to other kids every day for the whole year,” McPeek said, choking up. “It's not a big deal. It's just a classroom snack and he wasn't bragging about it. He was just trying to make sure his friends had a snack.”

He gave his snack to friends in class whose family wasn’t able to send a snack to school with them. Mae picked up on the same lesson.

She showed it while at gymnastics recently.

“She asked to get something from the vending machine,” McPeek said. “She thinks and thinks and then picks Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or something, and I ask if she wants me to open it and she said, ‘No.’ And then as we're walking out the door, she puts them in her coach's hands and says, ‘Thank you for coaching me.’ And it was just really sweet.”

McPeek doesn’t take credit for it, but as a father, he’s played an obvious role.

“I can't think of anything more meaningful to be as a man than a father,” McPeek said.

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Sylwester Ratowt - photo by Austin Steele
Sylwester Ratowt, 40

Emerson Ratowt, 7

Kepler Ratowt, 2

Ryan Fogg, wife

Sylwester Ratowt tried the stay-at-home dad thing and stuck with it. He’s the one dropping the kids off and picking them up from day care and school. He’s making sure things around the house are picked up and is keeping things in order while his wife works a full-time job.

Though he has his doctorate in the history of science and has taught at a few different places, including the University of North Georgia, he and his wife decided he should be the one to stay home.

It’s not the norm, but it works for them and it’s given Ratowt plenty of opportunity to spend time with his children.

Like most dads, he didn’t feel ready when his first child was born.

“It took me a while to figure everything out,” said Ratowt, who is from Poland. “Initially, I was super stressed out because in order to do anything (as a job) you have to get trained and licensed. But in order to have a baby, they just leave you with this live being and tell you to take care of it.”

Time calmed his nerves, and Ratowt learned how to do things in a way that works for his family. That doesn’t mean he didn’t pick up a few things from his own family while he was growing up.

One of his most important role models is his mother.

“It's really a weird thing that happens as you're having kids,” Ratowt said. “You're all of a sudden totally reanalyzing your own childhood experience.”

Thinking back to his own boyhood, Ratowt tries to use his mother’s techniques to help his daughter, Emerson, 7, find what she’s passionate about.

“One of the things I remember very fondly from my childhood is being in my mom's kitchen, especially before big holidays,” Ratowt said. “She would stay up late and cook. And when I got older she would make me help her.”

Ratowt enjoys cooking, so he shares that passion with his daughter and plans to do the same with his son, Kepler, 2, when he gets a little older. Teaching them to find what they love and being comfortable with who they are is one of the biggest lessons he’s trying to teach.

“It's definitely a lot of work, but they give you enough reinforcement that you know it's all worth it,” Ratowt said.

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Brooks Clay - photo by Austin Steele
Brooks Clay, 40

Noah Clay, 13

Lily Grace Clay, 11

Weatherly Clay, 10

Juli Clay, wife

The Clays aren’t the typical family. But Brooks Clay has advice that has worked with his kids, Noah, 13, Lily Grace, 11, and Weatherly, 10. Even though it may not look the same for other families, it’s advice that could work for all dads.

“I have found more joy in being involved in what they're doing, and being present in the moment — putting the phone down, turning off the television, putting the computer away — and being engaged in the conversation,” Clay said. “Really focus on listening instead of talking. It's amazing what kids have to say. And if you just listen, they love to say it. All they want is an audience.”

For his family, there has been plenty of opportunity to do that as they’ve traveled the world. The Clays have traveled Europe and made it to almost all of the Lower 48. This summer, the family is making a five-week road trip to Alaska. He said he didn’t get the “global experience” when he was growing up, so he wants to offer that to his children so they’re able to share unforgettable experiences together.

“When I became a dad, I wanted to expose my kids to all kinds of different people and places, food, culture, art, just experiences in general and I wanted them not just to travel in a typical western sense of the word but to feel uncomfortable at times,” Clay said, “or maybe nervous and become savvy world travelers.”

Traveling and teaching his children about the different cultures along the way is one thing Clay recommends to anyone able to do it. Even if it’s not across the world, he believes simply going to other communities will offer experiences and lessons for children that can’t be found in their own neighborhood.

“They've been exposed to all of it, and I think that ultimately, if I asked them, they'd say they're better for it.”

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